Jellal met the driver's eyes in the rearview mirror but didn't say a word before stepping from the car into the rain. The two block sprint from the corner to the hooded man outside the building left him nearly drenched. Spring in Magnolia could be fresh and dewy or cold and dismal – there was no in between.
Inside, the gathering crowd pulsed with excitement. A different pair of boys sprayed and scrubbed the cage just as diligently as the others. Before Jellal hunted down Erza, he made a detour to the bookie. He traded a wad of cash for a handful of bet slips and decided he'd personally kick Laxus's ass if he lost.
Erza sat on the edge of a stool and appeared to be in an animated discussion with the same bartender who'd remained stoic and annoyed on his last visit. As soon as Jellal approached her and touched the small of her back with his hand, the bartender scowled. He didn't order a drink but a double of single barrel bourbon was pushed across the bar anyway. The bartender moved away from them but not before winking at Erza.
"She's got a winning personality," Jellal muttered, knocking back half of the bourbon. Erza chuckled quietly and spun around on the stool to face him.
"Minerva is perfectly nice. She just doesn't care for men."
"Then what's she doing tending Igneel's personal bar?"
"I'm sure that's none of our business." Erza ran her fingers over the wet fabric that clung to his chest. "Did you walk all the way here?"
"Nope." Jellal polished off the last of his bourbon. "I just ran a few blocks. I'd never risk bringing the driver all the way here and I'm for damn sure not bringing my own car." Erza quirked an eyebrow.
"It's not obvious to them where you're going?"
"There's a million little pockets of trouble to be found on this side of town. All they can do is guess." Jellal's hand slid over her thigh and stopped at the hem of her dress. He leaned in between her knees and kissed the edge of her jaw. "You look amazing."
"You look like trouble," she said with a soft laugh. Jellal pulled back but not entirely. His hand didn't leave her thigh. He'd much rather have a brain full of red and freesia than the stench of smoke and sweat that hung in the room. From the corner of his eye, Jellal noticed more than one glance in their direction. Erza followed his gaze and grinned. "We attract attention."
"I doubt anyone gives a fuck about me." He squeezed her leg and fingered a strand of her hair. "It's you."
"They're afraid of me. Your friend won't fight me because he says he doesn't hit girls." The corner of her smile twitched. "He's lying, though. I think he just doesn't like fighting."
"He doesn't." Jellal nodded at the bartender for a refill. "Erik's been a member for as long as I've known him. The day he gets in the cage is the day he's lost his mind." Erza pursed her lips but didn't press for more information. He suspected she was well versed in secrets and minding her own business. "Who's Laxus fighting?"
"Someone with a very hard head." She laughed when he snorted. "He's challenged me to a rematch every day this week."
"Dragneel likes to learn the hard way."
"I don't mind teaching him." Erza's hand slid over his shoulder and the tips of her fingers edged under the collar of his shirt. He stepped back into her and fit his arm around her waist. "Laxus isn't in a teaching mood, though. He'll come out swinging."
"Laxus isn't interested in playing the game. He's got no subtlety."
"He doesn't need it. He's a brute. I wouldn't fight him even if he'd consider it." Erza kissed his neck and flicked her tongue over the still damp skin. "You taste like the rain."
Jellal raised an eyebrow but before he could respond the din of the crowd swelled. Natsu bounced to the cage but Laxus stalked. He stepped inside like a storm cloud looms on the edge of a city. His eyes were dark and the thick muscles of his arms bunched and bulged. Laxus had always been larger than Jellal but in the cage he appeared positively gigantic. Natsu grinned despite his mouthguard but Laxus betrayed nothing. The sound of an air horn ricocheted off the walls of the room and before the reverberations cleared Jellal's ears, Laxus struck.
As children, Jellal had seen Laxus fight more than once in the schoolyard. He was a boy prone to fits of temper and easily goaded into scuffles. Laxus was bigger now and a hell of a lot more powerful. Frustrated rage oozed out of every pore on his body.
For two rounds he toyed with Natsu. He took hit after hit but never flinched. Jellal returned his attention to Erza who accepted a red cocktail from the bartender. She sipped from the cup and adjusted her body against his when he leaned comfortably backward against the bar. His fingers twisted absently in her hair. He'd lost interest in the fight despite having money on it.
"What is he doing?" she griped, tapping her finger on the sweating cup. Jellal sighed.
"He's fucking with Natsu. His life is out of control so he's taking his petty swipes where he can. I doubt Natsu even knows he's doing it."
Erza scowled and flipped her hair out of his grasp irritably. "It's childish."
"You fight with clean efficiency. Laxus –"
"I fight to win," she snapped.
"Laxus," Jellal continued unperturbed. "Is fighting because he's in a bad mood and wants to hit things."
"He should fight with his head and not his heart." She finished off her drink and set it aside. "He's going to lose." Jellal laughed and leaned in very close.
"You're aggressive when you drink," he whispered.
"You have no idea." Erza smiled and relaxed a little. The air horn rattled the walls again and Laxus circled the cage with renewed purpose. His shoulders were stiffer and his feet moved quicker. He flexed his fingers – as much as he could flex them despite the wraps – and Jellal thought for sure he saw him grin before his left shoulder snapped back and his right fist shot out to catch Natsu's jaw.
The hit took Natsu by surprise and he hopped backward to steady himself. Laxus granted him no quarter and stepped in the moment Natsu moved. He switched his stance and his left hand surged forward. Before Natsu could recover, Laxus landed four successive hooks. Natsu swayed left then right. His hand reached for the side of the cage but he missed by several feet and toppled to the mats.
An eruption of shouts filled the room and Erza said nothing. She spun back around on her stool to the bar where Minerva already had another cocktail and bourbon waiting. Jellal watched her gulp the contents with incredulity.
"You're setting a stiff pace," he said.
"I still need to talk to Igneel." Erza plucked the lime wedge from the rim and bit into it. "I need a little encouragement."
"It's that serious?"
"Yes." Erza slid off the stool and grabbed his arm for support. Laxus appeared at Jellal's side with an icepack on his face. Jellal almost burst into laughter.
"That ice pack is dramatic."
"I'm not looking to have a swollen face in the morning. He got several solid hits on me," Laxus growled.
"He wouldn't've if you'd been less of an arrogant ass." Erza's criticism fell on deaf ears. Laxus jerked his head toward the door Jellal knew led upstairs.
"Let's get this over with," he said with a clenched jaw. Erza's hands stayed wrapped around Jellal's arm as Laxus led the way to the door. Without prompting the guard swung it open and nodded them through.
The narrow hallway ended abruptly at a set of stairs that led directly to a door that stood cracked open. Laxus didn't hesitate to enter the room. Igneel's silhouette was black against the row of windows. His hands were clasped behind his back and he didn't turn until Jellal pushed the door closed. He smiled and focused on Erza first.
"I wondered how long it would take you to approach me," he said in a voice softer than Jellal ever expected from a man like Igneel. "Did Ellie tell you or did you guess?" Jellal felt Laxus's shock rolling off him at the use of such a familiar nickname.
"I guessed," Erza repiled. "You look like her when you smile. Before we moved I found some old pictures and to be honest –" She faltered before grinning sheepishly. "You were way too quick to let me in here." Igneel laughed and shook his head.
"I underestimated you, Erza, and that was clearly my mistake. I should've expected nothing less than razor sharp observation from my sister's daughter." Jellal glanced over at Laxus whose jaw would've been on the floor if it weren't attached to his skull. Igneel's grin widened and he gestured to the couches opposite one another in the office. "Have a seat, all of you."
Laxus continued to brood in the shadows by the door but Jellal – relaxed with too much bourbon and not enough dinner in his system – fell into the cushions next to Erza. Igneel took a seat opposite. He pushed an envelope across the table between them toward Jellal.
"Your winnings," he said smoothly. "I believe you bet on Laxus earlier this evening?" Laxus snorted loudly and moved to the row of windows.
"I don't fucking bet," Laxus mimicked under his breath. Jellal grinned and folded the envelope into his pocket without counting the contents.
"No," Jellal corrected, sliding his arm around Erza's shoulders. "I said I don't bet blind." Erza sighed impatiently. "I knew you'd win."
"The friendship you have is interesting," Igneel remarked, relaxing back against the sofa. "This city has very few arms stretched across the divide." He paused and drummed his fingers on the cushion. "The gap grows wider every day." Jellal released Erza and leaned forward on his knees.
"I was hoping to speak to you about my father," he blurted. For an instant he regretted the bluntness but the feeling didn't last. "He's using."
"I'm aware of his habits." Igneel said in a very direct tone that Jellal felt all the way in his gut. "My stamp, the ouroboros stamp – doesn't matter. I'm aware of where and how all the product moves." His gaze didn't waver and Jellal understood his words to mean he knew of both Acnologia's use and his own.
"I don't like it. Love and Lucky can't be what my mom wants if he's allowed to continue." Igneel leaned forward and never dropped his eyes. Jellal could feel Erza's tension radiating into his side.
"There's going to be a whole lot of stuff you don't like in this world, Jellal. You will be defined by your answer to those things. We're all sitting on a chess board. You and Laxus must decide what pieces you'll play and how you'll move."
"That's all fine and good when the other pieces follow the rules," Laxus objected from the windows. "My dad doesn't give a fuck about any of that. You're thinking in terms of predictable play and he's slicing motherfuckers up and throwing them off the roof."
"The loss of Gajeel and Flare was unfortunate," Igneel acquiesced with a nod. "But they knew the dangers."
"Fairy Tail is a fucking hotel!" Laxus barked. "There shouldn't be any dangers!"
"If you want to kill a hydra, you have to cut off all the heads and burn the stumps." Igneel's eyes shifted from Jellal to Laxus and back to Jellal. "I can't solve your Acnologia problem," he said with finality. "But you can."
"How the fuck do I do that?" Jellal's stomach turned over. Igneel stood and grinned.
"I can give you a hint." He moved toward a different door than the one they'd entered through. "The most powerful piece on the board is the queen. She's how you'll win the game."
"Cryptic bullshit," Laxus fumed. Jellal's pocket started to vibrate. He sighed and fished out his phone. He'd missed a number of texts during the fight and he frowned as he glanced over Lucy's messages – each one more frantic than the last.
"I gotta go," he said slowly. "Something's wrong." Laxus turned from the window and nodded.
"I'll drop you close by. Erza, you coming?"
"Yeah," she said quietly. Erza stood and smiled at Igneel. "Maybe next time we can talk? Just us?"
"Anytime, Erza." His returning smile was genuine but he visibly froze when Erza hugged him on impulse. If Jellal hadn't been so rocked by Lucy's bizarre messages, he'd have been more moved by the scene of Igneel reluctantly embracing a niece he'd never truly known. Instead, his palms itched and he wanted to leave.
Erza released him, still smiling, and took Jellal's hand. The upper hallway wasn't as dark as the staircase and the exit door waited at the end. Jellal scrolled through the texts again and tried to get a straight answer from Lucy but she wasn't responding.
"Fuck," he muttered.
"What's wrong?" Erza asked.
"It's Lucy. Something's wrong at home." Laxus glanced back at him over his shoulder and Jellal shrugged.
The rain still fell from the sky when he left Laxus and Erza behind. Love and Lucky's front gate stood wide open and a sliver of yellow light from the front door cut through the darkness. He whispered a string of curses as he slowed to a walk and approached the door.
Jellal's eye caught on the car he'd taken to the fight. It sat empty in the circle driveway like an abandoned carcass. Just under the portico, he paused with the intention of sending Laxus a text message but his phone screen was dark – battery life or water damage, he didn't know. It wouldn't have mattered anyway because the phone fell from his fingers at the exact moment a fist made contact with his jaw.
The bite of the only Fernandes crest ring this side of the ocean gave his assailant away.