Beta: xSteleAliniax, who has been by my side since the beginning of this story and is an amazing friend. Thanks for always supporting me! x

Chapter Two: Requip & Revelations

Everything not saved will be lost.

- Nintendo "quit screen" message

Lucy groaned as the gap between her bedroom window curtains caused a beam of light to hit her smack dab in the face. She muttered a curse and rolled over to go back to sleep, but her body was aching and she could feel a pounding beginning just behind her eyelids.

It's too early on a Saturday morning to be dealing with life. She glanced at the clock for confirmation. It was only 9:37 am.

Yup, way too early. She snuggled back under her warm duvet, trying to ignore the niggling sensation in the back of her skull. Her murky brain struggled for a moment and then she remembered.

"Oh shit, oh shit, shit shit shit!" Lucy threw back her covers and dove into the bathroom. She had agreed to meet Erza this morning at 10 am and she had exactly twenty-three minutes to get ready and figure out where she was supposed to be.

She made short work of her morning prep: teeth, hair pulled into a high ponytail. The pounding in her head intensified, and she fumbled for a bottle of headache potion: it was bitter, orange and tasted vile, but she washed it down with a glass of lukewarm tap water. So gross. She could taste the disgusting potion on her tongue as she stumbled back toward her bedroom.

She shucked off her sleepwear and pulled on some clothes, hopefully in the right order - but who the hell cares when you're running late for Erza 'The Titania' Scarlet? She frowned when she looked down at her chest to discover she was wearing a tatty grey shirt that had a faded Mermaid Heel emblem across the chest in hot pink. It was far too worn and baggy for the normally haute couture Lucy Heartfillia to be wearing out in public. Oh well...too late to change now.

Eleven minutes before she had to meet Erza.

After a frantic, panicked dig inside her closet, she found her sneakers in the recessed depths and, not bothering to undo the laces, shoved them on her feet. She grabbed her purse and keys and staggered out her front door. She ran down the two flights of stairs to her best friend's apartment and skidded to a halt in front of the door.

"We're dead! We're so dead!" Lucy yelled in greeting as she pounded on the door.

"I know!" Came the muffled reply before the door flew open. She was relieved that Levy was all dressed and ready to go, aside from the toothbrush dangling out of her mouth.

"Lemme gist spit." Levy raced to the bathroom and then quickly reappeared beside Lucy, grabbing her own purse and shoving the blonde toward her apartment door. "Let's go!"

Lucy checked her watch. They only had seven minutes left and she didn't think Erza cared much for tardiness.

"Where are we meeting Erza?"

"The park!" Levy shouted. Both girls raced down the apartment stairs and burst onto the street, attracting stares from passersby as they zipped past, Lucy almost running into a woman with a stroller as they rounded a corner.

"Sorry!" She ignored the dirty look. She was in for much worse if she didn't get to the requip wizard soon. "Where in the park?"

She hoped the bluenette knew where they were going.

Lucy had only been to the park a handful of times and hadn't ventured too far in, usually just stopping to sit on a bench to have a quiet lunch or to read a couple of chapters of a book. The park was vast, spanning several square miles.

"At the duck pond," Levy gasped, putting on a burst of speed that Lucy hadn't known the girl possessed. She sped up as well. They didn't waste much-needed breath on words and instead concentrated on running as fast as they could.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes ticked by as they ran. Lucy's stomach started cramping with anxiety, the pounding in her head thumping like a drumbeat.

As they neared the duck pond, Erza appeared in the rapidly shortening distance. She had her sword out and her back to them, cutting down invisible enemies. Seeing 'The Titania' with a weapon in her hands gave the girls an extra jolt of adrenaline and Lucy pulled ahead of Levy, desperate to get to the requip mage.

"Erza!" She wheezed out as soon as she was within heavily-deprived-of-oxygen distance.

The requip mage swirled elegantly on her heel, blade flashing in the sunlight as she sliced it through the air and then ended in a defensive crouch, the sword horizontal and at the perfect height to slice open an enemy's throat. She fluidly sheathed it at her hip.

What the hell is she wearing?

It looked like surgical gauze had been used to bind Erza's breasts together. The red flowing pants she wore with black flames at the hem seemed tame by comparison.

"What a wonderful idea to start your workout with a run. Why didn't you tell me you wanted to get a few miles in before we started our training? I would've joined you," Erza said, flipping back her long ponytail.

Lucy hadn't run full out like this in months. She bent over, clasping her thighs as she sucked in air. Levy was in a similar state, collapsing on a park bench.

"It was a last minute decision," Lucy replied, deeply regretting she didn't bring a bottle of water with her. She was parched...the alcohol in her system from last night had left her dehydrated.

"We shall add a brisk run to our morning exercises, three times a week," Erza stated firmly.

"Sounds great," Levy panted out sarcastically. Erza didn't seem to notice her tone.

"We shall?" Lucy could taste the headache medicine in her mouth again and started coughing uncontrollably. Erza dug into her backpack, pulling out two water bottles and handed one to each girl.

Lucy and Levy both lunged for the water bottles, ripping off the caps and guzzling the sweet, clear liquid.

Sweet elixir of life, Lucy chugged the water back.

"I forgot to mention that my training program would be quite rigorous. I advise you both to bring extra water each time we meet, but I will always be well stocked with supplies. A good instructor never lets those under her charge suffer from dehydration," Erza's voice was like iron. She pulled a couple more water bottles from her pack upon noticing that both girls had drained their first bottles, and then declared it was time to get down to work.

"My, do you girls work out at all? Your bodies are incredibly sluggish," Erza denounced from far above them, seemingly a giant about to crush their weak, defenseless bodies into the ground.

Erza had pushed them to the absolute physical limit. Skipping, running, jumping, crunches, lifting weights — she had brought weights with her! Heavy ones.

She claimed she wanted them to eventually do mixed martial arts, but after a brief stint of 'light' sparring that almost killed them, the redhead declared with real sadness in her voice: "Your reflexes are far too slow to do an effective martial arts workout right now."

"We do yoga twice a week," Levy wanted to put a bit more oomph in her reply at Erza's insult that they were out of shape, but that was hard to do when every muscle in her body was screaming in pain and she was drenched in sweat.

Erza had the lightest sheen of sweat dotted on her brow but her clothes were dryer fresh. The world really was unjust.

Lucy tried to come to their defense, but was having trouble speaking. Her stomach had been tender this morning, but now nausea came in steady waves.

"We ran track all through high school," she said through gritted teeth as the urge to vomit right on Erza's shoes intensified. It was a petty — and no doubt suicidal thought if Erza had telepathy — but it made her feel a bit better.

"Kagura taught us self defence," Levy remarked, remembering their former Mermaid Heel guild mate. Kagura was as fierce as the redhead and probably equally as skilled with her katana as Erza was with her swords.

"Hmmm…perhaps you ran too far without me this morning and it drained you of energy. You must learn to pace yourselves better," said Erza, standing with her hands on her hips.

She wanted to retort that Erza had been one of those to veto her switching to water last night, but she held back the remark. She didn't have a death wish. She rolled onto her back, body flung out like a starfish.

Beside her, Levy was anchoring her weight on both elbows. "When my vision returns, why don't I buy you both breakfast?"

She smiled gratefully, her stomach rumbling audibly when Levy suggested a small café around the corner from their apartment building that was famous for its pancakes.

"That is a most thoughtful offer, but perhaps you both would like to go home to shower and change first?" Erza asked.

Lucy wondered if she looked as exhausted as she felt. She glanced over to assess Levy. The tiny mage was flushed and sweaty. Her blue hair, which normally had a natural curl, was stringy and sticking to her neck. She supposed she wasn't about to win a beauty contest, either. Her clothing itched with drying sweat and her vision was blurry.

"We can meet up in exactly one hour." The requip wizard offered a hand to help them up in turn.

Lucy's stomach lurched before she found her footing and she felt light-headed, but at least she was upright. Erza lived in Fairy Hills, the opposite direction that Levy and Lucy were going. Both girls leaned on each other for support and watched the redhead jog briskly away, the pace she set faster than even Lucy and Levy's frantic dash this morning.

The second Lucy was sure the beast was out of earshot, she wailed, "Sweet Mavis! Parts I didn't even know I had in my body hurt! I think I hurt my spleen!"

"I know! I thought Kagura's workouts were bad! Isn't that part of the reason we left Mermaid Heel? To get away from demon women who hurt us?"

"Probably. Sounds like as good of excuse as any."

"Ready to go, Lu-chan?" Levy asked, linking arms with the celestial mage.

"It hurts to move," Lucy cried, "but I need a shower."

They hobbled through the park: sweaty, sore, slovenly. With great difficulty, the pair slowly dragged themselves back to their apartment building.

"I'm sore in places I didn't even know existed," Levy complained as they mounted the steps to their suites.

"Hey, that's my line," Lucy protested weakly, her legs felt like they might buckle at any moment.

"Take it, I don't need it. Here's my floor. Hope the next two flights aren't too bad for you, Lu-chan!" Levy trilled out, her apartment door in sight.

Lucy stuck out her tongue and literally huffed and puffed her way up to her own apartment, using the banister for support. She threw open the door and beelined to the bathroom, turning on the shower.

She pulled off her sticky, gross clothing and then stepped into the heavenly heat, groaning in pleasure at the way the hot water felt hitting her aching muscles. She leisurely shampooed her hair, humming tunelessly, her mind utterly blank as she simply enjoyed the heat coursing through her. When her hair was done, she washed every inch of her body with vanilla and jasmine scented soap. Twice. She was fanatical about hygiene, showering every morning and ending most nights with a hot soak in the tub.

After she towelled off, she threw on a fluffy white bathrobe and padded to her bedroom closet. She wouldn't admit it to Erza, but she loved this feeling: her muscles all sore yet oddly spongy after a vigorous workout, being all fresh from the shower and ready to start her day.

She quickly dressed in a short black skirt and a low-cut red midriff top. She sat at her desk, applying lemon meringue scented lotion to her legs as she looked over the half-written reply letter she'd started to her dad. She liked him to know she was doing well.

Jude Heartfilia was an exceptionally stoic man, but he had surprised her completely by giving her his blessings to join Fairy Tail. He even had helped furnish her apartment. She hadn't wanted to bring more than necessities though, and certainly not the priceless art and lavish rugs that her father collected.

Instead, she had turned to Erza for help. The redhead had a flair for interior design and had used her 'powers of persuasion' to get deep discounts on pictures, area rugs, throw pillows and kitchenware for her.

Levy had been so impressed by Ezra's finds, that she had solicited her help in decorating her own apartment, although in Levy's case it was more about finding bookcases to try to accommodate her voluminous book collection.

Lucy gave a fond smile as she thought of the requip wizard. It had been mere weeks since they'd become friends, but she couldn't imagine life without her.

She glanced at the clock and figured she'd better finish writing to her dad later. She dried her hair, pulling it into a side ponytail with a red ribbon to match her shirt.

Feeling a bit smug about how nicely the outfit she'd chosen accentuated her curves, she made her way to Levy's apartment. Out of habit, she tried the door, knowing it would be unlocked.

"One of these days it'll be a burglar or a rapist, Levy-chan!" Lucy shouted by way of greeting.

Levy poked her head out of her bedroom, her hair still damp, but pulled back by a yellow headband. She was in a short orange dress that complemented her blue hair and pale skin in a striking way.

"You always say that. It hasn't happened yet." Levy smirked.

"Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't."

Levy shrugged, "I'd like to see someone try. Between my magic, the self defense I know and the bloodcurdling scream that I know would send you running to check on me, no one is going to make off with my books or my virginity without my say so."

Lucy privately agreed with Levy's estimation of herself. The endless towers of books created a winding obstacle course through Levy's apartment (Erza could only do so much). Only a very small person could navigate the twisting paths without knocking a whole bunch of books over. Lucy knew. Her boobs and hips had created just such a domino effect more than once.

"Just promise me that you'll lock it at night, okay? It's all I ask."

"Lu-chan, of course I lock my door at night," Levy waved a distracted hand, moving a few books out of the way so she could sit on her loveseat and put on her orange ballet flats.

She gave a snort of disbelief. "Really? Because I remember one time I came in at 2 am and it wasn't locked."

Her best friend blushed, voice coming out small. "But I was reading."

She stood and Lucy followed as she pulled open her apartment door.

"Oh reading! Well, why didn't you say so? It's not like you do that too often," she teased as they exited the apartment.

Levy made a big show of digging out her keys and carefully locking her door. Lucy rolled her eyes at her. They walked out of their apartment building and Lucy smiled, stretching her arms and basking in the sunlight that warmed her tired muscles, her headache fully gone.

As they walked, she remembered something Levy had said.

"Lev...why did you say I should be dating mages last night?"

Levy's face turned scarlet, but despite her small stature, Levy McGarden was never one to back away from a challenge.

"I've seen the way you look at Gray. It's obvious that you like him." She stuck her chin out defensively. "I was tipsy but I really do think you'd make a cute couple."

Lucy sighed, reaching up to twist the end of her ponytail between two fingers. "I think he's gorgeous, but so do you. I've seen you ogling those washboard abs. Why don't you date him?"

"I admire him physically but I'm not attracted to him." Levy replied succinctly.

Lucy burst out laughing at her friend's words and serious expression.

"I admire him physically? Oh, Lev, that's gold!" Tears formed and she had to stop walking to clench her stomach. Levy was laughing beside her.

"I'm not attracted to you, but I admire your physicality," she mimicked Levy's grave tone before dissolving into giggles again.

Levy pushed imaginary glasses up her nose and gave Lucy a stern once-over, "You're a fine specimen of human development but we can never be as one, Gray Fullbuster."

They both snort-laughed, then pointed at each other for the unladylike snorts. Lucy made a fish-face at Levy. The bluenette stuck out her tongue then opened her mouth wide, in a parody of a very sloppy, very open-mouthed and totally disgusting air kiss. They shared another laugh before they caught the wafting odor of pancakes.

Lucy had thought she was famished before, but now her stomach was positively aching. "So hungry!"

Levy nodded in agreement, walking a bit faster until they reached the café. Lucy pulled open the door and was surprised to find they had beaten the requip wizard there. A waitress came and they were directed to a patio table outside under the shade of a green umbrella. They ordered three waters while they waited for the redhead, browsing the menu.

Lucy caught a flash of light near the patio door entrance and was almost blinded by the sunlight reflecting off of the redhead's armour. She raised one hand to shield her eyes as the requip wizard approached, wearing what she had come to think of as Erza's daily armour: silver chest plate, gauntlets, a navy blue pleated skirt and knee-high black boots. Erza's hair was left down, a thick red waterfall flowing to her waist. Her flawless skin didn't have a hint of makeup. Lucy repressed a twinge of jealousy at how gorgeous the requip mage looked.

"Levy, Lucy, I'm pleased you are both more punctual to our brunch date this morning." Erza slid into the chair beside Levy.

"I'm glad you could make it, Erza," Lucy said, a tad stiffly. Erza had such a strict way of speaking that she found it difficult to talk casually with her. She tended to mimic the more rigid speech patterns that Erza used unless she consciously made the effort not to.

"Of course. I always enjoy spending time with my brethren," Erza replied as she perched a pair of reading glasses on her nose and then opened up her menu, perusing the options.

Levy closed her own menu and glanced over at Erza. "They serve breakfast all day, if that's what you're thinking of having. The sandwiches are pretty tasty, too."

Erza's eyes seemed to alight on something on the menu. "They have strawberry crepes. That will suffice."

Lucy took a bit longer with her menu. She really wanted pancakes but she knew a fruit and yogurt combo would be healthier for her. She bit her lip, debating when the waitress appeared before them. Levy ordered blueberry pancakes and Erza ordered her crepes.

Oh, what the hell, you only live once and you had a great workout.

"I'll have the giant apple pancake and an orange juice," she said, handing the menu to their waitress.

"Sounds good, I'll be right back with your drinks, ladies." The waitress smiled and then disappeared back inside the cafe.

The women started discussing books, with Lucy quickly losing interest. Erza wanted to know about ancient weaponry from Levy.

Lucy started to tune them out as they both talked animatedly about different cultures and different weapons used. The waitress placed Lucy's juice in front of her, then a small pot of tea was put in front of Levy. She refilled Erza's water glass before disappearing again.

Lucy took small sips of her juice as the other two women debated about which cultures had the best swords and armour while Levy kept steering the conversation toward defensive strategy and wars. Erza seemed to have a keen military mind—to Lucy's half-paying-attention grasp of the super boring conversation—and Levy was clearly in her element, doling out her vast academic knowledge.

At least they're happy. She started daydreaming about Gray and his perfect torso. She wished she could map each dip of hardened muscle on his shoulders, biceps, pecs and especially the oh-so-worth-exploration abdominal muscles.

Such extensive cartography work would probably take a long time, but she was willing to log in the hours.

The food arrived mid-fantasy, hitting her with the intoxicating scent of cinnamon and apples. She dug in. "This is so good," she moaned around her first bite of pancake.

Erza and Levy seemed equally smitten with their breakfast choices. Levy sighed happily as she ate her blueberry pancakes. Erza was incredibly focused on her crepes, cutting out each small bite with surgical precision.

The girls took several exuberant bites to satisfy their initial hunger before Erza broke the silence, "So, what were you two discussing before I got here?"

Levy took a slow sip of her tea and then dabbed her mouth with a napkin.

"Lucy thinks Gray is hot."

Lucy's mouth opened in horror at her so-called best friend, but no words came out. She couldn't believe Levy would be telling Erza this! Mermaid Heel's dearth of male members had obviously hindered some latent matchmaking abilities that Levy had been harbouring.

Erza shrugged as she cut another 1"x1" square of crepe. "Gray is a very handsome man. He's a capable wizard and a loyal friend. If you decide to engage in a relationship with him, I wish you happiness."

"I didn't even say I liked him," she grumbled, spearing another piece of pancake with a bit more force than necessary before popping it into her mouth.

"Don't you?" Erza and Levy asked simultaneously, eyes wide in disbelief.

Geez, I must be an open book. She vowed then and there to try to hide her emotions better. She chewed on her pancake and thought carefully before answering.

"Yes, I find him attractive," she fessed up to the unexpected Spanish Inquisition. Maybe if she told the truth, they'd go easy on her.

"But I've lived a sheltered life…we both have," she pointed her fork to include Levy. "I'm not sure if what I'm feeling is just a crush or something more."

"What does it matter if it's just a crush or something deeper? The only way you can find out is if you spend more time with the man," Levy coaxed gently.

"You're right. I know you're right. I'm just afraid," she confessed, taking another bite of her almost-finished breakfast. Levy and Erza let the words sink in, each with their own different thoughts on the matter.

Levy couldn't see what she was so anxious about. Lucy was gorgeous. Everywhere they went, guys were rubbernecking to get another look at the blonde mage. "Look at you, Lu-chan. Any guy would be lucky to have you."

Lucy heard the sincerity in Levy's voice and gave a wan smile. "It's not about looks, Lev. He's a member of our guild. I don't want to get emotionally attached to a friend and then suddenly not be his friend. That would just be awkward for all of us."

Erza hadn't been invested in the conversation when there were strawberry crepes requiring her attention, but as Lucy's word sunk in, she found herself nodding in agreement. She had wanted to tell her new friends something for a while and now seemed like the perfect opportunity.

"Lucy is right," Erza said, measuring out her words carefully. "I...didn't lead the type of life that the two of you did growing up. A lot of stuff happened to me when I was very young. I relied heavily on another person. The wrong person, as it turned out. It…warped everything around me. I had to leave a group of friends that I had considered my family because being around them was a constant reminder of him."

Lucy exchanged a shocked glance with Levy. They had never seen Erza look vulnerable before.

The redhead squared her shoulders and fixed Lucy with a stare that sent a shiver down the younger girl's spine.

"You've dated a few boys, but Gray is not someone I would permit being toyed with emotionally. It's best if you take some time to truly evaluate your feelings before embarking on a relationship with him. I take my friendships very seriously and both you and Gray are my friends. I would not wish to see either one of you hurt." Erza's eyes were boring into Lucy's so intently that Lucy fake-coughed just to break eye contact.

Lucy wasn't comfortable talking about any of this, but decided to address the elephant in the room.

"You guys are talking about this decision as if it's only mine to make. I have no idea if Gray has any feelings about me other than casual friendship."

And maybe some light flirting, she thought to herself before continuing.

"All that I really know about him is that he uses ice make magic and that he's super cute! I don't want to start weighing relationship pros and cons right now. Hell, I've never even been alone with him in the same room!" She shoved her plate away, irritated and suddenly full.

Levy seemed to sense that a change of topic was in order. She twisted her hands together in her lap, unsure on how to proceed delicately, but very much wanting to hear more about the requip mage's former life.

"Erza...what happened to you?" Levy asked in a hushed whisper.

Erza took her napkin off her lap and folded it neatly before laying it on her plate. She took a long sip of water and seemed to be contemplating her next words. As if all sensed a pivotal moment, a silence blanketed the table. Lucy and Levy stared at the redhead in anticipation. It took several moments before Erza finally spoke, her voice soft and hesitant.

"I don't remember exactly how I got there. Most of the children were captured from other villages, but we heard rumours that some were sold by their own parents. I least I hope, I was stolen away from people who once loved me, but I don't really know." Erza voice was hollow, as if she was talking about something tragic that had happened to someone else.

"I was very young, maybe four at the time. There were a lot of children there. We were put in this prison. The adults who kidnapped us came. They...tortured us, forced us to work at building this thing, this tower. Jellal was only a bit older than I was, but he protected me." Erza paused, trying to stick to the facts.

She sighed heavily, shaking her head, "No, that's not right; it wasn't just me. He protected everyone. I think I must have come from far away. I knew only my first name and I didn't speak the language the other children did. I can still remember not understanding what was being told to me."

She swallowed hard before continuing, "They used to...hurt me for that. Jellal - he taught me - first by speaking and then by writing. I can still remember, even now, how clumsy the words felt in my mouth, trying to twist my tongue around what Jellal was trying to teach me. I had to learn fast to avoid being punished..." Erza's voice petered out.

"You were just a child." Lucy couldn't comprehend something so terrible happening. She knew slavery existed, but to round up children? She wanted to put her head in her hands and cry. At the same time, she felt a white-hot rage; she wanted to use her magic to find these slavers and imprison every last one of them. And if her spirits got a bit overzealous or Lucy doled out a few scars with her whip, so be it.

Erza breathed out a soft sigh, looking at each girl carefully. "It was a long time ago. I will never forgive or forget, but I have moved on. Fairy Tail is my family now. Being part of the guild has given me unexpected strength. I consider my guild mates as more than friends; everyone who is a part of Fairy Tail is a part of me. We are a team, every last one of us with strengths and weaknesses."

She paused and took a long swallow of water.

"The bonds I shared with my previous family were forged in pain, loneliness, and a common goal to defeat those who harmed us. That type of bond is strong," she admitted, "Unbelievably strong...but tinged with sadness, too. Fairy Tail was a fresh start. Clean. The bonds of friendship I have formed are from mutual respect. When I fight, it is with the strength I have gained from my brothers and sisters here." Erza paused and then mused in a low whisper, so low the blonde was sure she wasn't meant to hear it. "Huh, maybe Jellal did me a favour by letting me discover my own path apart from his."

Levy and Lucy exchanged incredulous looks, not knowing what to think of the requip wizard's former relationship with this Jellal.

"Tell us about him," Levy implored and then clamped her hand over her mouth as if she couldn't believe she'd just asked that. Lucy winced in sympathy, but Erza took no offense.

"Jellal was brave. He was the bravest person I have ever known. He had blue hair like you, Levy — a shade darker. And he had this red birthmark that went from here," Erza pointed to her face, almost at her hairline above her right eye, "to here," she touched her face at level with her lips and smiled as if remembering something breathtakingly beautiful.

"He used to take my hand and urge me to be strong, to never give up. He believed in me. I was lucky in that sense. Some of the children, they were catatonic or would just cry all the time."

Erza didn't like to remember those kids, the worst-case ones. A few had been unreachable, even with Jellal, her and the other children trying to help. Some of the catatonic wouldn't eat. Some of the crying children would wail endlessly, even with no obvious injury. Jellal would try to help them: 'Please stop screaming and show me where it hurts,' he'd pled. But some people can't show you where it hurts. They can't stop screaming. Erza still heard them.

She shook her head from the dark, cobwebbed corners of her mind and refocused on Levy and Lucy. She couldn't save the ghosts of the past and she didn't want them haunting her friends as they did her, so she tried to find a better memory. There weren't a lot of happy memories in her childhood, but she found one.

Her expression brightened as she said, "One day the other kids were making fun of me for not having a last name and Jellal came to my rescue. He told me I should pick the name Scarlet because of how beautiful my hair was."

She subconsciously ran a hand through her thick mane, twisting a strand tightly around her index finger; the sunlight caught hints of burnished gold in her auburn hair. "I took the name, I couldn't bear to change it. We were slaves in that place…we didn't have anything. The way he said my name was like a gift."

There was a softness and vulnerability in her voice when she spoke of Jellal. A slight smile, too, whether she was aware of it or not.

"The day I took the name, I decided I was strong enough, if I had people who believed in me. I could keep fighting, no matter the odds, because true strength is in the heart." Erza's eyes glowed with determination.

She really is amazing. Lucy stared in awe at the older mage.

"Can I get you anything else?" The waitress appeared, check in hand, breaking the spell they had been under.

All three girls leaned back, unaware that they'd been leaning across the table toward each other to form a tight circle. Lucy shook her head and told the waitress they were fine while Levy pulled out the jewels needed to pay the bill.

Erza seemed to be regaining her composure; she let out a small puff of air from between her cheeks, reaching down to grab her own blue purse from underneath the table.

Lucy could tell the urge to flee was setting in, but the writer in her couldn't just let the story end here. She needed to know.

"What happened to Jellal?"

"He died," Erza said, her voice coming out hard and clipped. "Or at least, up until about a year ago I thought he was dead. Last I heard, he was working with some rogue mages who call themselves Crime Sorcière," she paused for a moment, "They fight against dark guilds."

Lucy absorbed that and offered, "It sounds like he's still brave, Erza."

Erza stood up from the table, brushing nonexistent crumbs off her skirt. "Yes, I'm sure he is. In some ways, he hasn't changed."

She didn't elaborate on the ways he had.

"I must be going now. Thank you for the lovely brunch. The food more than met my expectations. It will be my treat next time. I'm sure we will see each other soon," Erza's voice was tight and her eyes were shifting elsewhere, no longer focusing on her two friends.

Lucy couldn't help it, she needed to do more than just say goodbye. She stood up and reached over to give Erza a comforting hug. Suddenly, she found her face mashed into Erza's armoured breasts. She let out a strangled yelp, which was muffled by Erza forcibly pushing her head even further into her chest.

"You're a good friend, Lucy. You as well, Levy. I am grateful to have you both at Fairy Tail."

Erza released Lucy's head and pulled a surprised Levy into an equally bosomy hug. Levy's arms flailed momentarily before she was able to hug Erza back. After the brief hug, she released a squashed Levy and departed, leaving the astonished pair rubbing their cheeks where the metal of the breastplate had been.

Lucy felt a soft touch on her hand. "We should go, Lu-chan."


Lucy was already lost in thought. She wanted to write in her journal, to get Erza's story down while it was still fresh in her mind. A story such as this should not be forgotten. It would be a all the lost children who endured the same torture her friend had.

The short walk home was a blur, spent in silence, only broken when she bid Levy goodbye.

When she got to her own apartment, she sat down at her desk and pulled out some fresh sheets of paper. She spent the next three hours simply writing. First in her journal to document the story Erza had told them, then finishing the letter to her father, and finally pulling out a story she'd been struggling with. She wanted it to be an adventure story, but was feeling all out of adventure. Hearing about Erza's childhood made her want to cry. She couldn't think of anything happy or peppy to say right then so the shoved the story aside for another day.

She sighed to herself. Erza's story was wrought with different emotions. It was obvious she was still torn up about how she felt about her former childhood friend. She loved him, but there was something underneath…some uncertainty and hesitation. Something must have happened to break the trust between them; Erza had implied as much, but she hadn't divulged the whole story.

Erza hadn't mentioned what happened to Jellal in recent years...only that he'd died and was no longer in her life…except he wasn't dead. Erza had stated that she'd recently learned that he was still alive. Did that mean that there was a still a chance for Erza and her lost love? The writer and diehard romantic in Lucy wanted to know.

She stood up, stretching her back. Her butt numb from sitting too long and there was a kink in her neck. She pressed her fingers between her shoulder blade and spine to try to ease the muscle, startled by a knock at her door.

She looked through the peephole, pulling the door wide open as she smirked. "Long time, no see."

Levy grinned up at her and Lucy stood aside to let the bluenette pass. Levy kicked off her shoes and curled into her couch.

"Lu-chan, I love this couch."

"You say that every time you come over," Lucy reminded her as she closed her apartment door. Her gifted-from-dad couch was pretty spectacular; a rich cream colour that you almost wanted to lick, with thick, extra-wide cushions that made it incredibly comfortable to nap on. Erza had picked square decorative pillows in ruby red and silvery gray that added a much-needed splash of colour.

Levy tilted her head towards the ceiling and said what was on both their minds. "I wish we could help Erza."

Lucy took the seat at the other end of the couch, pulling the decorative pillow onto her lap and twisted a corner of it absentmindedly.

"I know, me too."

"What can we do, Lu-chan?"

"I don't know. Just be her friend and listen, I guess." Lucy wasn't satisfied with that answer, but it was all she had. What did she and Levy know about love? Unrequited or otherwise? All they about knew about relationships came from books. They sat deep in thought for several minutes.

"Hey, want to go to the guild?" she asked.

"Um...sure, I guess we could. Why?" Levy didn't sound enthusiastic.

She pushed herself to her feet and stood with her hands on her hips. "Because I've been sitting here for three hours in silence, writing and feeling sad."

Levy opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, but Lucy held up one hand like a traffic cop to halt her.

"I'm sad that Erza had this unimaginable childhood. I wrote about it in my journal and I've been racking my brains to try to figure out some way to make it even a little bit better, to show my compassion and empathy, and you know what I've come up with?"

Levy gave a slow headshake.

"Absolutely nothing!" She paced about the room. "I don't know. Maybe it's a stupid idea, but all I know is that I'm not finding answers here."

Levy nodded and then fixed a smile on her face, standing up. "You're right, Lu. What could a change of scenery hurt, anyway?"

Lucy pulled on the same black boots she'd worn earlier in the day and in short order, they were at a private table away from everyone else at Fairy Tail.

When they had a bowl of soup each in front of them, Lucy admitted, "I'm glad Erza isn't here tonight."

"I know what you mean," Levy agreed.

The guild was exceptionally quiet. Freed, Bickslow and Evergreen were at a table nearby. Reedus was painting a picture of Cana and her father, Gildarts Clive. Cana seemed to be drinking even more than usual and had an exasperated expression on her face. Gildarts seemed to be trying to talk to her and she looked like she was doing her best to ignore him. Lucy had heard they had an unstable, on-again-off-again relationship. She was guessing now was one of the off times.

Macao, Romeo and Wakaba were all sharing some food. Macao would periodically reach out to ruffle his son's hair. Elfman and Lisanna Strauss were at the bar chatting with their sister, Mira. Max and Warren were sitting together, drinking beer.

A few other wizards whose names they hadn't learned, but recognized enough to say hello to, were grouped at a smattering of tables around them. No one that the girls knew very well—aside from the busy Mira and Cana—were there. No Erza. No Gray. No Jet and Droy.

Suddenly, the guild doors burst open and a huge "Huzzah!" went up as Gray walked through the door. Lucy twisted around in her seat, trying to get a better look at what all the fuss was about (translation: hoping to see Gray shirtless), when right behind the ice make wizard came two huge men.

They were about equal height, one blonde with short, spiky hair wearing a purple shirt and a gigantic fur-trimmed black coat that he wore like a cape draped across his shoulders. He had a weird lightning bolt scar over his right eye.

The man standing beside him had long, unruly black hair that was spiked in every direction but was pushed back with a green bandana to keep it off his face. He wore a black shirt that had seen better days — it was all torn at the bottom and frayed at the shoulders. But the thing that caught Lucy's attention was that his face was covered in piercings. He had metal studs where his eyebrows should be and more studs in his ears, his nose and on his chin. Both men had muscles on top of muscles. They were insanely fit.

Freed, Bickslow and Evergreen accosted the big blonde one. He wore a scowl on his face at the attention, but joined their table. Mira went over with a mug of beer for the blonde giant.

The black-haired behemoth seemed to melt into the shadows. Lucy wasn't sure where he'd gone. Gray was still standing at the guildhall doors, looking out behind him.

"Hey! You coming, pyro?" he called out.

Suddenly two flying cats came in, one blue and one white. The blue one was carrying a fish and trying to give it to the white cat. Levy and Lucy exchanged astonished looks when they heard both cats talking.

"I want you to have it, Charle," the blue one insisted. Lucy wasn't sure, but she thought the blue cat was male.

"I don't need anything from you, tomcat," the white cat said in a prissy voice.

Lucy refocused her attention to the new people entering the guildhall. A small girl with long blue hair in pigtails who looked about thirteen, wearing a green dress, hurried to catch up to the white cat. Behind her, a man unlike any Lucy had seen stood - a wide, toothy grin lit up his face and his hair

Lucy rubbed her eyes just in case the dim guild lighting was deceiving her eyesight. Nope, it was definitely pink. He was wearing a black waistcoat with gold trim and no shirt underneath, exposing his bare chest. A white, scaly scarf was wrapped around his neck, and he wore white, knee-length pants tied off at the bottom with black trim. Several guild members shouted greetings at them.

Gray stood off to the side, creating in his hands his ice make sword.

"Hey everyone, the dragon slayers are back!" Gray shouted over the din.

Then he promptly bashed the pink-haired boy over the head with his sword.

Suddenly, fists and tables were flying. Lucy and Levy stared at each other in bewilderment as a brawl broke out all around them.

"Who the hell are they?" Lucy asked.

Shout out to ShanaHollows who ninja-edited this chapter and smoothed out some bumps while adding her pixie dust of awesomeness.

A/N - "Unexpected Spanish Inquisition" is a riff on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody.

Sorry to drop the angst-bomb so soon in the story! I promise next chapter we will be back to our humour and regularly scheduled ogling. This chapter was necessary to drive the plot forward. All will be revealed in time (nervously waves magician hands).

You want to know the cure for writer's procrastination? Promise a weekly updating schedule. It's the kick in the ass that keeps on kicking. I do feel there's some unevenness in this chapter that I would like to smooth out one day.

For clarification - this is a Nalu story. I have been working on this story for six months and while I love and appreciate all feedback, but I know where I want this story to go and I need to stay true to that.

Fun Fact! Giant apple pancakes are my favourite breakfast ever.

Thank you to those who follow, favourite and review! You guys make me so happy! You read this far? I love you. Truly, madly, deeply love you. Yes, you.

Shout out to the awesome reviewers! MasterGildarts, Professor of Gallifrey, ShanaHollows and xSteleAliniax!