AN: Wonderful readers are wonderful, and your support really boosts my inspiration (which has been going a bit up and down with this fic; kind of like the plot in the current arc). But here it is; the continuation you've had to wait so long to get. Alas, I have no shame. But I do have some romantic goodness for you, which I hope you'll enjoy.

Disclaimer: Fairy Tail and its characters belong to Hiro Mashima; I own absolutely nothing. Cover image by Rae.

part XIV.

"I feel like something bad is about to happen."

Gajeel looked down at the kid as she walked next to him, fiddling with the hem of her skirt. There was a furrowed set to her brows that seemed out-of-place on a girl so young, and her eyes looked haunted as they stared ahead at the curving street stretching out before them. Not that Gajeel could blame her, with the shit-storm just waiting on the horizon. Hell, the whole guild was on edge. Around them, the people of the capitol milled along the cobbled streets, chatting and laughing; blissfully oblivious to what lurked behind the grand façade of the magic games. But then, Gajeel figured it was for the best. They didn't fully know what would happen, after all; it was all speculations at this point. It wasn't anything good, that was for damn sure, but alerting anyone outside Fairy Tail at this point would no doubt only make it worse.

The meeting had gone as expected. It had been bad news, more bad news, and Salamander had tried thinking with his gut rather than his head. But they'd developed their strategy and each had gotten their respective assignment. Now all that was missing was for the finale to kick off.

But he agreed with the kid – it felt like something bad was just waiting to happen, and it made him strangely uneasy. He had always trusted his gut, and going by what it was telling him now, he had a feeling the culmination of the games would be more than just a celebration.

And then, of course, there was Levy.

Shoving his hands into the pockets of his trousers, Gajeel set his eyes on the building in the distance that held the infirmary. He had no idea what awaited them at the end of the games, or what would happen with the doomsday time-machine those damn idiots were meddling with, but he knew he wouldn't have felt quite so uneasy if she wasn't still recuperating. Whatever happened, if she would have to get away she had a problem, and he had no way of guaranteeing that he or anyone else from the guild would be with her other than the hag and any other idiots that got themselves hospitalized during the finale. Either way, it wasn't an ideal scenario. Levy was small – getting away wasn't usually a problem, especially not with her wits, but with her feet still in casts and her other healing wounds, she would be hindered. And if she had to fight whilst escaping...

"Are you worried about her?"

He looked down at the kid again, but instead of concern there was a small smile on her face, and he averted his gaze to the row of shops lining the street to their right. He contemplated lying to her, but something told him she wouldn't have believed him if he did.

"Yeah," he said instead.

"Miss Porlyusica will watch out for her."

He snorted. "The hag's a medic, not a fighter."

"But she's strong," the kid argued, and when he looked at her, there was something shining in her eyes that made him remember just who the old hag was. Her dragon's human counterpart, as messed up as that fact was.

She gave him an odd look then; almost mischievous, which looked even more out of place on her face than her previous worry. "Or is it just that anyone but you won't be good enough?"

"Didn't say that."

"But you were thinking it."

He glared down at her, but she squared her shoulders, looking smug, and he scoffed. "And so what? The hell am I supposed to do, leave her in the hands of her lapdogs? Fatty's still walkin' around with a damn cast."

"But they'd protect her with their lives," she countered. "If it came down to it, they would. I don't know what happened when–" she stopped herself, the word on the tip of her tongue, before she changed her mind. "When," she said simply. "But they were injured, too, and it wasn't from running away."

Gajeel didn't say anything to that. Firstly, because she was right, but he wasn't about to admit to it, and secondly because even if they'd tried to protect her, they'd failed. And he had a feeling whatever was awaiting them now was worse than whatever Ivan Dreyar and his band of merry nut-jobs was capable of pulling.

They were silent for the rest of their trek towards the infirmary, but then Gajeel wasn't up for talking, anyway. He wondered what they'd talked about, after he'd left. He'd caught the two of them on his way to the meeting, so he assumed they were still there with her. He wondered what it would take to get them to leave, and if Levy would mind overly much if he threw them out and locked the door in their faces. The thought had a smirk tugging at his lips; so long as Speedy insisted on always taking the bait, he didn't think he'd grow tired of goading him.

Suddenly, the kid stopped; halted in her tracks so quickly he almost thought she'd fall on her face. He quirked a brow at the strange behaviour, but the sudden wide-eyed terror on her face had his smirk dropping in a second, and the panic that crept into her voice when she spoke had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on edge.

"Can you smell that?"

He frowned, but breathed in deeply, wondering what she was on–

She was running even before he was.

Throwing open the main entrance with enough force to tear the doors off their hinges, they took the stairs, and panic surged within him as the scent grew stronger the further in they went. He'd just recently managed to purge the memory of it, sticking to his nose like a searing brand, but now it was all he could smell, and it seemed to cling to the walls and the floors of the winding corridors as they hurtled down them. With his longer strides, he was the quicker, but when they reached the wide-open door to the infirmary, the kid pushed her way past him and into the room, slipping under his arm as his hand grasped the door frame.

The hag seemed to have gotten there just before them, and was shifting Levy's still form, untangling it from the heap it was curled into. The smell of blood slammed against him like a physical wall, and he nearly choked with it, but he pushed his way forward even as the hag snapped at him to stay back. Kneeling beside the older woman, he glared at her when she slapped his hands away. The kid was asking questions, and the hag answered in gruff replies that betrayed a panic she wasn't usually prone to showing.

"Get her on her side!"

"Is it the wound?"

"Looks like it. Damn brat's torn the stitches open," she growled as her blood-stained hand pressed fresh gauze against Levy's bleeding midsection. and Gajeel felt something unfamiliar unfurl within his stomach. She'd done it? To herself?

"Fucking idiot!"

The hag glared at him, the look telling him he clearly wasn't helping but that she didn't necessarily disagree with the remark. "Help me lift her up; I ain't restitching it on the damn floor."

Despite the fact that part of him was seconds away from snapping, Gajeel complied without complaint, slipping his hands beneath the small shape and lifting her up. The hag followed, ushering him towards the bunny girl's old bed once she took in the state of Levy's stained sheets. The kid followed in their wake, movements hurried but controlled as she prepared the necessary equipment.

"Ready, brat?"

Nodding her head, she came to stand beside Gajeel, although she made no suggestion for him to move out of her way. Which was good, because he didn't really know how he'd have reacted. His nerves were on edge, and he bristled with the pent up anger and nauseating fear that clawed its way along his spine. Levy's face was blank and white; the same it had been when he'd pulled her down from her crucifixion. The skin beneath her closed eyes seemed translucent, somehow – thin and sickly, and he had to strain his hearing to hear her draw breath; to make sure she was, in fact, still breathing.

The soft glow of the kid's hands pulled his gaze away from the closed eyes, drawing his attention to the wound. He hadn't seen what the hag had done with it after she'd reshaped it and wrapped it the first time; had only heard about it from the woman herself. He'd thought waiting to tell Shorty had been the right choice; the hag had agreed, but it was clear they'd made the wrong decision. He should have known she'd be too curious to wait, but he hadn't realized how the sight of the wound would affect her. He'd never imagined it would be this bad, or that she'd react so strongly.

But then, even if it had been reshaped into the symbol of their guild, Levy's intelligence wasn't necessary to figure out what it had been before.

"Blood," the hag snapped, and the kid slipped away without a word. Gajeel didn't say anything; just watched as they worked. He hadn't been allowed inside the last time the old woman had patched her up, and he wasn't about to take his chances on pushing his luck now.

Although he'd have liked to see her try and throw him out.

He didn't really know what made him do it. Perhaps the panic that had his hands shaking with the sheer intensity of the feeling, but before he was even aware of it, he'd made a grab for her hand. Limp and covered in blood, and cold, it felt even smaller in his than it usually did. But it didn't feel awkward, this time. Letting the tips of his fingers rest against the underside of her wrist, he focused on her pulse, however weak, and tried to will it to speed up. She didn't respond, though. Didn't even twitch where she lay, small and bloodied against the clean sheets. And he didn't even know what to do other than stand at her side and hold onto her, because he felt that if he didn't, she'd slip away.

Stupid. Fucking. Idiot.

"You can yell at her all you want when she wakes up, but ya keep yer anger in check while I work," the hag growled, her gruff voice pulling him out of his thoughts. The kid had come back, carrying with her a few bags of blood, and got to work without pausing in her step, moving around him where he stood, stubbornly rooted to the spot.


The voices from the doorway drew his gaze away from what was going on before him, and Gajeel watched as the idiots scrambled inside, but before they'd even taken a step, the hag's voice stopped them in their tracks.

"Metal-brat, make yerself useful. She ain't gonna heal any sooner with either of you hanging over her, and I ain't gonna do my work any faster," she growled, turning her sharp eyes on him for just a second, before all her attention was focused back on the midget.

"Levy! Hey, what the–"

"Don't make me repeat myself!" she snapped, and Gajeel threw one last look towards the shape on the bed, before releasing her hand and making for the doorway.

"Out," he growled, grabbing them both by the collars of their shirts and hauling them with him.


"And close the damn door while yer at it!" came the holler, and he slammed it shut behind him as he stepped into the hallway, pulling the protesting mages along with him.


"Get your hands off me!"

He slammed them both against the wall of the corridor, revelling a little in the surge of satisfaction as some of his rage and frustration found an outlet. He'd kept a tight leash on it inside the infirmary, but now it was clawing its way out, tearing at his sanity until he thought he was going to go mad with the myriad of feelings that fought for supremacy within him. But worst of all was the pain – pain that wasn't his. Pain that was so clearly hers, and that lay like a cloying, sticking substance along the inside of his veins. And panic, or the aftershock of it, simmering within him until unfamiliar hysteria threatened to undo him.

"Oye, Gaj–"

"Shaddup!" he snapped, voice coming out as a snarl more than a command, and he could feel Speedy's pulse beneath the hand grasping his collar leap against his skin. For all his protesting, there was no masking the genuine fear that thrummed along the smaller man's form, although whether it was fear of Gajeel or fear for Levy, was hard to tell.

Drawing a deep breath, Gajeel tried to compose himself, to push the foreign sensations away. He felt like physically clawing at his eyes, if only to remove the image of her, curled in on herself in a pool of her own blood.

"Where the hell were you two?" he asked then, fingers tightening against the fabric of their shirts as he held them against the wall. Power surged along his nerves, and he shook with the force of keeping it contained; and keeping from unleashing it all on the two of them.

"We just left her alone for a minute!" Speedy snapped, glaring at him. "And what about you? Where the hell were you when this happened?"

His hands clenched into fists, shaking with the effort not to pound them both into oblivion. He wasn't about to tell them what he'd been doing; that plan was strictly between the teams, and he wasn't about to jeopardize their plan of action just because he felt like defending himself.

And Speedy was right, anyway. He hadn't been there, although there hadn't been a need for anyone to be with her constantly after she'd woken up, anyway. She'd healed fast, and it had all looked like it had been going in the right direction. None of them had predicted she'd react the way she had, and something told him it had to have been more than just the sight of the healing wound, but until she woke up, they were left in the dark.

Now all they had to do was keep from tearing each other to pieces.

Speedy reached a hand up to tug his away then, and Gajeel released him without another word, hands still shaking with the remnants of his anger falling limp against his sides. Neither of the them said anything, but they stared each other down over the chasm of distrust and unsettled debts that lay gaping between them. Seven yawning years rested on his shoulders for his decision to step up as Levy's partner in the exams; a choice that had, in their eyes no doubt, robbed them both of the last moments with her before the island had been destroyed. That they had come back had changed little; there had been no talk of apologies from either end. Instead it had festered between them; a rotting wound that Gajeel doubted even time would heal. Once, that wouldn't have phased him; he'd have carried on with his life as usual. He was used to people hating him just for being who he was, and he'd never needed to justify his actions.

Not before Shorty had come into the picture, anyhow. But it struck him then that even if he'd always felt like he'd wronged her the most, the two before him had been humiliated as well; and though he didn't really give a flying fuck if either of them liked him, Levy did.

And whether he liked it or not, that, if nothing else, mattered to him.

Some of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because something seemed to pass between them then – something he couldn't quite place his finger on. An understanding, almost, foreign as that concept seemed. Speedy's glare dropped, and the animosity seemed to visibly drain out of him, to be replaced with some sort of heavy resolve. "You'll tell us when she wakes up," he said then, and it wasn't a question. Hell, it wasn't even a statement. If he was honest, it almost felt like Speedy was giving him some kind of responsibility. No. Not giving.

Handing over.

Studded brows furrowing beneath his headband, Gajeel searched the man's face. There was a pensive determination there, and it was echoed in the eyes of the fat one beside him. It was a silent relinquishing of the job that had once been theirs, and had Gajeel still been the way he was before he'd joined Fairy Tail, he might have mocked them for losing her to him. He'd have taunted them for being weak, and for being unable to keep her.

But he wasn't like that anymore. And so he simply accepted. With a brusque nod of his head, he welcomed the obligation; the safekeeping of what they held in highest regard. It wasn't something he'd ever considered they'd give him willingly. Hell, he'd been fully prepared to take it, even if they'd liked it or not. But then those damn fairies had to go and pull a fast one on him. Again.

It went to show just how much he still had to learn about the guild he called his own.

There were no other words between them. No 'make sure she's safe', because there didn't need to be. They didn't have to remind him, and he didn't have to assure them. They all knew; they all understood. And along with the understanding came what had been seven years overdue, sharp against his mind like a physical blow to the face.


And Gajeel wasn't even going to pretend it didn't mean shit. He was used to grudges; more so than he was used to mercy. But it wasn't about him, this time. It was about her. It had always been about her. And for her, it meant everything.

He said nothing as he turned back to the closed door of the infirmary; the sound of their retreat in the opposite direction echoing against the walls of the corridor. Pausing with his hand on the handle, fingers twitching against the metal, Gajeel glared at the wooden planks in front of him. Their footfalls rang loudly in his ears; the sound an accusation he couldn't ignore even if he tried.

Oh, damn it all to hell.

"If ya come back in a few hours, the hag'll probably be finished," he said then, more to the door than to the two of them.

He heard them pause in their steps, before Speedy's voice reached his ears. "Yeah?"

Gajeel's fingers tightened around the doorhandle. The hell have you done to me, Levy McGarden?

"I'll make sure she doesn't throw ya back out."

And without another word, he pushed the handle of the door and let himself inside.

Night had fallen when the infirmary had finally cleared out.

Gajeel was sitting beside the bed, mulling over his thoughts and the tournament finale that awaited him once morning rolled around. He thought about Levy, and the shit she kept getting herself into; all connected to him, in one way or another.

When word had gotten out about what had happened, he'd had to deal with the rest of the guild, something he'd had neither the patience for nor the tact. The hag had beaten him to it, though, and had thrown all but Makarov out, dragging them by their ears like children and cursing up a storm. Gajeel, she'd let stay, together with the old man and Levy's boys, although the latter decision had been reluctantly made.

Makarov had looked troubled, but then he was rarely seen without a furrowed brow these days. Between what had happened with Ivan and what lurked at the end of the games, Gajeel didn't envy the man the responsibility. Tenrou had told him enough of what Makarov was willing to sacrifice for his children, and though they'd all gotten out of that fix, it was no doubt still fresh in his mind. So he'd stayed and overseen the hag as she'd patched Levy back up, and then he'd sat at her bedside, silent and contemplative, and even if Gajeel and the rest of Shadow Gear had been in the room no words had been exchanged between them.

Now, it was only him. And her, breathing softly and silently beside him, white as the sheets beneath her, but the soft rise and fall of her chest was enough to let him know she was fine. Not well, but a damn sight better than what he'd walked in on a few hours earlier.

His hands tightened against the arms of his chair, and his brows furrowed as his gaze came to rest on the sheets covering her bandaged stomach. They had been changed, and the room smelled clean again; the sharp and sterile smell of hospital that he had used to hate, once, but that he'd now accept without a thought, so long as it overpowered the scent of her blood.

Her eyes fluttered then, and he sat up in his seat, ears alert for any change to her breathing. It took her a few seconds, but slowly her eyes opened, as though straining against a physical weight, and her hands twitched against her sides. Disorientation showed clear on her face, and then panic, and Gajeel tried to ignore how the sensation seemed to almost leap towards him. Pushing the thought away, he was out of the chair and leaning over before she'd even opened her mouth, and at the sight of him she visibly relaxed. Her bloodshot eyes were wide and dark in her pale face, but her heart-rate slowed down, and even as she was pulling herself out of sleep, her hand fumbled for his.

She blinked her eyes drowsily when his fingers tightened around hers, and tried to smile. "Hey." Then she clamped her eyes shut, and a groan escaped her. "Had 'n awful dream."

He frowned, and she went on, voice a tired murmur in the silent room. "Dreamt...brand on my stomach...lots of blood..." she winced a bit, as though the memories were physically painful to recall. She met his gaze then, a small smile tugging at her lips, but at the sight of the look on his face it vanished just as quickly. "What's wrong?" An edge of hysteria crept into her tone, and he could tell the moment realization dawned on her by the way her eyes seemed to glass over.

"Oye," he rumbled, splaying a palm across her forehead, forcing her eyes to meet his. Her heart-rate had sped up, and panic was welling up within her, but he kept his grip on her forehead, drawing her attention.

"Fuck. Breathe, Levy!"

She did, but it seemed to demand more effort than it should, and when she drew it in a hoarse cough escaped her, shuddering through her small frame, and he reached for the glass of water on her nightstand without a word, holding it to her lips as she drank.

When she was done, she tried to move her head – no doubt to look towards her stomach. "Is..."

"Hag patched ya up," he said gruffly, and she closed her eyes, no doubt recalling what had lead to her needing the new stitches.

"The hell happened, Shorty?"

She shook her head, and tears leaked out of the corners of her eyes, but she made no sound, only kept her eyes tightly shut as she breathed. When she finally opened them, she kept her gaze firmly locked on the ceiling. His hand released its grip on her forehead, sliding through her hair, and she shivered at the touch. "I...don't know. I just...remembered. Everything, all at once. And..." she trailed off, shaking her head as her words failed her.

Finally, she spoke up again, and her voice broke on the final syllable. "I was awake."

He frowned, and she continued, sensing his confusion. "During. I was awake," she almost choked on her words, and Gajeel felt his fingers curl into a fist where his hand was tangled in her hair. He wondered briefly if he would ever be rid of the furious regret that he hadn't finished Ivan off when he'd had the chance.

She shook against his hand, tears dripping down her face to pool at her collar and soak the pillow beneath her head. At a loss of what to do, he simply splayed his fingers against her skull, letting them run through her hair. It hadn't struck him, when she'd first woken up, so blinded by the sheer relief that she was awake, that she hadn't properly dealt with the trauma. And he wasn't going to kid himself; he had problems enough dealing with the image of her crucified form, branded as it was to his memory. For her to have experienced it...

It took her some time to calm down, and he didn't move from her side. He had no experience with offering comfort in situations like these. Her teammates would probably have known exactly what to do and say to make her feel better, but Gajeel felt like he was fumbling around blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back. But they'd entrusted her to him; her well-being and her happiness, and even if he didn't feel at all qualified for the responsibility, it was still his.

So he did the first thing that struck him – something he'd seen the cowgirl do to her brat when she'd been inconsolable. Slipping his hands beneath her, he caught the momentary surprise on her face before he lifted her off the bed with the most care he could summon. The sensation was foreign and awkward, but she said nothing, and made no move to stop him as he sat back down into his chair, keeping her against him as he went. He kept an ear on the sound of her heart-rate, alert to the merest twinge of pain as he shifted her in his arms until she was snug against him. Her head settled in the crook of his neck with a casual ease that should have suggested they'd been doing it for years, but he refused to let his mind linger on the thought as he settled into the chair.

She was silent for so long he wondered if he'd shocked her quite into complete submission, but then she breathed, and it was deep and unobstructed, and she wiggled a little closer, hissing as her stomach came in contact with his ribs. He froze in his seat, his entire form tensing–

"I'm okay – just grazed you," she ground out, before she relaxed against him, and his own tension seemed to melt away at the sensation.

They sat like that for a while in the cramped chair. It had to be well past midnight, and he knew he should have been asleep; he had his orders, come morning. But the sound of her heart against him and the feel of her breath quite wiped those thoughts from his mind.

Finally, after he'd thought she'd gone and fallen back asleep, Levy spoke. "Is it...did she...did she fix it?"

The soft query drew his attention away from his musings, and he looked down to find her peering up at him. Her expression was strangely unreadable, and he wasn't entirely certain what answer she was hoping to hear.

But he wasn't going to lie to her, either way. "Said she patched you up, but I ain't seen how it looks."

She inhaled deeply, and nodded. "Okay."

He frowned down at her, fingers twitching where they cradled her head. "You gonna be able to handle it?"

A rueful smile tugged at her lips. "Do I have a choice?"

He said nothing to that, and she turned her head, so that her cheek was cradled in the palm of his hand. "I'm going to need time."

He smirked. "We've got more than enough of that on our hands," he rumbled, and the morbid joke succeeded in turning her smile just a hint less rueful.

"I hope you won't regret saying that," she murmured wryly.

He grinned. "I ain't a huge believer in this time-machine mumbo jumbo anyways." Unless his future self came back in the flesh, he reserved the right to be sceptical. The entire thing smacked of bad business and just a little too much dark magic. Years ago, he would have kept away from it and minded his own damn business, but it was situations like these that reminded him most vividly of exactly what kind of mage he had become.

And as Levy smiled against his hand, lashes fluttering tiredly against the sallow skin of her cheeks, he found that he couldn't quite regret it. Not any of it. And where that fact had once scared the absolute shit out of him, it didn't seem like such a sacrifice anymore. It didn't feel like he was losing himself, but more that he was, if anything, discovering new sides of himself he hadn't really been aware lurked at the back of his mind.

"Tell me about the future."

He snorted, and rested his cheek against the top of her head. "I ain't a fortune-teller, Shorty."

She slapped a hand against his chest, and though it was a weak gesture, he was surprised when she didn't even twitch with any sign of pain. It looked like her hands were healing well, though she didn't seem to have noticed it herself. "Not like that, you dork. Tell me about what we'll do when this is all over. When we go back to Magnolia." Her voice was a low whisper, but humour had crept into it, and he latched onto the sound. He might be a cynical bastard on the best of days, but even he couldn't turn down that softly murmured request. It didn't even matter if there was no such future for them; being Fairy Tail mages meant they couldn't believe that, even if all evidence pointed towards it. So instead of the morbid reality of their current predicament, he told her not necessarily what she wanted to know, but what he wanted to say. He reminded her of his promise to make her S-class; that he hadn't given up just because the exams had been botched, and he told her about the training she would have to go through once the games ended and they got back to the guild.

She groaned. "No more running," she murmured against him, petulance creeping into her tone. "I hate running. Can't we practice lifting weights instead? That was fun."

Gajeel smirked against her hair. "I still ain't willing to call what you were lifting actual weights."

Her quick fingers found his side, but he shifted away before she could pinch him, a grin on his face. And when she shook against him this time, it wasn't with sobs, and for that one moment, it didn't matter if the finale went straight to hell. It didn't matter what kind of evil those damn suspicious idiots at the palace unleashed on the world. Tomorrow, it would matter. It would be his highest priority to stop it, whatever it was.

But now, his highest priority wasn't the city, or the world, or the past or the future. It was the tiny mage in his arms who packed more of a punch that even she thought she did, and who kept surprising him with how much she could take. She wasn't made of iron like he was, but her will was as unbendable as hard-wrought metal. Unyielding, she kept pushing forward even if she didn't have the physical strength left in her body to do it. He'd always considered himself blessed with unwavering confidence and an adamant will, but he had found his match in the most unlikely little person fate could have possibly thrown in his path.

And if there was ever a reason to fight for the world, it was her.

She didn't ask him to put her back, and so he stayed where he was, keeping her to him even as she drifted off into sleep. Her breathing evened out and her heart settled into a steady 'thump thump' where she rested against his chest, and the sound was a companion in the still night as he was left with his thoughts.

He must have dozed off at some point, because there was a small hand shaking him awake, and when he opened his eyes the infirmary was bright with the light of early morning. The kid stood before him, a secret smile on her face and her lip tugged cheekily between her sharp teeth.

"The First wants to see us downstairs before we begin," she told him, voice low so as not to wake the slumbering shape in his arms, and Gajeel nodded. Without saying anything, he carefully rose from his seat, and kept from wincing at his protesting muscles through will alone. A night in the same position hadn't done him any favours, but he pushed the aches away from his mind as he shifted Levy's sleeping shape in his arms. She was out cold, and drooling charmingly against his shirt, but he kept from snorting as he put her carefully back onto the bed. The kid didn't move from where she stood, and he ignored the curious eyes on his back as he tugged the sheets snugly over the small form.

Giving her a final look, he made up his mind. If everything went to hell, reaching the infirmary would be his main objective. He'd even let Salamander have dibs on whatever enemy he wanted. If his path was clear, he'd use it to get her out, even if he had to go as far as Magnolia to succeed. It wasn't in his orders, but then Makarov wasn't Jose, or Ivan, and insubordination for the sake of someone important to his children had never gotten anyone thrown out of Fairy Tail in the past.

Reaching down, he pressed his forehead against the bandages covering the marred skin of her brow. And before his courage could abandon him completely, drowned by the fumbling awkwardness that sometimes overcame him when she was concerned, Gajeel threw caution quite thoroughly and violently to the wind.

"Love ya, Shorty."

Then he pulled away, and quite blatantly ignored the gaping disbelief on the face of the littlest dragonslayer as he pushed past her towards the open door. Her wide eyes followed him as he went, and he stopped in the doorway to look back at her. "The hell are ya loitering for?" he asked, before a grin stretched across his face.

"We've got a tournament to win."

AN: Those of you who follow 'Mate' will know that I'm fond of the whole dragon-bond concept (which is hugely overused in fanfiction, I know), but I won't be doing the typical biting-on-the-neck thing. This, like 'Mate', will explore the bond as something that's taken root on a more emotional level and that strengthens over time.