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#happilyeverafter

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Cell phones belonged in lockers.  That was the rule Mr. Yajima preached.  They did not belong in pants pockets, and they should never be seen in the hands of a server for any reason.  If there was an emergency, someone could call the restaurant, and he would gladly relay the message.

Jellal knew the rules, and he was damn lucky to have a job, even if the pay was less than par.  He bided his time waiting tables at 8-Island with a BS in astronomy, asking the little voice inside his head to tell him what to do with his life.  Jellal knew the rules, but he broke them anyway because he also knew what day it was.  And he was a glutton for punishment.  A masochist of sorts who followed @levythescriptmage on Instagram.

During his shift, Jellal seized every opportunity to slip away.  While double checking the taps, he saw the happy couple plastered up and down his news feed with hashtags such as #newlywednalu and #heartfiliagothitched.  Of course, Levy hadn’t stopped there.  Jellal vaguely wondered how many hashtags she could squeeze into a single caption.  To him, a # was just a pound sign.  

Yet, Levy’s photographs were excellent, immersive even.  After gazing at several still shots, Jellal felt as if he’d been there to see Lucy and Natsu make their grand entrance into married life.  Indeed, Lucy’s décolletage left little to the imagination, but her full white skirt fanned out elegantly over her hips.  The sleeves of Natsu’s tux were too long, and the entire ensemble was clearly of the ill-fitting rental variety.  Nevertheless, they looked happy, riding high on cloud nine and pink champagne.

It wasn’t until just before the dinner rush that Jellal spied her in the leftmost foreground of a reception shot.  She looked through the frame of the picture with a rich amber gaze that stirred an atrophied part of his heart.  Erza’s confident smile stretched the corners of her delicate face, and her nose wrinkled in sheer levity.  But it was her crimson hair, pinned in curls near the nape of her neck that Jellal found entrancing.  He longed to play with the stray strands of her silky tresses and pull out the bobby pins one by one.

He could have stared at the candid shot all night before he noticed the tall, dark and loathsome figure standing in profile near Jellal’s former lover.  The caption “So much love in the room!  Everyone deserves to live #happilyeverafter” caught Jellal’s eye.  His customer service face fell into a jealous grimace as he thought about Erza’s new boyfriend.  Although, new wasn’t a fair term for a relationship that had first been observed over 2 and a half years ago.

Simon was pre-med at Crocus University, from what Jellal had heard.  All well-defined muscles and tanned skin, traits Simon attributed to his days as a competitive swimmer.  Jellal didn’t know how Simon met Erza, but he had seen Simon around Magnolia, even shook his hand, when the couple visited Irene during the winter break of Erza’s junior year of college.  The young astronomer’s imagination replayed their awkward introduction often when he was feeling particularly self-loathing.

Jellal shoved his phone in his pocket with uncharacteristic fervor.  It had been over four years since Irene had caught wind of Jellal’s ill-fated engagement to Erza, and like fools, they had been the ones to tell her.  Too young, she had lectured.  Unsettled, she had protested.  Give it more time; Erza relented to her mother’s caution.  And come fall, Jellal’s fiancée transferred to Crocus University under the pretense of “a better education.”

In the beginning, Erza visited Jellal at every opportunity.  She slipped between his sheets on long weekends and laid lazily in his embrace until he didn’t know where she ended and he began.  However, by spring the bedroom air grew stale.  Jellal reasoned that the pressure of his studies obliged his eyes to wander, and Ultear encouraged her companion to sow his wild oats.  The simple pursuit of happiness was the raven-hair beauty’s way.  Jellal heedlessly wondered aloud whether they’d settled too soon.  And so, Erza returned the ring, stayed in Crocus and continued steadily toward her bright future.

With nothing to lose, Jellal set out for greener pastures, but he found it all to be clever window dressing.  The women who fell into his bed never smelled like warm honey, and their moans didn’t ring in his ears past the midnight hours.  His experiences were unremarkable, forgettable by the time he closed the door behind them in the morning without sharing so much as a cup of coffee.  Jellal collected ten-digit numbers in the contacts section of his phone with corresponding notches on his bedpost. 

Years later, and especially that night when he peered furtively at the picture of her during the endless hours of his shift, Jellal’s soul felt as empty as a drum, his heart drenched in white instead of scarlet.

Then, the improbable happened.  Jellal’s eyes widened when he saw her name, boxed in the middle of his illuminated phone screen.  His stomach lurched as he ducked through the sweltering kitchen and into the freezer which uncharacteristic haste.  He saw his breath billow out in front of him as the cold settled into the folds of his starched black collared shirt.

ERZA SCARLET, 8:38 p.m.
Hey. r u in town?

JELLAL FERNANDES, 8:41 p.m.
Hey. I am. What's up?

ERZA SCARLET, 8:42 p.m.
I'm actually in Magnolia 2nite.

ERZA SCARLET, 8:44 p.m.
And I know we haven't spoken in a while, but I need a favor.

JELLAL FERNANDES, 8:44 p.m.
Are you ok?

ERZA SCARLET, 8:45 p.m.
I'm fine. If ur busy, it's okay.

ERZA SCARLET, 8:46 p.m.
u r busy aren't u? I saw ur car at 8-Island, and idk. I thought u might be around.

ERZA SCARLET, 8:47 p.m.
u know, this is stupid. 4get I texted.

Jellal wasn't a genius when it came to the opposite sex, but he was certain when a woman said she was "fine" the truth was anything but. His blood boiled despite his plummeting body temperature as he thought of what might be happening. Nine times out of ten, Erza could handle herself; she wasn't the type to cry wolf.

JELLAL FERNANDES, 8:48 p.m.
I'm not busy. What do you need?

He lied unabashedly. No matter where he was or what he was doing, Jellal would never be busy when she needed him. It was a lesson he learned a few years too late.

ERZA SCARLET, 8:50 p.m.
I'm at Bar Sun. I drank too much and my ride left. Can u come get me?

JELLAL FERNANDES, 8:50 p.m.
Simon left you there?

Jellal winced as soon as his thumb pressed send. It was an impulsive question, and he was sure that Erza would sense the subtext, no matter how much she had to drink. Simon wasn't his business.

JELLAL FERNANDES, 8:51 p.m.
Sorry. That was out of line. I saw you together today at the wedding.

ERZA SCARLET, 8:54 p.m.
Simon and I didn't ride together. I'd ask him, but he left with Millianna before the after party.

JELLAL FERNANDES, 8:55 p.m.
Hang tight, Erza. I'll be there soon.

ERZA SCARLET, 8:55 p.m.
thx, Jellal.

He pocketed his phone and glanced at his watch.  Wearing a watch was the sort of thing that made Jellal old-fashioned, much like coming to the rescue of his former fiancée.  With an hour and a half (at least) left on his shift, there wasn’t a shot in hell Mr. Yajima would let him go early, and when it came to lying, Jellal was an easy read.

On the other hand, Ultear’s poker face never wavered.

He found her keying an order into the worn kiosk, and under the pretense of asking her a question, Jellal slipped her his phone.  True to form, Ultear’s expression remained pleasant and businesslike as she scrolled through the brief conversation, but through a curtain of deep violet hair, Jellal saw her ruby eyes flash with intrigue.  She slipped the phone into his pocket without a hitch and turned her attention back to the screen.

“It’s price charming to the rescue then, isn’t it?  Going to take her back to your place and storm the castle, just like the good ol’ days?” she said with a low sultry lilt.

“I’m just going to drive her to her mom’s place,” Jellal responded.  “Natsu and Lucy got married today; she was in the wedding and had too much to drink.  It could happen to anyone.”

“But it’s not just anyone,” Ultear observed.  “It’s Erza.” 

Jellal didn’t respond to her commentary.  Ultear was neither a good nor bad influence in his life.  She was just along for the ride.  And Jellal couldn’t deny that she had a way of discerning what he wanted most, even if he couldn’t admit it to himself.  For better or worse, it was Erza.  Always Erza.

“I need to get out of here, but my shift isn’t over for a while,” Jellal said as he turned to survey the dining room.  One of the restaurant patrons vied for his attention with exaggerated animation.

“Leave it to me.”

The conspirators parted company wordlessly as Ultear loudly told their young coworker, Meredy that she needed a smoke break.  As soon as the pink haired teen agreed to check on her tables, Ultear slipped out the back door with a pack of djarum blacks in hand.  Jellal saw to his customers' needs with as much attentiveness as he could muster.  His eyes remained somewhat fixed on his wristwatch as he doled out large portions of pasta and fried food.  Anticipation burrowed into the pit of his stomach.

Finally, Jellal heard Mr. Yajima call his name.

“Mr. Fernandes,” he asked with some apprehension.  “Do you have a brother?”

Jellal smiled inwardly.  This was one of their tried and true classics, and like all good lies, there was a kernel of truth at its core.

“Yes,” Jellal responded earnestly.  “Mystogan, my twin.  You probably haven’t met him.  He lives with my dad in Edolas.  Split custody, sort of like The Parent Trap without the weird summer camp meet up.”

That part wasn’t even a lie.

“Hmm,” Mr. Yajima cast his eyes downward, wringing a napkin in his palms.  He called Jellal in close, guiding him away from the dining area.  “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but there’s been some sort of accident.  Your mom called.  She said you’d be traveling to Edolas right away to visit your brother.  She was… quite persistent.”

Jellal did his best to appear troubled as Mr. Yajima opened the locker room for him. 

“What happened?” he asked with genuine curiosity.

“He collapsed in the law library.  Apparently, he’s been pushing himself too hard studying for his exams.”

Jellal opted for silence in lieu of anything convincing to say as he began to unload his locker.  He made a mental note to let Mystogan know about the deception.  As always, Ultear had crafted an ideal (if slightly farfetched) alibi.  Something serious enough to warrant attention, but trivial enough to evade any news coverage. 

“Just take all the time you need,” the older gentleman mumbled.  “If you can’t make your shift tomorrow, I understand.  Do apologize to your mother for me and tell her I will think about revising my cell phone policy.”

As Jellal slipped out of the side door of 8-Island, he found Ultear leaning against the brick wall, surrounded by a thick cloud of clove and tobacco scented smoke.  She balanced a long, black cigarette between her fingers with practiced ease as she tipped her head in Jellal's direction.  Her fingers were stained with so much more than nicotine, but she seemed to enjoy getting her hands dirty.

“Don’t have too much fun,” Ultear said softly.  “I don’t think I’ll be able to get you out of Monday too.”

Jellal chuckled.  “I wish you’d give those up.  They’re bad for your health.”

“So is studying law, apparently.”