YouTube suggested some Fairy Tail content on my dash and I went "OH SHIT! That's right, I have a story to write based on this shit".

Hence, a new chapter. Also because of quarantine, I guess.

(I spent more time frantically flicking through previous chapters to remember who used what honorifics for who, so if there's any continuity areas I'M SORRY. The only upside is literally EVERYONE from Team Natsu are rude little bastards, barring Lucy and Juvia, so no honorifics from them ever. They were never brought up with manners in the guild, so Gray, Natsu and Erza can and will use your first name with no sign of respect regardless of your social position.)

Warning: It is VIOLENCE time kiddies. It gets brutal here at times, bordering on torture so beware if that is not your jam. Also, child endangerment, I guess? But like, consensual. They endanger themselves. Still doesn't make it okay when an adult tries to kill them though. Additionally, as always, copious swearing and Lucy reliving that Sweet Trauma™.

Misogyny gets punched some more in this chapter because I'm a feminist full of unquenchable rage as I read the shit the Trimen and Ichiya pulled through the series. Mashima's sexism can choke because the women deserve to be treated right, and male characters have more depths than 'perverts/psychotic fucks who don't know what "no" means'.

"It is hard to say where the dark guild will be based at. Which direction shall we head?"

At Jura's quiet rumble, the group of allied mages came to an abrupt stop not too far from where the ship Christina was settled. They had collectively not thought about where their enemies could have hidden themselves. All they had to go off was that they were somewhere in the depths of the forest where they were inferred to be looking for Nirvana. Even Lucy, with her vast network, had not mentioned more than the fact that there was possibly an abandoned city somewhere that could be utilised as a hideout.

"Well, damn," Eve muttered. He already had one leg on the stairs of his guild's ship, Ren following close behind as the only one who could pilot the behemoth machine. "We can still use Christina to scout out the area, but it would be nice to know where we are actually going."

Unconsciously, the alliance collectively formed a circle once more. The only gap being left to include Ren, who leant coolly against Christina's stairs, and Eve who hovered behind him.

"The forest extends for hundreds of kilometres," Jura started. "It is almost impossible to find a small group in that kind of density."

"Leave this to me," Hibiki said with uncharacteristic firmness. His usual flirtatious demeanour was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he looked upon the group with steely dark eyes and tightly pressed lips. "My Archive magic should be able to map out the area once I get a good look from the air on Christina. Then it's simply a matter of working out the statistical probability of where the abandoned city Lucy-san mentioned might be based on the geographical landscape."

Lyon whistled lowly. "You smart enough to do that kind of maths, pretty boy?" His teeth were bared in a mocking smile, clearly aware of the Trimens reputation as womanisers before competent mages.

The only reaction Lyon got was a twitch of Hibiki's brow before the man turned the conversation back to the matter at hand. "Once Lucy-san and Ichiya-sama catch up we should head out straight away."

The entire group murmured at the mention of the missing two members. Juvia took the initiative to crane her head away from circle to look back in the direction of the guild. "Juvia does not know what is keeping Lucy-san so long, but Ichiya-san is here."

The man in question saluted crisply as he jogged towards the group as it broke away from its huddle. However, his confident movement was diminished by the sheer amount of sweat that dripped down his brow and discoloured the white fabric of his suit's armpits.

"Ichiya-kun?" Jura said, clearly questioning the state of the man. Ichiya would never look so unkempt in front of a woman, let alone several.

"Sorry for the wait," Ichiya puffed out as he came to a stop in front of the group. Even his exposed chest glistened under the deep-V of his suit, too sweaty even in the humidity of the forest and overhead sun. "But you will not believe what happened in the guild—" He was interrupted by Lucy suddenly falling into place beside him, her appearance making Ichiya squawk in alarm. "W-Where did you come from?"

"From behind," Lucy said shortly. "You somehow missed going past me."

When Ichiya did nothing more than splutter in response, she tilted her head. "Are you alright, Ichiya-san?" One of Lucy's thin eyebrows was lifted imperiously as she looked down her nose at the man in question.

"…Quite," Ichiya replied. He seemed to hesitate a moment, like he was warring with himself over something. It seemed like his attention was fixated on the way Lucy looked at him in a daring manner, but he shook it off and looked back to the group. "I believe we should move quickly if we are looking to surprise our enemy. One of Angel's spirits just tried to take me out whilst I was at my most vulnerable and I can only assume it heard everything we said. Luckily, I took it out before it could report back."

"At your most vulnerable—!" Natsu started with a voice pitched in glee before an elbow to the gut courtesy of Gray stopped him.

"Then they are aware someone is looking for them," Gray said over Natsu's wheezing insults of his physique and general attitude. "We're just lucky that they don't know who we are or that we're coming straight for them."

At Ichiya's confirming nod, Erza clanked a gauntlet against her breastplate to call attention to her. "Alright! While we are still able to hold a decorum of subtilty we should cover as much ground with Christina as possible, and trust Hibiki to lead us to the resting place of Oración Seis!"

"'Resting place' just sounds morbid," Sherry tittered to Lucy as the blonde caught up to her in their approach to the ship. When she did not get a response, Sherry titled her head to get a better look at Lucy's expression. Her pigtails, which had grown in the months since Galuna Island, dangled towards her ribcage. "What were you doing, Lucy?"

Lucy managed a quick smile at the other girl. "Oh, nothing much. Just making sure I hadn't forgotten anything back at the guild." Her eyes seemed to fall on Ichiya once more as the man tailed her alongside Hibiki. He squeaked in response, hiding behind his taller guildmate.

After casting a look at his 'mentor in the arts of wooing women', Hibiki seemed to turn back to Lucy with a more cautious look in his eyes. His hands twitched like he was going to call upon his screens when Lucy turned her smile upon him.

"We are counting on you, Hibiki-san. I hope you don't disappoint."

"I hope not either," Hibiki muttered under his breath. There was a constant crackle down his spine when Lucy was nearby, like his magic was nagging at him to realise something. Unfortunately, his own intellect, while vast and swift, could not keep up with his magic's instinct. Hibiki just hoped that fighting alongside Lucy would not wield any kind of unexpected surprises.

He did not think Natsu-san would let him live if anything were to happen.

Back at Magnolia, Mirajane was diligently folding the collective laundry belong to herself, her brother and Lucy's boys in the comfort of her living room.

"How do two boys and a cat get so many clothes dirty in no time at all?" Mirajane hummed with only an edge of irritation in her normally sweet tones. The distinct upwards trend of chores that occurred whenever Ryos, Sting and Lector stayed over was not something to lose her temper over, but Mirajane could not help but be reminded her laundry had not been consistently this full since Lisanna was still alive. It was a thought that pushed her hard-won kindness to its edges, and Mirajane had to constantly remind herself to relax the tension in her shoulders.

The radio was trying to soothe the atmosphere with crackly ballet in the background, but its effects were shattered when Elfman slammed the front door open. Several shopping bags swung wildly in his hands, the food inside making a racket as he pushed his way in.

"Elfman!" Mirajane squealed in reproach as one of Sting's shirts went sailing from her grip. "What do you think you're—"

"NEE-SAN!" Elfman bellowed over the top of her. "Have you seen Sting, Ryos and Lector? I can't find them anywhere!"

"W-Well," Mirajane stammered as she tried to slow her racing heart. Elfman never yelled at her; what on Earthland could this be about? "Aren't they playing at the park down the road? They said they were going to meet Romeo-kun for a play-date, remember? Macao-san was meant to be watching over them but knowing him those boys will still give him the slip."

She picked up Sting's shirt and began folding it once more. "I'm sure you didn't see them coming back from the store if they were hiding from him."

Elfman pushed into the room, bags being dropped rather roughly onto the dining table beside the washing. Before Mirajane could scold him, Elfman was pushing into her personal space to grasp her shoulders. His eyes were wild as he spoke. "Macao wasn't there, nee-san! I know he lives nearby and Romeo-kun visits on the weekend, so I thought I'd drop in to tell the boys dinner will start soon. But…nee-san, Macao told me there was no play-date today."

"…What?" Mirajane said. "I don't understand…Sting-kun told us Lucy-chan had planned this out last week! All three of them had seemed so excited to spend some time with Romeo-kun since there is no one else around their age in the guild. Why would they lie?"

"I don't know," Elfman replied as he released Mirajane. His large hands ran through his hair in a clear sign of stress. "But Macao told me he would head to the guild and ask around there with Romeo-kun. I don't know where else they could have gone."

Finally, Mirajane pulled away from the laundry to head towards the guest bedroom. "Maybe they got the date mixed up and snuck back into their room. I bet they're just embarrassed to have gotten so excited over a mistaken date. I'll go check now…"

The downturn of Mirajane's voice immediately called Elfman over to the open doorway. "What is it, nee-san? Are they there…?"

An empty bedroom greeted them both. The bags Lucy had lovingly packed with the boys and Lector's essentials were missing. The only sign of recent life was a rumpled bedspread and an open window to the small backyard the Strauss siblings owned.

Mirajane's hands trembled as she lifted them towards her gaping mouth. "Elfman…! Oh, Elfman! They're gone! All their stuff is gone! They've left!"

"Where could they have gone?" Elfman spluttered even as he instinctively cradled his sister against his chest in a protective embrace. "Why would they leave without telling us?"

"Lucy's going to kill us!" Mirajane wailed against Elfman's shirt. Her mind was frantically going over where her temporary wards could have run off to, her most immediate thought Natsu's own shack in the woods. As her thoughts turned towards why they would go there when no one was available, a horrifying conclusion slammed into Mirajane.

"Oh my stars…" Mirajane breathed as she pulled back to look up at Elfman. Her own fear was mirrored in his eyes. "They've gone after Lucy and Natsu. They've gone to find Nirvana!"

There was a moment of horrified silence between the siblings before they bolted into action.

"I'll Lacrima Call Master!" Elfman shouted over his shoulder as he charged towards the household device. "Tell him that those three have gone chasing after the chosen mages. Even if they don't know where the Blue Pegasus guild is, they're bound to get lost and we need to find them."

Mirajane paused from where she was pulling her shoes on, having intended to start searching the nearest exits out of town. "They don't know where the guild is…but they're Dragon Slayers…"

As the Lacrima sent through a request to Master's personal one at the guild, Elfman looked back at Mirajane. "Yes, and?"

"Sting and Ryos have enhanced senses," Mirajane breathed as she leant over her knees despairingly. "They probably have Lucy, Natsu and Happy's scents memorised. They'll just track them down."

At that, Elfman could not help but break one of his own personal vows against foul language. "Oh, fuck!"

It was a lengthy process for Hibiki to narrow down where the abandoned city Oración Seis was most-likely hiding within. However, the man's raw intellect was staggering to behold in motion. From Christina's hovering position, hidden in some low-hanging clouds, Hibiki managed to make a digital map of the forest and begin devising the city's position. Multiple screens hung in front of him, information scrolling past too quickly for any human eye to keep up with. Hibiki seemed to soak it all up with ease, however, and concluded a position within ten minutes.

While he worked, the planned teams huddled together to begin comparing abilities to figure out how they would work together. Although, Lyon and Gray were the exceptions as they spent most of the time bickering – the others, but mostly Erza, let it pass as everyone knew the two could work together blindfolded and deaf.

Most of the excitement came from Natsu as he jumped between yelling excitedly about Juvia's ability to "drown that fake-snake bastard" and learning more about Wendy. The only reason he could jump about on a moving vehicle was due to Wendy revealing she had a spell to prevent such sickness. Natsu looked at her like she was a god.

Additionally, the girl had already mentioned her dragon, Grandine, and Natsu was fascinated by the existence of another Slayer – even if she knew nothing more about the collective dragon's disappearances all those years ago.

"Um…" Wendy was shyly kicking the deck with her winged shoes as she tried to make eye contact with the excitable Natsu. She had stuck close by Jura's side since boarding the ship, and the man had swiftly taken it upon himself to take care of her. Carla's own unspoken agreement at his presence meant Jura was allowed to sit serenely behind Wendy at all times, always ready to step in when Natsu became too much.

(Lucy would normally be on such a duty, but she was sticking close to Hibiki's side and watching his magic work.

Unfortunately for Hibiki's nerves)

"I…" Wendy took a deep breath as she finally made eye-contact with Natsu. "I actually came on this mission because I wanted to meet you, Natsu-san. I've never met another Slayer before, but I'd heard about you before." Wendy's fingers twisted around each other as the girl tried to work out her nerves.

Natsu howled in response, jostling Happy from his position clinging to his back as he thrust his arms up in the air. "I can't believe how many baby Slayers keep flocking to me! It must be because they heard of my awesome power!"

Across where he had been freezing Lyon's feet to the deck – he just would not leave Juvia alone, damn it – Gray snorted. "You're only well-known for your stupidity and property damage. Don't flatter yourself."

"Sting thinks I'm cool!" Natsu spat back.

"He's the exception. Obviously."

"I hope you're not inferring my boy is stupid," Lucy broke in despite not bothering to look away from Hibiki's screens.

Gray quickly shook his head, body leaning towards the blonde in a distinctively desperate manner. "No! No! I'd never do such a thing! You know that, Lucy!"

("You have a kid?" Hibiki asked incredulously, taking a break from his screens. He could not imagine the stone-eyed blonde beside him ever being soft towards another human being, let alone a kid.

Lucy snorted. "Two, actually. And a talking cat."

"…Did not expect that.")

Under his breath Lyon made the sound of a whip cracking. He had already managed to break free from Gray's ice and was inching his way back to Juvia, who was only keeping her cool at such a joke by remembering how many times Lucy-san had promised she was not interested in Gray-sama at all.

In response to Lucy's entry into the conversation, Natsu turned pleading eyes towards the blonde. "Ne, Luce! Tell Gray how cool I am! Sting thinks I'm awesome, so it must be correct, right? Right?"

Eve joined Lyon in making a slightly louder whip crack. The second time around the joke managed to make Sherry giggle as she watched Lucy roll her eyes.

"Everyone, please!" Erza bellowed, breaking up the budding argument and sending Wendy scurrying back into Jura's shadow even as Carla shook her head reproachingly. "Hibiki has the location, so listen up!"

The alliance quickly sobered up for the debriefing Hibiki headed. Even busy with guiding Christina at the helm, Ren's tilted head showed he was listening.

The city was not too far away from Blue Pegasus' guild in actuality, so the ship would be swift in approaching Oración Seis. The problem came from the hordes of lower-caste dark guild members scattered in the forest in clear wait of any potential enemies.

"Fuck them," Gray said succinctly. "We don't have time to deal with them if this Nirvana is imminent in its activation. We can clean them up later."

"I bet I can kick all of their asses and keep going!" Natsu yelled. "Sorry-not-sorry Icy-Pop, but clearly I'm the stronger mage here if I know I can take on more than one measly speedy-boy."

"I'll kill you in your sleep you damn—"

"I concur with Gray's assessment," Hibiki broke in before they could get side-tracked once more. "It's best if we focus on Oración Seis since we don't know the true extent of their power. We should save our own to ensure our victory."

There was a general consensus at that, even if some members like Sherry and Ichiya looked nervous at the thought of rogue dark guild members.

"Fighting that many opponents is not feasible for most of us," Sherry spoke up, "but should we contract someone now to get them picked up later? We only gathered to defeat Oración Seis, not a bunch of other guilds."

With a deep frown, Ichiya shook his head. "No one to report to, men. With the Magic Council out of commission, there is no authoritative and legislative power at the moment. The Rune Knights are still in operation, but they're a mess while the Council members who stuck around try and figure out a temporary chain of command. Why do you think the Baram Alliance begun to make their move now, men? Fiore, as a nation, is incredibly vulnerable."

"You are correct, Ichiya-kun," Jura said. "So, we must not falter now. Ren-kun, if you'd please; bring us down towards our opponents."

"Tch. Whatever you say, old man," Ren replied. His tsundere attitude demanded he lift his head away from the group imperiously, even as he obeyed Jura's orders. The display did not endear him to the women on-board any more as he had hoped.

"I'm normally into the hard-to-reach type," Sherry mumbled to Lucy when she skirted towards the blonde, "but is he serious?"

Lucy snorted. "He thinks he is."

"That's my friend you're talking about, Lucy-san," Hibiki remarked dryly as he dismissed his screens. "Can you lay off him a bit? I know we didn't make a good first impression, but insulting you was not our intent."

In response, Lucy tilted her head in a considering manner at him. "…I don't get it."

"Get what?" Hibiki asked defensively. His business shirt crinkled harshly as he crossed his arms.

Sensing a brewing argument, Sherry made her excuses and slipped back to chat to Wendy with Erza, who was trying to pep the girl up for the upcoming battles. Even a chance to chat more with Lucy did not endear Sherry to witness the upcoming conversation.

"Your whole," Lucy waved her hand to gesture to Hibiki's entirety, "'oh I'm a suave pretty boy with no brains' persona you have going on. You're clearly the most intelligent person on this mission by far, but you do shit like dismiss other guys and demean girls…for what? The fun of it?"

Hibiki barked out a bitter laugh. "Did you seriously just try and generalise me with a whole…" he waved his hand mockingly, "'I'm hot and want girls and I don't like using my brain'. Honestly, you complain about how us Trimen treated you girls, but your judgement is just as shallow as our supposed advances."

There was a moment's pause as Lucy seemed to chew over Hibiki's words. "…I get what you're saying, and it is rude of me to judge you guys on first impressions, but you have to understand what you guys did was just…so sleazy." Her arms came up to clutch her shoulders. Despite the broadness of her shoulders, Lucy seemed impossibly small as she curled in on herself. "I don't feel comfortable when people approach me like that, and you guys just…acted like because we were women, we exist to serve men. That's not fair, Hibiki-san."

Lucy's eyes were glassy when she caught Hibiki's gaze. "You're smart enough to know that."

At that, Hibiki hung his head in shame, arms dropping to dangle at his side. "I'm really sorry to make you feel like that, Lucy-san. It was not my intent, nor was it my friend's."

A light touch at his shoulder made Hibiki lift his head up once more. Lucy had inched closer, and her eyes had softened from their usual dark stare. "I'm sorry too, Hibiki-san, for being judgemental in my fear. We are nakama on this mission, after all. My life is in your care. We can't afford to fight like this."

Hibiki placed a gentle hand over hers. "Likewise, Lucy-san. I'll be in your care. I…" He managed a smile, and Lucy could begin to understand why women threw themselves at this man's feet. "I hope we can be friends."

"Of course," Lucy replied. "If we are to be friends, just call me Lucy."

"Just Hibiki, then."

The two allowed a moment of silence to clear the air of the remaining anger from the disagreement. The forest was rising quickly to meet them, Ren calling out to the entire group that the city was coming up soon.

"While we're here," Lucy broke the silence as she inched closer to Hibiki. "I need a favour, if you could."

Hibiki could feel himself growing uncomfortably warm but managed to maintain a steady voice. "What is it, Lucy?"

"I've been trying to learn the spell, Urano Metria." There was a frustrated look dawning on Lucy's face. "But there's…It's far more difficult than I realised. I can summon up the power necessary, but it's almost like there's something blocking me from finishing the incantation. The final words always slip from my mind."

Hibiki frowned. "What can I do to help? I know the spell you're speaking of, but I don't specialise in Celestial magic like you. There's no advice I can offer to get past that block."

Lucy shook her head. "I don't need advice from you, Hibiki. I want you to transfer the knowledge of the spell into me. I know your Archive magic can do such a thing, but I am betting on the chance that information you give can be kept in the long-term." She shifted her weight back from Hibiki, glancing off the front of Christina to catch a glimpse of the abandoned city coming closer. "I think I'll need such power in this mission."

"I can do such a thing with my Archive magic," Hibiki confirmed, "but if you want something to actually stick around in your head it's going to be a painful transfer. My magic doesn't really care about your wellbeing when it's being put to work."

Lucy turned back to face him, face stony. "I don't care about such a thing, Hibiki. If you can do it, I want to do it right away; before we can face Oración Seis and whatever they have to throw at us." She paused, then added, "Please."

"…If you're sure," Hibiki replied as he stepped closer to the blonde once more. "But you can't complain about the pain afterwards, Lucy. That'll just be hypocritical."

"I would never do such a thing," Lucy teased, face relaxing into a pleased smile. "If you'd please, Hibiki."

At that, Hibiki finished closing the distance between them. His hands came up to cradle the sides of Lucy's face, the skin impossibly warm as his magic prepared itself for the transfer.

"Brace yourself," was all Hibiki said before he leant down to press his forehead against Lucy's.

Across the deck, the other members of the alliance had begun to realise something was happening near the front of the ship.

"Oi!" Natsu said. "What do you think you're doing to Lucy you—"

A bright flash of light interrupted the Slayer, emanating from where the duo's foreheads touched. It was accompanied by a choked off scream coming from Lucy, and the entire group tensed at the sound.

"What's going on?" Ren called over his shoulder as he began directing Christina down from her cover in the clouds. "Who's hurt?"

"Hibiki just did an upload, I think," Eve replied. He and Ichiya seemed to be the only ones keeping their cool, used to the intimate and occasionally painful process of receiving information from Hibiki. "Lucy-san should be fine in a moment or two."

"She better be," Erza said with no small amount of anger. "What was she thinking? What could be so important that she would need a transfer from Hibiki now?"

Beside her, Natsu and Gray held themselves like they were going to throw themselves bodily at the glowing individuals nearby. They were barely held back by Juvia, who had wrapped both arms around Gray and extended a watery tendril to hold Natsu as well.

"Wait for Lucy-san to finish," Juvia said over Natsu' warning growls. "Juvia is sure Lucy-san has a reason for this."

The transfer barely lasted thirty seconds, but it felt too long.

When Hibiki and Lucy finally broke their embrace, Natsu immediately broke free of Juvia's relaxing grip to catch a dizzy Lucy. Her eyes were wide in shock, the dark irises lit from within by rapidly running code. The indecipherable language was scrolling sideways, disappearing seamlessly at the edges of the iris. It was surreal to look into Lucy's eyes and see no recognition. In response, Natsu's canines jutted out warningly and he began to snarl at Hibiki.

Luckily for Hibiki, Lucy recovered before Natsu could maim him.

In Natsu's arms, Lucy spasmed slightly as the code faded, eyes coming back into focus on the Slayer. "H-Holy shit," she hiccupped as she clung to Natsu's shoulders to find her footing. "That was fucking intense."

"Told you," groaned Hibiki. Both of his hands were pressed against his temples in a futile attempt to supress his building migraine. "Making something remain in your long-term memory is a little trickier than a short-term upload; hence, the pain."

"What on Earthland were you two doing?" Sherry asked as she hurried over to touch Lucy's shoulder, ignoring how Natsu grumbled irritably at her approach.

"Just needed Hibiki's help in an ability I need for this battle," Lucy sighed as she stood upright. She absently patted a hand against Natsu's arms to get him to let go, busy reassuringly smiling at Sherry and, by proxy, the rest of the group. "Sorry to make you worry but it's alright now."

As Gray and Erza edged forwards, intent on pressing the matter further, a shout from Ren brought everyone's attention to the front of Christina.

"INCOMING!" Ren barely managed to say before a blindingly bright spell swallowed up the view of the city below. It spread out across the horizon, a dull roar accompanying its approach.

The impact slammed into the ship and instantly shredded most of the hull. The sound of splintering metal was barely comprehensible, however, over the following explosion. The sheer magnitude whited out everyone's vision. The sound left their ears ringing.

Even in Natsu's grip, Lucy could feel herself begin to fall as the ship began to plummet, nothing but the shrill ringing in her ears accompanying her into darkness.

"Hah? You want me to do what?"

"Please, Gajeel!" Levy's hands were clasped close to her chest as she pleaded to the man slouched in a shadowy booth. The guild was quiet in the wake of current events and her voice pitched loudly into the silence, stress following every syllable. "The boys could be anywhere now; we need you to find them!"

The Dragon Slayer ran a hand agitatedly over his face before glaring up at Levy. "Why don't you get one of those gun-loving freaks to do it; they're good at tracking or whatever."

Levy frowned. "I know Bisca is pretty good at hunting down things – that's why she usually takes search-and-capture missions – but this is different! She normally takes her time tracking down a monster. We need Ryos, Sting and Lector to be found right away! Your nose is sharp enough to track them, right?" She then crossed her arms, anger fading into doubt. "Or has all that iron you eat dulled your senses? I bet, unlike Natsu, you can't actually do any of that stuff."


Levy pouted and turned her head away dismissively. "I didn't say anything like that…unless it's actually true…"

"Fuck you," Gajeel spat. He thrust a hand at Levy and waited expectantly.

In response, Levy just looked at him.

"…What are you doing?"

"Give me something of theirs to track!" Gajeel howled. "You stupid woman! I thought you were meant to be smart or something!"

(In a corner of the guild, barely restrained by a tired and frustrated Makarov, Jet and Droy were swearing revenge on the asshole who dared to speak to their super cute team member like that! Gajeel would pay!)

"Stars, you're such an ass!" Levy snapped in response. As she said this, though, her hand was already reaching into a small bag at her side to pull out a boy's shirt. It was plain black with red decal on the sleeves and hem. It belonged to Ryos – courtesy of Mirajane after the initial shopping trip with Lucy and Levy to get the essentials for a growing boy. It seemed so long ago that Lucy had picked up Ryos and dropped him into the guild's life.

Instead of handing it to him, Levy tossed the shirt at his face.

Gajeel bared his canines, the jut of the teeth significantly larger than Natsu's, or Ryos and Sting's needle-sharp fangs, but obligingly started sniffing the article.

"The boys were supposedly spotted at the train station several hours ago, heading in the direction of the Blue Pegasus guild," Levy stated. "Master has already pulled up a Magical Four-Wheel Vehicle for you out front. That should cut down on travel time and hopefully get you to the guild a bit after the boys. Then," Levy wringed her hands, "it's just a matter of finding them before they get involved in the fight."

"Yeah, yeah," Gajeel grumbled, "I got it." He began to push past Levy, shoving the shirt in his pants' pocket, before he suddenly stopped and turned back to stare at Levy.

"…What?" Levy asked when Gajeel's slitted eyes became too uncomfortable to bear. "What do you want?"

Gajeel snorted dismissively. "Nothing from you, shortstack. Just hurry up and tell those white-haired dumbass siblings to stop freaking out; you have the strongest Slayer on your side after all." As he stepped away, Gajeel made sure to place a hand on Levy's head to ruffle her hair. His large palm swallowed up the entirety of her scalp, and Levy could help but feel overwhelmed as his gloves rubbed roughly across her curls.

"…Oi, knock it off," Levy managed breathlessly, but Gajeel was already heading for the exit. His tall silhouette brandished a sloppy salute at Makarov – and a sharp grin at a fuming Jet and Droy – before he disappeared into the midday glare.

Levy touched her messy hair for a moment, still able to feel Gajeel's unnatural heat. While it was not to the degree of Natsu's blazing body heat, all Slayers seemed to have exorbitantly high body temperatures, and Gajeel's seemed scorched into her skin.

"Honestly," she said as she fixed her bandana, "I hope that idiot manages to find those boys." Levy then sighed. "More so, I hope he does it so Lu-chan doesn't ever have to find out. She's under enough stress as it is."

Lucy came to in Happy's grip, a woozy Natsu pressed against her. However, he was conscious enough to mumble curses over the motion of the falling ship, so Lucy figured he was fine. Wendy's Troia spell should not have worn off yet.

Nearby, Carla was floating down with Wendy and Sherry, struggling with their combined weight. Both were clearly just as dazed, their long hair hanging in ropey tangles against their faces.

On the ground, Jura had softened the very earth itself to catch himself and the Blue Pegasus members in its embrace. All of them seemed shocked but quickly gathering their wits.

The same could be said about Gray, Lyon, Juvia and Erza, who had slid down ice ramps of the former two's making.

"Everyone okay?" Erza barked out. She was already looking around for their attackers, leaving the others to find their own footing once they touched down.

"As alright as nearly get exploded to death will get you," Lyon replied sullenly. His demeanour perked back up when he turned to the person beside him. "Are you okay, Juvia?"

The woman in question ignored him, too busy checking Gray over for burns.

"Ouch," deadpanned Hibiki. The Blue Pegasus members were falling into position in a loose circle with Jura, gaze out into the surrounding forest.

They were not too far from the crumbling foundations of the city they had intended to arrive at, but Christina had crash-landed a while back. It was only due to Ren's experience and skill that the ship had not sustained more damage in its landing, but he had been quick to evacuate with his guildmates.

The rest of the alliance began to follow the men's example in forming a protective circle, but Hibiki still took the time to raise a perfectly plucked brow at Lyon. "Clearly your own experience with women is lacking, Lyon-san. Want some lessons?"

"Up yours," Lyon spat.

"Not interested in that sort of stuff," Hibiki replied. "Sorry to disappoint."

"Mother fuck—"

What was sure to be a filthy tirade from Lyon was interrupted by the deep voice of a stranger. "What is this? Our guests have finally arrived?"

The entire alliance spun around, eyes wide in search of who had spoken. They had been lucky enough to land in a clearing, but the forest around them draped deep mid-afternoon shadows across the forest floor. It made it difficult to make out any distinct features, but that became redundant when a broad-shouldered man into the sunlight to reveal himself. He was flanked by several silhouettes, their individual features becoming more notable as they too slinked into the sun.

The white hair of the leading man was a dead given to his identity and Lucy immediately left Natsu's side to inch towards Hibiki, regardless of how Natsu let out a reprimanding whine – he could just deal with it. This was serious now. There was no way they could face the entirety of Oración Seis at once, so it was best for her to grab Hibiki, grab Angel, and get the fuck out of there. One less enemy nearby meant less of a chance in being taken out by a wide-spread attack.

Mostly, Lucy's urgency came from wanting to get the fuck away from Brain and his freaky feeling aura. The magic energy pooling within the man smiling grimly at herself and her friends felt rotten to the core. Lucy did not want a bar of it.

"We weren't sure if anyone was coming," Brain drawled. His tattoos rippled as he spoke, the thick dark lines all but radiating the Organic Link magic that held back his second personality. Even without the threat looming under his skin, Brain was built for combat; his shoulders rivalled Jura's own powerful build, and his open cape exposed a trunk-like torso.

Before a flicker of his Dark magic even showed itself, Brain spelt out T.

"That is," Brain continued, like his very existence did not send the allied force shuddering, "until Angel's little birdie finally woke up and reported back." One of his large hands waved back at the woman draped in white behind him. She was lazing against a tree, her slim body barely covered by the feathered dress she wore.

In response to Brain's address, Angel sneered at the group. A dark red stained the side of her beautiful face, the bruising from a tremendous blow slowly coming to fruition. Its' spread across her left cheekbone and towards her eye made Angel seem more human, even with the tapered points of her dress making it seem like she was going to sprout wings and fly off at any second. Still, it looked like it hurt even now.

"It's a shame we didn't get the information we wanted," said Brain. It was hard to turn away from the brutality painted on Angel's face, but Brain demanded attention regardless of whether he was speaking. "But it wasn't hard to figure that someone was going to come chasing after Nirvana. Pity it was some goody-two-shoe guilds looking to stop us, rather than some people who wanted to have some fun! We could've used more dark guilds to patrol these woods!" His laughter was rough and not a single ounce of genuine cheer was in it.

By this time, Lucy had managed to press herself against Hibiki's side. Her movements had been hidden by the broader bulk of Jura and Erza up front, and Hibiki jumped a little when her shoulder bumped into his arm.

"Now?" Hibiki hissed under his breath. "Really?"

"Angel didn't get to copy any of our memories with her spirit," Lucy hissed back just as quietly. "It's better we split her off before she has a chance to figure out any of our abilities. Or, even worse, copy them to use against us."

Hibiki could not help but shudder at the thought of a copy of Jura fighting against them, or an evil Erza trying to gut them. "Understood."

As Brain went on to taunt the allied force, clearly warming up with a villainous monologue before the real fight began, Lucy tuned him out. Her summoning time had been cut down by vigorous stress-induced practices leading up to this day and Lucy hoped Angel's own magical senses were not as fast as her casting.

Closing her eyes, Lucy focused on the space beside Angel's slumped form and…

"Andromeda, come forth."

In a rapid flash of light that barely seemed to form before it disappeared, the tall and stately form of Andromeda appeared beside Angel. The spirit's hands were already clamped down on the unsuspecting Angel's shoulders before her body fully formed. The full length of her torn white chiton splayed out around her, giving Andromeda an unearthly presence in the gloom of the forest.

Angel yelped, the sound drawing more attention than Andromeda's appearance. The spirit's grip seemed painfully tight and she could not pull herself away, regardless of how much she struggled.

Both sides of the conflict seemed to be in shock at the sudden interruption to the setting and Lucy snatched up that advantage.


Her shout rang out powerfully and Lucy thrust her hand out to beckon her spirit. Almost unconsciously her friends split around her, leaving a clear path for Andromeda to whip her chains towards Lucy.

"NO!" howled Brain as the chains sailed past him. "STOP THEM!"

However, the abrupt change of pace left the other members of Oración Seis flatfooted and unsure as to where to go. In their midst, the fastest member, Racer, could not decide between heading to Angel's side or chasing down the chains. Both seemed a likely method to stop the spirit from doing whatever she was doing, but Racer could not help but look at Angel's face. The huge bruise was stretched painfully as Angel screamed in outrage and Racer found himself tilting towards his ally even with Brain ordering him to attack the group.

His hesitation cost him, and Lucy snatched up the end of the chains. The salt-encrusted metal spun around her in an arc that shone a blinding silver in the sun. The movement framed the dark hollow of Lucy's eyes as she glared across the clearing to where Angel looked back helplessly.

"Lucy!" called her fellow members of Fairy Tail, but the blonde did not listen. Her tightening grip sent the chains looping around her and Hibiki, the latter held against her side by an arm around his waist. His posture was determined as he followed Lucy's lead and clamped down on a chain.

"Let's go!"

"Right!" Lucy replied. Her teeth were bared in a menacing grin at Angel as she cinched the chains around her and Hibiki's joined bodies. "There is no escape for you, Angel! It's time to face your judgement!"

Angel's shrieking reply was lost to another flash of light.

A second later, Racer's hand closed around empty space.

Angel and Andromeda were gone, alongside Hibiki and Lucy. In their place remained two highly confused groups of mages, each struggling to regain their balance after such an abrupt exit.

It was the years of experience that allowed Jura to recover quickly. He was not a Wizard Saint for no reason, and he was quick to thrust a tidal wave of crushing earth at the remaining Oración Seis members. It was shortly destroyed by a wave of dark energy, courtesy of an agitated Brain, but succeeded in scattering the other members, lest they get hit with the debris.

Seeing their enemies off balance and out in the open, Erza quickly took charge of the battle from Jura.

"All of you know who your enemy is!" Erza bellowed as a sword manifested in her hand. "Throw your everything into this and succeed! Your nakama will guide you towards victory!"

Her words inspired action and the allied forces yelled out in response as they threw themselves at the enemy of their assigned groups.

Oración Seis had no idea what they were capable of, but the collective guilds were sure they could ensure they knew just how strong they were by the end.

Of all the things they were expecting, familiar monkey-faced bastards attacking them was not it.

"You guys are the losers Lucy-nee beat up at that Love & Lucky guild!" Sting shouted as he pointed at the mob surrounding them. Ryos was pressed against his side and Lector hid himself in the tangle of their legs.

"These guys again?" Lector squeaked. "T-They were so weak Lucy-nee beat them in, like, two seconds! I know you guys can do it just as easily!"

Sting cackled in response. "Of course! We're Dragon Slayers; there's nothing we can't beat into the ground!" His words were confident, but internally Sting was slightly hesitant. These men were the first enemies they had faced without any backup, or assurance that they would be saved from any lethal attacks. It was only the thought of Natsu, the proud and powerful Salamander, that kept Sting standing. He would show Natsu-nii just how strong he had become under his training!

Beside him, Ryos sighed. They had not planned in getting caught up on the edges of the forest by some canon-fodder, and now Sting was riling them up. They did not have time for this – they had to figure out what that explosion in the sky ahead had been. Something told Ryos they would find his sister there.

The members of the Naked Mummy guild surrounding the boys were not pleased at the gusto of their pint-sized enemies. There was a certain amount of professionalism to the young boys, however.

The blond wore a long-sleeved white shirt, the collar and cuffs coloured by a red so soft it looked almost pink. It was mostly concealed by the black vest he wore over the top, closed by a line of shiny gold buttons. He also had metallic bracer over his sleeves, the metal scuffed from recent hand-to-hand combat practices with Natsu. His jean shorts were cuffed at the knee and his black shoes looked to be made out of a sturdy leather. Unbeknownst to the Naked Mummy men, the entire outfit was a barely subtle homage to the Sting's greatest idol, Salamander – a fact Ryos constantly teased him over.

In contrast, Ryos' outfit was far more reserved in colour. His grey-short sleeved shirt was overlaid with a black half-cloak, the edges trimmed in silver. His black pants were tucked into brown boots, but dull silver greaves were fitted over them. While Lucy and Mirajane had helped them to pick out their mission clothes, Erza had been the one to gift both boys their pieces of armour. The bracers and greaves had been a part of her first set of armour once she had joined Fairy Tail, and the woman had promised to upgrade them as they grew. There may have been some tears during that promise, mostly from sentimental cry baby Sting, but a surprising amount from Erza too.

Even Lector had put on a new leather vest, wanting to look the part of a powerful mage alongside Sting and Ryos.

Their collective images spoke of some experience, but their ages made the attacking men underestimate them.

When the first bouts of enemy magic were sent their way, Ryos and Sting blew them away with timed Dragon Roars. The targeted beam of Sting's White magic wove between Ryos' more indiscriminate whirlwind of Shadows, creating a vivid display of contrasts that left their enemies disorientated and struggling to brace themselves.

Before the men could recover, Lector was sprouting wings and latching onto Sting. The duo sped into the air, giving Sting the perfect position to try out his new ability.

Holy Ray was a scorching light that built between his hands, shining so white that it physically hurt the onlookers to gaze upon it. With a shout that cracked with effort, Sting split his hands apart, the light building until it was overflowing from his reach. It then split into multiple beams of light that rent the air with the force of their speed.

The destruction of the attack was not as devastating as Sting knew it could grow to be, but it was more than enough to take out majority of the collective dark guild members.

On the ground, Ryos cleaned up the remaining men with a series of shadow-wreathed punches. The force behind Shadow Dragon's Slash broke bones with ease, but Ryos managed to ignore the shrieks of pain through determination, and a reminder that they did not have time for a bunch of flunkies. Oración Seis was out there somewhere and they had to save their strength for their more powerful enemies.

The battle took barely ten minutes, with the only injuries the boys took from a rather aggressive Plant mage and his razor-sharp vines. The cuts from the vines' thorns were irritating, but not debilitating. They would manage.

"Holy stars," Sting exclaimed once Lector placed him back on the ground. "We were amazing! Did you see how my Holy Ray absolutely destroyed them?"

"I saw!" Lector replied. "You're so powerful, Sting!" His previous nerves were all but gone in the wake of the battle's excitement and their victory. Instead he was dancing between Ryos and Sting's feet, completely ignoring the mass of groaning bodies splayed out on the forest floor. There were even some slumped in the trees' canopies, flung up there by the force of Ryos' punches.

Sting's answering laughter was louder than any of their groans. His whole body was flung into the motion, shoulder back and mouth agape. "Ha ha! Of course! After all, one day I'm going to challenge Natsu-nii for title of most powerful Dragon Slayer!"

"Who the fuck said Salamander was the strongest, Hah?"

Sting's laughter cut off as he whipped around alongside Ryos and Lector to see who had spoken.

With a deep look of barely restrained irritation, the looming shape of Gajeel stepped out of the shadows behind the boys to reveal himself. The grin on his face was fuelled by the building rage, fangs cutting into his bottom lip with the force of the motion.

"You little shits have caused too much trouble in your little joy run," Gajeel rumbled. "I should smack you around a bit before I take you home. Teach y'all a lesson." The pounding of one of his meaty fists into his other palm was loud, even over the Naked Mummy's moans of pain.

Sting and Lector gulped.

The threat of violence, however, had Ryos stepping forwards. One of his arms came out in a protective manner, keeping Sting and Lector behind him. The slitted pupils in his red eyes thinned further as he bared his growing fangs at Gajeel.

There would always be a part of Ryos that admired Gajeel. He had gone to Phantom Lord initially just for the chance to meet the older Dragon Slayer. The raw power Gajeel wielded was admirable and had garnered him a reputation that had lured Ryos in easily. Yet, the man Ryos had met used that power cruelly. It was a weapon to beat others down with; to remind them of their place beneath him.

It had not been often, but Ryos had been reminded more than once as his place as a worm beneath a dragon's might.

(A small part of Ryos knew that, had he not been taken with Lucy that day and never seen Gajeel again, he might have become a very different person. The words Gajeel had spat at him, beaten into his head, would have warped his understanding of power. Gajeel had told Ryos that he was nothing because he was not like Gajeel, and that he did not wield any kind of brutality that would get him anywhere in life.

Ryos knew he was kind. He was good. That he would never hurt someone for enjoyment. However, his idolisation of Gajeel could have had the opportunity to become unhealthily obsessive if Gajeel had suddenly disappeared out of his life. There would have been no chance to prove Gajeel wrong and Ryos knew how fanatical Dragon Slayers could get. If their desires were not fulfilled it would consume them, until their greatest goal in life was to obtain their desire no matter what.

Sometimes, Ryos realised how lucky he was that Lucy had come into his life when she did. If he had been left behind, he might have fallen into the pit of obsessive despair that was Rogue.

Ryos did not want to be Rogue anymore. Not ever.)

"Why are you here?" Ryos asked. His pre-pubescent voice barely shook, but tension was evident in his body language. He had also begun to hunker down, instincts demanding him to approach the larger man from below, where Ryos would have the advantage.

"Oi, calm down little worm." Gajeel's own posture became more open as he dropped his arms. It was an obvious response to Ryos' own territorial display and the man was also careful not to make eye contact with Sting or Lector – that would be a direct challenge to Ryos and he did not have time for a hatchling's temper tantrum. "I'm just here to pick up you dumbasses."

"Why you?" Sting asked. One of his hands was clenched into Ryos' half-cloak and he was careful not to step away from his close proximity with the boy. It was almost cute, if Gajeel had the capacity or time to waste on considering something cute.

Gajeel sneered at them, irritated with his thoughts. "The white-haired devil has been freaking out and made the bookworm send me out here to track you. A right pain that was as well. Had to waste some of my magic on a Four-Wheeler to get here in time to catch you before you do something stupid."

"We're going to help nee-san," Ryos said as he finally straightened up and sheathed his fangs. "Both of us are tired of sitting on the sidelines."

His impassioned declaration was met with indifference as Gajeel began to clean his right ear. "I don't give two fucks about something like that. The old man chose this team to deal with whatever bullshit those dark guild fucks have going on. If he had actually chosen correctly I would be on this mission too, so don't preach to the masses about not being included."

Well…" Sting started, "you're here now, right?"

The others turned to him, unsure as to where he was going.

The blond could not help but fidget with Ryos' cloak under the attention but managed to continue. "You're mad as well about not being picked to fight Nirvana, right? And about having to come fetch us like an errand boy?" They were worded like questions, but Sting did not wait for any answers to his statements. "Then why don't you just come along and fight with us?

"If the others get mad, just say that you were too late in stopping us from getting involved with Oración Seis, and that it was safer just to stay with us. That way, you get to actually fight these freaks and so do we." Sting let go of Ryos' cape to open his arms invitingly. "Everyone wins."

Gajeel took a moment to look over Sting's wobbly smile dispassionately. "Your attempts at manipulation are pathetic, but lucky for you I don't follow anyone's rules; the old man and the panicking chicks are gonna have to deal."

At that, Lector looked up at the boys in shock. "Is he really saying…?"

Ryos was just as surprised. "You're willing to go along? Just like that?"

"I'm not going along with anyone," Gajeel spat. "Your stupid decisions are just giving me an excuse to go knock some heads. I've been too pent up since coming to this goody-goody guild; I wanna go shed some blood. Mostly though," Gajeel said as a nasty smile stretched his piercings, "I wanna see the Maiden finally go buck wild."

There was a sense of uneasiness between the others at Gajeel's foreboding comment about their sister-figure, but none of them were willing to approach it if it would risk their tentative agreement.

"Now," Gajeel said as he pushed past the boys, "let's go and find someone to beat to a pulp. They might be willing to spill something on what this 'Nirvana' thing really is."

Ryos, Lector and Sting shared an uneasy look between them, but hurried off to catch up to the older Slayer.

Without previously scouting the area, Andromeda's teleportation could only function by the spirit visualising a certain distance in a direction, and thereby placing the effected members at the unseen destination.

In this particular case, Andromeda threw the three targeted mages several kilometres further away from the city, closer to the edge of the forest. Somehow, they still ended up the river the original Lucy and Angel had fought at.

Lucy and Hibiki hit it at full velocity.

The air was smashed from Lucy's lungs at the impact, and she and Hibiki sank in a tangle of limbs and chains. The river's current was also tremendously strong, and Lucy could barely tell what was up or down in the rush of bubbles and male limbs around her, but she could tell they were being swept away.

Striking out at random, Lucy manages to punch her fist into the pebbled mud of the bottom of the river. The current and Hibiki's extra weight nearly pulled her shoulder from her socket, but sheer determination keept her holding on.

Lucy burbled out a word that passed for Aquarius and cast once more.

On the side of the bank, Angel was beating back Andromeda with her bare fists since the spirit was not giving her any room to grab her keys. The tree they had struck on their landing had done a number on the summoner, and Angel's dress was splattered with her own blood. The cuts the branches had caused were painful, but it was the deep muscle bruising from initial impact that was forming on her back that was the main issue.

The pain kept Angel's movements restrained as she swung at Andromeda, who continued to try and snarl the woman with her chains in an attempt to win some time for Lucy. She could still feel her and the new man – who did he think he was anyways, cuddled up to her summoner like he was the one who was going to do the protecting – in her chains, so Andromeda just had to wait and trust Lucy.

The burst of bright light and water from the river notified Andromeda that her faith was not ill-placed.

"What the fuck is going on here?" Aquarius snarled indiscriminately. Lucy and Hibiki were held in her hands, both of them choking on fresh air as they tried to expel the river water from their lungs.

Aquarius threw them on the bank in disgust, not helping their gasps for air, but which Andromeda took as her cue to retract her chains. Then, the once-princess kicked Angel forward to draw Aquarius' attention.

"This is the enemy," Andromeda stated, "deal with her please, Aquarius-san."

There was a moment where Andromeda thought Aquarius was going to spit her suggestion back in her face – you never knew with a spirit as temperamental as the Water Bearer – but apparently Aquarius was ready to use her rage on whoever was closest.

"I was getting ready for a date today!" Aquarius roared. "And now I have to deal with some feathered skank? Fuck this!"

Her urn swiped through the air, a cascade of water arcing over Hibiki and Lucy to come crashing towards Angel and Andromeda. "TORRENT!"

Andromeda took that as her cue and dismissed herself before she could get hit with the tidal wave Aquarius had summoned. There was no way she was going through something as painful as that.

Finding herself finally free, Angel did not bother to catch her breath before she was grabbing a key and casting.

"Stupid bitch," Angel spat. "You may be able to summon two Golden Key spirits, but clearly you don't know anything about your spirit's relationships if you're summoning Aquarius now! I'll show you just how a master Celestial Spirit mage fights!"

Before the wave could crash down, Angel slashed a golden key through the air and met it with an equally large wave of sand.

The opposing forces sent the three mages tumbling back, sand and water pelting their skin painfully. When the air settled, Aquarius was already wrapped up in the arms of her long-term boyfriend, Scorpio.

"Oh, honey~!" the mermaid sang. "If I'd known it was you I would have never thrown a wave so meanly like that!"

"Don't worry, sundrop," Scorpio crooned back. His long tail was twined around their embraced figures, pulling Aquarius closer somehow. "I would forgive you for anything."

"Oh, Scorpio!"


Lucy blanched at the sight of the two furiously making out as she pulled herself to her feet. "Oh stars, that's something I'll never be able to forget."

When she was stealthily slapped upside the head by a tendril of water, Lucy just took it; she had expected it.

"What is going on?" Hibiki asked as he also stood up. There was a mixture of horror and awe in his voice, as if he could not settle on being grossed out by the blatant PDA or impressed by the amount of skill both spirits had in tonguing.

Angel's derisive laughter answered him. The worse-for-wear summoner was straightening out her dress and readjusting her ribboned headband, but managed a haughty look on her bruised face nevertheless. "What happened was your blonde bimbo there has no clue about the goings-on in the Spirit World. Otherwise, she would have never summoned Aquarius when her boyfriend, Scorpio, would be around to kiss. A stupid mistake."

"Oh," Hibiki said in a bemused fashion. He then turned to Scorpio and Aquarius, who had finally come up for air. "Congratulations, I guess."

The baleful glare on Aquarius' face showed how much she appreciated his words, but in the presence of her boyfriend she kept her hateful words to herself – there was no way Aquarius would ever break her 'loving girlfriend' façade in front of Scorpio. There would simply have to be payback at a later date. When Aquarius was alone. With no witnesses.

On the other hand, Scorpio gave Hibiki a cheerful smile and wave. "Thanks man! There's no one luckier in all the worlds than I, who gets such a beautiful girlfriend like my Aqua!"

That quickly set off another round of necking, which the mages graciously ignored in favour of finally getting to the fight at hand.

"I'm well aware of all of my spirit's relationships with yours," Lucy said. The skin on her face was irritated and bleeding from the sand that had struck her with the force of Aquarius' full might, but her eyes were calm and still. "That's why I summoned Aquarius first."

The blonde then turned to look at the couple tangled up nearby. "Aquarius."

"Yes?" the spirit replied with barely restrained irritation. Her boyfriend was right in front of her, but her stupid summoner was interrupting like the lonesome spinster she was.

"Feel free to go back to the Spirit World and spend time with your boyfriend," Lucy said easily. "You've earned it."

"Thanks little miss!" Scorpio cheered. "You're a real sweetheart you know?"

Aquarius was not as trusting. "What's the catch?"

The smile on Lucy's face was sinister. "I just want you guys to realise how good it is to spend time together for extended periods of time; you'll be doing it whenever you want when I beat the shit out of Angel and take Scorpio's key for myself."

Over Angel's outraged screams, Aquarius' darkly amused chuckle could still be heard. "Strong words for a single woman." The spirit's posture then straightened in her floating position as she untangled herself from Scorpio. "I can't wait to see if you can do it."

Lucy bared her teeth in return before turning to a shocked Scorpio with a bit more reservation. "I promise I will save you and the other spirits she's abused after all these years!"

After gathering up some blood from her deeper grazes, Lucy thrust her fist towards Scorpio. "I swear as a Celestial mage, and no Celestial mage can go back on her word!"

"Ha!" Angel shrieked. "It would almost be cute how easily you think you're going to win, but your attitude has started to piss me off, you nobody!" It was undeniable that Angel was ethereally beautiful, but the ugliness of her sneer was just as unparalleled. "Scorpio is going to stay with me, just like all of my pitiful little spirits. They're mine, and no one will touch them. Let alone a blonde bitch belonging to a two-bit goody guild full of friendship and forgiveness.

"I'm going to crush you."

The hatred in Angel's words about her spirits Scorpio recoil, but he still managed to give Lucy an earnestly hopeful look before he disappeared. The accompanying scheming grin on Aquarius' face as she returned to the Spirit World with her boyfriend told Lucy she would not hesitate to spread the feud between two Celestial Spirit mages. That was amazing gossip back in her world and people were sure to come to Aquarius for information for months. She would be the talk of the Spirit World. Plus, it was bound to get that Lion worked up when he realised what his angel was doing in the mortal world. It was a win-win situation.

The couple's departure signalled the beginnings of the real battle. Immediately, Hibiki withdrew a couple of paces, aware of his role as support. There was no way he was going to get in the way of a melee fighter like Lucy; he would just hold her back.

In Lucy's case, she slowly drew her sword and dropped into a fighting stance.

The novelty of a long-range fighter like a Celestial Spirit mage attempting to fight in close combat made Angel laugh once more. "What spirit will you summon next?" she asked. "I'll simply summon one who they'll be ineffective against. Just admit your loss, nobody, and maybe I won't kill you. After all, I shouldn't be wasting my time with you; Nirvana still needs to be found."

"My name is Lucy of Fairy Tail," Lucy replied calmly, "I am not a nobody. However, if you do not know my true name, you might know me as the Celestial Maiden." Her sword whipped to the side as she rushed towards Angel. "I am the Defeater of Wyverns and Fate's Fortunate – and I'm going to be the one to defeat you and liberate your spirits!"

With Aquarius and Andromeda gone, Lucy was free to open a new gate as she advanced on Angel. The eruption of earth beneath Angel's feet harkened Virgo's arrival, and the white-haired woman had to clumsily roll back to avoid the spirit's powerful uppercut.

"I can't believe you're the Celestial Maiden," Angel said as she drew a golden key of her own. "A pathetic waif of a girl who is so weak she has to use her own fists to win."

With a burst of magic, she summoned Gemini, who blocked Virgo's next attempt at striking Angel with their sturdy little bodies. It gave Angel enough time to summon the chisel, Caelum, already in its sword form, and meet Lucy's sword with a brutal swipe of her own.

The two weapons met in a burst of sparks, but the magical enhancements of Caelum granted Angel enough strength to push back Lucy.

"Virgo!" Lucy shouted as she skidded to a stop. "Keep Gemini distracted for me!"

"Roger, mistress!" Virgo replied as she attempted to strangle one of the twin spirits with her shackles' chains. "If I do, please give me punishment!"

"Yes, yes," Lucy mumbled in embarrassment, still uneasy with that particular quirk of Virgo's.

In Angel's grip, Caelum hummed threateningly, drawing Lucy's attention back to her. The spirit looked to be absurdly heavy in build, but Angel wielded him with ease as she jabbed towards Lucy. "You've been exposed to Gemini for too long now!"

Angel then turned to Gemini, who were splitting up and attacking Virgo from different angles with their superior agility. "Gemini, transform into Lucy! Let her watch herself destroy the very thing she loves!"

Immediately, the two tiny beings rushed towards each other. As soon as they came into contact, their shapes melded into an amorphous mass of light. The figure that formed from it was distinctly familiar, and Lucy grimaced at seeing her own image, weaponry and all, grinning back at her.

"That is very disconcerting," Hibiki murmured as he crept up to stand beside Lucy. His substantial height on Lucy led him to lean down a far bit so he could whisper into her ear. "Can I do anything to help?"

"Give me a distraction to get in close with Angel," Lucy replied back just as quietly. "After that, I'll trust you to guard my back." She tilted her head so Hibiki could see the soft smile on her face. "Think you can do that?"

Hibiki had to jerk back at Lucy's close proximity, finding it disconcerting to have the woman's brown eyes gazing right into his. "R-Right!" he said, feeling his face uncharacteristically heat up. Hitting on women and making them fall for him was easy, but Hibiki had always been inclined towards women who were powerful and self-assured – it was what had endeared him to Karen, even with all of her obvious flaws.

Leaving it at that, Lucy bolted forwards to meet Angel in another clash of blades. Although the latter lacked the swordsmanship Lucy had learnt, Caelum's support functions guided her arms to meet every of Lucy's attacks. Nevertheless, it was only the strength that Caelum also lent that prevented Angel's arms going numb from the force behind Lucy's swings.

It was irritating to admit, but the blonde had extensive training and skill backing up her close combat abilities. Angel had always been inclined to let her spirits do her dirty work. It was not that she was physically weak – Brain would never let someone so pathetic into the guild – but fighting was clearly something Lucy had been born to do.

A sloppy parry let Lucy's blade through Angel's guard, and the woman bit back a scream of pain as it sliced across her exposed collarbone. The blood flowed quickly from the wound, but luckily it was mostly superficial. If Angel had not twisted Caelum to deflect the blade upwards, however, there was a good chance her left arm might have been unusable.

"Caelum, canon form!" Angel directed as she dropped the spirit and leapt back to gather her wits. The sword whirred as it caught itself in mid-air and began to shift forms.

"Fuck," Lucy spat as she retreated. "Hibiki!"

"On it!" Hibiki replied as he thrust his hands out.

The blast of energy Caelum released rocked the spirit on its axis, but it was met with a dense wall of Archive screens. The green light of Caelum's attack met the golden screens with a tremendous crack. The places where the spells met crackled with magical discharge, a tumbling series of gold and green sparks.

"Force shield!" Hibiki called out the name of his spell as he braced against the magical bolt. His arms trembled from the force of maintaining it, but his shield stayed steady as Caelum slowly ran out of juice. Once the spirit paused to recharge, Hibiki was pulling back his magic for another attack.

"Go ahead, Lucy!" he called as he swiped forcibly at Caelum. "Force blast!"

The newly materialised screens appeared directly in front of Caelum and sent it hurtling out of the combat zone from its sheer power.

"You bastard!" Angel screamed as she watched her main weapon go sailing by. "You'll pay for that! Gemini!"

Said spirit perked up at the mention of its name and it attempted to disengage from Virgo with a few rapid thrusts of their copy of Lucy's sword.

"I think not," Virgo cut in as she deflected the attacks with her shackles. She then lunged forwards to grab one of Gemini-Lucy's thin wrists. With a soft grunt of exertion, the Virgin flipped her enemy over her shoulder and sent them rocketing towards the ground. Instead of hitting the earth, Gemini-Lucy surprisingly found a hole opening in front of their eyes. They slammed into it with all of Virgo's might – which was a lot, as the spirit was second only to Taurus in terms of Celestial Spirits' raw strength.

"Spica Hole," Virgo announced serenely as the earth hungrily swallowed Gemini-Lucy up to their neck. They could not move a single inch, even to thrust the sword also buried beside them with the tip jutting out. Instead, they snarled with Lucy's face and spat at Virgo's feet.

"Pathetic!" Angel said as she turned on Gemini-Lucy. "All of you spirits are utterly pathetic! All you have to do is kill this one bitch, but you can't even do that!" With a slash of her hand the spirit was dismissed, leaving only a deep pit as a sign they were ever there.

When Caelum drifted back to her side, Angel gave it a rage-filled kick. The cannon whirred unhappily as it spun through the air, but still returned to Angel's side, with the air of a dog beaten by its master hanging about it.

"See, Angel," Lucy taunted as she faced off against the other summoner once more, "your whole plan of exploiting spirit's relationships doesn't work when there's no relationships for you to twist. I have more spirits than you ever will hold. There's no feasible way for you to beat me with under-handed tactics."

Right at that moment, as Hibiki began to relax in his perceived notion of victory, another spirit summoned itself.

"MY ANGEL!" Loke cried as he appeared right beside Lucy. "HAVE NO FEAR, FOR YOUR GALLANT KNIGHT HAS COME!"

Lucy could not even form a reply, her sword arm dropped to the side in shock as Loke knelt down to kiss her free hand. Her mouth was agape. Not from shock, though. It was fear that contorted her features as she gazed down upon Loke's adoring face.

The devotion Loke displayed begun to fade as he took in the real horror that was written across Lucy's face. "Angel…?"

Across from them Angel started laughing madly. "This is too perfect! Of all times to summon the Lion, you do so now?" Her laughter faded into giggles, before petering out entirely.

"Oh," Angel purred as she drew another key, "this will be fun."

"Oi, stop here."

The commanding tone in Gajeel's voice drew Ryos, Sting and Lector up short, and they all instantly turned to look at the older Slayer for direction.

"What is it?" Lector asked nervously from where he was held in Sting's arms. "More enemies?"

The man was too busy to reply, though; intent on sniffing the air around him. The forest cast deep shadows, even in the afternoon sun, and Gajeel's red eyes glowed as he focused on something in the distance.

"Time to split up here, little worms," Gajeel said shortly. He did not take his attention away from whatever he had smelt as he pushed the boys away with dismissive hands. "I've got something better to do than babysit your asses. You're on your own from here."

However, Sting would not take such an abrupt dismissal without getting some sort of answer.

"What do you smell?" the blond asked as he too started sniffing the air around him.

All Sting could smell was the usual scent of the forest; the warm-blooded prey creatures in the foliage; rotting vegetation and new growth; the scents of his companions, and even the leftover hints of his other guildmates who they spent the most time with. As always, though, there was the scent of Natsu, Lucy and Happy that were the strongest out of the last – Sting could never smell Ryos or Lector without those accompanying scents, and he was sure the same could be said of him.

"What kind of shitty Slayer are you if you can't smell that," Gajeel replied meanly. "Use your damn nose properly and don't ask stupid questions; you should be able to do something as simple as that, at least."

Sting figured he should just take Gajeel's words as a rough compliment – otherwise his eyes might water again, and Gajeel had nearly made him cry too many times in this short walk – and began sniffing the air in earnest. Focusing as hard as he could to filter out the usual smells, Sting could sense Ryos next to him attempting to find out what it was Gajeel could smell.

It took some time, but eventually Sting could pick up a source of new scents that peaked his interest. Judging by how Ryos perked up beside him, Sting thought he could smell it too.

"…There's Natsu-nii," Ryos said hesitantly. His brow was furrowed as he concentrated on the other sources. "…And Juvia-san? Those two are together for some reason."

Unlike what he had threatened, Gajeel had not actually left them behind yet. Instead, his arms were crossed as he watched the younger Slayers with interest.

"There's one more person," Gajeel drawled. "Can you smell them? They're the reason why I want to head off – aside from wanting to show Salamander how a real Slayer actually fights."

At that, Lector mumbled a retort under his breath. "Sting is more of a Slayer than you'll ever be, you big meanie."

Unfortunately for him, Dragon Slayers' possessed ears sharper than any human. They even exceeded the sharp ears of most animals, including talking cats. So, Gajeel more than easily managed to catch Lector's words and reply to them with hateful words of his own.

While Sting attempted to keep Gajeel away from a screaming Lector, Ryos continued to study the smell of the mysterious third person.


"What was that Ryos?" Sting asked. He was currently clutched in one of Gajeel's meaty hands, Lector dangling from his own arms stretched away from the man to protect him.

Gajeel laughed a little meanly as he dropped Sting, ignoring his yelp of surprise. "So, the little worm isn't completely useless, huh?"

When Ryos scowled at him, the man laughed louder. He then roughly rubbed Ryos' head with his gloved hands. "Not bad, squirt. Snake is right, but there's something else about that snake bastard. Can you tell?"

This time it was Sting who managed to answer. His face was screwed up in disgust as he caught a proper whiff of the stranger's scent. "He's a Dragon Slayer," Sting stated, "but, like…he smells…wrong?"

"Like a shitty knock-off Slayer," Gajeel confirmed. "I've heard of it before but never believed it; artificial Dragon Slayers. Apparently, there are some psychos who tried to replicate Dragon Slayer magic by magicking up some lacrima crystals and shoving it in their body."

Gajeel then sniffed crassly, seemingly unimpressed with the technology. "It's meant to be stronger than us natural Slayers' magic, but it seems like a fucking shortcut for a knock-off power; they can't compare to skills taught by an actual dragon."

Privately, Sting and Ryos could not help but be a little bit impressed; a technology that granted you all of the power of a full-grown Dragon Slayer without even needing the instruction of a dragon? It seemed unbelievable and unfathomably formidable.

Sting could not conceive the raw magical clout Natsu wielded with ease being his own. Maybe even on top of his own abilities as a natural Slayer.

He would be stronger than any other Slayer out there! Ever!

"Oh knock it off with those stupid starry eyes," Gajeel spat at Sting and Ryos. "I can see you idiots thinking maybe you could put that shit in you and 'be the most powerful mage 'round'. I'll tell you what," he said as he leant it, "that's absolute bullshit."

Gajeel's grin was threatening as he loomed over the boys, fangs as thick as two of their childish fingers apiece. "You can never beat me," he rumbled, "even with those shortcuts. Give it up."

Eventually, when Ryos and Sting were sufficiently cowed, Gajeel moved back out of their space. He snorted at their fearful expressions before turning on his heel and continuing on like the conversation had never happened.

"Piss off, kids," Gajeel said contemptuously. "I'm gonna go beat the shit out of that fake and I don't need you guys slowing me down anymore."

Before he disappeared into the forest, however, Gajeel jutted a thumb towards where the trace of water lingered in the air. "If you wanna do something worthwhile head that way. The Maiden should be somewhere that way with some other punks. Seems like they're fighting, so you better hurry if you want some action; Maiden will probably clean them up real soon otherwise."

With that, Gajeel gave a lazy wave before disappearing into the tree line at a loping amble.

"If Lucy's that way," Lector started after a pause, "then we should probably go and help." He was still held in Sting's arms, which was why the boy could feel his oldest friend's minute shivers of fear.

"We don't have to go if you're too scared," Sting said seriously to Lector. "I don't want you feeling unsafe; your wellbeing, Lector, comes before any glory."

Next to him Ryos nodded just as solemnly. "Nakama doesn't put nakama in danger."

Lector shook his head viciously, tiny paws clenched in determination. "No! I said to Sting I would learn how to be strong beside him! I can't chicken out here!" He then placed a hand to his back, where his guild mark was hidden under his vest. "My pride as a Fairy Tail member wouldn't be able to stand it!"

"Ha ha!" Sting crowed as he held Lector aloft. "That's my Lector! You heard him, Ryos! Time to head out!"

"Right," Ryos agreed before leading the charge. Since Gajeel had pointed out where Lucy was meant to be, he could begin to pick up traces of her scent, as well as a few other strangers'. There was a concerning smell of blood as well, but since Ryos could tell Celestial magic had been used, he figured it was to be expected; Lucy's spirits could be as vicious as she.

After a short while of running, however, their movement was interrupted by a giant pillar of dark magic going off in the far distance.

The sheer magnitude of ill-intent rolling off of it nearly brought the sensitive Dragon Slayers to their knees. It was only Lector's quick activation of his Aera magic that kept them both aloft.

Slumped in Lector's straining grip, Sting violently dry-heaved into the dirt. "W-What is this?" he gargled between heaves, drool dripping from between his lips. "It feels…"

"Like old dark magic," Ryos gasped. "The kind that's been rotting underground for hundreds of years. It's so powerful…"

"C'mon guys," Lector strained out between wing flaps. "You have to stand up! I can't keep holding both of you and moving!" Sure enough, his flight path was a drunken wobble in the general direction they had been heading, but Lector knew he could not hold it up forever.

He was not like Happy, who's Aera magic was incredibly powerful from years of practice in hauling Natsu and various other guild members around. Before Sting, Lector had not really used his magic, and even after then it had been in short bursts; mostly to get away from angry shop-keepers after they had been caught stealing. There was no way he could measure up to Happy's dexterity and speed in the air, borne from fighting alongside Natsu for his whole lifetime.

"Sorry Lector," Sting said as he attempted to get his feet beneath him. "It just took us by surprise, that's all."

It took another moment or so for the Slayers to get back to a steady walking rhythm, but their faces were still somewhat pale as they staggered onwards to their destination.

"What do you think that was?" Lector asked as he settled on Sting's head. "…Do you reckon it was this Nirvana?"

Ryos gazed off into the distance where the dark magic towered above the forest canopy. "Stars, I hope not."

The moment Angel summoned Aries, that was when Loke understood Lucy's look of terror.

He did not even know who the hell the Celestial Spirit mage Lucy had been supposedly facing was when he had summoned himself. Rather, as soon as he had come across Aquarius and Scorpio – the latter who had been magically bound to never speak of his summoner, like all spirits, but had managed to infer over the years just how cruel his summoner had been – Loke had not wasted a moment to rush to his angel's side. There was no chance he was going to let Lucy face down someone who prevented most of her spirits from interacting with others, even in the Spirit World.

Without their summoner's explicit restrictions, spirits could mingle and interact with others in their home world. After all, they had existed before humans and would continue to do so after their passing. It was only the strongest and cruellest of mages that would and could keep their spirits far away from the others in their home; it was why Loke had not seen Aries since Karen's death. She had been taken by someone just as cruel and Loke had never forgiven himself for it.

Now, though, Aries was here, after all those years, right in front of him.

By the time Loke was gasping out her name, struggling to rise from his kneeling position, Hibiki was already there.

"Aries!" the Archive mage choked out. His composure was waylaid for sheer shock, unable to comprehend what his ex-lover's Celestial Spirit was doing here. "B-But—Karen!"

At the mention of her previous summoner, Aries could not hide her flinch. The demure woman had been gaping back at Loke since her appearance, but the utterance of Karen's name drew her attention towards Hibiki.

"U-Um, sorry!" Aries squeaked out, arms coming up to cover her face. She did not add anything else, clearly overwhelmed by the situation at hand.

"Loke!" Lucy hissed at the stunned man. "Dismiss yourself!" Normally she would never be so blunt with her friend, but his presence was complicating things rapidly. Lucy had never intended to summon Loke for this reason, having thought the usage of Virgo and her silver keys being more than enough to deal with Angel.

It was Cenas who was meant to be here, supporting her from afar alongside Hibiki; not Loke!

"I-I can't do that!" Loke spluttered back as he finally stood. "Aries…she's right there!" His arms came up to gesture at Aries, who tearfully flinched again and mumbled his name right back. "I need to talk to her!"

"So do I!" Hibiki shouted. "She knows what happened to Karen! How she died!" The man's composure was breaking, and he used his shirt sleeve to agitatedly wipe at his face. "I need to know what happened to her!"

"This is juicier than I expected!" Angel interjected with glee. She was looking upon the confrontation with a smug smile, pleased with how her machinations churned out misery. "Who would have thought; Karen's old spirits, gathered under new masters, and her ex-lover – a man without any answers! Of course," Angel said as she looked at Lucy, "blondie here has all the answers, if you'd like."

At that, Hibiki whipped his gaze towards Lucy. He looked wounded, like he could not believe Lucy had kept something so important from him. "Lucy…Is what she saying true? You know what really happened to Karen?"

Lucy ignored the both of them to continue to angrily berate Loke, even though it hurt her to turn her back on Hibiki. "Go home you idiot! This is not the time to freeze up. I have a job to do, and there's a distinct chance the country's balance is at stake here! So, move!" She finished it off by whacking Loke on the shoulder with the flat of her blade.

"Ow!" Loke could not help but yelp. He then rubbed his arm while staring at Lucy in shock. "You hit me!"

"I'll apologise later," promised Lucy. "Right now, though, you have to trust me. I'll defeat Angel and rescue Aries, alongside all of the other spirits she's been abusing." Lucy's dark eyes were wet as she looked towards Loke pleadingly, her voice dropped simultaneously so only he could hear. "Loke, please. If you don't trust me as your mage, trust me as Tia. I won't steer you wrong."

Loke stammered again, stuck between his trust in Lucy and his loyalty towards an old friend in trouble.

Nearby, Hibiki was losing his patience with the situation. If Lucy knew what had happened, then he had to get the truth from her; no matter what!

Just then, the situation was interrupted by a pillar of dark magic bursting from the ground in the distance.

"Finally!" Angel breathed out, fanatically bright eyes reflecting the overwhelming stream of ancient magic. "Nirvana has been released!"

"Well, fuck," Lucy said succinctly. Quieter again, she mumbled to herself, "Wendy still must've gotten caught…What the fuck do Jura and Sherry think they're doing then if they can't protect her? Oh, and that means Jellal is out and about as well…I guess that's okay?"

Her ramblings were interrupted by Hibiki's fearful gasp, his gaze also locked onto Nirvana's unveiled presence. "Do you know what this means? If you feel an emotion too strong towards the light or dark, your morality will be flipped towards the opposite."

"Better not fall into despair," Lucy replied bluntly. "It would be best then to prevent that by clearing some things up." Her sword waved lazily in the air as she gestured between the now attentive Hibiki and the summoned spirits.

"To keep things short: Karen used to be the owner of Aries, as you know, but also my friend here. Loke is really Leo the Lion, and he was the only one who managed to stand up to Karen's sociopathic levels of abuse."

Hibiki bared his teeth in frustration, an action that delighted Angel as she watched on. "Shut up! I know Karen could be a bit rough, especially with her Celestial Spirits, but she was not some heartless bitch!"

"Uh," Lucy interposed with a hint of anger, "I know you cared about Karen, Hibiki, but I'm not going to let you let her off the hook in front of the people she abused." Her passion made her throw her hands out to gesture at the timid Aries, who mewled out a sorry and tried her best not to crouch in fear. "She fucked up everyone she touched, and you cannot use your love as a shield to ignore her actions!

"Loke may have been the one to stay in our world to prevent Karen from opening any more gates, but that was so she wouldn't summon Aries to beat her for 'snitching' on her. Your Master, Bob, knew about Karen's actions and called her out; it's Karen's fault for not heeding his words and going out on that job that killed her!"

"SHUT UP!" shrieked Hibiki. His hands were clamped over his ears, like he could block out the truth. "SHUT UP! KAREN WASN'T LIKE THAT! YOU'RE WRONG!"

Gazing upon Hibiki's grief-stricken form, Angel smiled to herself in satisfaction. "I might not even need to do anything here; they're probably going to turn each other to the darkness with a little help from Nirvana. Ah," she sighed, "but I'll be untouched; an angel is perfection, after all. But maybe they need a little push…

"Blondie is right, you know," Angel drawled at Hibiki, even as she picked at her nails to feign disinterest. "Karen died because she was stupid enough to think she had enough worth as a Celestial mage to open more than one Golden Key's gate."

Suddenly, a demented grin stretched across Angel's face. The bruising on her left side cast deep shadows across her face, and her eyes shone with bloodlust. "And I was lucky enough to watch her die right in front of me!"

"Well," Lucy said to herself over Hibiki's disbelieving screams, "there goes my attempts to keep Hibiki sane by talking. Time for violence."

Lucy ignored the dark outline that was forming around Hibiki, and even Loke's protests at her approach, too busy swapping her sword to her off-hand so she could wind up her right.

"Time for you to snap out of it!" Lucy shouted right before she decked Hibiki in the face with all her might.

The blow knocked Hibiki off his feet and momentarily stopped his psychotic break. The obvious influence of Nirvana spluttered out as he was occupied with cupping his bleeding and broken nose.

"Fhuckk," Hibiki gargled through the blood pooling in his mouth. The white collared shirt he wore was quickly being stained a deep red, and he ungracefully spat out phlegm and blood in an attempt to prevent more overflow. "Lucy!"

The blonde in question was shaking her hand out, a little appreciative of her own work and how the others were ogling her actions. "Only way to snap you out. Now," her expression turned serious once more, "you need to adult-the-fuck-up and face the truth you always knew; Karen was a terrible person and you deserve a woman so much better than that. She was batting above her average with you."

"Luuuucyyy," Loke groaned out, hands in the air like he was going to strangle her. "Your tact with emotions is as astounding as always, but can you afford to be a bit nicer?"

"Fuuuuck that!" Lucy shouted back. "Nirvana is out right now, and I don't have any more time to waste on this second-rate abusive bitch anymore!" Her jab at Angel got a growl in return, but she ploughed through to finish her spiel. "I'm ending this! Hibiki can just get some counselling after this or something."

The sheer blasé in which Lucy spoke about the situation finally broke Hibiki. Only, he broke down laughing, even if there were some tears mixed in.

"Only you, Lucy," he choked out. "Only you could just beat problems like this into submission. I will admit, I knew about Karen, but you were right – I couldn't admit to myself the woman I admired was so cruel when she wasn't being charming."

Loke offered a painful shrug. "Abusers usually are. Heaven knows when I first met Karen I was dazzled by her beauty and charm; it wasn't until later that she became cruel."

"Me too," Aries offered meekly, eyes darting between everyone involved. "K-Karen-sama was so pretty and so good with men. I didn't realise what she could do until the f-first time she…"

"You don't have to say anything, Aries," offered Loke gently when he saw how his old friend struggled with her emotions. "I think we all know what you mean."

"WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?" Angel suddenly shouted into the mix. The Celestial mage was stomping her foot, angered by how her manipulations had fallen apart. She turned her rage onto Hibiki, teeth snapping out each word with vigour. "I killed your lover and now you're just going to let that go? What is wrong with you? Get mad! Try and get your vengeance!"

Hibiki shook his head pityingly in response. "No, Lucy is right. We don't have time to waste on this. I can talk this out with her after this. I, however, don't need to hear any more words from the psycho who killed Karen. We just need to end this."

"This is all your fault, you fake," Angel hissed at Lucy. Caelum was still in easy reach and she scooped it up to hold in front of herself. The cannon immediately started charging up, regardless of the fact Loke and Aries were in her direct shot to Lucy. "I'm going to kill you now."

"Hibiki!" Lucy called out in a panic, already sprinting towards the spirits with her sword back in her dominant hand.

The Archive mage did not bother to reply with his words, instead throwing up his most powerful Force shield in an attempt to block Caelum's beam.

Meanwhile, Loke grabbed Aries and hit the ground. The female spirit squealed at the sudden movement but had enough forethought to throw some wool up to soften their landing and gift them with some protection.

The Force Shield managed to briefly stop Caelum's attack, but the rage Angel put behind it splintered them shortly after the initial impact. The golden screens shattered in golden fractals and allowed for the beam to just barely miss Loke and Aries on the ground.

Fuelled by desperation, Lucy managed to tumble to the side to avoid the attack. She then used the momentum to roll to her feet and keep moving. Her sword whistled through the air at Angel's face, but Caelum's bulky metal frame shifted enough to block it.

Using the force of the rebound, Lucy did a back handspring and aimed a kick to knock Caelum away from Angel. The move hit, but the sheer mass of Caelum's body meant the spirit was barely knocked off-course.

Not discouraged, Lucy gathered herself before lunging low. She intended to roll between Angel's legs and hobble her with neat cuts at her Achille's tendons, but Angel had not survived in Oración Seis by being physically weak.

The white-haired woman sprung to the side, using Caelum's floating frame as a brace to swing around and over Lucy. Her motion left her behind Lucy's exposed back, and Angel was quick to press the advantage.

One of her long legs lifted into the air, intending on dropping an axe kick that would leave Lucy breathless and squirming on the ground. A blast of Celestial light threw her off balance, however, and Angel scowled back at Loke, who had managed to fire from his Regulus ring.

"Aries!" Angel snapped at the spirit still cowering on the ground. "Make yourself useful for once and deal with the Lion!"

"Fight…Leo?" Aries asked to no one, eyes wide with fear as she looked at an equally distraught Loke. "I…I can't…But…" her breath rattled in her chest as Aries attempted to gather up her bravado, "with my pride as a Celestial Spirit…I must.

"Leo," the White Lamb pleaded as she got to her feet, "please…Fight like I am a worthy opponent. I may not have much, but for my master's sake, I must fight. That is our pride as Celestial Spirits!"

Loke's face was still crumpled in disbelief, but he faced Aries with his fists raised and rings glowing. "I understand, Aries. I would do anything to ensure Lucy's safety, and I can only expect as much from another spirit. Let's fight with all of our might and honour."

The fight devolved from there, Aries and Loke clearly reluctant to fight but doing their best. On the other hand, Lucy and Angel began trading blows with raw viciousness once more. Caelum was back in sword form and Hibiki tried his best to support Lucy's efforts against the spirit even through his continued attempts to throw off the remains of Nirvana.

It was clear, however, that Loke was not the leader of the Zodiacs for no reason, and similarly that Lucy did not hold several titles because of her lack of fighting zeal. The two were stronger their opponents and began beating them back towards each other.

Eventually, as Loke and Lucy fell into place once more beside each other, Angel realised this as well.

With a brutal kick, Angel managed to force Lucy back and give herself some space to breathe. The woman had collected several more cuts from Lucy's sword, but had just managed a deep cut in return across the blonde's forehead.

The blood was sticky and warm as Lucy ineffectively tried to swipe it from her eyes, and that moment of blindness was all Angel needed.

Caelum changed into its cannon form once more, with Angel grasping the spirit tight in her exhausted hands. Her fingers were trembling with a combination of adrenaline and pain as she lined up the shot, but she did not need to be perfectly accurate; Caelum's blast radius was enough to take off a limb easily.

Noticing how Angel was lining up a shot at a temporarily blind Lucy, Loke barely managed to say the first syllable of her name before he was throwing himself forwards.

"Loke!" Aries called out as she realised her opponent had forsaken their battle for his summoner's sake. The shot was clearly going to take Leo out of commission and Aries warred with her binding duties as Angel's spirit, as well as her love for Leo, her oldest friend.

(If Aries could not directly disobey her master and aid Leo, she would simply have to get around the commands – after all, Angel had not forbidden Aries from protecting herself.)

"You will fall here!" Angel crowed as she fired off her strongest shot yet at an unaware Lucy. "There can only be one woman worthy of the heavens here, and that is me!"

The blood managed to clear from Lucy's vision just in time to see Loke leap in front of her. However, he was also followed by Aries, who wrapped as much wool around herself and, by proxy, Leo, in a form of self-defence.

"No!" Hibiki shouted, reflexes too slow to do anything but watch as the shot went off.

He was echoed by Lucy's own shout of horror. There was nothing to do but brace herself as Caelum's attack shredded its way through Aries shield, the spirit herself, and, torturously, ending by piercing Loke.

If it were not for the efforts of the two spirits, Lucy knew she would have been instantly killed. As it was, the barest edges of the beams still got through Loke's form.

Lucy screamed as her chest and stomach took the brunt of the impact. The skin sizzled from the raw heat of the attack, blisters immediately forming on the tanned skin. There was nothing Lucy could do but drop her sword in favour of curling up on the ground around her grievous wounds.

"Tch!" Angel said. Her gaze was disapproving as she looked upon the gaping wounds of Aries and Leo, clearly not satisfied with Caelum's inability to kill Lucy. She would just have to finish the job herself then.

In turn, the spirits were slow to return back to their home. The holes in their bodies leaked golden light as they inched towards each other in a fevered need to touch.

"Aries…" Loke groaned as he finally brushed her fingers with his own.

The Lamb seized his hand back with desperate strength, linking their fingers together. "I'm here, Leo…I'm here."

"Lucy…" Loke then moaned. His body was too weak to look behind himself at his summoner, squirming ineffectually on the ground instead. He did not need to see, however, to hear how she groaned lowly in pain. "Lucy, are you alright?"

His sentiment was echoed by Hibiki, who was rushing to Lucy's side in Loke's stead.

"Lucy!" Hibiki exclaimed as he knelt beside her hunched form. He was not sure where to place his hands, for fear of causing more pain, but eventually his fluttering digits settled for scooping her fringe out of her eyes to get a view of her face.

Lucy's eyes were glossy in agony. Her head wound made the contours of her face into a grisly mask with its never-ending flow, the stress lines caused by pain catching the bulk of the blood. It also dripped off her chin in a thick mix of dirt and saliva, occasionally being sprayed by her grating breaths. It was not a pretty sight, but Lucy ignored it in favour of checking upon the wellbeing of Loke and Aries.

"No…" she rasped as she watched Loke and Aries slowly disappear. "This isn't what I wanted…It wasn't meant to happen this way…"

"Maybe not for you," Angel cooed. She was now standing beside the spirits, eyes wide as if to soak up as much as she could of their pain and misery. "However, I'm satisfied with things have turned out.

"You, faker, on your knees and defeated. Your spirits worthless in the face of my own strength. Only the purest beings can survive in this world and escape to the next; I am the only one who is going to ascend from here as an angel."

Angel's head cocked to the side as she looked down at Aries, who could only gaze up in miserable fear. Her body was almost completely dissolved by now, but there was still enough for Angel to step on in her way towards Lucy.

Loke met the same fate, and Lucy and Hibiki could only listen to the duo's screams of pain before they – finally, thankfully – disappeared back to the Spirit World.

The scent of Lucy's burned flesh was heavy in her own nostrils, and the nauseatingly familiar smell, her inability to fight back, her own weakness, was sending her back once more to the place she had hoped she had forever escaped.

Angel's taunting words faded into a warbling echo, like Lucy's head was underwater. All that was left the deep chuckles of a man, and the phantom sensation of his hands grabbing at her hips, hot enough to burn. Then, there was all-consuming heat…

(her hip, oh stars her hip, he was searing her flesh to the bone, fat bubbling, the scent of cooking meat in the air, and Lucy could do nothing but SC R E A M)

…And Lucy could not take it anymore.

Now hunched protectively over the blonde, Hibiki prepared another Force blast to save her and himself. He held up his arms and took aim at Angel, who was unceasing in her approach. Caelum was still in canon form and pointed directly at them; Hibiki could not afford to miss now.

As he formed the magic in his hands, however, Lucy spasmed in the bracket of his body. Her movements were jerky as she pushed Hibiki aside and rose to her feet. It was like she was deaf to Hibiki's questions and grasping hands, his attempts to get her to rest completely ineffectual.

"Don't—!" Hibiki choked out. "Your injuries…Lucy!"

"Ahhh…" Lucy suddenly gargled. Her stance was sloppy; body hunched and swaying like she was drunk. The fringe Hibiki had smoothed back was once again hanging over her eyes, casting deep shadows across her face. "It hurts…"

Hibiki began to inch back from the blonde, despite his desire to check on her wounds – she said she was in pain, after all. He had to help her. But there was a long-buried instinct bubbling up, undeniable in its strength.

The primitive side of Hibiki's brain was raising the alarm to run away, run as far as he could because there was a predator and they were going to kill him, it was going to hunt him down and strip the flesh from his bone and devour the meat—

Even Angel had stopped in her tracks, trembling faintly as she gazed upon Lucy in horror.

The blonde was still swaying, but the shadows at her feet seemed to be gaining a life of their own. The darkness was creeping up her body, painting her clothes and tanned skin into a shade of her normally vibrant self.

"I was planning on keeping you conscious at the end of this, Sorano…" Lucy continued calmly, like the others were not nearly running away in fear. "After all, we wouldn't want one of Brain's seals to break, would we?"

Hibiki was not initially sure who Lucy was talking to, but Angel's strangled gasp was more than enough to inform him.

"H-How did you…that name…" Angel said. "I buried that name! I'm not Sorano anymore! I'm Angel; the one who will ascend to the skies! Not Sorano!"

"You may run," Lucy purred, "but you cannot hide from the truth. It will always catch up with you; slave…prisoner…Sorano…Angel…pet…murderer…Nothing more than the same stupid child, just with a new label."

Finally, Lucy looked up.

The wound on her head had not fully closed, but majority of the blood had congealed. It stuck in gory streams down her face, clumping her eyelashes together and staining her teeth, which were exposed in a feral grin. The smile made her eyes crinkle, but the expression was tainted by the fathomless depths of hatred that had replaced her normally brown eyes.

Nirvana had filled up the holes Lucy's despair had wrought upon herself, and now there was no more room for her old compassion and grace. All that was left was the ancient magic's darkness, and Lucy's own loathing.

All of it was directed right at Angel, the one who had caused pain to everyone involved in the fight. To Lucy, and therefore Nirvana, the woman did not deserve to live. Thus, she would not.

Caelum rattled in Angel's shaky grip as she lifted it to point at Lucy once more. "S-Stay back! Brain successfully unleashed Nirvana; you should be turning on your goody-goody guildmates, not me!"

Lucy cocked her head to the aide, the red at the end of her long ponytail more like blood than ever before. "They were not the ones who tried to kill my friends."

With the same jerky movements of a puppet, Lucy reached down to the holsters by her side. Her sword was still laying on the ground nearby, but she no longer had interest in the weapon. Instead, she slowly unsheathed her SE guns. The plugs clasped around her wrists with a soft click and Lucy smiled as she cradled the deadly weapons in each hand.

There was nothing kind left in the gesture.

"Time's up, Sorano. Pray to those angels you believe in and prepare to die, you bitch."


I know this is a super dark chapter by the end, so I'll quickly add some reasoning behind some character choices before leaving off with my goofy thoughts whilst making this whole thing – ironically enough, my head was full of memes about this chapter rather than serious shit, but contextually the jokes would never fit :(((

Main note: the whole thing between Natsu/Sting and Gajeel/Rogue in cannon was so unhealthy I could die. In this I try and explain how they could've obsessed over what were apparently 2 dead men for 7 FUCKING YEARS by bringing in a Dragon Slayer trait which mirrors mythological draconic obsessions.

Additionally, I always found Rogue's attitude towards Gajeel like…weirdly akin to a mildly troubling relationship in which one side was not into it, and the other was WAY too into it. Gajeel was not a kind man pre-his mandatory Fairy-Tail-Beating-Friendship-Into-You session. Any kid who faced that sadistic attitude and still wanted his attention and recognition has been conditioned into desiring his praise above all else. Bit heavy-handed to imply that between a kid and a near-man, but a bitch has to explain these dumbasses stupid attitudes without the whole 'they knew each other in the past' bullshit.

Now it's meme time:

Alright, time to calm down with the whole 'Lucy cluelessly seducing people with her contradictory 'naïve/dangerous' personality' schtick.

*Hibiki appears*

[Unlock new romance option: Pretty Genius Path]

(I'm so sorry, but the explicit trust Hibiki put in Lucy in canon, as well as managing to hold onto his kind personality despite Nirvana by seeing her love for her spirits was just…*clenches fist* too sexy to deny)

me: oh boy this is probably the densest arc I've tackled yet and the one with the most changes. I have to be careful and plan this out—

also me: I think we need to think more in-depth about how the slayers are biologically different from normal humans and since they were brought up by LITERAL DRAGONS they have completely different social cues and behaviours that are borderline animalistic

me: now's not the time! Important arc, remember?

also me: but…..imagine possessive behaviours sprouting from dragon's need to protect their territory and hoards? Slit pupils? Fangs? Overbearing physical affection and unawareness of personal boundaries?

me: hold on—

also me: natsu baring his fangs when his territory is encroached on. Lucy being his territory, and when people get too close to lucy…

me: oh…SHARp tee T H TIME BABY