The sound of the gunshots stung her ears but she didn't jump. She'd heard them before. It wasn't until he slumped backwards against her that she panicked. Blood oozed from the curve of his neck and seeped into the fabric of her dress. A rush of guards surrounded them and pushed back into the safety of the house.
Safety. What a lie. She'd asked for none of this life but had been tangled in it from the moment of her birth. He'd been the best part of it. He kept her safe – kept her sane. Now he was bleeding out in her lap.
From an upstairs window she watched them strap his far too pale and bleeding body to a stretcher and take him away in the ambulance. The red and yellow lights smeared down the window with the rain.
Erza shot up in bed and jumped at the sound of thunder. The storms, though not exactly rare where she'd come from, were taking some time to get used to. She suspected her grandfather hadn't taken hurricane season into account when he'd shipped her off to the southern coast. A surge of wind beat the bougainvillea branches against her bedroom window. Bright pink petals stuck to the glass. Dreams of him always came when it rained.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and tried to calm her racing heart. Everything was uncomfortable lately and she couldn't let her anxiety run wild – not now, not tonight. She sucked in deep breaths through her nose and exhaled slowly through her mouth, gripping the edge of the bed. A loud knock on the front door, far too rhythmic and intentional to be stray branches or a rogue flower pot, startled her out of the relaxation technique. Without bothering to grab her robe – anyone knocking at such an hour would have to deal with her as is – Erza padded from her bedroom through the living room and pulled open the door without peeking first.
"Are you okay?" he asked with a concern that grated on her nerves. Even in the small hours he was fully dressed and ready for whatever action he imagined lurked in her bushes. 'Two is better than one in my absence,' Jellal had once said. Erza didn't want any guards with her but on this point her grandfather had not budged.
"I'm fine, Simon."
"You're not –" His eyes flit down to her middle and Erza squashed the urge to scowl.
"I promise I'm fine. Just tired."
"Right. Of course. I just wanted to make sure everything was alright. The power went out about an hour ago."
"I hadn't even noticed," Erza sighed. "I should get back to bed." She knew it was rude, but she shut the door in his face. His attraction to her wasn't something she welcomed.
Erza took a detour into the bathroom and found Simon had been right. The power was out. She washed her face in the dark and was grateful to not have to avoid her own reflection. Wild arms of bougainvillea still battered her window but sleep was already beyond her. She had half a mind to throw open all the windows and let the storm take her but a squirm in her belly brought that train of thought to a screeching halt. She owed Jellal a lot more than a selfish end – she needed to make sure his death hadn't been for nothing.
The air was sticky when the power came back on shortly after sunrise. Erza had been doing a lot of waiting in the last several months but she didn't think this particular wait would be much longer.
The scar itched. It was an ugly patch of angry skin sloppily knitted back together. He didn't mind its appearance, though. Why shouldn't his outside match his inside?
"Stay with me, Fernandes," Laxus growled. "It's important. I can't trust anyone for shit anymore except you." Jellal grunted and shifted his eyes from the window to his boss's face. "The old man left us completely fucked."
"Don't pretend you care, Dreyar. Remember who I am."
"Right," Laxus muttered, his focus falling back to the laptop screen. "I don't fucking care about any of this but I want to make sure it topples proper. No one else's name needs to get trashed but mine."
Laxus snorted. "It's not honor. I don't even know what that fucking word means."
"You do." Jellal went back to staring out the window. He hated days like this. The sun was too bright and it made his neck itch. Even with almost three years of space, everything still revolved around the scar and how it had come to be there. It had ruined him. He felt Laxus's stare but didn't return it.
"I'd say we have maybe one – two days before shit hits the fan."
"Your agent come through on the deal, then?"
"Yep. It helps the old man croaked already. One less loose string blowing in the wind." Laxus leaned back in the squeaky desk chair that had been Makarov's. "Immunity and a new identity sounds damn good right now. Mira doesn't like it but –"
"She'd like dying even less."
"Exactly." Laxus continued to needle him with his eyes. "Look, Fernandes –"
"Don't get emo on me now, Dreyar. I won't miss you and you won't miss me. I'll disappear."
"Asshole," Laxus muttered. He pulled open a drawer and tossed a file on the desktop. "You might hate me but it won't fucking matter because my conscience will be clear and you'll be gone."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Jellal stretched his arms and winced when the shoulder holster inched too closed to the scar.
"I left Erza out of everything. The FBI will leave her alone. It was part of my deal."
Jellal shifted in his chair. "So?"
"Don't you pull that vague shit with me, Fernandes, I know you two had a thing. I know you did. The old man let it slide because she was crazy about you and you never once slipped up, but don't think it was ever a real secret."
"Get to the point," Jellal snapped. He didn't want to talk about Erza.
"She's in Florida," Laxus said smoothly, shoving the file across the desk toward Jellal.
"And?" Jellal refused to look at the file. It would be his undoing.
"She's got one guy on her that checks in when things look suspicious. I don't know how I'll be able to keep tabs on her once I'm a new man and all."
Jellal bit back his irritation. Laxus was baiting him. "She doesn't need me skulking around. I'm sure she's better off."
"Maybe." His casual tone was fake. "Maybe not." Laxus's fingers drummed on the desktop. "The old man told her you were dead."
Jellal's eyes finally left the window. "Why?"
"Because she wouldn't leave otherwise. Erza is a fucking nightmare when she digs her heels in so he lied and she agreed to leave."
"Why are you telling me all this now?"
"Just sayin'," Laxus shrugged and stood. "She's not a part of this and you're disappearing. Hell of a coincidence, if you ask me."
"No one asked," Jellal said frostily. Laxus stepped around the desk and grabbed his jacket. He pulled it on and grabbed the doorknob to leave. Mirajane and the kids would be in protective custody by now.
"I'm not in the habit of wasting words, Fernandes, especially now. Take the file and a vacation to more tropical climes." Laxus pulled the door open and paused. "Read it all, though. Don't skip any pages."
"Fuck off, Dreyar. Enjoy your new life."
"Sure thing." Laxus didn't bother shutting the door behind him. The place was empty anyway. Jellal sat staring at the sunlight creeping across the floor. When he finally vacated the house that had once belonged to the Dreyar family, the only thing left on Laxus's desk was the laptop computer slowly purging files into an FBI server.
He'd never been to The Keys before and he thought if it weren't for this very specific reason, he wouldn't have ever considered it. Even in October the air was thick and hot. Jellal's hatred of air travel left him stumbling off the plane and purchasing a car for cash in Miami. Cash was a thing he had plenty of, thanks to Laxus's meddling ass. The drive from the big city down to the tip of Florida had been much easier to endure – until he realized the Overseas Highway was exactly as it sounded.
According to the file Laxus had left him, her home was among the Avenues on Big Pine Key. The street was shaded with trees dripping greenery. Every one of the houses was either nearly hidden by the trees or far too out in the open for his liking. Erza's property was not at all glamorous but it looked very much like she took care of it. Palms dotted the yard sparsely but tall bushes of bougainvillea covered the row of front windows. The exterior walls were blue stucco.
Jellal pulled into her driveway and heaved a breath. Did he have any right to barge in on her life now? She'd left – not that he took it personally. In fact, Jellal didn't harbor any anger toward Makarov for lying. Her life had been in constant danger before, and now it wasn't.
He backed out of the otherwise empty driveway and headed toward the larger road. Before he reached the end of the block he smirked at the fifth wheel nestled amongst the thick palms. Erza's guard would fool any casual resident but the trailer stood out to his more experienced eye.
The grocery store wasn't unique and except for the dulled linoleum floors it sparkled. He supposed it was hard to keep a floor gleaming with people tracking in sand all day. Jellal walked up and down the aisles, his eyes restlessly hopping from one box to another. He didn't know why he'd come or what he'd do with bags of food requiring preparation. The piles of bananas seemed most appropriate.
He didn't notice the woman staring at him until he looked up from the bananas. She was older and has a mass of gray curls coiled into a sloppy bun. Her gaze made his shoulder itch.
"That's an interesting tattoo," she remarked with a smile.
"Uh –" Jellal cleared his throat and wished he could sink into the floor. "It's a family thing," he muttered.
"Very uncommon down here. It suits you, though."
Jellal quirked an eyebrow. "Thanks."
"I hope you intend to stay," she added in a softer voice. Jellal glanced around nervously. "You might find it worth your time."
"Right," he muttered. "I should go."
Jellal paid for his bananas and found himself back in his car. The heat of the day was at its peak and he had nothing in his stomach but anxiety and a glob of chewed banana. Fat raindrops splashed on his windshield and Jellal startled. He couldn't sit in the parking lot forever and what had he come all the way down to The Keys for if not to see Erza?
When he pulled into her driveway for the second time, it still sat empty. Jellal grabbed his bag of bananas and stepped from the car into the rain. He found her front porch easily and took a seat on the bench at the far end. It wasn't until he peeled open another banana that he noticed the details. There were toys in the front yard – a covered sandbox. A plastic, yellow ride-on with bright blue wheels had been left beside the front door. The banana caught in his throat. Did he have the wrong house after all? For a moment he wished he'd taken Laxus advice and read the entire file instead of just memorizing her address.
The sound of crunching gravel was barely audible over the rain. Jellal swallowed his nerves but didn't move from the bench. Even dripping with rain and stumbling under the small porch covering, Erza was just as beautiful as he remembered. She shook the drops from her fingers and swore as she fished a set of keys from her bag. Not knowing what else to do, he stood and slid his hands in his pockets.
Erza froze. She spun around, clutching her bag to her chest. Her eyes fixated on him and widened before she closed them for several seconds. When she opened her eyes again, she dropped her keys and her hands flew to her mouth in shock.
"They said you were dead." Erza's voice was nothing more than a rasp.
"Makarov lied," Jellal offered.
"To protect your life."
Her face crumpled and he thought the wetness on her cheeks wasn't just rain anymore. "How could you let me think you were dead? How could you, Jellal?"
"I didn't know." He felt like an idiot giving her such a bullshit excuse, however true.
"Don't fucking lie to me, Jellal! How could you just not know?"
"I was in the hospital for weeks." Jellal reached up and pulled the collar of his shirt away from his neck. Her eyes were leaking tears steadily now at the sight of the ugly scar. "When I woke up, Makarov was dying and you were gone."
"They said you were dead." she repeated. Erza suddenly seemed to come back to herself. She wiped at her tears but everything was already wet. "I saw the trial on TV. Signal is rough down here during hurricane season but I saw Laxus."
Jellal took a careful step toward her. "He got out. Laxus and Mirajane and the kids. They put him in witsec. I'm sorry but –"
"I knew I'd never see my brother again when I stepped on that plane. I'm just glad they're alive." Her eyebrows dented. "Why aren't you in prison?"
"Do you really think they could catch me, Erza?" He grinned. "I've been a ghost my whole adult life. They got enough big names to not worry about me. Not with you already gone."
"Me?" Erza's eyes shifted all around the porch and back out to her car. "They won't –"
"No, they won't come here. Laxus left you out of everything. In fact, you could probably send off your guard, if you wanted."
Erza snorted. "I'd love that."
"Listen, Erza, I'm not here to disrupt your life." His eyes snagged on the blue and yellow toy he'd seen earlier. "I just – I just wanted –"
"Can you wait here for a minute?" She interrupted. "I left something important in the car but I needed to grab my umbrella first." Erza snatched the keys off the ground, turned to unlock her front door, and reached inside the house to grab the umbrella. "I'll be right back. Go on inside." Before he could protest, she'd dashed back out into the rain.
Erza's house was comfortable. Unlike the ostentatious safe houses she was accustomed to up north, this one looked very modest and lived in. He slowly made his way down the hall and stopped at the cluster of photographs on the wall just inside the living room. There were pictures of Erza with her parents, with Makarov, and Laxus, and even one of him – but the others were new. Many of them were of a child. A little boy with a smile he recognized. Jellal's chest felt tight as he leaned in to see the pictures closer and he jumped when the front door shut again.
When she found him in the hallway, she grimaced and brushed past him to the couch. The child's hair was unmistakable. A shade darker than his own, yes, but unmistakable all the same. Erza carefully placed the sleeping boy on the cushions and covered him with a blanket.
"His sitter says he doesn't take many naps anymore but I guess the rain sedated him a little."
"Sitter?" Jellal blurted, confused. He understood the word but felt completely out of touch with the context. Erza stood and smiled sadly.
"Babysitter. Sometimes I need to take the highway and he's fussy on the water. It's hard to get everything on Big Pine. Key West has more of a selection." Erza eyed him with reserve. "I was pregnant when you were shot, Jellal. I didn't realize until I got here."
"Pregnant?" he whispered. "But –"
"I thought you were dead." Tears leaked from her eyes and without warning she stepped around the couch and flew at him from across the room. Her arms wrapped tightly around his middle and her shoulders shook with sobs. "I thought you were dead and there was nothing I could do! I swear to god, I'd have walked right into the ocean if – if I –"
Jellal's hands fell to the wet ropes of hair clinging to her back and then her shoulders. He hesitated before wrapping her body in a full embrace. His eyes closed and he thought maybe this was a dream. Maybe he'd actually been in a coma for years and was only just getting around to imagining being with Erza again. Her breaths fanned over his neck and brushed the ragged edges of the scar. She pulled back and he felt her eyes drawn there. Jellal didn't stop her when he her fingers touched the collar of his shirt feather light.
"You're alive," she whispered.
"Erza," Jellal paused and took her in. She was quite literally a sight for his sore eyes. "I have to know. The baby – the boy..."
"He looks just like you, Jellal." Erza said quietly. "He's seen your picture and might know who you are on sight."
"I'm a killer, Erza." His eyes fluttered closed and he let his forehead fall to hers. "He shouldn't –"
"He should be with his father," she insisted. "This is our second chance. We have this opportunity to disappear and be free. When I wake up in the morning, I know the day is mine. I don't have to worry about my family or gangs or... or..." Her eyes fell to his scar again. "Guns."
"I would understand if you didn't want me here," he pleaded.
"I have wanted you since I was told you were dead. Now you're here and alive and there is no way you're walking out that door." Her hands slid down his arms to grip his wrists tightly. "We made a family, Jellal," she whispered. "We can be together. Not like before but really together."
Her eyes burned into his and he felt all of his reasons to leave her alone dissolve. He wanted to stay. Erza seemed to sense his decision and leaned into him again, pressing her cheek to his chest. The sound of a yawn and something small climbing over the back of the leather couch pulled Jellal out of the moment. Erza glanced over her shoulder and smiled up at him. She pulled on his wrist and crouched in front of the little boy who looked so much like himself, it hurt his heart.
"I'm hungry, mama," he said before yawning again.
"I'll make some lunch, okay?" Erza tidied the boy's hair. "Someone came to see you, Alex. Do you want to say hi?"
Jellal tried not to flinch under inspection. His eyes were the same honey brown as Erza's but the hair and his face – the resemblance was striking. A small hand reached out to touch the tattoo on Jellal's face. One finger traced the curling lines and he leaned in close.
"You look like my dad on the wall," Alex said without reservation. "You look like me."
"Yeah, we do kinda look alike, huh?" Jellal couldn't help his smile.
"Alex do you remember when I told you that your dad had been hurt and he wouldn't be able to live with us?" Erza asked. Alex didn't take his eyes off Jellal but he nodded in the overly dramatic way children are prone to. "He's better now and he came home today."
"So you can take me to the beach now?" he asked Jellal directly.
"If that's what you want and your mom says it's okay." The smile that stretched across Alex's face was brilliant.
"I gotta pee," he suddenly blurted and disappeared down the hallway. Erza stood and took Jellal's hand. He couldn't stop staring in the direction Alex had gone.
"That went well."
"Adaptable?" Jellal nodded and finally met her eyes – yes these were definitely the same as Alex's. "He's bright for a three year old. I want him to start at the school here next year. He needs friends his age."
"That's – yeah, kids need friends." Erza bit her lip and wrapped her arms around his waist again.
"This is a lot to take in, I know. I don't want to push you or scare you off. Tell me what you need."
"I don't need anything, Erza. I just can't believe we have a son."
"Laxus didn't tell you? I know he knows. Simon blabs everything." Jellal's eyebrow quirked at the name but let it go.
"He gave me a file but I didn't read it. I should've but I didn't."
"Surprise!" she joked quietly but then sobered. "I'm glad you're here and I'd like it very much if you stayed. I do understand if you need some time or –"
"I haven't seen you in almost three years, Erza, and I've missed enough already. I don't need more time."
"There isn't anywhere else I want to be." Jellal settled his hand on Erza's cheek and she rose up to kiss him softly. His fingers easily found her hair again and he nearly lost himself if not for the bathroom door slamming down the hallway.
"Have you had anything else to eat besides what's in that bag of bananas today?" she asked, teasingly.
"No, I don't think so." His eyes were still on her lips.
"Come on then, I hope you're okay with chicken nuggets. Alex is on a kick." Erza's fingers slid through his and he let her pull him into the kitchen where his son was pulling a bag from the freezer.
Alex's chest rose and fell in an even pattern. Jellal knew he should let him sleep and join Erza in the other room but he couldn't – not yet. The afternoon had been absolutely surreal but he'd loved every second. He had a son. With Erza. Everything had changed within the space of a few hours.
A pair of hands slid over his shoulders and down his chest. Erza's chin came to rest on one shoulder and she kissed the edge of his jaw.
"Come to bed," she whispered. Jellal took one last look at Alex and stood. Erza waited in the hallway when he pulled the door shut. "He's a good sleeper. I was grateful for it when he was a baby."
"I'm so sorry I wasn't here," he breathed, pulling her into an embrace. "I didn't know."
"You're here now." She smiled up at him. "He's crazy about you. He doesn't get along with anyone else, even his babysitter has to bribe him with cookies."
"He's got a lot of personality."
"He does." Erza stepped back and took his hand. She led him down the hall and into her room. There was another line of windows and another row of bougainvillea. Jellal let the door shut behind him and watched Erza pull her shirt over her head. He finally gave into the impulse he'd been pushing away all afternoon.
Her skin was soft against his palms as they curved around her waist. His fingers stopped just below her bra. Erza's shape was familiar but also different. His heart clenched with yet another reminder that he'd missed her pregnancy and the birth of their son. She turned in his arms and Jellal felt the cotton of her bra press against his chest.
"I missed you," she murmured against his lips. He couldn't respond with words. Instead, he kissed her with a feverish purpose. Erza made her desires known by tugging on the button of his pants. Jellal's shirt joined hers on the floor and when her naked skin was flush against his, he groaned. Nothing had ever felt so good. He crawled over her in the bed but stopped when her finger pressed against his lips. "It's been a long time, Jellal." Her eyes searched his. "Take it easy on me."
"I wouldn't judge you either way," he said in a breath. His hips settled between her thighs and when her hand closed around his cock, his lungs collapsed. She squeezed and swiped her thumb over the head before guiding him inside.
Erza's teeth sank into her lips and he gently prodded the crease with his tongue. Her thighs tightened around his waist and he pushed all the way inside. Jellal could feel her heart racing against his chest. He would take every inch of her.
She finished faster than she used to but, in truth, he was relieved. It had been a long time for him, too, and a lengthy performance just wasn't in the cards. Erza kissed him even as he fell into the mess of blankets and pillows.
For the first time since he'd crossed the line from bodyguard to lover, Jellal didn't once consider when he'd have to leave her side for violent work.
When he woke, he was alone but the house smelled of bacon, pancakes, and coffee. There was a pair of folded sweatpants he recognized on the edge of the bed. He pulled them on and found his t-shirt from the night before.
The house was full of sunlight and the rain had taken its leave. Before he could seek out the source of the breakfast smell, there was a loud knock at the front door. Jellal froze in the middle of the living room and his hands balled into fists. Erza emerged from the kitchen and swept past him, planting a kiss on his shoulder as she went.
He heard her in the front hall opening the door. A voice he vaguely recognized, carried. Jellal knew it was a dick move but couldn't help himself. He approached Erza from behind and pressed his palm into the small of her back. All the better for them to be seen fresh out of bed. The man on the other side of the door stiffened immediately.
"You – Fernandes!" he stuttered but recovered quickly – and scowled. "Did Dreyar send you? I've been –"
"It's fine Mikazuchi. You're relieved." Jellal's voice was a smooth as it could possibly be and he bit back a smirk. Simon gaped.
"Yeah, you watch TV, right? Trial's over. Dreyar's in witsec and I'm here. You can go." He thought maybe he could've been less rude but he hadn't ever cared for Simon. His puppy dog eyes and hard-on for Erza was probably the reason the old man had sent him south to begin with.
"I wouldn't recommend going back up north just yet. Everything's still hot. I'm sure a guy like you won't have trouble settling in somewhere, though. We're good here." Simon took a step back and Jellal's arm circled Erza's waist as he let the front door click shut.
"You may as well have pissed on my leg, Jellal," Erza said, whirling around.
"Sorry." He wasn't. "I've never liked that guy. I'll only feel bad if Alex liked him."
Erza snorted and directed him back down the hall toward the kitchen. "He calls him 'the trailer guy' and I'm teasing. He never hit on me outright but he was pretty obvious."
"Did I swoop in just in time to save you from his pawing?"
"I'd have gutted him if he touched me." Erza muttered, leaning up to kiss him. "Come on, I made breakfast." They found Alex surrounded by crayons at the kitchen table. He smiled at Jellal and shoved a coloring book toward him.
"You're up!" he said excitedly. "Can you color with me? Can I call you dad? That's okay?" Jellal felt Erza nudge his arm and he took a seat at the table.
"Yeah, you can call me dad." Erza's fingers carded through his hair and he took the crayons from Alex. He wanted to spend the rest of his life waking up to mornings like this.