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CHAPTER 30

Acock

Knocked over, defeated, astounded, suddenly surprised.


Sting sighed as he dropped his meager bag of things onto the bed. Yukino had insisted that Sting and Rogue stay with them after the news they're received from Jellal. News that still had him reeling.

Hearing that Natsu had gotten tangled up with the Heartfilia Heiress to find them was bizarre enough, but the rest beggared belief. Jellal had kindly allowed them to contact his girlfriend, and through her Wendy, and the news was shocking.

After their somewhat tearful reunion Wendy had gleefully told them all about how Lucy had helped Natsu search for them at the risk of her own reputation and her father's company. That alone had surprised them considering what Natsu had been trying to do the last time they'd seen the heiress, but to find out she'd been invited to join the nest had shocked both of them speechless.

Everything after had been a series of nearly impossible to believe events. Except, he'd learned when he was a hatchling that one should never assume something was impossible around Natsu. His drakes both had a way of making the impossible happen, and it seemed Fairy Tail had that habit too.

And Wendy's stories about Levy were no less fantastic. It seemed both his brothers had found their queens and absolutely nothing would be the same ever again.

Their own news about their imprisonment and their subsequent escape was considerably less than welcome. Jellal's eyes had narrowed at his description of Acnologia and the sheriff had questioned them carefully about what they knew of their ancient brother and what was driving him. He hadn't shared his thoughts, but Sting suspected the man was putting together a number of disparate pieces into a whole no one else could see.

At least it meant they would see Wendy again soon.

The redhead, Erza he thought her name was, and the man with her had agreed that there was little more they could accomplish on their own with this information and would return to Magnolia as soon as they'd updated Gajeel and Natsu with the news.

A light tap at the door pulled his attention from his thoughts and he thudded down onto the single wooden chair. He looked up, the faint but familiar scent of flowered water from the crushed petals Yukino put in her baths drifted up from near the door.

It put a smile on his face, and he would probably always associate her with the crispness of water and it's healing touch.

After all, how could he imagine anything different when that was how they first met?

"Come on in Yuki," Sting drawled, not even bothering to hide his grin when she huffed in annoyance.

She pushed open the door, an eyebrow raised and hands on her hips. Sting noted she looked freshly bathed if the dampness in her hair meant anything, "how did you know?"

Sting grinned wider and shrugged off his outer vest. He gave Yukino a rakish smirk, "Now where would be the fun in tellin'?"

He winked, "Though I suppose it could be coaxed outta me."

Yukino shot him an amused look, "And just what would your price for that information be sir?" She asked teasingly as she stepped inside, absently swinging the door shut behind her, "Nothin' too steep I hope?"

Sting purred a little at the way her hips swayed as she approached him and felt his blood heat with a burn that had become all too familiar since meeting her, "Depends on what you're plannin' to use as currency miss."

He watched her with undisguised interest, "Don't wanna take the wrong kind after all."

Yukino bit back a laugh at that as she crawled into his lap. This was how it always was with him. One part openly hungry for her and the other part pure gentleman. It was a delightful contradiction, and she would never get enough of it.

"I wanted to see how you were doing." She admitted as she gave him a soft kiss, "You got an awful lot of shocks today an' I was a little worried."

Sting sighed and curled his arms around her, burying his nose in her damp hair, "It's a lot." He agreed after a moment, "I'm still digestin' it." He smiled a little as he pulled back, "But y'know, as surprisin' as it is maybe it's not a bad thing."

He caressed her cheek gently, "I found out I was wrong about humans. Some humans anyway. Seems Natsu and Gajeel learned the same. An' found their queens in the process. That can only be good for the nest."

Yukino nodded, "Where will you go from here?" She asked softly, quietly dreading his answer would be back to normal, but to her surprise he shrugged.

"No idea." He admitted, "Natsu an' Gajeel are the drakes. I follow their lead. If that lead is back to what we've always done then that's where I'll go." He cocked his head thoughtfully, "I don't think it will go that way though. It's hard to go back to what you knew before when things have changed right before your eyes."

He met her gaze quietly, his hand raising to brush over her cheek, "Besides, I got my own reasons for wantin' change."

Yukino blushed a shade of pink so pretty, Sting felt his heart lift so light he thought he would float off with her in his lap.

Her arms settled around his shoulders, eyes roaming over her suddenly shy smile.

"Oh yeah?" She asked, her cheeks staying that stubborn pink, "what're those?"

He grinned back at her, his hands dropping to her waist to support her upper body when he leaned in for a kiss. His mouth pressed against hers, so gentle and sweet he felt as if he could die from that alone.

His fingers scraped over the curve of her waist and he grinned at her.

"I'm going to give you a single hint," He breathed over her lips. Yukino melted into him.

This time when he kissed her, Yukino responded in kind, obviously prepared and not one to take anything lying down.

It even took Sting by surprise when her hands suddenly pressed back into his chest, tipping the tiny chair they both sat on back on its rear legs. It squealed and creaked in protest from the Motion, causing Yukino to break away with a giggle.

"I find I like that reason," She laughed.

Sting flailed a little as he tried not to overbalance the chair and send them both tumbling to the floor, much to Yukino's continued amusement. He shot her a pout as he righted them, but it quickly morphed into a mischievous grin.

"Feeling frisky tonight are we?" He purred as he scooped her up and bounced her onto the bed, quickly following after, "I should warn you about what can happen to naughty queens."

Yukino giggled and sat up a little to pull him into a bold kiss, "I'd like to see you try."

Sting felt his chest swell a little in pride at her answer. She'd already been a very capable woman, but he liked the confidence and boldness he'd seemed to coax out of her. Even if she only displayed it like this to him he was proud she was comfortable enough with him to do so.

He growled softly in approval and trailed his hands gently over her curves, silently asking for permission before descending on her.

Oh yes. She was worth changing their nest for.

He just hoped his drakes agreed with him.

-::-

Not far away Jellal stared grimly down at the small man perched on the bar with an ale in his hand.

"Are you sure about this?" The man asked, cracking an eye open to stare up at him shrewdly.

"As positive as I can be given the information I have Master Makarov." Jellal replied quietly, "A man matching Sting and Rogue's description has been seen around town. Most often in the company of Anna Heartfilia."

"That does put a disturbing light on it." Makarov sighed, "I've never much cared for Jude, but Lucy's become family, and she loves her aunt dearly." He shook his head a little as he scanned an eye over those still at the bar, "Very well. We'll help you find this Acnologia. If he's as bad as you say then you'll need all the help you can get."

Jellal nodded, his expression grim and considering. He didn't want to think that anyone who was close to Anna would do anything terrible, but he had to think more like a lawkeeper.

If there was a chance Anna was in trouble and he ignored it, only for something terrible to happen, he would never forgive himself. Nor would Lucy for that matter. It would take some observing to be sure, as he was not a fan of incriminating a man for appearances alone. He just hoped the man left behind enough evidence if he was guilty. He seemed harmless enough, but he had long since learned not to trust on sight alone.

"Thank you for your assistance Fairy Tail, I'll keep you informed of anything if I get more information." He said formally and nodded to Makarov, who made a grumpy noise into his tankard.

He nodded once at Makarov in goodbye, backing away to the door and slipping out undetected.

Mostly.

Jellal unfortunately wasn't the only one who was keeping an eye out.

Ever since Acnologia had planned his attack on Hades and Zancrow, the unsuspecting sheriff also found himself being carefully watched.

The eavesdropping dragon backed away with a growl, slinking through the alleyway behind the bar and out of sight.

He was not happy to learn that his brothers had decided to tell stories enough to identify him, even vaguely, but he supposed he shouldn't be surprised. They'd spent more than two hours in the sheriff station, and that was just what he knew of.

Unfortunately, that meant he would have to move his plans up if he was going to have any hope of capturing his brothers and escaping before he was positively identified. And this would certainly complicate his plans for waiting until the rest of his siblings came into range.

Perhaps it was time to go spy on his brothers for a while.

He would have to take care that Rogue didn't detect him, but while he was willing to admit the hatchling was good, he wasn't a master of their element just yet. As long as he was careful he should be fine.

With that thought in mind he melted back into the shadows, but the twisting guilt in his heart gnawed at him as he did.

The guilt that doing this would change everything, and he would get what he wanted so badly while Anna...

The thought alone made him cringe, and for the first time he wondered if he should really follow through with his plans.

A world without Anna felt as bad as a world without his nest, and... well... his father might be something of a bastard, but he couldn't help wondering what his brothers and sisters would say if they knew what he was planning.

He rather suspected Freya's reaction would involve fireballs.

Not that he didn't already expect that. But he was willing to do anything, prepared to sacrifice all in the hopes of spending just one more day with his family.

He knew everything would change once he did this.

Regardless of his wants and desires, Anna deserved more than a man stained in as much blood and darkness as he was. She was a child of the stars after all, and no matter what the path set before them, he believed one day she would be reborn.

Not in any time he could ever know her, but perhaps the new one would be a happier one for her.

Guilt somewhat settled, Acnologia settled himself in to plan.

He had to take care of his brothers before they caused any more trouble for him.

-::-

Unaware of the scheming in Magnolia, Lucy took a moment away from the prying eyes of her friends to pen a short message to her father to keep him informed of the happenings in her life. He was still working closely with Jellal, but Lucy was afraid to reveal too much over a letter.

A trap had been sprung for them in Hargeon, and now they were exercising more caution.

The reveal that Acnologia and possibly even Zeref had eyes on them from one end of the west to the other was unnerving. Granted, Levy had pointed out that they hadn't exactly been the most subtle in their path of destruction.

And really that was an excellent way of describing it if the smoking wreckage of Hades' manor was anything to go off.

It was a moment that made her cringe more than a little on reflection. They'd been both cocky and woefully unprepared despite their attempts at caution. The lack of information had nearly seen them walking straight into a situation they would've been hard pressed to get out of.

This time she was not going to let that happen.

She'd already put Mest in contact with her father and Jellal after he'd given them what information he'd been able to find in his investigation of the train so far. Hopefully the information sharing would help them put together a whole picture at last.

She feared it wouldn't though. She wasn't sure why, but she was certain they were missing something else. Something huge.

It was frustrating, but without more information she simply couldn't guess what it was.

At least they'd gleaned something useful out of this mess. Mest and his knights had been able to find out from the thugs they'd captured that the future slaves were being transported into the mountains around Hakobe. Their captives hadn't been able to give them the exact location, but they'd gotten a good general area to search.

It was better than nothing. And so far their best lead to where Natsu's brothers might be.

Lucy's lacrima chimed at that moment, jolting her out of her contemplation, and she looked down at it in mild surprise before setting her pen down and picking it up.

"Lucy here." She responded, and was greeted by a broadly grinning Wendy, and a rather more grim looking Erza and Gray.

"Lucy!" Wendy exclaimed, "You're not going to believe this! Sting and Rogue escaped Tartaros!"

The words hung in the air for a long moment before finally sinking in, and when they did she surged to her feet, inadvertently slamming her hand down on her desk, "They did WHAT?"

"Wait no!" Lucy gushed out in a second and fluttered a hand, "Just a second!"

She sprang to the door and ripped it open, rushing across the hallway to where Gajeel, Levy and Natsu were gathered. She burst into the middle of what looked like an arm wrestling match over a discarded game of cards.

Levy, looking bored, still had a few cards in her hand and was merely waiting patiently for the men to finish their measuring competition.

But she set them down when Lucy burst in, her cheeks red and hair falling into her face. Natsu looked up, his mouth falling open in faint surprise, only for Gajeel to take advantage of his distraction and slam his hand into the table with enough force to send the cards fluttering to the floor.

"I win Salamander," Gajeel smirked, ignoring Natsu's spitting swears and growls.

Nursing his abused wrist, Natsu looked up at his frazzled queen and tilted his head, "Lucy, what's the matter?"

He rose halfway out of his chair when she shoved the lacrima in her hand at him, his sister's happy shining face glowing out at him.

"Wendy!" He exclaimed with a broad smile and rushing up to his feet the rest of the way. Gajeel was just a step behind him, both men leaving the table in absolute tatters.

Levy heaved a put upon sigh but stood up and brushed off her skirts and leggings.

"Hey guys!" Wendy gushed happily, "Oh you're not going to guess what we just found out!" She paused a moment, no doubt to build suspense as her brothers shoved at each other to both be seen, "Sting and Rogue escaped!"

There was a moment of silence where Lucy was sure you could hear a pin drop, and then Natsu and Gajeel let out simultaneous shouts of joy and excitement before trying to talk over each other as they demanded details.

"Would you two cut it out?" Lucy demanded fiercely, pinching both of them by the ear, "She can't tell us anything if you won't let her talk!"

"Lucy's right." Levy spoke up as Gajeel looked like he might protest, and smiled excitedly at their sister, "So what happened?"

"It's a grim tale." Erza spoke up with a frown, "It seems your brothers are being held on an airship. Based on the description I would guess it's the one belonging to Grimoire Heart."

"According to Sting they all broke out together, but Laxus and Cobra stayed behind to cover him and Rogue so they could get away." Wendy continued, "They don't know what happened after that, but figure they were probably captured again."

"So wait... how'd the twins get in touch with you to tell you all this?" Natsu asked in confusion, and to his surprise Wendy giggled.

"They got rescued out in the desert." She replied, "By Sorano's sister of all people. You should see her guys! She's so pretty!" She clasped her hands together with a happy sigh, "And nice! Sting says she's much nicer to her spirits than Sorano was. Like Lucy. I think he might be wanting her as his queen actually..."

Natsu and Gajeel blinked at their sister and then at each other, "There somethin' in the water we don't know about?"

Natsu shrugged as Erza sighed a little, "As you may know, Sorano is one of Jellal's deputies. Once the twins were recovered from their ordeal in the desert she brought them to Magnolia to make contact with Jellal who contacted us. We're heading back there now."

"Deputy?" Natsu gawked at her. The last time they had seen Sorano, they were robbing her blind of her keys, "She's the law now?"

"And she's helping our brothers?" Natsu's jaw nearly hung off his face.

"Magnolia is a good place for fresh starts. For anyone," Lucy said with a gentle smile that had a slow smile starting over his face.

"Maybe," Gajeel allowed, his hands settling at his hips, "But considerin' our history with that particular woman, I'm surprised she ain't throwin' those two morons under a wagon."

"Or draggin' them by a couple of horses," Natsu added with a grim wince.

Levy raised an eyebrow at the two bandits and rubbed her fingertips to her temples, "Mavis give me strength and patience."

"Ignoring what you all did to her to make her have that sort of reaction," Lucy sighed, giving their deadpanned expressions an annoyed look, "we should be grateful for the hospitality they've been given. They're heading to Magnolia now, so if we meet up with them we might be able to put our heads together to fill in what's missing to find your brothers!"

Natsu grinned at her and nodded. He could tell Lucy was irritated by the lack of remorse they had for taking Sorano's keys, but Lucy didn't know what they had done or why. And perhaps Sorano had changed for the better, but he doubted she could fully win over the contracts of her old spirits now that they were freed.

They did need a new home once all this was over...

His eyes skittered over to Lucy, his fingers curling into his scarf.

In all the chaos, he had almost forgotten what had brought him and Lucy together initially. Finding Draco.

He doubted Lucy would open a door to the stars for them even if they managed to provide her with all the keys she would need. It went against her celestial contracts.

His eyes followed over Lucy, her cheeks rosy and expression somewhat annoyed. His lips turned up into a smile at her pout and he reached up to poke at her cheek, "None of that miss Lucy, we'll be good boys an' behave for ya."

Lucy huffed and swatted at his finger, "Somehow I doubt that." She drawled, "In any event, let's get goin'." She shot Erza, Wendy, and Gray a smile, "Thanks for letting us know. We should be back in Magnolia by this time tomorrow even if we move slowly."

"We'll meet you there then." Erza nodded, "Be careful Lucy. This is getting more serious by the moment."

Lucy frowned and nodded as the lacrima went dark. Things were certainly heating up, and not in a good way. If they'd already had one jail break then that had to mean Zeref and Acnologia were on high alert, and would be eager to recapture the escaped dragons as well as get their hands on the ones remaining.

Having them converge on Magnolia could be as dangerous for them as for the enemy.

Unfortunately, she didn't see a way around it currently. The lacrima were too limited to have everyone on at the same time, and they urgently needed the information swap that could only be accomplished by having everyone together. They would just have to be very careful.

And when this was over, she fully intended to have a sharp word or ten with Natsu and his family about stealing celestial keys.

That was for later though. For now, they needed to get going. It seemed her letter to her father would have to wait. At least she would be able to get him back up to speed once they got there.

She glanced at Levy, "We might as well get going. We can get a full half day in if we leave now."

Levy nodded, "I'll settle up the bill an' get some supplies organized."

"And I'll get started packing." Lucy responded, "Luckily there's not much."

Relatively speaking anyway. Natsu had developed a habit of stripping her out of her clothes as soon as they were alone, and that tended to lead to them being scattered everywhere.

Natsu followed Lucy back to help her pick up their room while Gajeel moved to do the same with his and Levy's.

His trend was heavy as he followed her in, kicking the door closed behind him. Natsu raised an eyebrow and grinned at the way she kept giving him irritated glares.

"Awe miss Lucy, you still mad about our little history with Sorano?" Natsu wheedled as he dropped the pack on the bed. Idly he reached over to a lantern fixture on the wall and plucked a set of Lucy's bloomers from it. He gave them a fond look before dropping them into the bag.

Lucy's cheeks burned but she retaliated by throwing a pillow at his head, "I'm certainly not happy!"

Natsu squeaked out a protest when he caught the pillow with his face.

"How many other keys have you taken from people?" Lucy asked, her jaw tightening with displeasure.

Natsu gaped at her for a moment, but pulled the pillow off his face.

"This been buggin' you for a while Luce?" Natsu asked, his eyebrow ticking, "You knew my family and I are thieves."

He sighed and dragged a hand through his hair. He'd known that this would come back up. Eventually. There was really no pushing it off either considering he had attacked her when they first met. It was past time they settled this completely.

"You know why we targeted people with keys. We wanted to find our pa," He said slowly, not wanting to fight with her over this, "But if that were the end all be all, I wouldn't have stopped until I had gotten your keys Lucy."

He breathed out a puff of air and stretched back, consideringly.

"You, and even apparently Miss Yukino are part of a dying breed of celestial wizards. Sorano in particular didn't value her spirits and abused them," Natsu eyed her, "The western stars are our relatives, no matter how distant. And I don't feel even a lick sorry for takin' the keys we have."

He reached out and gently took her hand, "What I do feel sorry about is attackin' you. Got so used to not needin' proof I almost made a bad mistake." He grinned a little, "Not that it mattered, since you kicked my ass anyway princess."

"But Lucy, I am sorry I attacked and scared ya," Natsu met her eyes, "I don't want to do that anymore."

Lucy stared at him hard for a long moment before deflating with a sigh as she dropped down next to him, "I didn't really think you would. I just... when I realized..."

Natsu nodded and curled his arms around her and squeezed gently, "I know." He replied, "An' I don't blame you." He pulled back a little, "But even though your keys, and Miss Yukino's keys, are safe this ain't something we can just let go either."

"Maybe not." Lucy replied, "But it's also not your place to take those keys." She looked up at him, "I won't argue that something has to be done. Abusing spirits is wrong, and against the ancient contracts first agreed upon by the first celestial wizards and the spirits that contracted to them. Those contracts are binding to this day Natsu, and even if they don't directly apply to you it could still cause problems."

She laid her finger over his lips when he opened his mouth to respond, "Hush. It's my turn. Even if you and your family found a way to wiggle around those terms, it's still not your place to remove keys from someone. It's mine. And Yukino's. And every other celestial wizard's. That's our agreement. We would ensure that if a wizard ever abused his or her keys then the abuser would have their keys removed from them and be punished accordingly."

She met his eyes intently, "That's what we agreed to when my ancestor first met with the Celestial Spirit King. And it's an agreement I fully intend to honor. But I can't do that if you guys act independently. We've already seen that sometimes your facts are wrong, and I can't abide keys being taken from perfectly innocent people who love their spirits. I just can't."

Natsu's expression had slowly turned thoughtful as she'd spoken, and when she removed her finger he sighed a little and ran his fingers through his hair again.

"I can't fault that." He admitted after a long moment, "Much as I wanna find pa, he'd have our scales if we did that even by accident." He met her gaze seriously, "But Lucy, I promise there hasn't been anyone before you that wasn't truly deservin' of having them taken."

Lucy noticed he'd carefully avoided saying just how many times they'd done that, but decided not to call him on it. He'd promised, and that was enough evidence for her. She smiled a little and leaned over to kiss him softly.

"Alright then. We'll leave it at that. Maybe once this is over we can work out a system to alert us of problems before they get so bad, and get it taken care of right away. Would that suit?"

Natsu closed his eyes, his fingertips grazing across the curve of Lucy's cheek. He memorized the softness of it under his calloused touch, her sweet smile curving into his palm.

Dipping forward, he breathed out shakily and closed his eyes. It was difficult to take what Lucy said and absorb it. After all, they had different ways of handling their business for a long time.

"I can't promise you that my family and I will stop what we've been doing," Natsu opened his eyes and dipped his forehead against hers, "If Celestial Wizards had been policing one another like they agreed to so long ago, then my family wouldn't have had to go out and take keys from bad people in the first place."

"It hasn't been perfect, and the spirits we have still need to have new homes found for them eventually," Natsu admitted, "I can give you my word though. If you promise to help us find a way to protect the spirits in accordance to the old contract, my family will honor it and help."

"I trust your word Lucy, above anyone else's," He gave her an earnest look, the heat and ferocity behind it stunning.

He looked away after a moment, his expression somewhat guarded. Lucy could see the nerves twisting over his face.

"Fighting is what I'm good at," Natsu grinned crooked, but his eyes were still distant as he stared across the room, "Doesn't feel like my family and I have been doing much fighting though."

"Lately it's been feelin' more like running," he risked a glance at her.

He turned his gaze towards his knees, and Lucy could see his fingers shaking just a hair. Her hand crept over to settle on top of his.

"Lucy," he murmured, glancing at her, "D'ya think when this is all over...?"


Muahahahahahahaha! Yes! Enjoy our little cliffy! Alas, you guys did not hit the 30 mark for reviews so there will be no preview this chapter. However, I wanna say thank you to everyone who DID review for us! As always you guys make us smile. I hope you all enjoyed the chapter and we'll see you Wednesday!