OO look at me, updating within a month... WOW! I hope you all enjoy it. It's not as long as I had planned but I decided to push some parts into the next chapter.


Chapter 19: Plans

It was warm, much warmer than it should be as his brain slowly worked its way into consciousness. He liked the feeling, so much that he decided not to open his eyes just yet. He only wanted a few more minutes... a few more so that he could enjoy this moment of rare comfort and relaxation. He didn't want to jump back into that saddle all day, or have to keep constant watch over the woman he suspected of being a spy. He was getting tired of the roll of captor already and figured a few more minutes of peace and comfort couldn't be a bad thing.

His body relaxed and he curled around the warmth. Yes, just a couple more minutes. He deserved it, didn't he? By the end of the day, they'd be at the army camp and his obligation would be completed. Or, at least, this part of the deal would be complete anyway. He still had to fight but that part would be easy enough and soon he'd be back at home, returning to his peaceful, solitary life.

With a jolt, his eyes opened, his body going tense. Something wasn't right... this situation wasn't right. He shouldn't be warm - not when his back was chilled the way it was. And then he realized the weight against his arm. Something was pressed against it and then he felt a puff of warm air tickle his skin.

He opened his eyes slowly, adjusting to the muted morning light filtering through the old, run down shack. Strands of hair fell over his arm in crimson waves and then he saw a face lying ever so peacefully, using his arm as a pillow. As surprising as the sight should have been, he wasn't bothered by it. In fact, he felt quite the opposite. It was strangely endearing seeing her this way... a new facet of his captive. First there'd been the hard, stubborn woman whose determination rivaled his own. Then, last night, he'd caught a glimpse of her weakness - a fear that ran so deep that she'd been possessed by it. And now, seeing her in this vulnerable, peaceful state, he felt there might be another depth to her that he'd never seen... and probably never would see.

In this moment of quiet, he let himself look at her in a way he hadn't so far. She was a beautiful woman... stunning actually. Under normal circumstances he would have surely put the moves on her. She was the whole package, a gorgeous face with depth and intrigue etched into every angle, a body that knew no bounds in its desirability, and a fiery personality that could tame the best of men. Whether she would have returned his interest, he was uncertain. And with all modesty aside, that was a very rare thing from his experience. He'd never had difficulty getting women. Even when he'd been a slave, women had flocked to him with very little effort. But this woman... something made him bet she would have been the exception. And yet he still wondered, 'what would it have been like if I'd met her in a tavern, or on the street somewhere. How would things have turned out?'

The sun began to stream through the holes overhead and he knew she'd be waking up soon. So, with careful effort, he gently pulled his arm free from beneath her head and then began untying the rope that bound them together. Sure enough, not a minute later, she started to stir, taking a long, deep breath before shielding her eyes against the light. By the time she was fully conscious, he'd removed the rope and was sitting up, rummaging through his bag.

Erza squinted at the roof above and then turned onto her side, nearly rolling over onto a puddle of water. She could hear Acnologia behind her, getting their things ready for their journey to... wherever the heck they were going. She was surprised he hadn't woken her earlier. Usually they were up on the horse and on the road before the sun even broke over the horizon. But he seemed to be in no rush today as he pulled out their food and leaned back against the wall to eat. He held out bits for her but for the most part, ignored her as she fixed her clothing and re-tied up her hair.

She remembered the storm the previous night, the loud thunder and relentless lightning. In her fear she'd curled up into herself, both physically and mentally; drifting back to those long ago nights, when Jellal and her had endured the horror together.

She'd imagined herself being with him again, tucked safely against his body which, even as a child, had been strong and warm. He'd shielded her against the chill, against the rain, against the noise and blinding light. Even when she'd known that he was nearly as afraid of them as her, he'd still protected her. Last night had felt no different. Even with him not really there, she'd vividly felt the comfort and tranquility of his embrace.

Suddenly she ached to see him again. Why had their last encounter been so awkward? Why had she left so many things unsaid? She regretted all of it, all of the missed opportunities to tell him her true feelings. If she could do it over again... if she could see him one more time, she'd reveal it all. But now, it was too late. And her regrets would linger with her through the rest of whatever days remained.

"Are you sure we're going the right way?"

Gajeel turned and practically snarled at Levy who was walking beside him."Yes, I'm sure," he retorted, his mood souring ever more. At least he thought he was sure. This was the way the man had said but at this point, he was starting to wonder himself. They'd been traveling east for nearly an hour now and hadn't come across anything. If he'd known it would be this far, he'd have saddled up their horse.

It was still morning, a beautiful morning in fact with the sun brightening their path and a wonderful breeze that wasn't enough to make you cold but just enough to make you feel alive as it tickled your skin and ruffled your hair. They'd left early that morning, escaping the rooms they'd rented to find a place to eat and then began the journey that had brought them to, what looked like, the middle of nowhere.

"Maybe we should turn around and ask that house we saw a while back for directions?" Levy suggested.

Gajeel's face darkened. "We're going the right way."

Levy raised a brow at him but didn't press the matter any further. What was it with men and directions?

They continued walking for a time, neither speaking until the road forked, one path much more worn than the other.

"So... which way now?" Levy asked, her aggravation starting to make an appearance as she stood there with her arms crossed over her chest.

Gajeel ran a hand through his dark hair. "I don't fuckin' know," he said, his eyes narrowed. "I'm just following the directions that man gave me." He took a long look either way and then pointed towards the road that'd seen more traffic. "This way."

Levy really wanted to make a snarky comment but decided against it. At this point, it wouldn't get them any further and what would be the point of fighting? It's not like she knew where to go either or had a different plan in mind. So she followed him.

A few minutes later, after crossing over a small hill, a large plantation came into view maybe a half mile away. Several acres of cultivated land surrounded a large villa with what looked like nearly a dozen smaller buildings dotting the space. "Do you think that's it?" Levy asked, placing her hand lightly on Gajeel's arm as she looked out over the valley.

"It definitely looks like it could be it."

She watched him jog to a higher vantage point and then lift his hands up to shield his eyes. "Hey! Look at this!" he hollered, motioning for her to join him.

She hustled up beside him and looked in the direction he pointed.

"Do you see that?" he asked.

Levy nodded, her eyes going wide. "Is that an elephant?"

"Sure looks like it to me. Let's go."

They hurried down the hillside and then quickened their pace along the road. When they got within a half mile of the place, Levy grabbed Gajeel's arm. "Wait," she said, looking around the area. "We need a plan. We can't just go marching into this place."

"Why not?" Gajeel asked, annoyed at being stopped.

"Because," she said, tugging him back when he tried to start walking again. "If this really is the place where Lily was taken, do you think it's a house of nice and friendly people? Definitely not. They are thieves and possibly worse. We need to come up with a plan before we do anything."

Gajeel grunted. "I guess you're right," he agreed reluctantly. "What do you think we should do?"

Levy thought about it for a minute, pinching her bottom lip as she stared at the ground. Somehow they needed to find out if Lily was really there. And if they could do that without being noticed, that would be even better. But how could they get inside? If these people really had stolen Lily, they would surely know who Gajeel was so he certainly couldn't go. And what would the reason be for her to go in there?

"Fuck it... let's just go," Gajeel said, turning to leave.

Levy quickly grabbed a hold of him and yanked him back. "Wait!" she said, "Let's go around the side of the property first, towards where we think we saw the elephant. Maybe that's where they keep the exotic animals." She paused to look around them and pointed towards a couple small rolling hills that weren't far from the edges of the fence line. "Let's follow those hills till we get close. Maybe we can see something from there."

Gajeel stared in the direction she'd pointed and after a few seconds deliberation, nodded.

It didn't take long for them to get to where they'd agreed on and they both quietly moved up to the summit and hid behind several small trees. Levy looked down into the compound, wishing they had a bit more of a leveraged view. From their vantage point, they could make out the tops of the buildings but couldn't quite see down far enough to catch much else except the occasional head popping up between the buildings. But, at the back of one of the larger structures, there seemed to be an enclosure of some sort. A wooden fence winding around a circle of dirt and beside it there looked to be cages.

Levy nudged Gajeel and pointed towards where she was looking. "I think those are cages," she whispered. Off to the side of the enclosure, a peacock stretched its bright plumage and then ran off behind a small shack.

"We need to get closer."

Levy agreed but hadn't a clue how they would be able to manage it. If they tried to move towards the fence, they'd be losing the small bit of height from the hillside and they wouldn't be able to see any better. Then, as if they'd willed it to happen, Lily suddenly appeared in the enclosure, followed by a half dozen men struggling with several chains attached to his neck.

Beside her, Gajeel went rigid and his eyes took on a look so chilling that she suddenly knew what his opponents in the Colosseum felt. He was deathly silent, just staring at the scene below. You could feel the anger flowing off of him in waves as they stood there. His hands were fisted tightly at his sides and then Lily roared and Gajeel's entire body started to shake.

"Gajeel," Levy said, taking a cautious step towards him, "Let's get out of here."

The man didn't budge. His eyes were glued to the scene below them.

"Come on," she whispered again but failed to get his attention. She grabbed his arm and started tugging as hard as she could... he still didn't move. He was like a statue, glaring at the world from his pedestal. "So we can either stand here all day doing nothing or you can follow me to a safer location where we can actually think of a way to get Lily out of there."

"I already have a plan," he said, his eyes never straying from his feline friend, "I'm going to kill every single one of them."

Levy didn't doubt him. And she was sure he would succeed with many of them. But they didn't know how many men there were and what they were completely up against. From what they'd seen so far, there were easily two dozen men walking around the compound and those were just the ones that happened to be outside.

Her brain went to work, trying to come up with a plan. Somehow, they had to get inside unnoticed. There were many openings in the fence but each looked to be guarded by at least one man. She imagined Gajeel could take care of them easily enough but doing it without alerting anyone else might be a bit more difficult. Then they had to deal with getting around the buildings to where Lily was. Men were everywhere, some obviously just workers or caretakers of the property but others were armed men who looked to be patrolling the area. Getting by them in the light of the day would be almost impossible. And even if they were able to get by, they certainly wouldn't be getting out of there unnoticed with a huge lion beside them.

No, this had to be done at night. There chance of success would go up considerably in the dark. Plus, it would give her more time to think everything through. But looking at Gajeel, thinking things through seemed to be the last thing on his mind. She was actually surprised he was still stand there and not already down in the compound, killing everyone in sight.

Cautiously she decided to try speaking with him again. "I know you're not going to like this but..." she peeked up to see his reaction and pushed onward, "what if we waited until this evening? It'll be too hard to sneak around in the light of day and people will be more likely to notice Lily being missing."

She could see him grinding his teeth, his jaw working from side to side. He didn't like it. And she didn't like it either. But they had to be realistic. Waiting until nightfall would make much more sense.

Then suddenly, something came to her. An idea that just might work if she prepared a little. She turned to Gajeel who was still stewing in his anger and said, "I think I have a plan, but I need to go back to town first."

Gajeel stared at the short woman. She had a plan? Right now his brain could only latch on to one thing... ripping every single person down there to shreds. But here she was, able to think up an actual plan? Reluctantly he decided to ask, "What is it?"

He was caught off guard when she grabbed his wrist and started tugging him down the hillside, away from the compound. They stopped several dozen yards away and a few minutes later, they were walking along the road once again... their destination, of all places, a dress shop.

Lyon stepped into his room and nearly shouted with joy. It had been so long, too long in his opinion, since he'd walked through that doorway. He was beyond done with being an invalid. All those hours of laying around, doing absolutely nothing had nearly made him crazy. But he was now officially free. And the first thing he was going to do was take a bath.

A mix of a groan and a sigh passed through his lips when he finally sunk into the almost unbearably hot water. It felt good, so wonderfully good. The entire time he'd been healing he'd had to endure cloth baths, administered by that lady who, he imagined, had never spoken a kind word in her life. But for all her gruffness, there was definitely a hidden depth of compassion inside. She was an amazing healer and if it hadn't been for her, he surely would have been in much worse shape than he was now.

Then there was Wendy, the young assistant with her shy smiles and giggles. He'd been sad to say good bye to her. During the time he'd spent there, they'd grown close. He'd broken through her timidness and when he'd finally been told he was able to leave, he'd promised to visit her as often as he could... and he definitely planned to keep that promise.

When the water started to cool, he reluctantly exited the tub and put on some clean clothes. He felt human again, clean and fresh and ready to start a new day. It had been a while since he'd felt that good. There was a slight stinging on his back where the cut was still healing but the pain was minor, nothing more than a nagging annoyance.

"Master, you're back," a familiar voice said from the doorway and he turned and grinned at the young housekeeper.

"Well hello there, Juvia. How are you this morning?" He sauntered towards her, a grin on his face. She was as beautiful as he remembered, all that curly, blue hair piled messily atop her head with more than a few strands falling over dark blue eyes.

She peered wearily up at him as he approached, her fingers gripping the broom she carried more tightly. "I am good," she said and took a sliding step back after he stopped in front of her. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm feeling great!... now that I've seen you." He leaned a shoulder against the doorway and crossed his arms over his chest. "Did you miss me?"

A dark figure appeared at the end of the hallway and Lyon groaned as his brother approached. "What the fuck are you doing here?" Gray asked.

Lyon rolled his eyes. "Porlyusica said I could go home today... you knew that."

"Yea, and I also know that I told you specifically that I would come in the morning and pick you up. What if you hurt yourself on the way back? What if..."

"...You were taking too long - and I was fine. See," he said, lifting his arms up and turning in a circle, "I'm almost 100%. I'll be ready to fight again in no time."

Gray glared at his brother. He wanted to scream and punch him right in the jaw. But at the same time, he was so relieved to see him that he wanted to throw his arms around him and just hold him. They'd been apart for too long. Even though he'd been able to see him nearly every day, the visits just weren't the same. Throughout their entire lives, they'd been together. Even their days in the army hadn't kept them apart. And now, even though the urge to pummel him was strong, his happiness at seeing him looking so fit and healthy overwhelmed all else and he grabbed him and yanked him in for a hug.

Lyon seemed to feel the same way because his arms went instantly around Gray and they just stood there for several moments, simply holding each other.

Juvia watched the scene with curious eyes. They were a strange pair. Sometimes she had a hard time believing they were really twins. For starters, they were as opposite when it came to physical appearance as could be. And then there was the constant bickering. It was rare to find a moment when they were not arguing or at each others throat in some way. But then there were moments like these - moments where they seemed closer than any two people in the Empire. It was heartening to see. In her life, warmth like this had been a very rare thing. She'd experienced happiness and love with her mother before things had turned for the worse. But that time seemed so long ago now. And as she stood there watching the pair, she felt a pang of emptiness inside her chest. After a few moments, she started to feel awkward standing there and decided to leave the two men alone, retreating into the shadows where she preferred.

Gray slowly released his brother and took a step back to get a good look at him. "Are you truly feeling well?" he asked.

Lyon nodded and smiled. "Yes, and it's good to be home."

Gray agreed and led his brother into their shared bedroom. They took a seat on the closest bed and Gray decided it was as good a time as any to let Lyon know the news. "I've been given a fight next week."

Lyon's eyes widened and then a smile spread. "Already?! That's great! Who are we fighting?"

Gray shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. "We are not fighting anyone. I'm fighting."

It took a moment for it to register and Gray could tell the instant that it did. He knew his brother wouldn't be happy with this news. He wasn't particularly happy either. But he had to do it. And there was no way he was going to let his brother participate.

"You mean, you're going to fight, by yourself?"

Gray nodded, a solemn look on his face. "You know I can't let you out there the way you are. You may feel ok right now but it could be life or death out there. And I just can't let you take the chance."

"...You mean you can't take the chance."

"Lyon," Gray groaned and slapped a hand to his face. He knew his brother would take this the wrong way. "That's not what I mean at all. Of course I want you out there with me. But I can't..."

"Yes you can! I'll be fine. I feel like I could go out right now and fight."

Gray just shook his head. "No way. There is absolutely no way I am letting you out there. It was too close... too damn close. And I..." his voice hitched and he turned his face away. He took a deep breath and before he could continue, Lyon put an arm around his shoulders.

"Gray, you can't keep me from fighting again... you know that. And, do you think it'll be any easier for me, watching you out there while I sit helplessly watching? You know I can't do that. It'll kill me."

"But your back..."

"How about this," Lyon suggested, leaning in close, "what if we keep it up in the air for now and I'll start practicing with you. You can see how I do and when it gets close to the fight date, we'll decide together?"

Gray thought about it for a moment, running through all the possibilities in his head. He hated the idea of Lyon fighting again. But he also hated the idea of fighting without him. He knew his brothers words were true. It would be absolute torture for him to sit on the side and watch... just like it would be torture for him to do the same. But the thought of him getting hurt again, of watching him fall to his knees in pain the way he had, he wasn't sure he could do it.

"Gray?" Lyon said, twisting his head around so that he could look at his face.

Gray sighed heavily and looked his brother in the eye. "I'll agree... as long as I get to decide when the time comes."

Lyon nodded his head enthusiastically and pulled Gray in for a tight hug. "I love you brother."

Gray held him back. "I love you too."

To be continued...

Now see, Erza didn't forget about Jellal. But is Acno possibly taking an interest in her? What do you guys think? And what does Levy have planned?

Like i said earlier, not a super long chapter but... oh well. I wanted to get something out before the holidays. I hope you liked it.

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate. I wish you all the best and if I don't publish anything between now and New Years, Happy New Year!

Also, I look forward to all the naughty Christmas artwork on Tumblr... NaLu especially lol... *hint hint*