"Ah, Gajeel-kun, thank you for coming," said Master Makarov. They were on the second floor, and Makarov sat behind a desk as Gajeel entered, his companion Lily following at shoulder's height.

In truth, Gajeel was nervous. He hadn't heard from the Shrimp in a week, and he was worried. Catching his look, Makarov went on.

"It's about Levy and the others." Gajeel's eyes flared. "Calm down. For the moment, they're alright. I've spoken with Droy through the comm-lacryma. They're in a hospital as we speak."

"What happened?" Gajeel slammed his hands down on the desk. Makarov didn't react to Gajeel's anger.

"The report was a bit confused," he admitted. "Droy was on painkillers. They had to fight a dark mage who ended up being much too powerful for them. From what I could understand, he used a magic similar to the man you fought on Tenrou Island. Yom…Omazu…no…"

"Yomazu," Lily filled in, as Gajeel didn't seem to be able to speak.

"Yes, that's it. A swordsman, reinforcing his blade with some kind of written magic. I don't quite understand how they escaped from him; Droy was a bit unclear on the matter. I am sorry to burden you with this, but I need someone to go and escort them home. They're in no condition to be by themselves."

"How is she?" It was quietly spoken.

Makarov sighed. "It doesn't sound pretty, Gajeel. Jet is still in a serious condition, and it sounds like Levy may be permanently scarred by her injuries, though they sound less grievous."

"I'm goin' then," Gajeel said, turning to leave. "Master?"

"Yes, Gajeel-kun?"

"Thanks for choosing me."

For the first time in his life, Gajeel was happy to suffer from motion sickness. It allowed him to not dwell on any of his dark thoughts as he waited on the long train ride. Lily watched him with obvious concern written over his features.

He continued to watch him on the way to the hospital. Even for Gajeel, he was unusually withdrawn, introspective. He couldn't find any words to speak to him.

Like after the Sabretooth incident, they found Droy sitting outside the room. He was in quite a state. His left leg and right arm were both in casts. Gauze surrounded part of his face, and he was pale. He turned as he heard Gajeel's footsteps.

"Déjà vu, huh?" He commented sadly, smiling with no joy. Gajeel was itching to see Levy, but he forced himself to stop.

"How are ya?" Droy looked up at Gajeel's question. Again, he smiled bitterly.

"Nothing that won't mend. Jet might be here for a while. His injuries were the deepest. But, to answer your question, she's alright." Gajeel couldn't help but smile at how Droy had phrased that. Droy sighed. "Physically, all of her injuries are shallow. But that means that she felt them more, had more time to…and they're everywhere. She's a mess, Gajeel, but she'll pull through. Remember that when you see her."

Gajeel entered the room, while Lily politically stayed with Droy. His eyes went wide when he saw Jet. No one could live through that…

His chest was covered by swathes and swathes of bandages and gauze, and yet, Gajeel could still see the injury – a massive 'X' cut onto – no, into – his chest. If this was him after a few days recuperating, what the hell had it been like at the time?

He walked onto Levy's bed, instantly dragging up old feelings. She looked better off than she had after Sabretooth's attentions, but she was pale from blood loss. A Bandage wrapped around her forehead, and Gajeel could see the livid scar underneath.

Covered up cuts spread across every inch of her face and arms, and he worried about what he couldn't see, beneath the blankets. He drew a chair up and sat down, watching her for a while. In truth, he was completely numb. No thoughts were coming, no declarations of love, anger or protection. He didn't know what to feel.

After a while, he reached over and held her hand. It might sound strange, but seeing her tiny hand in his own oversized mitt made him realize how truly small she was for the first time. How fragile, how…precious. He could have broken that hand with ease, but it was just so much more…valuable than his. He squeezed ever so gently, and to his surprise, he felt the tiniest pressure back.

"Gajeel…" She was looking at him, tears in the corner of her eyes.

"It's okay, Shrimp, yer safe here," he replied quietly, trying to be reassuring. She nodded, seemingly grateful for those words. Gajeel reminded himself that for all of her spunk, all of her strength, she was not a soldier. She didn't understand or fit into this world where such injuries, such horrific battles happened.

After all, she was not a monster, like him.

She shook suddenly, some spasm of pain, and Gajeel unconsciously reached out with one hand as the other squeezed tighter.

"I'm okay," she breathed, with a voice so brittle that it sounded like it might break at any second. "Thank you so much for coming to see me."

Awkward, Gajeel didn't want to look at her, but those hazel eyes locked him in place. How could he look away?

"Of course I would Shrimp, you know how much you mean to me."

"Do I?" Her face was smiling, but like her voice, it was fragile. Gajeel made no conscious decision, but he leaned over and –gently- rested his forehead against hers.

"You mean the world to me," he admitted. Aside from Jet's laboured breathing, silence descended on the small room. "I…love you." Levy's eyes closed as if great pain, tears flooding, soaking her pillow. It wasn't what Gajeel had expected from his declaration, but then, choked with tears was her reply.

"I love you too." Gajeel suddenly understood her reaction as his own face scrunched up. How could she? He was a monster. In most respects, Gajeel was not one to dwell on his past. He understood that he'd simply had a bad start in life, and once he'd found his true nakama, he'd become a better person. There was only one sin he could not absolve, and the victim of that sin was the only one who freely forgave him for it.

"Hold me," she said. She was crying, trembling. "I…I want to be held!"

Gajeel wasn't really sure how this was supposed to work, but he quickly removed his boots and slid into the bed as she moved over. He put an arm around her, and she nestled into the crook of his arm, head resting on his chest. With that arm, he gently held her body close to him.

"So nice," she said, sounding like a little child. "It's so comfortable..." It took Gajeel a moment to realize that she'd fallen asleep. Unsure of what to do, he looked up at the ceiling, waiting, enjoying the warmth, the feel of her small body.

"Best feeling in the world, am I right?"

"Yer awake, then?" Gajeel replied gruffly. This was not a moment he'd ever intended on sharing.

Jet and Gajeel were both on their backs staring at the ceiling.

"When I think of my ex, that's the thing I miss most. The simple feeling of her head resting on my chest. It's such an innocent moment, uncluttered by sexual desire, leaving only the feeling of love, of warmth, joy and comfort." He laughed lightly, then grimaced, making a spluttering noise.

"Ya shouldn't push yerself, flyboy."

"Flyboy? That's a new one. Anything to avoid using someone's actual name."

"Oh?" Gajeel grinned. "Is that right, Sarusuke?"

There was more weak laughter. "Well played, metalhead. To think she'd end up with you…well played indeed. You take better care of her than we did. She's special, right?"

"Unfortunately, that's not my job. It'll be up to you two to take care of her, she's made that quite clear." Gajeel didn't sound happy or unhappy. "I know today's not a usual day. And when I look at yer injury, I'm glad that her nakama are so reliable. If it were up to me, I'd wrap her in cotton wool and make her stay safe, but that's not her, and that's not her job."

"Heh heh, you're getting soft, Kurogane."

"Well, I appear to be pickin' up small cute things," he laughed, thinking of Lily. Jet laughed too. At the vibration, Levy snuggled in closer, seemingly still asleep.

"Yep, best feeling in the world, yer got that right."

Outside in the hall, Lily's ears twitched.

"Remind me to kill him later," he said to Droy.

It was a while before Gajeel extricated himself from Levy's embrace, and mostly because visiting hours were over. He walked out onto the streets, followed by Lily.

"Hey, where are we going?" The Exceed asked.

"Where do ya think?"

"Our mission was to retrieve them, not complete theirs!"

"Then stay here," Gajeel said dismissively. Lily grunted, but followed him. As they walked, snow began to fleck the streets. It was cold, though Gajeel didn't appear to notice. As he walked, he was trying to gather his thoughts.

As he noted earlier, Gajeel didn't dwell on his past much, but he kept drifting back to that night. It was the one thing he never talked about. The one unforgivable sin.

When he'd hurt her.

He'd enjoyed it.

He'd taken out those idiots first, using extreme force to quickly take them out of the fight. He broke the ribs of the one with the stupid hat, and then his arm. He broke the leg of the stupid-hair guy, and then hit him so hard in the skull that he thought he'd killed him.

Lily looked up as Gajeel clenched his fist, teeth bared.

Then he'd beaten her for fun. He didn't want to break her; he wanted to drag it out, to enjoy himself. So he'd held back, pounding her everywhere, but lightly. It was fun. She was so soft, she was easy to hit. He'd let her go a couple of times, to watch as she tried to get away. Her tears and squeals of pain had egged him on.

Lily flinched as Gajeel punched a hole into the pavement.

Finally, with her almost spent, he took her over to one of the braziers lighting the night street. He sat on her thighs, pinning her legs. With his left hand, he bound both of her wrists and held her prostrate on the ground, completely helpless as he turned his right fist into iron and placed it into the fire.

Gajeel roared into the sky.

With his hand burning hot, he slowly, torturously drew the symbol of Phantom Lord, searing it onto her flesh. She cried out in agony at every stroke. At the very last, just before she finally passed out, she asked; "Why?"

"Why?" Gajeel shouted. "Why? Why did I do that?" Passersby hurried away from the seeming madman.

"You were a different person." Lily had only guessed his thoughts, but he knew Gajeel well enough. "You have a new life now. You must let this go."

"I refuse," Gajeel stated.

"They have forgiven you. All of them have utterly and without remorse forgiven you."

"That makes it worse!" Gajeel was crying as he shouted. "They should hate me!"

Lily, transforming into battle mode, punched Gajeel into the pavement. "The man I followed to earthland was not so weak! Are you so unaware of the bonds of your guild, the strength of those bonds that allow you to be forgiven?" Lily was shouting. "What do you have to do to see that?"

Gajeel got up. He walked away. "I don't know, but there is somethin' to do in the meantime."

Gajeel found the bastard by smell. Blood soaked bodies left an easy trail to the scene of the fight, and from there he followed his scent. As he stalked, the smell blazed an image in his mind; the image of the man he was going to kill.

At last, he cornered the bastard in a warehouse. He came at Gajeel with that very same technique that he'd felt from Yomazu, cutting his iron scales. And that technique had BEEN TURNED ON SOMEONE SO GENTLE AS THE SHRIMP!?

With his new strength, the strength to go toe to toe with Sting using Dragon Force, Gajeel easily overpowered this man, breaking and eating his sword. The pain the cuts left felt good; like he deserved it. He stood over the man's prone form.

"I know what I have to do," Gajeel whispered, raising a fist.

"Gajeel, no!" Cried Lily.

His fist slammed down next to the man's head. He leaned down, coming inches away from the man's face. Gajeel glared with bloody murder in his eyes. "For hurtin' her….I forgive you." The man blinked, confused. "It is the only thing she would ask of me. Not vengeance, not death. I forgive you."

Lily looked on, smiling. Maybe the brute had grown just a little bit. Then Gajeel smacked the man unconscious. "Still the Shrimp's gotta eat. Might as well collect your reward for her."

Several days later, Gajeel sat next to Levy's hospital bed. Jet was up and about, getting a bit of exercise on his injured body. Things were a bit awkward between Gajeel and Levy, but as her physical health returned, so had her natural positivity. She had a faint scar on her forehead, and honestly, Gajeel loved it. It accentuated her beauty.

"If we're gonna date, we should share some of our secrets," she said coyly.

"Like what?" He replied gruffly.

"I know," she said brightly, "what movie made you cry the most?"

Gajeel grumbled something incoherent, and then enunciated. "Toy Story 3. Don't look at me like that, it was sad when they all held hands!" Levy giggled and the look on her face made the embarrassment seem worthwhile.

"Ok, now your turn," she said. "Ask me anything."

"Okay," he replied, grinning like the devil, "What's your actual height?"

Levy seized up. "C'mon Shrimp…," Gajeel coaxed with amusement in his voice.

"F…four foot ten," she replied, looking down, flushing. Gajeel laughed.

"Is that even possible? How do you not hit five foot?"

"You've had your turn," she replied angrily. "What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?"

"Uhh…well once I left my house and the door closed on my trousers, rippin' 'em off." He laughed. "I was standin' on my doorstep in my underwear! Wasn't funny at the time, mind!" Again, watching her face light up made everything worthwhile.

"Well, I was going to ask yer bra size, but I already know that's an A." He caught the pillow she threw at him, smiling. "So – what's the most embarrassin' thing that you've ever had happen because yer such a shorty?"

"No!" She gasped.

"Oh, this'll be good," he said, resting his feet on the bed and putting his arms behind his head.

"Err…um…well, I had to put a bag of books in the overhead compartment on the train…but I couldn't really reach, and as I was struggling, the bag opened and every single book fell out, one at a time and hit me on the head." She was blushing so much, her fingers twiddling. She didn't notice Gajeel moving in to sweep her up in his arms.

"Ya got no idea how beautiful ya are, do ya?"

She kept blushing as he moved in to kiss her. "I've never…it's my first time…"

"Mine too," said Gajeel, so close to her lips. "Be gentle, yeah? Gihi!"

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and they kissed.