It was as he was losing his final hand at the casino they were planning to rob that Sting began to wonder exactly how far the fall from the seventh floor truly was, and whether or not he could survive it.
He held back a wince as Rogue kicked his shin under the card table, giving him a very familiar look that said if you don’t stop fucking around, we’re going to get caught, and then we’re going to die horribly and it’ll all be your fault.
Sting glanced down at his hand. Rogue and the other players had folded long ago, leaving Sting to muddle through while pretending he knew what he was doing. Wicked Sisters wasn’t his forte, but he had several cards literally up his sleeve and was hopeful that he could fumble a win out of this hand. That was, if a surety officer didn’t catch him and haul him off to the Ashgate.
“King’s Grace,” his opponent said, dropping his hand on the table with a flourish. The man’s name was Giovenzio, and he was portly and had the typical fair complexion of the people of Hargeon. Sting could tell that the man’s hair was false as it was sitting slightly off center on his head.
Sting looked at the hand Giovenzio had played. It was one of the highest in the game, which left Sting at somewhat of a disadvantage as his own hand was shit. He groaned internally. He had to win this game – it was the only way to move to the eighth floor. The Sinspire had a very particular set of rules about who could and couldn’t play on each floor, and if they wanted to rob this place, they needed to get to the top.
You’re up, Sting signed subtly at Rogue, flicking his fingers in the Thieves’ Cant. I’m fucked up the arse. Rogue’s lip twitched in a nearly imperceptible smile – he'd been drinking all night for this very reason. He leaned forward unsteadily onto the table and very purposefully knocked over his glass of wine.
“Zounds, I am so sorry,” he said, immediately jumping from his seat and grabbing a napkin to blot out the mess. He stepped sideways, his fake stumble purposefully blocking Sting’s hands. “One too many glasses,” Rogue said, faking a hiccup and gesturing at the cup. “Should’ve stopped at four.”
Sting exchanged his cards from his sleeve quickly, making sure they were replaced in the pocket that Gray had sewn into the interior of the double-folded fabric. It wouldn’t do good to have the staff finding the switched-out cards under the table the next day.
“Sir, let me handle this.” The dealer was leaning over now, taking the napkin from Rogue’s hands and summoning over someone to clean up the mess. At the same time, Sting leaned back, giving Giovenzio an apologetic smile.
“Please pardon my friend,” Sting said, placing a hand on Rogue’s shoulder and pointing to his seat. “I’m starting to think he has a problem.” Rogue had floated between tipsy and drunk the last week they’d been here, earning himself a reputation.
“It is no inconvenience,” Giovenzio said, gesturing at Sting’s hand. “Will you play?”
Sting pretended to examine his cards for a moment, then gave Giovenzio a lazy smile as he dropped them on the table.
“Devil’s Tempest.” He smirked, leaning back in his chair. The hand he’d dropped was the highest in the game, and incredibly difficult to get. There was only one Eye in the deck, and Sting prayed that the man didn’t ask to examine the remaining cards. It was a gamble, but so far being flashy had paid off.
“A fair win,” Giovenzio said, nodding his head and gesturing to the pile of square tokens in the center of the table. “And you move upwards, then? Care for another hand to let an old man reclaim his pride?”
“I would normally be delighted, sir,” said Sting as he grabbed the tokens, dropping them into the tray that the dealer provided. “However, my complete arsehole of a friend here is being a bit of an embarrassment, so I should get him back to his quarters.” He helped Rogue stand and wrapped his partner’s arm around his shoulders.
“You... can go suck a—” Sting quickly covered Rogue’s mouth with one hand, smiling apologetically at Giovenzio.
“So sorry, excuse his behavior,” he said, bowing enough to make it seem respectful. “Bit of a tosspot, this one. Hope you all have a very lucky evening, thank you for your understanding.” Before anyone could say anything, they turned and walked away.
At the exchange table they handed over their tokens, and the bored-looking woman behind the counter sifted them into piles, then looked up at the two.
“Coin or credit?” She drawled. Sting pretended to consider the question, chewing on his lip thoughtfully.
“Well, we are supposed to be heading out the day after the morrow, but I think we can manage one more evening. Maybe we’ll make it to the top.” He gave the woman his most dazzling smile, which seemed to work. She nodded, scratching out a few numbers on a scrip of paper and stamping it with the casino’s seal. In addition, she handed them each a gold token, embossed with the number eight.
They turned and headed for the casino’s exit and the surety guard nodded for them to turn out their pockets, examined the signed scrip, and gestured for them to continue. The rest of the trip was short – the elevator took them down to ground level, and after that they continued their charade until they reached the harbor.
“Fantastic performance, darling,” Sting said, turning Rogue toward him and kissing him. He tasted like sweetwine and honey cakes. Rogue hummed against his lips, hands drifting to Sting’s waist and tugging him in. “Hmm, we going to engage in some three to one?” Sting ground his thigh against Rogue, who took in a stuttered breath.
“Not in public, you twit,” Rogue whispered, pulling apart. He glanced around nervously but it appeared they were alone. “I really am a bit mauled, five glasses is a lot.” He hiccuped again and Sting gazed at him fondly. The moonlight spilled onto Rogue’s hair, bathing it in silver, and Sting found himself overcome with affection. He placed a chaste kiss next to Rogue’s mouth, then another one on his forehead.
“Well, if you’re going to be a souse then I’d best take you home, eh?” Rogue giggled and leaned against Sting, turning to stare out over the sea. Several ships bobbed in the harbor and Sting could see the longing in Rogue’s eyes.
“Soon, darling,” he whispered, kissing Rogue’s ear. “We pull off this con and we’ll have enough coin to get a boat all of our own. We’ll sail wherever the wind takes us.” Rogue made a happy sound. “We’ll take off into the sunset, you and I, and we’ll never look back.”
“What about— hic — Natsu and Gray? And Erza?”
“Ah, fuck them, they can get their own ship,” Sting said, nuzzling Rogue’s hair. “Besides, I don’t want to have to listen to the two of them shaking the sheets when we’d have to share quarters.” Rogue snorted, turning to bury his face in Sting’s doublet.
“They’ve been listening to us for years,” he said mildly. “I doubt they’d want to share quarters either. Though you’re right, they’ve been louder than necessary. Prob’ly revenge.”
“Petty of them,” Sting commented, wrapping an arm around Rogue’s waist and turning him in the direction of their rooming house. “Glad they finally got it together though, Gray’s mooning was making me ill.”
“You’re such a peevish cunt,” Rogue sighed, letting Sting help him down the street. “But you’re also rather fetching so I suppose the first part can be forgiven.”
“Oi, you know you like my cunt,” Sting growled, grabbing Rogue’s hand and pressing it down between his legs. Rogue gasped, then grabbed his hand away, giggling and swatting at Sting.
“Why don’t we walk until I’m steady,” Rogue suggested, turning to kiss Sting on the jaw. “Then go back to the room and I’ll show you how much I like it.”
“Oi! Up, you lazy fucks!”
Sting groaned, blinking blearily and pushing himself up on his elbow. Natsu was standing in the door, already dressed in a linen shirt and breeches, grinning like an idiot and holding a mug of coffee.
“Fuck off, you twat,” Sting grumbled, dropping back into the pillows. Rogue was still sound asleep, snoring softly with his mouth open.
“It’s your head, then,” Natsu commented mildly, taking a sip of his drink. “Erza’s going to be here soon and you know how she feels about sleeping in.”
Sting swore, sitting up and throwing his pillow at Natsu, who dodged it expertly and headed back into the kitchen. “Ugh. Up, darling.” He shook Rogue’s arm and Rogue groaned, rolling over and squinting at Sting. “Erza’s coming.”
Rogue was instantly awake, sitting up and rubbing his eyes as Sting stood from the bed. Sting groaned, feeling a familiar tension and pain in his lower areas. He put a hand to his stomach, prodding at the area and sighing.
“Already?” Rogue asked, sitting up and pressing a kiss just below Sting’s navel. “Thought it was just a week or two past?” Sting exhaled shortly, shaking his head.
“Drink’s addling your head, darling,” he said, shifting uncomfortably. He crouched down next to his bag and rummaged around for a small vial, which he uncapped and downed in one go. “Perelandro’s balls, that’s horrible.” He caught Rogue’s look and sighed, adding, “but better than bleeding for a week.”
He stood, stretching and hoping the pain would pass – the tincture stopped the monthly, but it still ached when it came on. Grumbling, he opened one of the wardrobe drawers and began to dress. Rogue helped him with the linen piece that wrapped around and flattened his chest, which thankfully had never been that large to begin with. Gray had sewn the garment for him, with heavy double-folded linen at the front and softer fabric across his back.
Less than five minutes after being roused they were dressed and assembled in the kitchen, eating pastries that Natsu had brought from the bakery down the street.
Over the last month, Hargeon had become a familiar place. They’d fled Magnolia after Gray’s stunning prison break, not keen on being found by the watch again. Several inns and a drunken card game later, Natsu had come upon a challenge he hadn’t been able to resist. A safe, said to hold the key to a fortune, locked in the top of the tallest gambling house in Fiore and guarded by the most well-protected man in the Seven Seas.
So here they were, in a rooming house that was barely a step up from ‘mostly safe’, ready to rob said man blind.
“You made it to the eighth floor?” Natsu asked. Sting shrugged nonchalantly, idly playing with the stilettos hanging at his hips. He’d felt naked without them, and without his fighter’s leathers. Nobles’ clothing was tight, uncomfortable, and unnecessarily ostentatious.
“Rogue’s doing, really,” Sting said, leaning back against the wall. “He’s got quite the reputation now as the local souse, although he’d probably do well to go easy on the wine tonight.”
“Why, he couldn’t come aloft last night?” Gray teased from the kitchen. Rogue threw up a rude gesture, rolling his eyes.
“It that’s that case then Sting did an excellent job pleasuring himself,” Natsu said, winking. “Surprised you can walk this morning, really.”
“I’ll have to keep an eye out for which one of you two is limping later,” Sting replied, downing the rest of his coffee and handing the cup back to Gray, who tossed it in the sink.
“Usually we can tell if Natsu’s shouting ‘fuck me harder’ in Therin,” Rogue added. The comment managed to make Natsu look somewhat embarrassed. He was the only one of them who hailed from the north, with the darker complexion of their folk, instead of the other three’s fair Magnolian skin.
“llisc na hesnas, is it?” Sting grinned, raising an eyebrow. Natsu groaned and tipped his head back, then tossed the apple core he was holding at Sting’s face.
“Go fuck a hedge whore,” he grumbled, and Rogue burst out laughing, spraying bits of his pastry over the table. Natsu was about to grab Sting for a tussle when there were three sharp raps on the door, then a pause, another two, and a short whistle.
“Taskmaster’s here,” Natsu joked, unchaining the door and pulling it open to reveal Erza. Her distinctive red hair was tucked up under a cap and she was dressed much like them, in baggy breeches over leggings and a plain shirt. If you didn’t look too hard, she could almost pass as a young man.
“This fucking shithole needs to be burned to the ground,” she announced as she walked in, setting her bag on the ground with a clunk, and grabbing the last two pastries. Natsu looked like he was about to protest but she glared at him and he cowered back into the kitchen. “Everyone here is offensive.”
“I won’t argue with that,” Sting said, reaching out to Erza and sighing with relief as she allowed him to hug her. It was a gamble with her, and he occasionally ended up getting a fist to the ballocks. She looked like she needed it today, though. “Who do we need to send off to the Crooked Warden?”
“Just some lads down at the docks, but they’ve already learned their lesson.” Erza grinned and tapped the knives at her waist. Gray looked sick and Erza laughed. “I didn’t remove anyone’s plums, don’t worry. The threat of steel against them is enough for some.” They all shifted uncomfortably at the thought.
“Well, what’s the tidings?” Rogue asked eventually, voicing the question everyone was afraid to ask. Erza sighed, tugging off her cap and undoing her hair.
“Well, the good news is that we have a ship,” she said, grabbing a chair and sitting down backwards, arms resting against the back. “Nice one, too. Crew are bondsmen, happy to leave their captain behind.”
They all released a collective sigh of relief. All their planning and scheming and cheating their way up the tower would do them no good if they couldn’t get away.
“And the bad news?” Gray was unsettled by the way Erza looked at him, contemplative glint in her eye.
“Well,” she said slowly. “You are the... only one of us that’s bedded a woman, correct?” Gray choked on his coffee and set it down on the counter, wiping his mouth as Natsu patted him on the back.
“What does my... cavaulting have to do with any of this?” He could hear Sting snickering and he flipped him off. “I’m assuming you want me to do something that will be terribly entertaining for the rest of you?”
“You’re not wrong,” said Erza, a hint of a smile at the corner of her lips. “There’s a, uh, slight stumbling block in our plans.”
“What’s her name?” Sting asked, giggling. Gray contemplated putting him in a headlock to shut him up, but was distracted by Erza.
“Illandra, actually,” she said. Gray groaned. “Look, we won’t be able to get out of the harbor without papers unless she’s suitably... distracted. Or persuaded to look the other way.”
“And you want me to...” Gray scowled at Erza. ”Absolutely not,” he said, shaking his head. “I am not going... facemaking with some poor woman to convince her to let us leave. One of you can do it.”
“Well, none of us has much interest in the chapel of ease,” Sting said, still laughing. Gray turned and grabbed Sting by the front of his shirt, kicking a leg out in front of the other man’s knees. The momentum and surprise tossed Sting onto the floor, face-first, and Gray settled down nonchalantly on his back.
“Oi! You cockthistle!” Gray raised his eyebrows, grabbing the back of Sting’s head and pushing his face into the floor - not hard enough to truly hurt, but enough to be uncomfortable. “Get the fuck off!”
“Shut it,” Gray said mildly. “Adults are talking.” He sighed and looked up at the other three, who were wearing matching expressions of unsurprised amusement. “So, because I’m the only one of us who’s ever had a brush with a girl, I have to... persuade this Illandra to let us leave without papers?”
“Exactly,” Erza said and Gray sighed, rubbing his temples.
“She’ll be easily convinced,” Natsu added, winking at his partner. “Just do that thing with your tongue and th—”
“And that’s enough of that,” Gray said, cutting him off. He stood up and offered his hand to Sting. The younger man took it, grumbling the whole way up, but let Gray wrap an arm around him and plant an affectionate kiss to his cheek.
“Bastard,” Sting muttered, poking Gray in the ribs. Gray swatted his hand away good-naturedly.
“Ye gods,” Gray sighed, shaking his head. “The things I do for you arse-worms, honestly.” Natsu reached out and grabbed his hands, stepping forward and kissing him. Gray grumbled but returned the gesture. “Guess I’ve got no choice then. Everything else set?”
“We’re ready,” Sting said. “Rogue here threw up all his wine this morning and is ready to drink until he’s the admiral of the narrow seas.” He wrapped an arm around Rogue, who looked disgruntled.
“Maybe you should be the one getting flustered for once,” he muttered, rubbing his temples. “After this I’m not touching wine for the rest of my life.”
“It’s for the greater good, darling,” Sting said, grinning and pressing a kiss to Rogue’s hair. “But yes, we’ll be waiting for Natsu. This fortune had better be worth it.”
Erza nodded, then turned to Natsu, who was poking the bag that Erza had picked up and looking frighteningly pleased with himself.
“That was all from the alchemists. The other one’s your outfit. You’re ready, then?” she asked. Natsu grinned, reaching into the first bag and producing an enormous glass jar filled with what looked like bees. Instead of buzzing, they hovered lazily in the container.
“Why the fuck do you have bees?” Gray asked, glaring at his partner. Natsu shrugged, cheekily raising an eyebrow and turning the jar in his hands.
“Why not?” he said. Gray opened his mouth to reply, then shook his head.
“You know what? I don’t want to know.” He shook his head, glancing out the window at the late morning sun. “Come on. You and I need to get picked up.” He pointed at Natsu and gestured to the door. “And don’t bring the fucking bees.”
Erza left not long after Natsu and Gray, heading down to her separate room at the inn to get ready for her role in the heist. Rogue took some time to set out their showy clothes – he was starting to think that Natsu had spent more money on this theft than they were going to make - then turned to see Sting standing by the window, arms crossed over his chest.
“What’s wrong, love?” Rogue walked over and wrapped his arms around Sting’s waist, nuzzling his hair and kissing his neck. “You seem on edge.”
Sting sighed, turning around and resting his hands on Rogue’s hips. He hummed happily as Rogue’s fingers traced circles up his sides, skipping over the thick fabric on his chest and touching his collarbone instead. Rogue’s lips trailed along Sting’s jawline, ending with a soft kiss right next to his mouth.
“I’m worried,” Sting admitted, leaning into Rogue’s embrace. “Obviously I agreed to the plan, that’s not the issue. And I’m sure Natsu’s fucking dumb luck will get us out of here no matter what.” He hesitated, running his fingers through Rogue’s long hair.
“But...?” Rogue prompted, grabbing Sting’s hand and kissing his knuckles.
“But I’ll be worst off if we get caught.” Sting’s voice was small and quiet, and Rogue made a sad sound, pulling Sting into his arms. “Sodomy’s bad enough, but to find I’m really a... a....”
“A man,” Rogue said, kissing the top of Sting’s head. “And they’d have a dagger in their brains before they could touch you, my love.” Sting laughed a little at that – Rogue was deadly with his blades.
“I know,” he said eventually, nuzzling the side of Rogue’s neck. “Just a worry.”
“We can call it off,” Rogue said seriously. “Nobody’d be mad, it’s all just for a lark.” Sting shook his head, running his hands up and down Rogue’s sides.
“Nah, then we’d never find out what’s in this famous coffer,” he said, leaning up and nipping at Rogue’s earlobe. “And we need to get our treasure so we can buy a ship and sail off into the sunset.”
“Mmm,” Rogue said softly, leaning into Sting’s lips on his neck. “I love that plan. And I love you.” Sting maneuvered them until the back of Rogue’s knees hit the bed, then pushed Rogue gently back onto the blankets. He leaned down and kissed Rogue, much harder and more demanding than before.
“We have time for a bit of a tryst before we leave?” he murmured against Rogue’s lips, grinding down against Rogue’s obvious interest and biting him gently.
“I c-can't see why not,” Rogue replied, shimmying back further on the bed and pulling Sting with him. He ran his fingers over the hem of Sting’s tunic, raising an eyebrow. “On or off?”
Sting hesitated, feeling the tightness of the bindings around his chest, then shook his head. “On,” he replied, then pulled up Rogue’s shirt. “Yours comes off, though,” he whispered, leaning down and kissing Rogue’s chest.
“Fine with me,” Rogue murmured, undoing the laces on the front of his breeches and shimmying out of those and his undergarments as well. Soon he was naked under Sting, moaning and shivering as Sting’s lips traced patterns on his bare chest. “S-sting, ahh, p-please...”
“Please what?” Sting said seductively, pressing kisses down to the inside of Rogue’s thighs, ignoring his obvious hardness.
“I want to taste you,” Rogue breathed, reaching down and grabbing a handful of Sting’s hair, pulling him up for a kiss. “Can I?” He trailed his hand down to the fastenings on Sting’s breeches, waiting for a nod before he began undoing them.
Rogue grabbed Sting’s arms and flipped him, pressing him into the bed and kissing him as he settled between Sting’s thighs. He ran a hand up Sting’s thigh, brushing gently against his cunt and relishing in the growl it elicited. Bringing his hand back down, he slid one finger gently between the soft folds and into Sting’s warmth.
“You’re already wet,” Rogue murmured, leaning down and pressing his tongue across Sting’s clit. Sting moaned and grabbed Rogue’s hair, other hand fisting in the bedspread. “Were you thinking of me?”
“Y-yes,” Sting gasped, pushing his hips upward as Rogue slid another gentle finger inside, twisting and pressing down in just the right place. “Ah... yes, I w-was...”
“Last night wasn’t enough for you?” Rogue teased, sucking at Sting’s clit and then pressing his tongue along it slowly while he moved his fingers. “Thought I fucked you soundly.” Sting groaned, pressing down on Rogue’s fingers and then sucking in a sharp breath when Rogue ran his tongue along the length of his cunt.
“D-did,” he managed, squirming around Rogue’s fingers. “N-need more.” He gasped as Rogue pressed his tongue down over Sting’s clit again, circling it and then sucking gently. “P-please.” He cursed how easily Rogue could turn this from seduction into begging, but it felt so good that he couldn’t really complain.
“I’m not going to fuck you,” Rogue said, breath warm on Sting’s skin. Sting whined, shifting his hips as Rogue’s fingers continued to pleasure him. “Not with my cock, at any rate.”
Rogue’s lips returned to Sting’s clit, alternating soft licks and kisses with harder thrusts of his fingers. Sting squirmed and Rogue pressed an arm over his stomach to hold him still, withdrawing his fingers and pressing his tongue along Sting’s folds.
It didn’t take long for Sting to go off, pulling Rogue’s hair and tightening around his fingers. He didn’t bother to keep quiet, knowing that the others weren’t here, and even if they were, it wouldn’t be the first time they’d heard Sting and Rogue fucking.
Rogue settled up next to Sting as he shuddered, relaxing into a boneless mess on the bed. He pulled Rogue close to him, kissing his forehead and sighing contentedly.
“You’re incredible,” he murmured, running his fingers through Rogue’s hair. “How’d I deserve you?” He kissed Rogue gently, lips warm and soft against each other. “You want to go?”
“Mn-nn,” Rogue replied, shaking his head. “As much as I’d love to lie here and make love to you all day, I believe we have a job to do.”
The market was busy in the hot afternoon sun and Natsu found himself sweating, even under his plain clothes. Gray’s fingers felt slick between his, sweaty palms pressed together so they didn’t drift apart in the crowd. Natsu hoped Gray knew where he was going, because even after a month in Hargeon, he couldn’t tell north from south to save his life.
“Peralandro’s balls, it’s hot,” Gray puffed as he tugged Natsu up beside him. Sweat dripped down his temples and he wiped it away with his sleeve. “I think we’re near. Looks like there’s more watch closer up.” He gestured to the north side of the marketplace where several men in red-and-black livery paced the crowds, keeping an eye out for cutpurses.
“Perfect. Now all we need is an alley and some bad intentions.” Natsu grinned cheekily, gesturing to an area to the right where the cobblestone turned down the hill and led back to the seedier part of town. Gray sighed.
“I hate this plan.” He looked over at a fruit vendor and pretended to examine an apple while keeping an eye on the watch. “There has to be something else we can do.”
“You know it has to be the death penalty to see the Watch Captain,” Natsu replied, picking up a pear and tossing the vendor a few coins from his purse. He bit into it and offered it to Gray. “Murder’s out, which leaves us with...”
“We could turn you in,” Gray muttered, leaning in and taking a bite while Nastu held it. It was sweeter and richer than anything they’d find at home. “You did break out of prison back in Magnolia. You’re a wanted man, now.”
“Wanted by you, you mean,” Natsu teased, enjoying the slight blush that rose in Gray’s cheeks. “Now, where do we... ah!” He brightened when he found a group of street kids playing a game of Dungeons. Natsu released Gray’s hand and meandered over to them, beckoning to the oldest and tapping on his purse. “How’d you like to make some coin?”
Ten minutes later they were in the alley, Gray’s pants around his ankles as he fucked Natsu against the wall. He buried his face in the crook of Natsu’s neck as he grunted and cursed.
“Ahh... fuck, you’re... “ His hands gripped Natsu’s thighs hard enough to leave fingerprints, legs braced as he thrust into his partner. “I... ahhh... hate the plan but... gods, you... “
“I, personally... aah... love this plan,” Natsu replied, dragging his nails along Gray’s back and leaving red marks behind. He kissed along Gray’s neck, biting down on his shoulder and making Gray cry out. “Not many... plans include—haaahh—you fucking m-me ‘gainst a w-wall...”
“Gods, fuck,” Gray gasped, resting his forehead on Natsu’s chest as he shifted him, changing the angle. Natsu moaned into Gray’s shoulder, grabbing a fistful of Gray’s hair and holding tight. “I-if this... mhhnn... doesn’t work, y-you know I... hahh... love you, right?”
“Shut up and fuck me,” Natsu growled, tugging on Gray’s hair and kissing him, hard. “If we’re lucky...mmm ... we’ll get off before—”
“Oi, you there!”
Natsu sighed and shuddered as Gray’s hips stilled. “Another time, then.” He bit down on Gray’s lip, then glanced down the alley and waved at the watchmen standing there, batons out. “Fine afternoon, fellows?”
The Sinspire was busier than it had been all week. Nobles from all over the northern part of Fiore had travelled south for the midsummer festival, unfortunately sporting the clothes of their cooler climes. Sting snickered at the lineup of sweaty, uncomfortable aristocrats lined up around the corner, wilting in the sweltering midafternoon sun.
He and Rogue approached the door, showing the surety guard their token for the eighth floor. They were immediately ushered inside the much cooler building to be patted down and checked. Weapons were strictly forbidden in the Sinspire, which just meant that people got better at concealing them.
They were alone in the elevator that moved smoothly up through the floors, and Sting risked a quick kiss before stepping a respectable distance away. Rogue looked handsome in dark green, with his hair neatly braided and tucked up in the summer fashion.
“You ready for this?” Rogue asked softly, glancing over at Sting and smiling. “You’ve got three hours to get us up a floor.”
“Don’t remind me,” Sting grumbled, trying not to fiddle with his sleeves. Between their fake cards, loaded dice, and Rogue’s excellent eye for tells, they wouldn’t have much trouble making it up. But once they were there... well, suffice to say that if Natsu fucked up, they’d be screwed. And Sting was still sort of worried about the bees.
“It’ll be fine,” Rogue reassured him as the doors began to open. “With him, it always is.”
Sting exhaled as they stepped out onto the eighth floor – only one step away from the pinnacle of the Sinspire. This floor was even more luxurious than the last, and Sting had to force himself not to gape at the opulence around him. Velvet cushions, silk curtains, fine wine flutes made from crystal. His street orphan self never dreamed he’d get this far, and the idea of taking all this from under these insufferable noble’s noses warmed Sting's heart.
“Well, who shall we fuck over the table today?” he murmured, leaning closer to Rogue and gesturing over to a group of men playing cards. “The fat one or the ugly one?”
Six rounds of Bounty later, Sting had a large pile of tokens in front of him, and he was grinning widely at both of the men. “Well gents, looks like you’re out.” The fat one, Anselmo, looked distinctly disgruntled and unimpressed by Sting’s cavalier attitude. Nico, who Rogue had to admit was rather unfortunate looking, wore a neutral expression.
“Well won, Master... Capraro, was it?” Nico’s face was sharp and angular and betrayed nothing, but Sting could tell from years of lying out his arse that this man wasn’t just making casual conversation. He was poking at the perceived threads in Sting and Rogue’s disguises.
“Yes! But call me Enzio, enough of this ‘Lord’ business.” Sting leaned back in his chair and crossed a leg over one knee casually. “A drink?”
He waved a hand at the waitstaff, who came over with a tray of sweetwine in thin crystal flutes. Sting handed the man several of his tokens, gesturing for Nico and Anselmo to each take a wineglass. When Rogue reached out, Sting put a hand over his.
“You’d best be taking it easy, Lord De Vitis.” Rogue gave Sting a disdainful look and pulled his hand away, reaching across to grab a glass regardless.
“My drinking habits are none of your business, Enzio,” Rogue hissed, taking a sip of the wine. He had already had three, although he’d managed to spill one of them discreetly into a potted plant so he still had some wits about him. Being churlish with Sting wasn’t on his list of favorite things to do, but the drink helped a bit.
“Apologies for my... friend, gentlemen,” Sting said, giving Rogue a sideways glare as he raised his glass at the other two men. “Perhaps I should leave him here to dry out while I check the tables upstairs.”
“Oh, sod off,” Rogue mumbled, tipping back half the glass of wine before standing and gesturing to the pile of tokens. “Half those are mine, you—”
“Now, now, let’s not have a tiff in front of everyone,” Sting warned, also standing. People from other tables began to turn towards them and Sting raised a hand, waving off their concern. “Looks like my friend here is ready to head on up. Lovely to meet you all, and may Gandolo grant you good fortune!”
He took the tray and then grasped Rogue’s elbow firmly, leading him toward the exchange table. A young man looked over their tokens, exchanged them into more manageable amounts, then handed them the prize they’d spent the last week working toward – a large coin with the number nine stamped onto it.
As the two made their way to the guarded elevator, Sting glanced up at the clock on the wall. Only an hour left until everything was supposed to come to fruition.
Rogue saw him staring at the clock and squeezed his arm discreetly, leaning over and whispering, “I’m sure the others are getting on all right.”
“I can’t believe they put us in the same cell,” Gray said, pacing and peering out into the hallway. Natsu looked up from where he was lying on the bed and sighed.
“Come here, love.” He sat up and patted the space beside him. “All we can do is wait.” Gray shook his head and Natsu stood, moving over and grasping Gray’s hips. Gray shifted uncomfortably and Natsu’s face transformed into a sly smile.
“You’re still at mast, aren’t you?” He murmured, kissing Gray’s neck and biting his earlobe, then reaching down and running his hand over his partner’s breeches. He could feel the hardness pressing against his fingers and he laughed.
“’course I am,” Gray muttered, pressing up into Natsu’s palm. “Halfway through swiving you and didn’t get to go off. It’s a bit...aah …distracting.” Natsu continued to rub his hand over the top of Gray’s pants, kissing his jaw and biting down gently on his neck. “We c-can't...”
“Sure we can,” Natsu argued, pushing Gray up against the wall next to the bars. “Don't worry, I’ll keep an eye out.” Gray looked like he might argue, then exhaled, leaning back and bringing a hand up to Natsu’s hair. Natsu kissed his neck, tugging his breeches down and wrapping a hand around Gray’s cock.
“Ahh... gods, fuck...” Gray bit his lip, closing his eyes and screwing up his face. “Y-you’re going to get us... haaah... in more trouble.” He didn’t move away though, just thrust his hips into Natsu’s fist.
“How much more trouble could we get in?” Natsu said, glancing outside the cell, then dropping to his knees and taking Gray’s cock into his mouth. Gray bit the back of his hand to muffle his cries, grabbing Natsu’s hair and pushing up against his tongue. Natsu bobbed up and down a few times, then drew off and continued with his hand. “They already caught us bardashing in an alleyway, there’s not much more they can charge us with. Plus, Erza will be here soon.”
“Don’t talk about..hnngh… Erza when your…aah… hands are on my cock.” Natsu grinned, peering down the hallway and then cursing at the sight of a pair of guards heading their way. He turned back around and swallowed down Gray’s cock again, fingers trailing down further into his pants, stroking and caressing. He had to get Gray off quick.
Gray groaned quietly, tugging Natsu’s hair again and thrusting up into his mouth. It didn’t take much longer for him to tense, spilling onto Natsu’s tongue and shuddering as he relaxed against the wall. Natsu swallowed him down quickly. He stood, tugging Gray’s pants up and wiping his chin at the exact moment the guards came around the corner. They both did their best to look innocent.
“You’re coming with us,” the guards growled, staring at Natsu and Gray as if they were something distinctly unpleasant. “Hands out where we can see ‘em.”
“You think he’d kill us if I told him this hand was very recently on your cock?” Natsu whispered before the first guard stepped into the cell and grabbed both his wrists, locking them behind his back with heavy iron manacles. Gray snickered and earned himself a backhand from the guard, who yanked him forward until Gray fell on his knees.
“Like your gents like this, do you?” Gray smirked, winking and blowing a kiss to the guard. The man took a large step backward, eyes widening and face transforming into a snarl. “Tied up too, huh?” Gray wriggled his wrists while Natsu snorted above him. “You’re not my type, but I wouldn’t say no if you got us out of here.”
Gray groaned as he took another fist to the cheek, this time splitting the skin under his eye. The guard grabbed him by his collar and hoisted him to his feet, gesturing for the other watchman to take Natsu.
“Shut your mouth, you pricksucker,” the guard growled.
By the time they were deposited roughly on the floor of the watch captain’s office, Gray could feel that his nose had stopped bleeding. His face ached, but it had been worth it. He glanced over at Natsu, who was giving him his signature exasperating shit-eating grin. This time, Gray returned it.
They both jumped as the door to the room was flung open.
“You’ve been charged with sodomy.” Captain Ivan entered the room, not even glancing at the two of them as he settled behind his desk. He was a tall man, with dark hair and a close-cropped beard. “Have you anything to say for yourself before the sentence is carried out?”
“Yeah, you caught us ‘fore we got off, any chance we can finish that up before you hang us?” Natsu looked bored, fiddling with his manacles. “Won’t take too long, God’s honor.”
“You are a cheeky little bastard,” Ivan said, a hint of a smile playing at his lips. “It’s a shame, your smart mouth could have been used for good. Instead you’ll choke out your last words at the gallows.” He looked out the barred window behind him, where Gray assumed he could see the hangings.
Ivan frowned as someone knocked on the door, and he stood to open it. After exchanging several words, he stepped back inside – followed by Erza. Gray had never been so happy to see anyone in his life, and struggled to keep his expression neutral.
“You two lamentable mistakes have made my life hell these past months,” she growled, grabbing Gray's chin in her hand and forcing him to look up at her. Her false-facing was flawless, evidenced when she backhanded him over the already open wound on his cheek. He grunted in pain, glaring at the ground when she released him.
“You’re with the Magnolia watch, then?” Ivan asked, examining the paperwork that Erza had handed him. Gray knew that Rogue’s impeccable penmanship would likely save their asses here. Erza shook her head, gesturing to the badge on her chest – courtesy of a guard that Natsu had swayed several years ago.
“Fioran Guard,” Erza replied in her perfectly impersonated accent. “From Crocus. I’m here to take these two into custody and remand them to the council.” She glared down at Natsu and Gray, who didn't find it difficult to pretend to shrink back. “Not only are they being brought up on charges of grand larceny, we’ve got reason to believe their little thieves’ group is responsible for several cons on the noble families of Magnolia.”
“You do know they’ve been charged with sodomy?” Ivan asked, raising an eyebrow. “And sentenced to death?” Erza’s mask broke only long enough for Gray to see a flash of regret in her eyes, and she moved her hand at them in the Thieves’ Cant.
I’m sorry, she signed, then nodded at Ivan. “Yes, and I’m not surprised. This—” here she gestured at Natsu. “This indecent degenerate has been spotted at the wrong sort of bawdy houses back in Magnolia, and has likely been philandering with other perverts.”
Natsu growled at her, and Gray could see that the manacles behind his back were now loose, held together just by his fingers. Gray nearly exhaled in relief, but kept it to himself.
“As for this insufferable reprobate...”
Before she could continue her sentence Natsu lunged at her, pushing himself from the floor and tackling her so that she fell directly against Ivan. Erza shouted, elbowing Natsu in the sternum and bracing herself against Ivan’s chest as she pushed Natsu off her. She grabbed Natsu by the front of his shirt, shoving him against the wall and holding a very thin, very real dagger against his throat.
“You have a death wish?” she snarled, pushing harder on Natsu’s throat until he started choking. She turned to Ivan, keeping the point of the blade against Natsu’s neck, drawing a bead of blood when he struggled against her grip. “You’ll thank me for taking them off your hands,” she muttered. “Get a guard in here to take him, I’ve got this one. There’s a carriage out front waiting for me.”
Ivan looked like he was going to argue, but Erza radiated such an air of command – especially with a knife to someone’s throat – that Ivan shrugged, calling in a watch guard to hoist Gray up and carry him to the front door.
Once they were in the carriage, Natsu undid Gray’s manacles and touched the forming bruise on his cheek gently, leaning in and kissing him. Gray winced but continued the kiss, brushing back Natsu’s hair and moaning softly into his mouth.
“All right, enough facemaking,” Erza growled from the front seat. “You want to end up back there again?” Natsu laughed, pulling away from the kiss and trailing his fingers over Gray’s cheek.
“You all right, love?” Natsu asked. Gray’s cheek was cut open and his lip was split, and dried blood was still caked down his nose and chin. He grabbed Natsu’s hand the kissed the palm as the carriage began to move.
“Never better,” he said, rubbing his wrists and flexing his hands. “We good?”
Natsu nodded. “I planted the spelldisc in the cell, here’s the activator.” He handed what looked like a small, black coin to Gray, who nodded and tucked it in his pocket.
“You got the token, then?” Gray turned to look at Erza, who was guiding the carriage away from the Ashgate and out towards the town gates.
“Of course I did,” she said, rolling her eyes and flipping a circular object back at them. “For someone who runs the watch, you’d think he’d know when he’s being lifted from.” Natsu caught the object, turning it in his palm.
It was a large circle of stamped iron with a lily on one side and a raven on the other, and was heavier than an average coin. One of the nobles they’d shaken down in an alley had told them that flashing the coin at the Sinspire would get them an audience with the owner immediately. Hopefully the man hadn’t been lying.
“Perfect.” Natsu grinned, grabbing the bag that was sitting between them and beginning to change into his next costume. “Everything’s going according to plan.”
Their false fight was going splendidly, but Sting felt like shit.
“I think you should probably sit this one out,” he said, loud enough for everyone at the King’s Chance table to hear him. He held onto Rogue’s arm, squeezing lightly in apology. “You’re embarrassing me and yourself.”
“Sard off,” Rogue growled, wobbling against Sting’s grip. The wine was actually adding him and he blinked a few times. After this, he was never drinking again. “If I don’t keep an eye on you, you’ll lose all our fucking coin.” He wrenched his arm from Sting’s grasp and turned to the table.
“Your wager?” The dealer raised his eyebrows at Rogue, politely ignoring their tiff.
“Hard four,” Rogue said. “Pass.” He flicked one of his tokens to the long-mustached man, who set it in the pile with the other player’s pieces.
Sting tried his best to look nonchalant as Giovenzio, the man from the night before, handed him the dice. A minor sleight of hand later and they were replaced by identical, weighted dice that Gray had crafted for them. Sting’s hands were sweating as he rolled them between his fingers.
“Who’s feeling lucky tonight, gents?” he asked, proud of how calm he managed to keep his voice. The rest of the men around the table looked unimpressed with his nonchalant tone, and waited impatiently for him to roll. The ninth floor was clearly for the serious players.
The dice left Sting’s hand and bounced across the table, rolling several times and spinning in a heart-stopping fashion until they settled onto... six. Rogue cursed next to him, shaking his head and leaning forward.
“Better luck this round?” he asked Rogue sarcastically. Rogue glared at him, sighing and looking at the dealer.
“Fine,” he growled, picking up a handful of tokens and handing them to the dealer, more respectfully this time. “Sixes appear to be prosperous tonight, so I shall wager an easy six.” The men around the table murmured in agreement, each settling their portion with the dealer.
Sting’s eyes flicked around the room, trying to appear nonchalant, and he breathed a sigh of relief when a familiar face exited the elevator. Almost exactly on time – Sting was impressed. Natsu was almost always late, and never apologetic about it.
He did look remarkable tonight, though. His usual hose and doublet had been replaced by an outfit of deep black, including a cloak with blood-red trim that trailed behind him. His hair was colored black as well, and Sting knew the sleeves of his long shirt were covering the three black rings encircling his right forearm – the mark of the bondsmagi.
“Step aside,” the guard accompanying Natsu said, and Natsu turned to sneer at the group in front of him. They scurried out of the way, eyes on the floor to avoid his stare. The bondsmagi were feared throughout the Seven Marrows – they practiced the dark arts, necromancy, blood magic. They were powerful allies, and never to be trifled with.
And if they found out they were being impersonated, Natsu would likely end up drowning in a barrel of his own piss. Not that that fazed him, of course.
“Sting,” Rogue hissed, having noticed Natsu as well – and their targets. Hades, owner of the casino, was standing immediately behind Natsu. Next to him was his infamous bodyguard, Ultear. A powerful magic-user in her own right, it was said that the protection magic she kept around herself and Hades was unbreakable as long as they were together. Tonight, they were going to test that theory.
“Sir.” Sting shook his head, turning back to the table and rolling the dice in his hands again. “I know the appearance of a bondsmagi is interesting, but the game is still being played.”
“Yes, of course.” Sting shook the dice, leaning over the table to roll them – and one of the real dice dropped from his sleeve. He froze, watching it roll across the table, shortly joined by the other one he’d had concealed. They spun to a complete stop, ironically landing on an easy six.
“Cheat!” Giovenzio grabbed Sting’s wrist and forced his hand open to show the two loaded dice resting in the middle of his palm. Rogue looked shocked and stepped backward, but was blocked by another man from the table. Sting gasped in indignation.
“How dare you!” he gasped, turning to look at Rogue. “You would be so petty.” He snarled, tugging at his wrist and glaring at his partner. “How could you give me loaded dice? I trusted you, you gods-damned lush!”
“Oh bollocks,” Rogue growled, stepping forward and punching Sting square across the face. Sting winced, shaking his head to clear his vision. “You’re a lousy cheat and we all know it. How could I have given them? They were up your sleeve!”
Sting kicked Giovenzio in the shin, hard enough to force the man to let go. He darted forward, grabbing Rogue’s doublet and heaving him upward, throwing him into the center of the gaming table. There was a loud crack and the dice went flying.
“Surety!” the dealer shouted, backing away from the table as Rogue pushed himself off the table and launched himself at Sting, elbowing him in the throat and knocking him to the floor. “Surety! They were caught cheating!”
Sting and Rogue ignored the shouts and Sting rolled to his side, seeing Natsu’s feet approaching Hades’ office. Ultear’s feet were still there, though – shitfuck. They needed to get her away. He sighed, grabbing a handful of Rogue’s hair.
“Sorry, love,” he whispered, then headbutted his partner as hard as he could and threw a sharp right hook directly into his face. Rogue stood, stumbling back against the table and wiping the blood that trickled from his nose.
Sting stood up wobbily, shaking his head, and glanced over at Ultear again, who was looking at the situation with mild interest but with no intent to participate. He sighed, turning back to Rogue and shrugging his shoulders.
“Desperate times,” he said, grabbing the front of Rogue’s shirt and dragging him in for a passionate kiss.
“Dear lords, they’re sods!” Giovenzio stumbled backwards as if Sting and Rogue were capable of transmitting their queerness through the air, and the ruckus around them increased dramatically. Rogue melted against Sting, bringing bloody hands up to Sting's hair and pulling him tight.
“Why in the seven hells they care more about this than cheating and brawling, I’ll never understand,” Sting sighed, hands on Rogue’s hips. “Here’s hoping we don’t get executed - if we do, I love you more than the stars love the sky.”
The next thing he felt was a hand on the back of his jacket and something strong and solid connecting with the back of his head.
“I really, really hate this plan,” Gray grumbled from their position behind the bushes. They could see several guards standing at attention outside the Ashgate, pacing back and forth. After dropping off Natsu just outside the town walls, they’d doubled back and parked the carriage in a vacant area near the gaol.
“You hate any plan that Natsu comes up with,” Erza said mildly. She leaned against the short wall behind the bushes, using her dagger to clean under her nails.
“That’s because they either end with us being arrested, or with someone getting beaten.” Gray gestured to his bloody, bruised face. “Or with everything on fire. Or all of the above.”
“You love him anyway,” Erza said, kicking Gray lightly in the shin.
His face softened, even beneath his bruised jaw and the cut on his cheek. “I really do.”
“Then trust him,” Erza insisted. “He’s got the false magic, he’ll get the key, soon all hell will break loose here and all you have to do is make it to the docks.” She stood, sliding the dagger back into its thigh holster and pulling her hair down to braid it.
“Yeah, where I have to convince some poor woman to let us leave,” Gray grumbled.
“Oh, it’s not like you’ve never swived a woman before,” Erza joked, bumping his elbow. Gray sighed, exasperated.
“There will be no swiving happening there,” he insisted, crossing his arms over his chest. “If words don' t work, steel will.” He gestured to the rapier at his hip and Erza laughed, shaking her head.
“You’re shit with a blade,” she teased, dropping a hand to her own rapier and raising her eyebrows. He laughed, leaning back against the wall with his shoulder to hers.
“I’d be better if you hadn’t been such a lousy instructor.” He peered through the bushes and watched the line of the sun drag across the dirt towards the Ashgate. Pulling the disc from his pocket, he spun it in his hand.
“I was a bit ill-tempered, wasn’t I?” Erza said, tipping her head and resting it against Gray’s shoulder in a rare moment of affection. He wrapped his arm around her and sighed. Her voice was quiet as she added, “I’m sorry if I ever truly hurt you.”
Gray leaned back and stared at her, brows furrowed. “Erza! You were supposed to hurt us, that was the point.” She was several years older than the rest of them, and their old garrista, Makarov, had insisted that she whip the four of them into shape when they joined the guild. “Sure, I’ve got more than one scar from your blade, but they’re not...”
He sighed, standing up and looking at her oddly. He lifted his shirt, suddenly, gesturing to a thin, white mark under his ribs.
“That one’s from you,” he said, running his finger along it. It had been shallow, and while it had bled a lot, it hadn’t been serious. ”This one’s from that bastard in the Half-Crowns.” He pointed to his other side where a thick, nasty-looking white mess stretched from his last rib to his navel. “If you hadn’t given me this, then instead of this lovely scar, I’d be dead.”
Erza sighed, shaking her head and smiling at him. “So you’re saying my beatings helped you get worsted less badly by the other thugs.” Gray nodded, dropping his shirt and laughing.
“You made us stronger,” he said, running a hand through his hair. An embarrassed flush ran up his cheeks – while he saw Erza as a sister, they never talked much of these things. “Well, me and the other two. Natsu’s still terrible with any weapon other than his tongue.”
“His tongue, eh?” Erza raised an eyebrow and the pink flush turned red. “And what exactly does he fight with this tongue of his?”
“Oh, shut it,” Gray grumbled, looking back over his shoulder to see that the light was now touching the top of the stairs heading to the gaol. He glanced down at the disc in his palm, then over to Erza. “Here goes nothing,” he said, and crushed it into powder.
There was a long silence.
The calm peacefulness of the evening continued unimpeded, and Gray held his breath for several moments. He looked back to Erza, who simply raised her eyebrows and shrugged as nothing continued to happen. After several minutes, Gray sighed.
“Oh, on the backs of the dead, that useless...” He dropped the dust to the ground and groaned in frustration. “Him and his fucking bees. That was his grand gods-damned plan, wasn’t it? He took the wrong disc! What the fuck are we supposed to do now?”
Erza moved closer to him, peering out at the guards. She shook her head, tapping her hand on her rapier.
“We can’t take all of them,” she murmured, leaning forward and looking around. “And we need a distraction, we can’t have them heading to the Sinspire or the docks. The horses, maybe?” She gestured to the stables behind the prison where the carriages and beasts were kept. Gray followed her gaze, then dropped his head into his hands and groaned.
“I cannot believe I’m about to say this,” Gray sighed, rubbing his face. “And if you ever tell Natsu I will suffocate you in your sleep, I don’t care how scary you are.” Erza snorted. Gray peered around the corner again, looking resigned. “The only way we’re getting out of here,” he muttered, “is to burn this place to the ground.”
Sting came around to the sound of Natsu’s voice, thick with his put-on Karthani accent.
“I presume you recognize these?” Natsu pulled back his sleeve to reveal the three rings tattooed around his wrist. Hades took a step backward toward Ultear.
“Yes... my lord.” Hades bowed his head deeply, urging Ultear to do the same. Sting noticed that she seemed less impressed by Natsu’s appearance, though. He shook his head a bit, trying to dull the aching throb at the base of his skull. Had it worked? Had they separated the two of them long enough for Natsu to get through?
“Do you know why I’m here?” Natsu hopped down from the desk, crossing his arms and raising an eyebrow at Hades, who looked bewildered and shook his head. From the reconnaissance they’d done, Sting and Natsu had been able to determine that Hades was under the bondsmagi’s protection – fucking with him meant fucking with the most powerful magical order in the Seven Marrows.
Sting blinked a few more times, clearing his vision, and was happy to see that Rogue was beside him, awake and alert. They were in the wrong room, though The plan had been to get Ultear into the detention room while Natsu dealt with Hades, but now they were going to have to improvise.
“I’m here for them.” Natsu gestured at Sting and Rogue, who both did excellent impressions of being outraged.
“How dare you—”
Before Sting could get the words out, Natsu moved across the room and grabbed him by the throat, lifting him up until his toes were scraping the floor. Sting gasped for air, tugging against the bonds around his wrists.
“Shut your mouth, you subliterate prick.” Natsu slammed him back against the wall, then grabbed him by the front of his doublet. “You’ll speak when spoken to or I’ll make you watch your friend here experience some rather... unpleasant things.”
Even though Sting knew Natsu was putting on an act, the glint in his eye was frightening. The scar through his lip gave him an even crueler appearance as he sneered at Sting.
“You... what are you d—” Hades took a step towards Natsu but immediately backed up again when Natsu raised the tattooed arm and gestured toward him threateningly.
“I’d think you’d be more grateful when I’m trying to save your life.” Natsu’s accent was impeccable. Sting had never been able to master it – his knack was more with knives in throats and less with words. “Now, you did check these men for weapons, I assume?”
Ultear gave him a look that would have wilted most men, but Natsu stood his ground. A response to the question seemed unnecessary.
“Well, you were very thorough, but not thorough enough.” Natsu’s hand was still on Sting’s doublet and he tore it open, pulling a dagger out of his own shirt and using it to cut the fabric open. There, sewn into the lining, was a tiny knife, no bigger than Sting’s thumb. Sting pretended to wrestle against Natsu’s grip and Natsu raised his hand threateningly, dropping his guise for just a moment to throw Sting the sign for pain.
Sting cried out and threw his head back, screwing his eyes shut. Pretending to be in pain really wasn’t that difficult, especially after have been in true distress many, many times. Natsu clenched his fist and Sting’s shaking stopped, then Sting slumped to the ground, panting.
“Now.” Natsu turned back to Hades and looked at him intently. Sting could see that he was pulling something from his sleeve as he advanced on the man – the spelldisc. Natsu crumbled it between his thumb and forefinger as he moved past Hades to hop back up on the desk.
“Despite what you may think, I am here to protect you. You are an... investment, and we wish to keep our investments safe so that they can continue paying us.” He dangled the tiny dagger between his forefingers before dropping it on the desk. “This would have killed you had I not intervened. In order to protect you, I need you to do exactly what I tell you. Understood?”
Sting swallowed, heart pounding in his chest. Natsu was clearly improvising now – the original plan had been to knock out Hades while he was separated from Ultear and take his key, then rob the safe and take Sting and Rogue away with him under the pretense of the bondsmagi.
Obviously Sting and Rogue’s tussle hadn’t been enough to keep Ultear away, or the spell persisted even when they were apart. Either way, if Natsu fucked up here, they faced either a quick execution at Ultear’s hands, or a slow fall out the window. Neither option was particularly appealing.
“No.” Ultear stepped forward, putting herself between Natsu and Hades. “My lord, I cannot in good conscience allow you to fall to this man’s deception.” Before Natsu could move she whipped her hand out, lightning fast, and grabbed his wrist. Turning it around, she sneered at the smudged markings. “As I thought. False sorcerer. You have no power.”
“Unhand me, harlot,” Natsu growled, tugging at his wrist. He moved his other hand in a complicated pattern, gesturing at Ultear. Nothing happened and Sting nearly groaned out loud. The alchemist must have lied about the false magic in the disc. “Don’t make me—”
Sting blinked, tipping his head to the side and frowning. A deep buzzing sound came from outside the window, loud and irritating and...
“Son of a cock-trick,” he cursed, pushing himself to his feet and slipping his lockpicks out of his sleeve. “You had the wrong disc, you witless arse-worm!”
Ultear and Hades had only a moment to stare at him in confusion before the window exploded open and a swarm of alchemically-modified bees massed into the room. It was instant pandemonium. Ultear drew her sword, but it was useless against the tiny creatures, and she instead swung wildly at nothing.
“Cover up!” Natsu shouted, tugging his hood over his head and pulling his shirt up to cover his face. Sting's manacles dropped to the ground and he moved quickly to Rogue, picking the locks quicker than he ever had before. Then he looked around wildly for something to cover their faces.
Ultear was on the floor, gaze vacant and hands twitching in front of her face. He poked her uncertainly with a toe, and when she didn’t respond he grabbed the clasp of her cloak and yanked it off her, then handed it to Rogue.
“You need something too—”
“Ouch!” Sting slapped his hand over the back of his neck where he’d felt a sharp prick and brought it back around, making a face at the dead insect in his hand. He wiped it on his pants, blinking a few times as a wave of dizziness overtook him.
“Shit,” Rogue cursed, grabbing Sting’s arm and pulling him back from Ultear’s body. “Natsu, he got stung. What the hells are these things?” Natsu growled and Rogue realized that he was holding Hades up by the doublet. The man was staring around him, petrified.
“They’re here,” Hades whispered to Natsu, eyes wide. “I can’t hide. I can’t!”
“You can’t,” Natsu agreed, face deadly serious. “But I know how we can save you.” Hades stared at him, eyes wide. “There’s something that will get rid of them, but it’s in there.” He pointed to the wall where a panel had been slid open. A dark, wooden box sat inside, with a large keyhole on the front. “I need your key to save you.”
“My...” Hades blinked a few times, then backed away from Natsu, who kept hold of his shirt. “They’re coming,” Hades whispered, cowering back against the wall.
“Quickly!” Natsu said, voice commanding. “The key!”
Hades complied, reaching into his shirt and pulling out an ornate iron key on a long chain and handing it over. Natsu grinned, waving it a Rogue and then using it to open the safe.
“Well?” Rogue said, trying to look over Natsu’s shoulder. The bees seemed to have cleared out of the room and were probably headed toward the stairs. Natsu wasn’t moving, just standing with his hand on the open door of the safe and frowning. “What did we risk our lives for?”
“We’ll find out later,” Natsu muttered, grabbing something long and cylindrical from the safe and shoving it inside his doublet. The rest of the safe appeared to be empty and Rogue groaned. Whatever Natsu had grabbed better have been wo—
“Don’t!” Sting stumbled backward, waving his arms in front of himself frantically. Rogue grabbed the back of his doublet, frowning at him. “They turned from it, from those, they‘re... fuzzy and they move so...” Sting’s eyes were wide, just like Ultear and Hades, who was now curled up in the corner of the room, batting at something invisible in front of him.
“What the fuck did you do?” Rogue hissed at Natsu, grabbing his arm and shoving him toward the door. He dragged Sting out behind him, ushering them both toward the elevator.
“They, uh... their venom makes you, um, have visions?” Natsu said sheepishly, and while Rogue couldn’t see his expression under the coverings on his face, he knew for a fact that Natsu did not look sheepish. He probably looked proud of himself. “They were supposed to cause a riot at the prison...”
“You are a gods-damned idiot,” Rogue hissed, approaching the elevator only to realize that the doors were already open, and the elevator itself was nowhere to be seen. “The madman who lived outside the guild and pissed on the street has more rational fucking sense than your idiotic brain.”
“Oi, that’s hurtful,” Natsu said mildly, frowning at Sting, who was staring at the elevator with an expression of pure terror on his face. “What’s his problem?”
“It’s full of them,” Sting whispered, trying to yank his arm out of Rogue’s grasp. “All of them and they’re...
“Who fucking knows?” Rogue grumbled, shoving Sting’s arm into Natsu’s hand. “Do not let go of him, got it?” Natsu hummed in agreement as Rogue moved to the elevator doors, peering carefully over the edge. “For the love of... the lift’s at the bottom. What’s the likelihood the bees went out the windows?”
“Uh, fairly low?” Natsu replied, this time actually sounding somewhat contrite. “They’ll keep going until they sting someone, then they die.” Rogue groaned, covering his face with one hand.
“And... how many of them are there?” he asked, voice sharp and slightly muffled by his gloves.
“Um,” Natsu replied, shifting from foot to foot and holding onto Sting’s arm tightly. “A, um... a hundred? And fifty?”
“You...” Rogue breathed deeply through his nose, then turned to look at Sting, who was still staring at the elevator as if something horrifying was going to come out of it and eat him. “Love, what’s wrong?”
“It’s full,” Sting whispered, trying to pull away from Natsu, who wrapped an arm around him tightly. “They’re... and they’re waiting, and soft and I don’t want that...”
“That what?” Natsu asked, frowning. Sting struggled against his grip for a second, then sighed and collapsed against Natsu.
“Moths,” Sting whispered. “There’s too many.”
There was a moment of silence and then Natsu burst out laughing.
“I’m... sorry,” he gasped, doubling over and clutching his stomach. “I know it’s... it’s not really funny but it’s... Sting. Got stung.” Rogue wanted to roll his eyes in exasperation, but he felt the corner of his lip turn up in a smile. Tears were forming in the corners of Natsu’s eyes as he held tightly to Sting’s arm. “And he’s afraid of... moths! Of all bloody things...”
“All right, you’ve had a laugh, get him over here,” Rogue muttered, reaching out and grabbing Sting’s hand. Natsu wiped his eyes, then peered down the lift and whistled. “We’ll have to go down here – we can bypass everyone that way,” Rogue said. “Even if they’re out of their minds, they’re still dangerous.”
Natsu nodded. “There’s holds, it shouldn’t be too bad. Only a hundred or so piedes, Gray and I climbed further from the prison back in Magnolia.”
“Not with someone out of their mind,” Rogue grumbled, squeezing Sting’s hands and turning to him. “Love, there’s no moths.”
“They’re everywhere,” Sting whispered, clinging to Rogue’s arm and batting at the air in front of his face. The welt on the back of his neck was red, and thin lines were spreading from it. “I can’t - they’re too --”
“We have to go down,” Rogue said gently, tugging Sting closer to the edge. The blonde man shook his head stubbornly, pulling against Rogue’s grip.
“Can’t,” he whimpered, yelping as Natsu grabbed his other arm.
“Do we force him or knock him out?” Natsu asked, placing a not-so-gentle hand on the back of Sting’s neck. “I could probably carry him on my back.”
A crash on the floor below them was followed by a scream, then several loud shouts and the sound of shattering glass. Rogue pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing, then reached out and grabbed the sides of Sting’s face, forcing him to make eye contact.
“Things are going to go very, very badly for us if you do not get your arse down this elevator shaft immediately,” he growled, tugging on Sting’s chin when his eyes wandered. “There are no moths. You’re drugged because Natsu is a fucking twat, and you’re going to be fine. Do you understand?"
Sting shook his head, trying to pull away, and Rogue sighed, then slapped him across the cheek.
“Sting Eucliffe, look at me!” Sting yelped and turned his eyes back to Rogue, who was exuding an aura of do not fuck with me. “Natsu, get down there right fucking now. Sting, if you don’t move your sorry arse and start fucking climbing, I’m swear to the Twelve I’m going to murder you myself.”
Of course the fire had worked. Erza had stayed behind to make sure it continued, keeping the watch away from the Sinspire, while Gray had made for the port for his last part in the con.
It was past evening bells, and the sun had nearly set, leaving the harbor in a permanent state of shadows. Gray tried his best to stroll casually, as if he were simply on the hunt for a sporting girl, but the tension in his shoulders refused to leave.
Why the hells they’d picked him for this was beyond him – sure, Natsu didn’t have an interest in women, but at least he was decent at flirting. He’d charmed hundreds of women out of their purses, jewels, hairpins, undergarments... all manner of treasures.
Gray’s experience with women was limited to two encounters – Sendri, a girl from one of the rival gangs who’d sucked him off in a back alley when he was fifteen; and the redhead from the travelling market who’d met him at the Saffron Goose Inn and ridden him until he couldn’t feel his legs. It had felt good, sure, but he’d already been infatuated with Natsu and had spent the entire time pretending that her wetness had been his arse.
“You there!” Gray looked up to see a tall, dark-haired woman moving toward him with her hand on the rapier at her hip. He raised his hands placatingly, putting on what he hoped was his most charming smile.
“Lady Illandra, I presume?” He asked, bowing his head a little. “Or, Dockmaster Illandra, rather. They weren’t lying when they spoke of your beauty.” He sighed internally. He’d gotten Natsu’s attention by pretending to be a corpse and rescuing him from a crow’s cage hundreds of feet in the air, not with fancy words.
“And who might they be?” She asked, crossing her arms over her chest, clearly unimpressed. “The lads up at the Goose and Crown?” Gray hesitated, not certain how to answer. “They all know better than to fuck with me. Who are you?”
Gray sighed, running a hand through his hair. “My name is Giancarlo,” he said, bowing again. “My partner and I are transporting some rather… interesting goods, and I was hoping to speak with you about… acquiring a ship.” As he spoke, his hand moved to the coinpurse at his hip, and he smiled at her with a raised eyebrow. Bribery was simpler than dalliance.
“Define ‘interesting’,” she said, gesturing for him to follow her. He glanced around quickly, making sure nobody was looking, then made his way after her down the docks.
“They are goods of a… discrete nature,” he said carefully, keeping a watchful eye out for anyone hiding in the shadows. He hated the parts of plans where he had to work alone. “Alchemical in nature. Not appreciated by the higher-ups.”
“And you need to transport these goods?” She stopped in a secluded area near the end of the dock, where the water crashed against the shore.
“Yes,” he said, pretending to sigh in dismay. “We had one lined up but it was… unfortunately apprehended. You know how it is.” He raised his eyebrows at Illandra and attempted once again to exude an air of confidence. “I’ve heard that you’re the one to talk to about… making bargains.”
He took a step closer to her and she gave him a small smile, relaxing her posture and leaning back against the stack of crates behind her. Gray swallowed, pretending she was Natsu, pretending her dark hair was pink and her curves were muscles and—
“I might be… persuaded,” she said, her voice dropping lower and smile widening. “And what exactly is it that you might be offering… Giancarlo?”
He took another step forward, more confident this time, until he was nearly pinning her against the crates. She tipped her head up, bringing up her hands and – crack. Her elbow connected with his jaw as she grabbed his arm, whipping him around and shoving him against the crates. A dagger appeared seemingly from nowhere and buried itself deep in his shoulder.
“Fuck,” he hissed, the shock of being stabbed quickly resolving into pain.
“You filth,” she hissed, her face a mask of rage. “You think you can lark your way into stealing a ship in my care? I should gut you right here.” The blade pressed deeper and Gray groaned, feeling blood already beginning to dampen his tunic.
“Well,” he ground out, jaw tensed against the pain. “Considering I just burned down the Ashgate, I don’t think the watch will be coming anytime soon.” He enjoyed the perplexed expression on her face, and took advantage of the confusion by grabbing the dagger and yanking it out of his shoulder, then kicking her in the stomach. He grunted, pressing a hand to the bleeding wound.
“You’re not getting away with this,” she hissed, pulling out her rapier. Gray dropped the dagger and drew his own weapon, holding it defensively and hoping to hell he hadn’t forgotten everything Erza had beaten into him. He thanked the gods he could fight with both hands.
“Well, we’ve already mostly gotten away with it,” he said, breathing deeply against the sharp ache in his shoulder. Blood was already bubbling up between his fingers and he felt light-headed. “You’re the last... hangup.”
“You don’t look like you’re up for much,” Illandra said, grinning and moving her feet into a offensive position. Gray’s movements weren’t as smooth as he’d have liked them to be, but when she charged at him, he managed to block the first few hits.
“That’s what you think,” he growled, stepping out of range of her next attack but then stumbling forward and taking a deep slash across the side of his neck, where the skin was unprotected. He cried out in pain, trying to push his hand over it to stem the bleeding, but the wound on his shoulder was still pumping out blood.
Breathing heavily, he pulled himself to his feet and thrust his blade toward her, catching her by surprise and opening up a wound on her thigh. He was satisfied to see the blood soak through almost immediately, and stain her trousers a deep red.
“You’re going to bleed out soon,” she snarled, stepping back a bit and covering the wound with her hand. “I don’t even need to fight you.”
Gray swallowed heavily. She was right – he couldn’t keep pressure on both wounds without both hands, and doing that would mean dropping his weapon. That wasn’t something he was willing to do with Illandra’s blade so close to him.
He glanced around quickly – he could run, but where would he go? The dock was large and they were in a secluded corner, and Gray realized now that this had been her plan all along. Shitfuck. His head was pounding and the rapier felt heavy in his hand – he tightened his grip but his fingers felt weak.
“Maybe I won’t call the watch after all,” Illandra growled, stalking forward and kicking him in the chest. Gray fell backward, head slamming into the wooden planks of the dock and rapier falling from his hand. He groaned, trying to roll over, but Illandra planted her foot on his chest and leaned over him, glaring. “Maybe I’ll just kill you. Say I saw you fightin’ a thief and he offed you.”
“Fuck... you,” he gasped, crying out again as she drove her rapier back into his shoulder wound, twisting it and grinning sadistically. “I’ll... I can’t...” He struggled to pull in breaths, grabbing her ankle and desperately trying to push her off of him. This wasn’t going to be the end for him. They were going to get that godsdamned treasure, and he and Natsu were going to live a life of adventure. Together. He wasn’t going to die.
“I think I’ll just leave you here,” Illandra muttered, removing her foot and kicking him in the ribs. Something was happening down at the other end of the dock and she looked away, distracted. “Looks like I’ve got some other miscreants to take care of. I'll be back in a bit – if you’re still breathing.”
Gray groaned as she walked away, curling up on his side and breathing sharply against the pain. C’mon, Natsu, he thought desperately. This time I need you to save me.
Erza stood next to the carriage, frowning in confusion at the three men who stumbled out of the casino. She could hear screams and crashing from inside, and it appeared that part of the second floor was on fire.
“Well, we ran into some problems,” Rogue growled, giving Natsu venomous look. Natsu was carrying Sting on his back, and Sting was whimpering, shaking his head and squeezing his eyes shut.
“What the fuck’s wrong with him?” Erza asked, sliding open the carriage door and helping them all inside. “Weren’t you supposed to waltz out of here as a bondsmage? Did you get anything? And why is everything on fire?”
“Long story,” Natsu replied, yanking the carriage door shut. Erza jumped into the front and sighed, rubbing her face. “We’d better go, I’m not certain how many bees are left and, well, we don’t want to get stung.” He snickered and gestured at Sting, who was sitting on the floor of the carriage with his head buried in his knees.
Erza groaned, clicking her tongue at the horses and urging them down the road toward the docks. That’s where the bees ended up. “I take it our escape won’t go unnoticed now?” she said, sighing in resignation. “I’ll have you know we lit the Ashgate up too, since your fucking plan went to hell.”
“It’s on fire, eh?” Natsu grinned, tugging off his mask and hood and throwing them to the floor. “I’m sure Gray was thrilled about that. Is he at the docks?” Erza nodded tersely, turning the carriage down the cobblestone street toward the harbor. “Here’s hoping he’s got better luck with the dockmaster than we’ve had.”
The dock wasn’t far, and they ditched the cart several blocks away, making the rest of the trek on foot. Sting appeared to be coming out of the stupor a bit, but still waved away invisible moths from in front of his face and whispered about them to Rogue, who ran a soothing hand up and down his back.
“I don’t see them,” Erza whispered, crouching behind a stack of crates and peering down the length of the dock. At about the midpoint, a ship swayed and bobbed on the water, a single lantern lit under the cabin door. “That’s our girl. Perfect ship for you, you idiot.” She smacked Natsu up the side of the head and gestured to the name scrawled along the bow. Dramatic Exit. He snorted.
“Well, we’d best find Gray and get on board,” Rogue murmured, pulling Sting closer to him as they made their way out from behind the crates. “Hopefully we won’t interrupt anything untoward.” He elbowed Natsu, who rolled his eyes.
They moved silently under the moonlight, slipping between patches of darkness until they were almost at the ship. Erza stepped out to cross the dock when a loud voice rang out.
“Hold, you thieves!”
“Shitfuck,” Erza hissed, hand immediately dropping to her rapier as she saw the dockmaster approaching, limping slightly and rapier drawn. “Gray’s not with her. Rogue, get Sting to the ship. Natsu—”
“Already on it,” he whispered, grabbing the netting around one of the crates and hoisting himself upward. “I’ll find him and meet you at the ship.”
Erza’s rapier was familiar in her fingers as she levelled it at the dockmaster, who looked somewhat out of breath. It was gratifying to see a red stain spreading out over the thigh of her breeches, but the blood dripping from her own rapier wasn’t comforting.
“Here for your friend?” Illandra sneered, stepping toward Erza and attacking straight off the bat. Erza parried, stepping so that her body was between the dockmaster and her friends. “I’m not that easily fooled by a pretty face.”
“What did you do to him?” Erza snarled, moving in to Illandra’s space and thrusting forward, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction when her blade sunk into the flesh below Illandra's ribs. Illandra snarled and stepped back, pressing her hand to the bleeding wound. “Where. Is. He.”
“Dead now, most likely,” Illandra growled, moving into a defensive stance that Erza recognized well. Hargeon fighting style was much different than Magnolian, and often less effective. Perfect. “Last I saw he was bleeding out on the ground.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Erza saw Natsu leaping between crates, peering between each of them before moving on to the next. Gray wasn’t dead. Natsu would find him. She turned back to Illandra and glared at her before advancing on her once again.
“Gray!” Natsu didn’t care at this point who heard him. Sting and Rogue were already on the ship, and he could see that they were casting off and readying to sail. He needed to find Gray quick, and if he had to kill a hundred men to do it – well, so be it. “Gray, where are you?”
“H-here.” Gray’s voice was weak and Natsu followed it, leaping from one shipping crate to the next. He finally saw his partner, curled up on his side and clutching his shoulder in a pool of blood. Natsu swore and climbed halfway down the cargo crates, then jumped the rest of the way and ran to Gray.
“Hey, hey, you’re gonna be okay, love,” Natsu murmured as he helped Gray turn onto his back. Gray’s face was white and his hand was sticky with blood, and when he looked up at Natsu, his eyes were unfocused. “Gray, look at me. We’re gonna get you out of here.” A deep slash on the side of Gray’s neck was still pumping out blood and Natsu swore.
“You... came...” Gray groaned, gritting his teeth and pushing his head back into the wooden planks. Natsu tore off his cravat and pressed it to the neck wound, apologizing under his breath as Gray cried out in pain.
“Of course I came, you idiot,” Natsu whispered, sliding his arms under Gray’s head and legs and lifting him easily. “I’ll always come for you. Let’s get you out of here.”
He stumbled to the edge of the line of crates and peered down the dock where Erza was still engaged with Illandra. He swore, glancing at the ship that was slowly pulling away from the dock. He couldn’t swim with Gray like this.
“Natsu!” A figure darted down the dock toward him. “Go help Erza, I’ll take Gray.” It was Rogue, and his arms were out to take Gray. Natsu was reluctant to let Gray go, but passed him over regardless. “We’ll hold as long as we can, but you’re going to have to swim.”
“Sink us ten-thousand fathoms deep, why is this all going to hell?” Natsu cursed, taking the daggers that Rogue offered him. “Get on the ship and make way, don’t wait for us. Even if it’s past time, just go. Get him safe and patched up. Sting too.” Rogue looked like he might argue but didn’t, and Natsu leaned down and pressed a kiss to Gray’s forehead. “You’ll be safe, love. See you on the other side.”
Natsu kissed Rogue’s cheek as well, then squeezed his shoulder and motioned to the boat. “Go,” he murmured, and Rogue sighed, turning and taking off toward the ship. Natsu turned toward the battle at the end of the dock and hefted the daggers into his hands, breaking into a run.
“You’re too late!” Erza shouted, parrying Illandra’s blow and stepping around her expertly. She glanced at the departing ship and Illandra followed her gaze for a moment, face twisted in anger and frustration. Erza took advantage of the distraction to step into Illandra’s space and slam her fist into the woman’s face.
“Well, I was going to help,” Natsu said as he approached the pair, daggers in hand, slightly out of breath. Erza grabbed Illandra around the neck from behind and Natsu snatched the dockmaster’s rapier from her hand, tossing it off the edge of the dock and into the water. “Looks like you’re holding your own, though.”
“’course I am,” Erza huffed, bringing her other arm around the side of Illandra’s neck and squeezing. “Sweet dreams.” She grinned as Illandra’s eyes rolled back and she slumped against Erza, unconscious. Erza dropped her unceremoniously on the ground, then sheathed her rapier and turned to Natsu. “How’s Gray?”
“Not good,” Natsu replied, looking out to the ship worriedly. “Let’s go.”
They ran toward the end of the pier where the boat was heading out to sea. Natsu tore off the cloak and fancy velvet jacket, tucking the cylinder inside his shirt – luckily it appeared to be watertight. Erza followed suit until they were both dressed in only their shirts and undergarments, shivering in the cold night air.
“Ready?” she asked, reaching over and squeezing his hand in a rare display of affection. He nodded, preoccupied with thoughts of Gray and the sight of blood on his fingers.
“There they are!” A loud shout came from the end of the dock and there was a thwack as a crossbow bolt lodged itself into the wood between them, quivering from the force. Natsu could just make out several watchmen, all bearing alchemical lanterns and crossbows.
“Fucking hell,” he cursed, grabbing Erza’s arm. “Jump!”
The water was freezing. Natsu gasped as he surfaced, skin prickling from the shock. There was a splash next to him in the water and he swore as another crossbow bolt sunk to the bottom of the bay. Erza was ahead of him, already swimming in smooth strokes out to the ship, and Natsu followed behind her as quickly as he could.
“Don’t let them escape!” One of the guards shouted, and the water around them soon became filled with splashing and the sound of bolts flying past their heads. Erza grunted at one point as one of them clipped her shoulder, but she resolutely ignored it and continued swimming.
The boat seemed like it was getting further away, not closer. Natsu’s chest was on fire, and he gasped for breath, straining to kick his legs and move his arms. The sounds of crossbow fire faded into the distance, and he thanked the Twelve for that, stubbornly pushing forward.
“Grab on!” Natsu looked up blearily and realized that they’d made it. His fingers were frozen and he was barely able to grab the knotted rope that had been tossed over the side. “Just hang on, we’ll pull you up.” That was Sting’s voice – the venom must have worn off. Natsu clung to the rope desperately, wincing as his bare arm scraped the rough edge of the ship.
Sting hauled Natsu over the railing, holding him tightly and wrapping a hand around the back of his neck. “Shit, you’re freezing.” He shrugged off his cloak and wrapped it around Natsu’s shoulders, pulling him away from the railing and toward the captain’s cabin. ”Get her in here, too,” Sting called back to Rogue.
Natsu was vaguely aware of the crewman around him, moving about admidship and shouting things to each other. His teeth wouldn‘t stop chattering and he couldn’t feel his hands – this had seemed like such a grand idea before it had been executed.
“C’mon, you need to get changed,” Sting urged, tugging Natsu through the door to the quarters and pushing him inside. Gray lay on the bed, face white and eyes closed, and a woman was leaning over him, stitching up the wound in his neck.
“He’ll be just fine,” she replied, and Natsu watched, mesmerized as the needle flew in and out of Gray’s skin. “It's a serious wound but you got to him in time. He’ll live. You, on the other hand, are going to freeze to death if you don’t get dressed.”
Several hours later, the five of them sat together in the captain’s quarters, all squished onto the bed. Erza and Natsu were finally warm enough to feel their fingers again, although Natsu felt slightly queasy from the rocking of the boat.
“So... does this mean I’m a pirate captain?” Natsu asked, grinning. Gray kicked his ankle weakly, rolling his eyes. He was only barely awake, leaning against Natsu’s chest and blinking sleepily against the effects of the laudanum the ship’s surgeon had given him for the pain. Natsu ran a gentle hand through his hair, careful to avoid the bandage across his neck and shoulder.
“You’re reckless,” Gray murmured, nuzzling Natsu’s shoulder.
“We’re all alive,” Sting countered, one arm wrapped around Rogue and the other around Erza. “And more or less in one piece.” He grinned at Gray. “I don’t think someone’s ever turned me down so badly that they stuck a dagger in me, though.”
Gray flipped him off weakly, trying to glare but mostly just looking confused. “Fuck... fuck you,” he grumbled. He buried his face in Natsu’s chest and Natsu kissed his head, face softening for a moment to something the others didn’t often see.
“Well, I'll ask it,” Rogue said after a moment, leaning forward. “After cheating our way through the Sinspire, getting arrested, breaking out, setting the prison on fire, starting a brawl and then releasing one hundred and fifty fucking bees into an enclosed space...”
Here Sting glared at Natsu, who looked only mildly apologetic.
“...what did we get for it? Obviously not coin.” Rogue raised an eyebrow as Sting and Erza murmured in agreement. Natsu reached over to the table next to the bed, digging around in the pile of wet clothes until he found the brass tube.
“This,” he said proudly, waving it at the three of them. Gray frowned up at it.
“What is it?” he asked, reaching up and poking it. Natsu shrugged.
“Not a clue.”
There was a moment of silence, interrupted only by the soft swell of waves against the side of the ship. Erza chewed her lip for a moment, opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it, shaking her head.
“Well,” Sting said, grabbing the case from Natsu’s hand. “Let’s find out.”
He poked and prodded at it for a moment, finally finding the clasp and fiddling with it for a moment to unlatch the top of the tube. It fell to the bed and he peered inside, then slowly withdrew a rolled-up sheet of parchment.
“This is timeworn,” he commented. A red wax seal held the parchment shut, bearing the symbol of an anchor with the calligraphed letters A on one side and L on the other. He held it up for the group and they all shrugged at the unfamiliar signet. “Shall I?”
They all nodded and Sting ran his finger along the edge of the parchment, the movement cutting through the tension in the room. He spread the paper on the bed between them, rolling it out, then placing one half of the tube on one side and the cap on the other to keep it flat.
“It’s a map,” Erza said, and although the statement was obvious, the note of excitement in her voice was telling. She didn’t get roused for much.
“Of where?” Rogue asked, leaning over and running his fingers along the design. It had been composed with impeccable care, despite being very, very old. Natsu sat up a little and Gray grumbled, wrapping an arm around him and kissing his neck.
“Look, love,” Natsu said gently, drawing Gray’s attention to the map. He traced his finger along the line of the mountains in one corner, over the stylized compass, and then to the meticulous column of notes along the right-hand side. “It’s not in Therin,” he commented, frowning at the unfamiliar characters.
“’s Keldish,” Gray replied, wincing as he sat up a little. “From the south.”
“Can you read it?” Sting asked. They were all generally fluent in the northern dialects, but none of them had ever travelled past the Iron Sea.
“Bit,” Gray replied, rubbing his face. “’m a little hazy now, but...” he moved Natsu’s fingers out of the way and tapped on the first line of text. “This one. It’s talking about, uh... not gold, but... kjahaat. Riches?”
“Treasure,” Natsu breathed, turning to press a kiss to Gray’s cheek. “It’s a treasure map!” His face lit up and he grinned at the rest of the group, nearly bouncing in excitement. “We already have a ship and everything!”
“How do we even know it’s real?” Erza said skeptically. “Also, speaking for all of us – in the future, real coin is generally preferable to hypothetical future coin.” Rogue and Sting snorted simultaneously.
“Oh, come on, why have coin when we could have an adventure?” Natsu grinned at them and, while Erza rolled her eyes at his words, she couldn’t deny that his enthusiasm was infectious.
“You don’t know the first thing about sailing,” Rogue countered, but his lip was already quirked up in a smile.
“Then we’ll learn!” Natsu said, and they could tell by the tone of his voice that they were all going to be dragged into this, willingly or kicking and screaming. “It can’t be that hard if this ragtag group can do it. And they won’t be bondsmen anymore – we'll offer them all a share.”
There was a moment of silence where they all looked at each other, faces all slowly transforming into excited grins. Natsu looked back down at the parchment again, then grabbed Gray’s hand and kissed his head.
“Let’s do this,” he said, looking around at his friends – his family – and tapping the map. “Let’s be pirates.”