A dull heat warms the edges of Sting's skin, and he knows it's time.
With a sigh, he pushes himself away from the wall he's been lounging against, scanning the crowded street before him, idly cracking his knuckles. This encounter has the potential to go one of two ways, and Sabertooth's Master has a sneaking suspicion a few punches are going to be thrown.
Another wave of heat catches Sting's attention, and he turns to see a cloaked figure making his way through the throngs of citizens. He radiates intensity and power, and Sting watches as people scramble to get out of his way.
For a brief moment, Sting regrets his decision to come solo. Then he remembers the look of absolute despair on Yukino's face when she'd tearfully told him what had happened to Lucy Heartfilia—how Natsu had actually left her—and he strengthens his resolve.
He's not going back to the guild until he's got one absurdly dense and decidedly unconscious Dragon Slayer to dump at Lucy's feet.
It's the least he can do, honestly.
"Natsu," Sting calls casually, folding his arms as the other Slayer walks past him. Their eyes clash for a brief moment—Natsu's eyebrows slant down in confusion before he simply continues on.
Sting can't resist a small snort. "Never had you pegged as the arrogant type, Natsu," he continues, tracking the cloaked man as he walks determinedly past him. "Guess you're showing all your true colors, huh?"
Natsu falters for a half-step, before forcing himself forward. Sting smirks inwardly. He's getting warmer.
"Come on, don't pull that cold shoulder shit," Sting continues. "I know all about it, Natsu, so let's just cut to the chase."
Finally, Natsu pauses his pace, assessing Sting from over his shoulder with a frown.
"Know all about what?" he asks lowly. His words are even enough, but Sting's an old hand at seeing through pretenses—the Slayer's voice is boiling with anger.
"Dragons are hoarders, Natsu." Sting's voice is a mixed bag of harsh criticism and honest concern. "You sure it's a good idea to leave her alone like this?"
Natsu goes still for a moment, before he turns to keep walking. Sting blinks at the lack of reaction.
"We're not actual dragons, Sting," he retorts, eyes fixed determinedly on the road ahead. "No matter what generation you are."
A smirk tugs at the Sabertooth's lips as he saunters after the other Slayer. "Still bitter about that, huh?" he asks, and Natsu scowls at the cocky edge to his words, but still pushes on. Sting trails after him.
"She'll never forgive you for this," he calls, frowning at the way Natsu refuses to face him. Surely that last comment should have gotten a rise. The frown slips into a full-blown glare when he's ignored yet again. "Hey! Are you even listening to me? You can't just leave her behind like this, Natsu! She's gonna be pissed!"
"She'll understand," Natsu growls, and Sting wonders if the words were meant for him to hear—if he wasn't a Slayer, he doubts he'd have heard them at all.
Sabertooth's Master keeps his pace, following a few steps behind Natsu, his features drawn and angry. "Yeah? Then why'd you write her a letter? Why not tell her to her face?"
Natsu grits his teeth. Just how quickly had word spread?
"It's a stellar spirit mage thing," Sting answers his unasked question bluntly. "Apparently those Spirits are a bunch of goddamn gossips, because Yukino knew right away that something was up." He pauses, staring squarely at the other man's back, like he's tasting his words. "I watched it happen, Natsu. Yukino looked like she'd been sentenced to death by the time Libra was done giving her the news."
A memory of Sabertooth's own Celestial mage sitting woodenly at a bench flashes before his mind's eye—her eyes wide and unseeing and glassy with unshed tears as she clutched the edge of her dress tightly, shaking with the effort to keep herself together. His jaw tightens.
"If that's how it feels second-hand," he says lowly, watching Natsu closely, tensed for the reaction he knows is coming. The brash, impulsive Slayer can't keep himself in check forever. Sting's honestly amazed he's lasted this long. "Imagine how Lucy feels."
Later—when Rogue is lecturing him for provoking the hot-headed Fairy Tail mage and Lector is begging for every detail of the fight—Sting will wonder if her name had been the key to unlocking Natsu's temper. If those two syllables truly hold that much sway over the Fire Dragon Slayer.
Natsu lunges for him, fist shrouded in flames, and despite Sting's anticipation, the Sabertooth mage barely dodges the first punch, wincing as an intense heat whips across his face.
"There's still time, Natsu," Sting says forcefully as both Slayers settle into what are undeniably fighting stances. He's dully cheered they made it to the outskirts of the town before they decided to duke it out. This is bound to get ugly rather quickly. "Just go back. If you take the train, you'll be back in Magnolia by tonight."
"Why are you so worried about Lucy?" Natsu shouts, glaring across the field at him. His eyes are overbright and wild as fire blazes in the palm of his hand.
Sting frowns, disliking the implication. His instinct is to say he's not worried about Lucy—he's worried about what Lucy's depression is doing to Yukino—but even he's not so callous as to cast the blonde's feelings aside. Sure, he'll trade blows with Gajeel and Natsu given the chance, and he couldn't give two shits about that Laxus asshole, but on the whole, the Sabertooh mage has something of a soft spot for the other guild. He chalks it up to guilt over Lucy's treatment at the hands of his lady during the Grand Magic Games, but he knows that's not quite it.
"Because once, some upstart Fairy busted his way into our Guild Hall," he says lowly, white magic crackling at his fingertips. "He kicked down the damn door and started yelling about the proper way to treat guild mates. How they're more than just comrades, they're family, and he has no respect for anyone who abandons them." He lifts a fist, feeling his power surge through him as his skin glows faintly. "I'm just here to return the favor."
Emotions flash across Natsu's face—anger, surprise, resentment, pain—each one stark and completely unguarded. Sting takes the moment to appreciate that despite everything, Natsu still has a shit poker face.
"Come on," he urges. "Drop the act, Natsu, I know you're upset. Of course you are." He spreads his hands in a last-ditch effort at armistice. "You're not the first Slayer to lose their dragon."
But words aren't good enough for Natsu—which is probably for the best because Sting's all out of things to say—and the blond watches as Natsu hauls back his fist, words of lost magic dropping from his lips, and Sting is a heartbeat too slow. He curses as the edge of Natsu's attack catches the side of his jaw, knocking him hard into the ground.
He grits his teeth, primed for a fight as he hauls himself up, scowling at the other Slayer.
"You better have given her a damn good excuse," he snarls. He can't think of anything—not one good goddamn reason—that would justify such an act of abandonment. "So let's hear it."
A brief moment of silence settles over the two wizards stare at each other.
"I have to get stronger," Natsu eventually spits.
Sting pulls a face, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth with a glare.
"Stronger?" he snaps. Is that what this is about? Some ridiculous soul-searching quest? Oh, Sting's gonna kill him. "Natsu, you idiot, you're already one of the strongest—"
"I need to beat Acnologia," Natsu retorts. His tone is riddled with anger and poorly disguised pain. "I need to be able to protect them."
Sting wonders who them is. Fiore? The rest of the dragons? The other Slayers? His guild? A blonde stellar spirit mage currently crying her goddamn eyes out?
He's personally banking on the last one, and if he'd been in a certain mood, he'd have ruthlessly called Natsu out on it.
But he knows vulnerability when he sees it, and so he simply lifts his fists, shifting his weight.
"You wanna get stronger? Fine then." Sting's cold blue eyes assess the other Slayer over the top of his fists. "Start with me."
"You're staring," Rogue rebukes him.
Sting ignores the remark, watching the stellar spirit mage as she says her farewells to Rufus and Orga. The Memory Make mage bows elegantly at the waist, while the God Slayer simply gathers her up in a tight hug, laughing loudly at her protests.
When she's finally released, she adjusts the strap of her pack, offers one last friendly wave, and turns to make her way towards the exit.
"Yukino," Sting calls, watching as she pauses for a moment before obediently changing her destination from the guild doors to the head table he and Rogue sit at. Sting wonders idly if her willingness to listen to him stems from his status as Guild Master or something else entirely.
"Master?" she raises an eyebrow, studying him curiously. She looks as put-together and perfect as always, but he's got a dragon's eye for detail. She's definitely unhappy.
"Sting, Yukino has a job in Margaret Town," Rogue cuts in, looking askance at the blond with a small frown. The Celestial Spirit mage has been preparing for this job for days, and Sting always seems particularly aware of the kind of schedule Yukino keeps. "She needs to leave now if she's going to catch the train."
In response, Sting pushes away from the table, the scrape of his chair drawing the attention of the entire guild as he stands. He points to the rolled-up piece of paper tucked neatly into her pack.
"Are those the job details?" he asks gruffly, trying and failing to ignore the weight of everyone's gazes as he stares down at the smaller mage.
She nods slowly, clearly trying to guess his intentions. "Yes," she answers carefully, one hand drifting back to hover over the scroll. "I believe I gave you a copy when I signed up to take it." She looks to Rogue, knowing as well as anyone that Sting is Master in title alone—his twin handles all of the actual paperwork.
"You did," he confirms, frown deepening when he realizes what his friend is planning to do. "Sting, I hardly think—"
"Give 'em here," he requests, holding out a gloved hand. "I'll do it for you."
A look of stark affront crosses the young woman's face. "I beg your pardon, Master, but I am perfectly capable—"
"Never said you weren't," he insists, willing himself not to flush at the attention everyone is paying this exchange. Damn guild is too nosy for its own good. "I've got another job for you."
"Sting—" Rogue tries to interject, but Sting silences him with a sharp look.
"Yukino," he says as gently as he can—which isn't really all that gentle, but more of a quiet kind of coarseness—he turns his gaze back to the mage, who watches him warily. "I know how badly you want to help Lucy. So just go. Catch the next train to Magnolia and just…do what you can." He tries not to fold under Yukino's appraising stare. He's a Slayer for god's sake. He can trade blows with two of the toughest wizards in all of Fiore, but can't handle the judgment of one stellar spirit mage? Pathetic.
After a moment of silence, she blows out a heavy breath, her shoulders sagging as she drops her gaze. "Master, I would, but I've already personally reached out to the family that put out the job, and I simply can't—"
"I'll take care of it," he cuts her off, making her look up in surprise. He leans forward—further into her personal space—and can feel Rogue's crimson gaze boring holes into the side of his head. "Seriously, Yukino. This…thing with Lucy. It's eating you alive." He flexes the fingers of his offered hand. "Leave the job to me, and go see her for yourself. Put your mind at ease." He arches a knowing eyebrow. "I've got a feeling she'll take any company she can get right about now."
She studies him closely, her expression drawn and guarded—he can read the minute shifts in an opponent's stance, but he can't figure out her fucking face sometimes—before a small, soft smile tilts her lips.
"I'm very particular about my promises, Master," she reminds him, the teasing lilt to her voice belied by the serious look she levels at him. She hands over the job information with an arched brow.
He flashes her a toothy grin, accepting the scroll. "Good thing I've got a perfect record," he replies.
"I have multiple forms of documentation that would argue that statement," Rogue cuts in dryly, earning an annoyed look from the Master. The Shadow Dragon Slayer just shrugs, predictably unbothered as he scratches out Yukino's name and writes in Sting's on the guild's master list. "What? You think that business in the mountains last year constitutes as perfect?"
Sting turns towards his partner fully, more than ready to argue that maybe the mountains shouldn't have been right where he'd decided to aim his Holy Breath, but Yukino's quiet laughter stops him dead in his tracks. He glances up to see her covering her mouth with a hand, but he can just see the edges of a smile behind it.
"Thank you, Sting," she tells him quietly. "Really."
His face heats up like he's in combat with Natsu, and he just manages a stiff nod.
"'Course," he says roughly, stuffing the job details in his back pocket. "Don't mention it." He turns away before he can say anything stupid. "Lector! Let's go!"
"Sure thing!" The Exceed leaps down from where he'd been eagerly watching the exchange between Master and Celestial mage. "Where to?"
"Margaret Town," Sting answers. He glances over at Rogue. "Watch the Guild, yeah?"
Rogue looks up from his paperwork to treat Sting to what is perhaps the most dubious look the White Dragon Slayer has ever seen.
"Enjoy your five hour train ride," is all his twin says, the barest hint of a smirk playing at his lips before he drops his gaze once more.
"Sorry the place is a bit of a mess," Lucy apologizes again.
"It's fine, really," Yukino assures the other woman, carefully stepping over a moving box. "Though, just out of curiosity, how long have you been planning on moving?"
So caught up in her appraisal of Lucy's half-packed house—she makes a mental note to offer Libra's services when it comes time to move it all—Yukino misses the look of blatant unease that crosses Lucy's face before she pulls herself together.
"Oh, you know," Lucy manages a small shrug. "It's just one of those things. You just kinda wake up one day and decide it's time."
Yukino nods politely, graciously following her hostess' lead and denying to question if the departure of a certain Fire Dragon Slayer had anything to do with her decision.
"Naturally," the elegant stellar spirit mage replies. "It's a bit sad though. This is such a lovely house."
Lucy's lips twitch in what could have been a smile. "Yeah," she says, a wistful tone coating her words. "It's done pretty well for me."
Realizing she's going to lose Lucy to her memories if she doesn't move the conversation along, Yukino hurries on. "So, do you have a new place picked out? I imagine it's still relatively close to the Guild. Or are you moving into Fairy Hills?" Her tone drips nonchalance, but secretly she hopes she's right. The company of her guild mates is precisely what Lucy needs right now. She's a bit cross none of them are here now, if she's being honest. She wonders if a trip to their Guild Hall is out of place.
Lucy goes absolutely still at Yukino's words, freezing in the act of moving towards the kitchen, her eyes going wide.
"Lucy?" Alarmed, Yukino moves swiftly to her side. "Lucy, what's wrong?" She places a delicate hand on the blonde's shoulder, worried.
"Of course," Lucy mutters through stiff lips, eyes still wide and unfocused. She chuckles weakly, shaking her head. "I…I guess I just assumed everyone already knew, but…" she trails off, and Yukino moves to stand in front of her, forcing their eyes to meet.
"You assumed everyone knew what, Lucy?" she asks, apprehension unfolding itself in the pit of her stomach. She has a horrible feeling she's already guessed it, and her eyes instinctively flash to the guild mark on the back of the other woman's hand.
Lucy looks up and their gazes clash. Yukino swallows at the tears that shine in her friend's eyes.
"Haven't you heard?" her voice is watery and weak and thick with emotion. "Fairy Tail disbanded."
Yukino bites her lip, politely averting her gaze as Lucy wipes at her eyes. She feels the blonde tremble where her hand rests on her shoulder.
"Lucy…" Yukino whispers. "I'm so sorry, I had no idea."
"It's fine." The Sabertooth mage could scoff at such a blatant lie. "There's nothing to be done about it."
Silence settles uncomfortably in the room—both women wrapped up in their own thoughts.
"Where will you go?" Yukino asks softly. She longs to ask the question—she's prepared to get on her knees and beg for her friend to come back with her to Sabertooth and pledge herself—however temporarily—to their guild. Anything but wallow in loneliness.
"Crocus, I think," Lucy answers, and Yukino nods. At least she has a plan. That's a good sign. And the capitol is bustling with life. Yukino turns to gently lead Lucy into the kitchen, already calculating the best train routes to take from Sabertooth's guild to Crocus for their inevitable visits.
"That sounds lovely," she encourages, smiling as she settles Lucy down at one of the chairs. "Let me make you something to drink."
Lucy protests, but Yukino will hear none of it, and eventually the blonde accepts, stubbornly folding her arms across her chest as she watches Yukino move gracefully about the small kitchen.
Their idle chatter fills the room. Lucy asks about Sabertooth, and Yukino skillfully sidesteps all questions regarding the Guild's Master. Yukino in turns inquires about Lucy's new career plan, unsurprised to learn she has no intention of joining a new guild.
"Well, I'm sure you'll make a wonderful reporter," the pale-haired wizard eventually remarks as she hands Lucy a steaming mug. "Be sure to drop by Sabertooth—we often get snubbed by the papers because the reporters are too scared to approach us."
Lucy gives her a playful smile over the edge of her mug. "I can't imagine why that would be," she teases, and Yukino just laughs in return.
They fall into a companionable silence, and Yukino is just about to congratulate herself on a job well done, when Lucy sets her mug on the table, hugging her arms to her chest.
Yukino frowns. "Lucy? Is everything alright?"
But the other woman won't look her in the eye. "Yukino…you said you knew what had happened with…with Natsu—" Yukino feels her heart ache at the way Lucy struggles to articulate the name "—I was just wondering…how often our Spirits talk, I guess…" she trails off awkwardly, and Yukino sighs, knowing exactly what Lucy is getting at.
"I know about Aquarius, Lucy," she says gently.
The Fairy Tail wizard bites back a sob. "Really?" she says tightly, staring down at the floor. She chokes out a laugh. "Bunch of g-gossips, I guess. Don't have anything else to t-talk about."
She dissolves into tears, and Yukino hurries to embrace her. She holds the stellar spirit mage tightly, whispering words of comfort that she knows are empty and meaningless while Lucy manages to tell her tale amid the sounds of her misery.
She explains how she'd been down to her last scraps of strength—already holding two gates open—when she'd summoned a third. Aquarius had come through, because despite everything, she always came through when she was most needed. Lucy's voice catches when she explains the Water Bearer's plan. She tries to describe the pain of breaking a key, and Yukino holds her, hoping desperately she never has to experience such a thing.
"You did what you had to do, Lucy," Yukino whispers as her friend breaks down again. "You saved your guild."
"Yeah," Lucy chokes out. "And how d-do they thank me? They disband."
Yukino frowns with sympathy, knowing that cruelty is not in Lucy's nature. She's been pushed to her limit, and Yukino wishes she could help bring her friend back.
But the only person who can do that is currently on the other side of the continent, and so Yukino can only hold the other Celestial mage tightly, thoughts tinged with bitterness as she wonders where the rest of Lucy's family has gone. Mirajane, Gray, Levy, Erza, Gajeel, Juvia, Cana, Wendy. Didn't the Master consider those in his guild his children? Why weren't they here for her now?
"Why did he leave me?" Lucy whispers, voice faint and awash with tears. "Why? I wouldn't have gotten in the way. We've done tons of dangerous stuff before! Aren't…aren't partners supposed to grow together?" Another sob wracks her body. "He promised!"
Yukino rocks the other girl gently, brushing her hair back soothingly. "I'm sorry, Lucy," she says quietly. Her voice burns with grief for the Fairy Tail mage. "I'm so, so sorry."
Sting is waiting for her when she returns.
The Guild Hall is empty, and he sits alone at a bench, idly studying a piece of paper. It looks like a job flyer.
"It's late," she tells him quietly as she steps inside, carefully closing the door to the guild behind herself.
"It is," he agrees, leaning back to look at her. She approaches his table, cloak folded neatly over her arm as she glances at the flyer. She'd been right—it's an S-Class job.
He notices her interest. "You want it?" he asks. He'd been planning on bullying Rogue into coming with him tomorrow, but is fully prepared to surrender the job to her if she asks.
She shakes her head, expression hard. "No, thank you. I think I'm just going to turn in for the night." She pauses. "I was going to stay in one of the Guild's spare rooms, if that's alright. I don't quite feel like returning home."
He nods slowly, studying her in the darkness of the Guild Hall as he rises to his feet, listening to his joints crack as he stretches his arms. "'Course," he agrees easily. "I was headed there to."
They walk in silence across the large lobby of Sabertooth—Yukino leading at a steady pace, with Sting trialing behind, watching the way the moonlight spills in through the high-set windows and makes her hair shine like freshly spun silver.
"How did it go?" Sting asks eventually, frowning at the look of dark displeasure that has settled over the Celestial wizard's face.
"Lovely." The word is clipped and sharpened and Sting frowns at the coldness of her tone. "May I ask a favor, Master?"
"Sure," he replies, suddenly uneasy. She's shed her cloak, and he sees she's tensed and taut—her shoulder blades standing out like knives along her back. "What is it?"
Her hands curl into fists as she stops walking, keys clinking together where they're clipped to her belt.
"Grant me the pleasure of educating Natsu Dragneel on what it means to break a promise to a Celestial Spirit wizard." Her voice is fierce wicked, and Sting feels his eyebrows rise in surprise.
The Slayer immediately knows she doesn't mean it—Yukino doesn't have a vengeful bone in her body—but she stands there, all but shaking with the force of her anger, and he can't stop himself when he reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder.
"We'll look after her, Yukino," he promises lowly. "You, me, Rogue, Orga, Rufus. Hell, I'll even make Minerva." She turns to look up at him, looking so small and frail, and he gives her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Nothing will happen to her as long as Sabertooth is around. I promise you."
They simply stare at each other. They have nothing left to say—except everything, of course, but neither can quite find the words—and Sting tries not to flinch when she lifts her hand to settle it over his where he still grips her shoulder.
"I'd like to change my request, if I may," she asks softly.
Sting nods, not quite trusting himself to speak.
"Promise me you will never disband the guild," she whispers, and if it weren't for his dragon's sense of hearing, he knows her words would have been swallowed by the darkness.
Thrown by her request, Sting blinks in surprise. "Of course not, Yukino," he says, his tone leaking concern. What had brought this on? "I'd never do that. I'd never let anyone do that."
She nods slowly, tears glittering like crystals on her cheeks.
"Good," she says quietly. "Good."
It isn't until tomorrow morning—when he and Rogue are stepping off of the train after taking a quick detour to get some answers out of the Fairies, still groggy with motion sickness and squinting against the high Magnolia sun, ears twitching when he hears Lector's sharp gasp and his eyes settle over the empty space where the proudest guild in Fiore used to stand—that Sting appreciates Yukino's request.
"I don't believe it," Rogue says quietly, looking dazed. He steps forward, black cloak swirling at his ankles as his crimson gaze sweeps the ruins. "I never thought…"
Frosch whimpers quietly, tugging at Rouge's pant leg, and the Slayer stoops to pick him up, unable to look away from the emptiness.
"Wow," Lector mutters from his spot on Sting's shoulder. "Do you think Natsu knew about this?"
Sting lets his gaze travel over the gaping hole in the ground, jaw tight, hands fisted tightly at his sides.
"Don't know," he mutters back. "Doubt it."
It's a cycle, he muses—some kind of bizarre clockwork. When Fairy Tail falls, Sabertooth rises again. As one match of Celestial Mage and Dragon Slayer drift apart, another draws closer. He shakes his head. He doesn't want to think about it.
"C'mon," he says, turning to leave and listening as Rogue follows. They set off through the town.
"We should request to have Fairy Tail's jobs sent to us," Rogue suggests as they walk. "I imagine it will take some time for news to spread, and people will keep sending them jobs. Legally, we're the next strongest guild."
Sting nods. "Yeah, we'll do that."
Rogue arches a knowing eyebrow at the Master's curt tone. "There is nothing more we can do, Sting," he reminds his twin. "The others have clearly moved on, Natsu is doubtlessly halfway across the continent by now, and Lucy will sooner die than join another guild."
Sting huffs out an irritated breath. "I wanted to be like them," he muses bitterly. "Sabertooth, I mean. I was trying to model our guild after theirs, but…" he trails off. "So much for that."
"Fairy Tail will return, Sting," Rogue tells him lowly as they turn the corner. A few citizens watch them, clearly surprised at the presence of the two Slayers. Sting lifts a hand in greeting, and Rogue inclines his head.
"They'd better," Sting grumbles back. "Next time I see Natsu, I'm not gonna hold back."
Rogue snorts. "If anything, you should take up some training too. He's going to be much stronger when he returns."
"Good," Sting cracks his knuckles, and Lector grins. "I look forward to it."
Privately, he wonders if that's the destiny of their guilds. For one to always be rising, and one always falling. There has to be a way for them to coexist together. He can't let Sabertooth go back to that dark place they'd worked so hard to pull themselves out of.
Because unlike other Slayers, he doesn't break promises to stellar spirit mages.
So here is a small little thing I wrote because I don't think I'll ever be over what happened to Lucy. Girl took so much shit and never got any credit for it. Also nobody in canon knows about Aquarius still and that honestly hurts me.
I like to think that Yukino totally knows what went down at the end of the Tartaros arc. Somebody has to.