Author's Note: For Jelulz based on a tumblr comic.
It started out as a race. Just a friendly bet between friends. Jellal should've known better, though. Erza had a competitive streak a mile wide and she didn't try to hide it at all. She liked to win and only Natsu was meatball-brained enough to seriously challenge her on a regular basis. It didn't even matter what the actual rules were or what kind of game was being played – Erza and Natsu would blaze their own trail until the bitter end.
So, really, Jellal should've known better.
He'd sat on the sidelines with Lucy enough times to watch things devolve into nothing but a cloud of dust and shouts. However, on this particular day Jellal took complete leave of his senses.
"That's impossible, Erza, even for you," he said offhandedly. There was a clatter of silverware and gasps. He glanced up and around the now silent lunch table. Lucy gaped at him in shock. Gray ran his hand through his hair as his eyes rolled heavenward. Cana was already reaching for her wallet and taking a wad of bills from Mirajane. Natsu simply grinned.
His eyes landed on Erza, and he instantly realized his mistake. "Excuse me?" she asked darkly.
"Well, you know…" Jellal cleared his throat. "It's just that the weather's been so bad and no one's actually been on the mud run course yet so I don't see how you can –"
"You don't think I can do it?"
"I didn't say that…"
"Because I can."
"I just meant –"
"It's a 5k course, which anyone could complete in a half hour, Jellal. Even with the obstacles, someone with my athletic skill should be able to handle it in at least forty minutes."
"I know what it is, Erza. We've all seen it out there. All I'm saying is the course instructor said the average person –"
"You think I'm average?"
"Well… no, but –" Jellal squirmed in his seat. Why, oh, why had he opened his mouth at all?
"I bet Erza can get it done in twenty-five minutes," Cana interjected. "Mira has her money on twenty-eight. Who else is in?"
"A race is so manly!" Elfman shouted. Gray reached in his pockets and pulled out a few bills and some lint. Natsu tapped Lucy repeatedly on the shoulder begging for a loan. Jellal watched in horror as his friends proceeded to make their bets and he felt like he was missing something… something important.
"So, how fast do you think you can do it, Jellal?" Erza's voice cut through the excited chatter.
"Me?" he croaked. She glared at him from across the table.
"Well you did challenge me so I assume you have an ideal time in mind."
"I did no such thi-"
"It doesn't matter what his time is," Cana laughed. "He won't beat Erza."
"I don't know, Cana, he does have the fastest sprinting times on the varsity team," Mira said with a sweet smile. "I think he's got a chance."
"I don't –" Jellal started.
"Alright!" Natsu blurted. "A race!"
"No, it's not a… race." Jellal sighed and his shoulders slumped. Everyone was speaking over him now. Lucy patted his arm helpfully.
"I'm sorry," she said softly under the din. "But what on earth were you thinking?"
"I don't know. It just kind of slipped out?"
"It's settled then!" Jellal jumped when Natsu planted his hands in the center of the table. "After school we'll meet at the mud run course. Erza versus Jellal!"
Lucy gave him one last sympathetic glance before everyone started to clear from the cafeteria. Erza said nothing to him and she was no longer glaring, but her expression held a frustration he couldn't quite identify.
Much to his relief, the rain had eased into a drizzle by the time Jellal made his way out to the newly constructed mud run course. It had been one of the many improvements to the athletic grounds made possible by a generous donation to the school, but because of the insistent rain no one had been able to test it out yet.
Thanks to his big mouth, though, that was about to change.
His group of friends gathered in the coach's pavilion and were engaged in a discussion surrounding Cana's infamous bookie notebook. Erza stayed near the corner of the shelter closest to the starting post and stretched her calves. Her hair was tied into a knot and – just like every time he saw it restrained so – felt a pang of sadness.
Jellal loved her hair. Truth be told, he loved every part of Erza. Even the aggressive, competitive nature that had led to this particular situation – he just loved Erza. This wasn't new, of course. He'd been hiding a monster set of feelings for her since they were small children sharing popsicles on the outcropping that separated their houses. He couldn't voice any of those packed away thoughts, though. They were just friends and she'd never shown the slightest interest in him outside of their platonic relationship.
He eyed the course with a growing anxiety. Mirajane hadn't been wrong or exaggerating about his sprint times, but there was quite a difference between tearing ass down a rubber pebbled track and a slightly flooded, and as yet untested, obstacle course.
"Thinking about quitting?" Erza asked from behind him.
"Nope. You?" He grinned sideways at her.
"Never." She sighed heavily. "Jellal –"
"Alright! Let's get this going!" Natsu interrupted and hopped up onto a plastic chair. Erza rolled her eyes and stepped out into the light rain. The precipitation may have lessened but the wind had picked up. Jellal tensed and suddenly wished he'd taken the time to stretch as Erza had. The last thing he wanted was a cramp. He focused on the course ahead of him and, even more than the stretching he wished he'd kept his mouth shut at lunch.
A whistle blew and he did his best to tune out everything around him. Because he was a faster sprinter than Erza he reached the rope nets before her but he knew it wouldn't be long before she caught up to him and breezed right on past. He might have been quicker on his feet, but Erza outshone him in nearly every other arena. Not that he felt badly about it – Erza was simply excellent at everything she did.
Except dancing. But they didn't talk about that.
His first dive into the mud came on the other side of the climbing wall. If the mud had been any more squishy, Jellal knew his ankle would've caught and turned. For the most part he managed to stay upright and, to his surprise, he didn't fall too far behind. He caught a second wind as the course wound its way back around the wooded area near the back edge of school property.
The final obstacle was a rope traverse over a sizable pond that had been dug specifically for the course. Erza reached it first and didn't spare him a glance as she set out across it. Tendrils of muddy hair had escaped their knot and dangled over the dirty water. Jellal was about halfway across when he heard a splash and stifled scream. His head fell back to the rope ahead of him and he couldn't see Erza at all.
In a panic he dropped from the rope and into the frigid water. His feet dug into the soft mud on the bottom and he thought his heart would tear its way from his chest right up until Erza's head surfaced. The water wasn't deep enough for her to be struggling like she was. Erza jerked backwards and fell into the mud once more.
"Hey, hey!" Jellal pulled her to her feet and tried to offer steady support. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she huffed. "My foot's just stuck in the mud on the bottom." Erza growled in frustration and tried once again to pull her foot free and nearly toppled them both. "Damn it!"
"You've got to calm down." He could tell the flexing in her jaw was a precursor to a temper explosion. "Are you going to let me help you or do you want to flail around some more?"
Erza sucked in a deep breath and her shoulders fell. "Just go. You win."
"Is that what's upsetting you? This damn race?"
"I don't like losing, Jellal!" She crossed her arms over her chest. "You don't understand."
"I understand that you're stuck in this fucking freezing water, and I'm not leaving you here."
"It doesn't matter. The race is over, so just go." She turned from him and sniffled.
"Are you crying?" A crying Erza wasn't something he was prepared to handle.
"No." She turned to him with a scowl that might have sent even Natsu running, but Jellal stood his ground.
"Just let me help you, okay?" He squatted down in the murky water and wrapped his hand around her ankle. "Grab my shoulders, and hold on. I'm going to try and pull your foot free."
Erza gripped him solidly, but even with three desperate tugs he couldn't get her foot loose. Jellal stood again and squinted up into the clouds that seemed to be darkening.
"Erza we –"
She sneezed. Twice.
"Alright, we're done here." He said sternly. "You'll have to leave that shoe behind."
"I'm not leaving my shoe! I'll never find it again!"
"Leave the shoe or die of pneumonia in this rain and mud. Those are your choices, Erza!"
Jellal gestured widely in frustration. "What is wrong with you? I'm trying to help! What do you want?"
Erza's face went from cold and pale to a bright red. "You!"
"What? You – you what?" His head tilted to the side in confusion.
"God, you're so oblivious, Jellal! I want you!" She poked him painfully in the chest. "Do you honestly think I'd be out here in the wind and rain for anyone else?"
"But –" Jellal's thoughts were caught in a ricochet of confusion and shock.
"It's impossible to get your attention!" Erza was shivering uncontrollably now and he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen her so unhinged. "I try and try and all you want to do is run in circles and stare up at the stars!"
Jellal frowned and pressed his palm to her forehead. She was warmer than he thought was normal given the circumstances. Erza swatted his hand away in frustration.
"I'm not delirious, Jellal."
"I never said you were." He sighed and slicked back the wet hair that hung in his face.
"Forget I said anything, okay?" Erza said softly. "I'll leave my shoe, but can we just go now?"
"Yeah, okay." He crouched down in the water again. "Hold on to me, and I'll pull your foot from the shoe." It took him a moment of fumbling to find her arch and ease the foot free. Erza attempted to pull away from him, but Jellal shook his head. "I don't think you should be trudging through this mess barefoot. This is mostly runoff water and who knows what's on the pond floor. You can hop on my back or I'll carry you."
Erza frowned but didn't argue. Jellal's arms hooked neatly around her thighs as she leaned into his back. Her breath was warm on his neck and when they were free of the murk, he sighed.
"I want you too," he mumbled.
"You heard me. I have for a while and just never said anything."
"Well, you could've fooled me," she huffed irritably even as she tightened her arms around his shoulders.
"That was kind of the point. I didn't know you felt this way."
Erza pressed her face into his neck and he felt her smile. "We're a mess, huh?"
"In so many ways, yeah." As the pavilion came into view Jellal could see their friends huddled at the edge of the shelter waiting. "Come with me to Mirajane's party this weekend. It's a sorry date, I know, but –"
"I'd love to." Erza's lips quickly brushed his cheek and he couldn't stop the heat from rising to his face. For the first time that afternoon he was grateful for the mud.
"What the hell happened out there?" Cana asked as Jellal stepped into the pavilion.
"It's a tie, I guess." Lucy shrugged.
"A tie? That's stupid! Race again, you guys!" Natsu shouted, and Lucy punched him in the arm.
"What? A tie sucks."
"Erza lost a shoe, and it doesn't really matter anyway."
"I'm pretty sure I won, though," Erza said swinging her legs a little. He could hear the grin in her voice. "I got a date out of it."
Natsu's face twisted in confusion. "Who cares about your date? It's not like we all didn't… Ow! Lucy!"
"Take me home, Natsu." Lucy dragged him from the pavilion and their group slowly followed… but not before Jellal noticed a smirk and a quiet exchange of money between Cana and Mirajane. He shook his head slowly. Those two had a serious gambling problem.