Note: Spoilers up to chapter 212. I do not own any characters you recognize, yadda, yadda. Some brutality and harsh language. A kind-of romance because GajeelxLevy is so close to canon that it's honestly kinda ridic.
Title: Guilt and Guilds
Fandom: Fairy Tail
When Gajeel tells Levy to leave he knows he's being selfish.
He remembers nailing them to that tree, laughing at them for being weak and stupid and careless; laughing because the stupid men –what the hell kind of magic controls plants – are so pathetic it's hilarious and if the rest of them are like this, Phantom Lord is going to roll right over the lot of them.
Jet and Droy are unconscious but it's the girl, the one that doesn't even reach his shoulder, the one that couldn't do anything, the one that's nailed to a goddamn tree that tells him: "Take that back."
It's so calm, so self-assured, so infuriating because it's almost like he's the one nailed to a tree that he wallops her in the stomach with an iron-coated fist and watches her puke without the slightest bit of remorse. "No."
But when she's done heaving she fixes him with a look that nearly makes him step back a pace. Her voice shakes, with anger, with weakness, with fear, he doesn't know, he doesn't fucking know and it infuriates him. "They're strong, they're noble, they're brave, they're clever and they're worth ten of you." And she stares into his eyes, determined. "Take it back."
And at that moment she's big. Bigger than him, bigger than Jose, bigger than anyone he's ever met except Metallicana. And that's not fair because she's weak and pathetic and puny.
So he punches her again and again and again but after each choked wince she gets the light back in her eye and Gajeel knows that if doesn't control himself soon he's going to kill her, big as she is.
Then the lights go out but only because she's closed her eyes.
"They are weak," he tells her mildly, frowning at the blood on his knuckles. She seems so small now and… he hadn't meant to. Not because she was a girl but because he honestly hadn't meant to. Metallicana would have walloped him over the head and threatened to eat him for the loss of control. (Not the hitting a girl thing, or the hitting someone who can't fight back, Pops was kind of a jackass). As it is, he's lucky that he has something with him, just a crap poultice that he slathers on clumsily. Internal injuries are pretty bad and he doesn't know how long they'll hang there. Hours, days, who knows. Then he paints on a guild tattoo – feeling weird and stupid.
Fuckit, it's like he cares or something.
"They couldn't protect you," he informs her unconscious body, telling himself it's not guilt that he feels, she's so… so small now, "and they'll never be able to. You're better off without them."
He walks away but he's underestimated the word-mage.
"Y-You're all alone, aren't you?" She croaks, voice full of pain and something he can't identify because it can't possibly be pity and somehow he manages not to turn around and look at her incredulously. "That's why you're doing this on your own, isn't it?"
And an image of dragon made of metal flashes across his eyes and he thinks, desperately, mouth dry, 'no, no that's not true, that can't be true, I'm doing this because I want to because everyone else is too weak-'
He can't answer, so she answers for him.
"I'm-" and she tugs futilely at her bonds, "sorry for you."
Which should, if there is any justice in the world, sound like something rehearsed and condescending and superior and smug but it doesn't and he knows she actually means it. It's just who she is. Just like how the two men went far past their limits trying to defend her, just like how she's gone far past her limits trying to defend them and for some reason the thought – just that thought – of the three of them, perfect and shining and smiling makes him want to kill something because that isn't how the world works.
He walks away because the alternative would be blood and death and Metallicana would have scoffed at his foster-child being so angered by mere words.
When Phantom Lord falls (because it has to, because they're all living in a goddamn fairy tale and goddamnit he did not just make that pun) he is painfully bereft of purpose. Salamander doesn't just leave him alive, Igneel's brat actually has the fucking gumption to call him a fucking teddy bear. Where others would go for ice cream and other comfort food, he finds the lowest quality crap iron and just shovels it in, methodically chewing and chewing and chewing.
No one comes looking for him. Not the Element Four, not Guildmaster Jose (who has an excuse since he's off in jail or being eaten by leeches or locked in the cuckoo house or something), not anyone. He tells himself that's alright, that's how the world works, that's how it's always worked, munch-crunch-munch, he doesn't need their stupid camaraderie, their smiles, their stupid fucking hope.
But it flickers in him anyway. Igneel also disappeared. Metallicana didn't just leave him. Metallicana must have…
But then the thought dies because the Iron Dragon doing anything he didn't want to do is so preposterous to him that he blinks it away, feeling small and silly. Besides, Igneel's brat is clearly touched in the head and anything that comes spewing out of his mouth has to at least be treated as potential crap if not utter crap.
No, he's right, Metallicana left to teach him something. Patience. Solitude. The importance of living by yourself, depending only on yourself.
He spends several days, munch-crunch-munch, contemplating the joy of being free and alone and happy.
Very, very, very happy.
Then, of course, Juvia has to ruin it all by sending Fairy Tail's stupid Guildmaster to fetch him.
The first day is… awkward.
Juvia trampled off somewhere along with Igneel's brat and the rest of the hanger-ons and Fairy Tail, pathetic as it is, glowers at him and forms ranks around Levy, Droy and Jet.
He doesn't blame them. Weaklings of their calibre have to band together to fight someone like him. It's the only way they can survive but because it doesn't work, because it'll never work, they're doomed to being as pathetic as ants.
So he eats alone, drinks alone, helps with the repairs, goes on a few missions that Marakov hands to him on the sly, comes back pissed because those missions are hard and unrewarding and make him feel dirty inside. Later he gets permission from the white-haired wonder (as if he needs permission) to take some missions that might actually help him with the rent and food. High-quality iron doesn't just fall from the sky damnit and Fairy Tail mages don't go around randomly slaughtering knights so he can eat their armor.
So he takes a few missions (mostly A-class, though some B) and is surprised at how pathetically grateful the citizens are for not destroying their city. The first time he announces he's from Fairy Tail two old men seem to suffer simultaneous seizures and three dozen people wander off screaming: 'we're doomed!' He almost thinks that him belonging to a dark guild is still written on his face or something and tries to explain that he's part of Fairy Tail now, he's a good guy (well, kinda-sorta, okay fine he does look evil) but it doesn't help at all until the job is done and suddenly he's a small hero.
They cluster around him, patting him consolingly on the shoulder, shaking his hand up and down and the mayor (or something, she's old and has authority and is paying him so he refrains from slaughtering all these creepy people) calls him 'such a sweet boy, nothing like that Salamander hooligan or City-Demolisher Titania or Apocalypse Lucy.
(Who the hell is Apocalypse Lucy?)
It's only after the eighth time that this happens that he realizes that it's not a joke, Fairy Tail has a certain… reputation.
Perhaps the bi-daily barfights should have tipped him off.
After Marakov receives a commendation for Gajeel's work, the old man actually cries and gives him a hug. It's pathetic to see and makes Gajeel feel stupid because out of everyone in this damn Guild, Marakov is the one that reminds him of Metallicana (because the old man stinks of power and okay maybe he's a little desperate) and he really doesn't want his substitute-Metallicana to be giving him tearful hugs even if Marakov could probably crush him with his pinky if he felt like it.
So he stops pretending Marakov is Metallicana and remembers that the old man is just another run-of-the-mill insanely powerful mage and sighs into the heavy metals he's chugging.
Every now and then he spots a hair of bright, vibrant blue but it disappears just as quickly.
But even after their Guildmaster gives him a thumbs-up of approval (or tearful hug of approval, whatever), the rest of the Guild still doesn't try to get closer (except during barfights). They don't try to get closer but they start… tolerating him. He doesn't attract nearly as many glares and slowly the distance between where he sits and where everyone else sits get smaller and smaller until one day he's eating a sword and realizes he has an audience.
He's not sure what the logic is, but Fairy Tail has a freaking kindergarten or something lying around because two brats, one girl and one boy, about as tall as the bar counter, creep up in front of him, looking at him with sparkling eyes.
In Phantom Lord, he would have punted anyone watching him eat through the door. Here, he's pretty sure he'd get his ass stomped on if he does the same (and he doesn't want to go around kicking brats, honestly, he has some standards) so he just continues munching.
"Dude, that is so cool." The girl says. The boy nods in vigorous agreement before stuttering and mumbling in what is clearly a foreign language or a warped version of English. Gajeel can't make heads or tails out of it so he continues to eat, hoping that the kids will get a clue and go away from the dangerous dragon slayer mage.
After a while he realizes he's being poked. The boy is holding out a dagger to him, looking nervous and very red. The dagger is broken and rusty and Gajeel hasn't the faintest idea what to do with it.
He looks to the girl. She looks like their spokesperson. He doesn't notice that the Guild has grown quiet, that he has an audience of hair-trigger tempers wondering what their most recent, psychotic addition is about to do to two of the local children in broad daylight.
"He wants to give it to you," the little girl says, equally oblivious to the attention that has fallen on them. "Cuz' you're cool."
"Oh," Gajeel mumbles. That… actually that doesn't sound half bad. Crap tribute is still tribute after all. He accepts the dagger solemnly, wondering if he should eat it or something.
"I'm Gajeel," he tells them.
They stare expectantly at him.
Then he eats the dagger and the two kids give him the biggest grins in the world and he feels like he could get used to this sort of thing.
Juvia comes back, looking radiant despite the fact her magical signature is wobbly and someone has clearly gone off and whaled on her. The first thing she does after noticing his presence is to babble at him. Her little raincloud of despair is nowhere to be found and even if she's become infinitely more annoying Gajeel grudgingly decides that Fairy Tail can't be completely terrible if it makes Juvia this happy.
But if that Gray bastard treats her wrong he is going to smack his ass from here to Jupiter himself.
He avoids telling Gray this. Partially because Juiva wouldn't want him to and partially because he'd enjoy punting Gray to Jupiter.
After his first performance as a musician, Erza Scarlet marches up to him, looking grimly determined. Which is pretty much her default expression so he doesn't try to guess what's going on. He's tried before and while it might work anywhere logic had even the itty-bittiest sway, in Fairy Tail it's pretty much a hopeless cause.
He carefully starts putting away his guitar.
"You tied up Mirajane." She announces.
Gajeel cocks his head and blinks at the so-called strongest woman in Fairy Tail. "…yes?" He answers, a little cautious, not sure where she's going with this. For all that he might be her natural enemy, he's not exactly planning on testing Scarlet's patience. There's only so much metal he can eat at once after all.
"Why did you tie Mirajane up?" She asks, a little testily.
"Because she was performing and I needed to perform," he points out reasonably, snapping the lid of the guitar case shut. "It was the only course of action."
Erza sounds like one of those people who'd like the words 'course of action.' They come out a little clumsily on his tongue but he's trying to fit in damnit.
He still gets trounced for his troubles.
Half an hour Natsu comes in, gets a drink, looks up and does a spit-take. Gajeel's hair drips and he growls as Igneel's brat takes one look at the multitude of swords and chains sticking him to the ceiling and bursts into laughter.
Gajeel responds with Iron Dragon Breath and then they accidentally blow up half the bar.
Must be Tuesday.
Something's wrong with him.
Something has to be wrong with him.
It starts when Levy's two boyfriends finally get the nerve to confront him. He lets the bastards hit him. They're weak and they're stupid and if this is what it takes to be accepted, fuck, he understands. He did the same in Phantom. Beat up the new guys. Fairy Tail isn't as clean and holy as it likes to pretend.
But then Luxus arrives.
But then Luxus arrives and tries to kill Levy.
And Gajeel flies.
It's probably faster than he's ever moved. One moment he was there, the next he wasn't. Even Jet, the guy with the speedy legs, looks surprised and slightly frightened. His arm hangs limp at his side from the electrical discharge and he knows for a perfect moment that if he had to, he would kill Luxus. The world has slowed and even if he dies he would killkillkillkillkill-
But the bastard smiles and laughs and moves on.
Levy and Droy give him hesitant, uncertain looks (how do you reconcile this with that) but it's worse for Gajeel because he hadn't intended to save her just like he hadn't intended to hurt her and what the fuck was wrong with him?
But when the girl thanks him he feels…
Well. Not so bad.
Levy won't crumble.
She won't. Simple as that. Law of the universe and everything.
He watches, awed as she unravels Fried's enchantments.
No one knows except maybe him and the Guildmaster. Igneel's brat is stupid and his cat… well, it's a cat. But he knows. Runes and words are some of the most stupidly powerful magics out there. They can create laws. It's why the Makarov doesn't just bust himself out: it'd be like a fight to destroy gravity. Pointless. Gravity exists whether you will it or not.
So when she does manage to unravel Fried's enchantments he knows she can become big. Bigger than him, bigger than Erza, bigger than Makarov, bigger than anyone.
And for some reason, because maybe he's become stupid too, he wants to make her big again.
It took the combined firepower of two dragon slayers and Luxus wasting most of his energy on Fairy Law.
What the hell. What the hell.
(There's a small, niggling thought at the back of his brain that wonders how fast it'll take him to catch up. There's an even smaller, more deeply buried thought that wonders how long it'll take Levy to catch up and that small part of him is pretty sure their fight would be awesome)
They're a two-man cell, sent off to go play with a few dark guilds while Natsu's rag-tag group go off and fight the Oracion Seis. Juvia is inconsolable: alternating between fits of jealousy and profound depression. It's actually kind of distracting: the rain switches from sleet to steam in about half a second and while his metal skin doesn't conduct heat very well it still conducts and after a moment he snaps at her to knock it off.
Juvia glares at him.
Gajeel glares back.
The random mooks from the dark guild (Demon Horns? Dark Diary? Dairy Doom?) try to grab their attention. Every now and then the two Fairy Tail mages deign to knock them unconscious or otherwise slaughter them.
"Gajeel wouldn't know romance if it bit him on the butt!" She informs him heatedly.
(Mooks scream as their skin scalds)
Gajeel rolls his eyes. "Of course not. That thing is for p-" pansies.
But he hesitates because a flash of blue hair leaps into his vision.
For no reason.
But Juvia is actually a lot more perceptive than anyone ever gives her credit for (besides Grey, in that she is a bonafide lost cause) because she sees his hesitation and instantly the sky goes from raining super-heated death to clear and bright and she's staring at him. "Gajeel found someone for him?" She squeaks happily. "Who? Who? Juvia not tell anyone, promise!"
Gajeel accidentally socks the dark guildmaster in the face and says, very intelligently: "Ummm."
Levy is rather confused when Juvia, post-mission, very seriously walks up to her and tells her that if she breaks his heart she will be forced to kill her and drag her body into the sea and that Juvia really wouldn't want to do that because she likes Fairy Tail and she likes her but there are certain commitments-
This goes on for a while.
Everyone agrees she's talking about Gray.
Although Gajeel should have been there and been mortified he had other worries. After Natsu and company come back flush from their recent victory against the Oracion Seis (of course) they bring back with them a dragon slayer.
She has a cat.
Which begs the question.
Of course, it's handily answered in the next storyline.
"You're mine now, Cat!"
The giant panther-thing gives him a look and their battle temporarily halts. Gajeel thinks it over and agrees that that wasn't exactly the manliest thing he'd ever said.
"Yeah. Um. Sorry. Can I get a re-do?"
"SHE SHOT MY CAT."
"Gajeel, pay attention to the big picture, there's that dragon there and-"
"SHE SHOT MY CAT."
"Gajeel listen to me. We'll save your cat. But only after we save the world from the giant rampaging metal dragon that's dooming the world! Priorities Gajeel!"
Gajeel considers the problem.
"I AM GOING TO EAT YOU!" He tells the dragon-monster-thing.
And then he proceeds to do just that.
When they come back, Gajeel's not entirely sure why he's terrified that Lily wouldn't follow him.
But Lily does and he's small and cute and tiny and ohmaigawdsocute.
Wait. Did he really just think ohmaigawdsocute…?
Fuck it. Whatever.
Oh hey! Family reunion. Good times, good times.
When the S-class exams start, Gajeel's a little disappointed he wasn't chosen.
Erza smirks at him. He snarls back.
(Okay, a lot disappointed)
But then they announce the team thing and a lightbulb goes up above Gajeel's head and he marches right over to Levy.
When Droy and Jet quietly ask Lily if the big metal lug is trustworthy Lily shrugs. He hasn't been here long but he knows some things and he's probably closer to Gajeel than just about anyone, sad as that is.
"He made her small once. Now he's going to make her big again."
It's hard going. Levy likes being small, Gajeel realizes. It's a somewhat disturbing thought: does she want to stay weak?
But no, that's not it and he's on the verge of realizing something important when-
Well. A Dark Guild attacks.
He was kind of expecting this, honestly.
"THIS IS BIGGER THAN US. JUST GO!"
"Don't die," she tells him and she's crying. She shouldn't be crying. This is… this is justice.
No, maybe it is just him being selfish after all.
"Is all of Fairy Tail this weak? Did playing around with a light guild take away your bite, huh, Kurogane?"
They're insulting him. Insulting Fairy Tail. He doesn't really care because today is the day he doesn't break. A shattered sword, Metallicana told him a long time ago, is never whole again.
Maybe he's not whole, but he knows he's stronger than before. Forged anew, which is a funny, picturesque little metaphor that makes him want to laugh and laugh and never stop because it's true. There are bits and pieces of him here that there never were before. It feels good to be a little selfish, feels good to have others depend on him even if after all this is over someone really should wallop him over the head for being stupid. Access to a mage who can make anything with words real and he can't bring himself to get her to put out a distress signal?
The little word-mage is stronger than she gives herself credit for being.
They should have stayed and fought together; he can take them all on his lonesome he knows he can wipe the floor with them with her by his side.
But it's bigger than just them. Everyone on the island is in danger. It's possible the other word mage could have countered their distress signal and then boxed them in for too long. This is the sure root.
Egg-breath is throwing more useless projectile weapons. Wannabe samurai is channelling magic through his sword.
They never stood a chance.