Hello my lovelies! I know it's been a little more than FOREVER, but I've got this chapter ready for you now! And it's a double bonus week, since I just updated Steal-A-Heart too! If you haven't read that, get going! AFTER you read this, of course =)

Disclaimer: I own none of these smoking hot men...ugh...

Chapter Sixteen- A Time of Change

"Are you sure you want to go?" It must have been the third time in five minutes that Erza asked that. Jellal sighed, glancing back to the woman on his couch. She had an overnight bag packed, but her destination that night was not his apartment. Instead, she would be spending the night at Mira's house for Lisanna's birthday.

"Would you like me to stay home?" In contrast, Jellal had been invited to the lion's den. He almost didn't believe that Natsu, of all people, asked him to come to Gray's for the game. Since the fight at Lucy's, the two rarely spoke. Jellal stayed clear of Fairy Tail if he knew Natsu would be there. Most of Fairy Tail's members had accepted his re-appearance around Fairy Tail. The newer members weren't around before his F.B.I mission, and the older ones seemed to warm up to him despite their previous reservations. He had to buy Cana way more alcohol than he wanted to admit, and Gray hadn't forgiven as easily as he had hoped. But despite their difficulties, Jellal knew Natsu would be the one he needed to crack. And so far, avoiding him wasn't helping that mission.

So why had Natsu texted Erza an invite tonight? Though part of him was wary, Jellal saw a chance for the two to talk.

"That's not it!" Erza snapped, seeming more upset with herself than Jellal. The patient man nodded, hoping his questions wouldn't set off her temper.

"Are you worried?" His new inquiry made Erza frown, shaking her head.

"I know you are capable of taking care of yourself." And he was confident that the tug on her hair was from unspoken nerves. He smiled, taking the seat next to her. He rested his hand on her thigh, sending her a reassuring look.

"I will be fine. Natsu and I are both adults, and our relationship will never move forward without his approval. He is your family, and I'd never want to come between the two of you. I love you, Erza, and I'll be willing to do anything to be with you for the rest of my life."

"Jellal Fernandez, you've always had a flare for the dramatics." She mumbled, blushing despite the complaint. The response was a soft smile and a kiss to her cheek.

"We should get going. The girls are waiting for you and the game begins in an hour." The two moved out of the apartment, Jellal walking her to her car. They shared a parting kiss before he watched her drive away. For a moment he didn't move, enjoying the feeling Erza left tingling on his lips. How had he lived without her? Erza was the best thing in his life. Waking up beside her in the morning never lost it's value. Being able to touch her skin and feel her warmth again gave his life new purpose. Jellal knew exactly where he belonged, and it was by Erza's side.

He arrived at Gray's house last, which didn't surprise him. Erza's "emergency meeting" took more time than he expected. He was walking up the pathway to the house when the front door swung open. Slanted eyes found his instantly. Despite telling Erza the situation was under control, Jellal felt his spine straighten at Natsu's appearance. Natsu was an easy man to read, his whole body tense when seeing Jellal.

"Hello," Jellal greeted quietly, Natsu's scowl never changing.

"Yo." He didn't move from the doorway, instead jerking his thumb toward his car. "I've got to go to the store for alcohol."

"Are the other men inside?"

"Yeah." Another pregnant pause, neither moving, "They volunteered you to come with me."

"Then I suppose I can't refuse." Natsu only scoffed, yanking the door shut behind him. Jellal followed Natsu to his car, the two silently pulling out of Gray's driveway. Jellal shifted in his seat, unsure of what to say. Instead, he kept his focus on the blurring street lights they passed. He scowled as they passed the store, sending Natsu a confused look. "Where-"

"We need to stop somewhere first." He turned down a dirt road, the bumps of the uneven path proving many didn't travel it. It was surrounded by trees, so Jellal couldn't see exactly where they were headed. The path wasn't too long, and it opened up to a lake. At the sight of the dark water, Jellal knew where they were.

"Natsu." He kept his name short, turning toward his driver. He was quick to lean back when Natsu shoved into his personal space.

"Get out of the car."

"If you really want to do this, I won't object."

"I said, get out." Knowing that Natsu had made his mind up, Jellal exited the car and took in the scenery around him. 'The lakeside' was a place he rarely attended as a kid. In high school, when two people met at the lake, it was to fight. Natsu was known for practically living here. It was rare to see Nastu in high school without some battle scars from the lakeside. Jellal walked toward the edge of the water, listening to the quiet lapping on the waves against the muddy shore. He had never understood why a place so tranquil would cause such anger. The reason he came to the lakeside...he closed his eyes for a second, a faint smile coming to his face.

This was the first place he had talked to Erza Scarlet. He had come here with his friends, hearing that two of the freshmen were having a huge fight. Jellal had no interest, but his group of friends at the time enjoyed watching these things. He had gone, but quickly escaped from the fight to walk along the lakeside. He hadn't made it far when he saw her. Her feet dunked in the water, Erza had been sitting on a pier, staring out at the sunset. He knew her instantly from the vibrant color of her hair. Erza was pretty popular in their school, despite the rowdy crew she hung out with. She had the respect of the teachers, admiration of her classmates, and the hearts of many male suitors. It was rare to see the social woman alone. Not wanting to disturb her, Jellal had planned to walk away and go back to the fight.

"I never thought I'd see Jellal Fernandez at an event like this." Her voice had paused his retreat, and before he knew it, he was sitting beside the popular woman as they discussed the waste of beautiful scenery to reckless fighting. He instantly felt entranced by her smile and laugh throughout their conversation. It was the only thing he could think of that night when walking back from the fight. And the next morning, much to his surprise, Erza asked him to eat lunch with her. The rest, for him, was history.

Jellal turned back to Natsu, who was now stretching his arms over his head.

"I've been waiting years to beat the shit out of you. Even if she forgives you, I won't. You being around is just going to bring her back to that dark place Fairy Tail barely got her out of last time."

"You have every right to be mad," Jellal admitted, Natsu clenching his fists by his side.

"Mad doesn't cover it; you hurt my family. I know tonight's going to be my only chance to get payback for her. I'll deal with Erza's wrath tomorrow; tonight I won't hold back." Jellal nodded at the statement, letting Natsu square up on him.

"It's not in your nature to do so, right?"

"You got it!" Natsu's grin was fleeting, disappearing as soon as he charged forward. His movements were fast, Jellal barely catching the first fist thrown. He struggled to contain the punch, the two's faces close. "I didn't think you'd even show. You tend to flake on people, you know!"

"I'm not the person you think I am." Natsu elbowed Jellal hard in the stomach, then kicked him a few feet back. Jellal stumbled in the mud, then jumped back to the stable dirt path. Natsu was hot on his heels, punching Jellal square across the face. Jellal didn't have time to catch his breath, Natsu smashing his fist against the other side of his face. The hits relented after a few seconds, Jellal stumbling back to give himself time to breathe. Natsu hit hard, but Jellal's training had helped him deal with large amounts of pain. Panting to catch his breath, Jellal glanced up when hearing a loud growl from Natsu.

"Why aren't you fighting back?" Jellal didn't answer, so Natsu continued. "I know this isn't the extent of your training. I'm not going to accept that I can pummel someone from the F.B.I so easily. You're barely even trying to deflect my attacks! What the fuck is your end game?"

"I want you to get all your anger out here, tonight. I've evaded the punishment I deserve for abandoning Erza. If it's done by you, I'll stand trial and accept my crimes. Give me your worst, I won't fight back. But after this, whether I'm unconscious or unable to stand, I want your blessing."

"My what?" Natsu walked up to Jellal, who had dropped down to one knee. He bowed his head low, covering his face with his hair.

"I want you to accept me as Erza's life partner." The bold statement paused the footsteps he heard coming toward him, Jellal lowering his voice. "I had no intention of coming back after my mission. Erza deserves better than me, I know that. All I wanted was to tell her how sorry I was, and let her go. Let her be happy with a man that would love her properly, and never make her cry like I did. But..."

"But what?" Jellal closed his eyes at the prodding, feeling his heart constrict.

"But then Lucy told me her crazy theory that Erza was still waiting for me to return. That by staying away, I was causing Erza more pain than before. She convinced me to meet Erza once, despite my deepest reservations. When I saw her sitting in the restaurant, I realized how much I still needed her. I'm a selfish soul, always wanting things I have no right to hold. I have no right to even think of calling her mine. But when I see her laugh or smile, like the first night I met her...I know I can't breathe without her. I know sunsets won't be as bright and love with someone else will feel...artificial.

"I know the pain of what I've done will never fully disappear. I understand that the scars I've dug into her soul will be hard to heal. But I wish to be the man who atones for his sins, by being the one who heals them. I will spend the rest of my life making it up to Erza. I will show you, Fairy Tail, and everyone else who we meet that I am privileged to be the man that Erza has decided to love. And I will never let this second chance I was given go to waste. I vow that."

The air after Jellal's proclamation was heavy, and he winced at the pain he had voiced. He knew that Natsu never saw him as someone that could compare to Erza's greatness. In all honesty, Natsu was probably right. Jellal had yet to meet a person who stole the light from Erza Scarlet. Because she was the sun and moon to him. She was everything beautiful in his life. And if Natsu couldn't accept him, Jellal wasn't sure how much longer he could hold onto her.

"What the fuck, man?" Jellal glanced up to Natsu, who now had his arms crossed and head turned to the side. From the tone of his voice, Natsu almost sounded like he was...pouting? "I made this whole plan, you know? Knew exactly what I was going to do. Come here, brawl until we're both bleeding, and get you to admit, through a submission hold, that you were wrong for Erza. Then I'd go back to Gray's, open a beer, and feel like a man. Probably brag to the guys how I just decimated an F.B.I agent. How the hell am I supposed to beat the shit out of you now? Saying all that heartfelt stuff about Erza...you really just stole the wind from my sails."

"I'm sorry," Jellal apologized, then blinked when Natsu let out a sigh. He looked out to the water, the moonlight shining on half of a smirk.

"I guess I'll just have to hope that you piss of Erza when I'm around. Then I can laugh while she beats you up. Now that's a fight I'd be willing to watch." Natsu turned back to Jellal, holding out a hand. His smile was weak, and Jellal thought a flash of guilt flickered in Natsu's eyes. "I guess I should have...maybe tried to talk to you first."

"It's alright; you communicate much better with your fist," Jellal said, Natsu nodding quickly at the observation while helping Jellal to his feet.

"I keep telling Erza that, but she doesn't listen!" The two shared a laugh, Natsu tossing a friendly arm around Jellal's shoulders while the two walked back toward the car. Before they got in, Natsu popped his head over the roof. "You know that you have to keep her forever, right?"

"I know."

"Don't leave her again. If I see Erza cry like that-" Jellal cut Natsu's warning off with a nod.

"The only way I'm leaving her side is if I die." Natsu grinned at his reply.

"With Erza, that's a very high probability. I mean, have you seen the woman when she's got her period? Demon, I swear! And when you break her stuff? One time, Gray smashed her strawberry cake, and she grabbed a bat to-" Jellal smiled at Natsu's friendly banter, feeling a weight disappear. He half listened to Natsu's story, knowing that they were on a much better path than before. But there was one thing left, and Jellal knew what his final task was.

"-and Gray cried like a baby, I swear! So I-"

"Hey Natsu?" The man glanced over to him as they drove, Jellal's face turned completely to the window again.


"I'm asking Erza to marry me." A pause came between them, and Jellal wasn't sure what Natsu's response would be. As casually as he could, Jellal glanced back at the man who had parked outside of the store. His eyes widened when he saw the flush on Natsu's face, the younger man gripping the wheel tightly. He expected a joke or a insult (if he was still bitter), but the blush Natsu was wearing didn't fit.

"Good for you. Uh, I'm sure Erza will love it. What girl wouldn't love getting married? With the wedding and the pro-proposal and stuff. It's all very important. Because everything has to be perfect!"

"Are you okay?"

"I've got to go get the beer!" Natsu nearly fell out of the seat trying to escape the car, Jellal stunned at Natsu's response. Something was going on with Natsu, but Jellal wondered if he should push it. They had just gotten on steady ground, after all. The last thing he needed was to rock the boat. He decided to stay quiet, dropping the subject when Natsu returned to the car. He let Natsu guide the conversation about the game they were going to watch, and other meaningless topics. The two were both in good spirits when they lugged the beer through Gray's door.

"Yo, we got the beer! Did the game sta-what the fuck?" Natsu nearly dropped the beer when entering the living room, surprise etched into his face. Jellal looked at the scene they had stumbled upon, his eyebrow arched. Though Jellal had never been in Gray's house before, he was sure that the furniture was normally spread out through the living room. Instead, all the contents were pressed to the walls. The floor was empty. Well, almost. Gajeel and Gray were rolling around on the floor, seeming to be in the middle of a wrestling match.

"Is this the game you invited me to?" Jellal asked, Natsu starting to push his sleeves up on his biceps.

"No, but I totally want in!" He took one step before both men snapped their heads up at him, their glares instantly freezing Natsu.

"Stay out of this!" They were synchronized, as if practiced. Jellal watched the two glance back at each other, then resume their fight.

"Any idea why they're fighting?" Natsu shook his head, shifting between his feet as he watched Gray and Gajeel go at it. It was obvious that despite their warning, Natsu was still ready to jump in at any moment. Jellal sighed, then moved into the kitchen to try and find an ice-pack for his bruised cheek. Glancing through the freezer, Jellal could only think of one thing.

Just what had happened in the half hour they were gone?

For once, Gray was thankful Natsu was an idiot.

Gray had listened to Natsu as he told Gajeel about his plan to fight Jellal. It was childish, and stupid, but Gray wasn't going to object. In fact, he was the one who told Natsu to confront Jellal tonight. Gray leaned back in his recliner, finishing his beer before tossing the bottle back into the box. The night had barely started, but Gray was popping open his fourth beer. He tried not to think about it, though he knew the reason behind his sudden urge to drink.

If Natsu and Jellal were gone, it would leave him alone with Gajeel. Lucy's words had been circling in his head since he had invited Natsu to come to his house. Until Natsu had spouted his immature idea to him, Gray wasn't sure how he was going to get Gajeel alone to talk. Doing it in front of the guys was out of the question. If not for Gajeel's sake, then Gray's. The last thing he needed was Natsu knowing was he was getting cock-blocked from the woman he once considered a stalker. The pink-haired idiot would never let him hear the end of it.

"You really think Jellal's going to just go out to some lake to fight you?" Gajeel rolled his eyes at Natsu's plan, taking a long swig from his bottle. "That is the dumbest plan I've ever heard, and I've known you for a while now."

"If I wasn't saving my energy for my future fight, I'd kick your ass. But just to shut you up, I'm not going to say we're going to fight. I'll just tell him it's a beer run or something."

"And why would he just jump to go with you?"

"Because...I'm awesome?" Gray groaned at Natsu's plan, finally entering the conversation.

"Why don't you just say we voted him to go? If he thinks he's doing us a favor, I'm sure he'll go. He's not a bad guy, after all." Gray ignored Natsu's horrified look while he clicked through the channels, trying to find the game.

"Don't tell me you like him?"

"Erza's a big girl; can kick anyone's ass who pisses her off. If she wants to go back down this road with Jellal, who are we to stop her?" Gray didn't even know why he was trying to reason with Natsu. From the steam coming from his ears, he knew Natsu wasn't listening to his logic.

"Do you not remember how devastated Erza was when he cheated on her?"

"That wasn't real."

"So he's a cheater and a liar, even worse!" Natsu's shouting seemed to annoy Gajeel, because the taller man growled before smacking Natsu in the back of the head. "What the hell?"

"Stop yelling already. We get it; you think you're the body guard of every Fairy Tail member. Can't really talk about Jellal's character, since I've barely met the guy, but Erza seems pretty happy whenever the two of them come to the bar. Don't think I've seen her smile like that since I met her."

"Maybe she just doesn't like to smile around you? You are pretty ugly." Natsu avoided a swat from Gajeel, snickering at his own joke. Gajeel started to make a retort, but the flashing of headlights across the living room windows announced the arrival of Jellal. In an instant Natsu was out of the room and running toward the front door. "I'll be back soon! Don't start the game without me."

"Because we can just call up the teams and tell them to wait," Gajeel muttered. Natsu didn't hear the retort, the slamming of the front door proving he was already putting his plan to action. Gray stared at the bottle in his hand when silence crept in-between them, swishing the contents inside slowly. Gajeel didn't seem to notice the chance of atmosphere, yawning as he dropped to the couch across from Gray. "You ever notice when that guy leaves, your headache miraculously disappears?"

"Try sharing an apartment with him."

"Now I would have paid to see that. You two must have fought like cats and dogs." Gray nodded at Gajeel's assumption.

"It's why I got my own house so fast; sharing space with Natsu wasn't something I wanted to do longer than necessary." Gajeel barked out a laugh, then nodded.

"Probably would have done the same. I could handle Juvia as a roommate, but Natsu would be out of the question."

"You two...lived together?" Gajeel shrugged at Gray's question as if the information was obvious.

"Yeah, for a year. We both were in a financial pinch, and we figured living together would be the best way to save up money. Half the rent, half the problems. Juvia's a pretty good roommate; she cooked dinner every night. I don't think I've ever eaten better. The place was spotless too. It really sucked when she moved out, but the apartment was pretty cramped."

"Is that why you crash at her apartment so much?" The question came out faster than Gray could stop it, and Gajeel sent him an arched eyebrow before he leaned forward, arms resting on his knees.

"There's nothing going on between me and Juvia, if that's what you're all bent out of shape about. I've got one blue-haired girl, and she's a handful as it is. Don't need another one."

"I didn't think that," Gray answered quickly, knowing that the relationship between the two was platonic. Fearing that his point was getting misunderstood, Gray cleared his throat and tried again. "I just...you're there a lot."

"She's my friend. So what?" Getting annoyed with his tone, Gray decided that beating around the bush wasn't going to solve anything.

"You keep cock-blocking me." He didn't mean to sound so exasperated. In his head, it sounded much less desperate than it came out. Maybe it was his patience thinning, or the fact that he didn't want to go another night striking out. Either way, Gray was just relieved it was out in the open. He hoped, with little optimism, that Gajeel would sympathize. Instead, Gajeel simply rolled his eyes.

"I know."

"What?" Gajeel scoffed at Gray's shock, then sent him a smirk.

"What, you don't think Juvia's told me things? I know plenty; you're practically salivating over the idea of adding Juvia to your little black book."

"You're a piece of work, you know that?" He wasn't sure why Gajeel always seemed to get under his skin. No matter what the topic, Gajeel's belittling tone really rubbed Gray the wrong way. This time was even worse. His implication was pretty blunt; Gray was sure even Natsu would have understood it. Gajeel, for some unknown reason, assumed that Gray's end game was sex. It wasn't to say that he didn't want sex; that was the whole point of talking to Gajeel to begin with. But it wasn't where he wanted this to end. It was just another step in the right direction with Juvia.

"You ain't much better."

"I wouldn't stop a friend from being happy because I'm scared of change." Gray spit out the information like acid, surprised to see Gajeel actually wince. Defenses shooting up, the gruff man crossed his arms and sent Gray a glare.

"Don't try to analyze me; you don't know shit about what goes on in my mind." Gray paused at the sentence, re-thinking what Lucy had said. If he wanted this to work with Gajeel, he needed to utilize her advice.

"I'm not trying to take her away from you or come in-between you two." He saw Gajeel roll his eyes, but the tenseness in his shoulders started to dissipate. "She's the closest thing you have to family, and every guy before me has seen you as a threat. They didn't want you around because they knew you'd see through them for what they really were; garbage."

"She really knows how to go for the winners." Trying not to take his words personally, Gray watched Gajeel's entire demeanor change. Before, he was turned away from Gray with arms locked over his chest and defenses up. But now, the mood had started to shift into something much calmer. It was the first time that Gray hadn't tried to assert his dominance over Gajeel. He never meant to do it; being raised in Fairy Tail meant that you always wanted to be top dog. He had transferred that sense of entitlement over into his personal life as well, something he wasn't very proud of. Now that he had taken a step back, Gajeel seemed to give him a little more leeway. "Those assholes always hurt her. She forgave them, because that's just how Juvia is, but that didn't mean the scars they left just faded away. So...I learned to be her shell."

"Like a big brother," Gray said slowly, Gajeel nodding once at the comparison.

"Never had a sibling, but..."

"But you care about Juvia's future. You worry that if you don't look out for her, she's going to end up with the wrong guy." At first glance, it was hard to believe that Gajeel would care about someone other than himself. He had made himself seem that way since day one. But Gray knew what he had said was true. Gajeel wasn't the easiest guy to read. Slowly, Gray was getting better at it. He didn't know if it was because of Juvia and her perspective of Gajeel, or the increased interactions he had with the mechanic. Either way, Gray noticed the way Gajeel tightened his arms over his chest, as if protecting himself from the truth. "All you want is for her to end up with a guy that deserves her."

"It's not like I wanted to take care of her; the girl is pretty naïve. If I didn't look out for her, she'd be dead by now." Gray didn't doubt the truth behind Gajeel's statement. Juvia was kind and endearing to everyone she met, which left her open to people who didn't have her best intentions in mind. Having a guard dog like Gajeel around kept most of those creeps away.

"Do you think I'd let something happen to her? Because Juvia's more than just my girlfriend; she's a member of Fairy Tail. And you know how important that is for me." To emphasis his point, Gray pointed to the mark on his chest. "I protect anyone who wears this on their skin, regardless of personality or backstory. Juvia isn't an exception to that. In fact, she's the one I look out for the most now."

"Not hard to do when she's attached to your hip." Though he came off snarky, Gray saw the teasing smirk Gajeel made. Gray laughed at the imagery, which wasn't too far off from the truth.

"Not my fault. I've never been the type to cling."

"The question is, can you handle the girl who does? Because the second you fuck her, she's never going to want you to leave." If Gajeel had said the same thing to Gray a year ago, he probably would have ran. Juvia wasn't his normal type of girl, and he tended to end things when they started to get needy. He never wanted to lose his independence, even if he was in a relationship. But now, staring at a man who had given him several chances to run for the hills, Gray's mouth only quirked in a confident smile.

"It's not called fucking if you love her, idiot. I hope you don't say things like that to Levy." The mention of the short woman had Gajeel's eye widen, a blush rising to the tops of his cheeks. He cursed and looked away from Gray, who was now grinning at finally catching Gajeel off guard.

"As if I'd ever tell the shrimp I love her!" Seeming angry at himself for getting embarrassed, Gajeel quickly shoved off the couch before pushing it toward the wall. "Alright, Mr. Perfect. You want me to trust you in taking care of Juvia, right?"

"What does that have to do with moving my couch?" Gajeel ignored Gray's question, moving the couch as close to the corner as he could. He was back in an instant, marching over to Gray's recliner. He didn't give a warning, tilting the chair so Gray fell out of it.

"Then show me your skills." Gajeel glanced down at the man on the floor, a challenging grin painted on his lips. "If you want me to back off, you need to beat me in a wrestling match. You pin me, I'll let you two lovebirds do whatever you want in your little nest. If you can't, then I bring Panther Lily over to visit Juvia. Just to let you know, he's worse than I am at ruining moments. And he has a thing for digging his claws into your naked bits."

"I guess I don't have a choice in this?" The answer he got came in the form of the coffee table being kicked his way. This guy was as bad as Natsu! Grumbling to himself, Gray hoisted the coffee table to the other wall, knowing arguing would be pointless. He moved a few of his smaller objects as well, until the floor was completely bare. He glanced over to Gajeel, who had shrugged off his jacket and thrown it toward the couch.

"Let's hope Juvia is worth the beat down you're about to get." Gray rolled his eyes at Gajeel's confident tone.

"Just because I don't seek out fights, doesn't mean I'm a pushover. I won't go down as easy as you think." Gray paused, then sent a smirk Gajeel's way. "Besides, Juvia's worth a hell of a lot more than you could throw at me."

"That's what I like to hear." Even with Gray's big talk, having a man as large as Gajeel tackle you to the ground was still unpleasant. It momentarily knocked the wind out of him, but he was quick to recover. The two wrestled on the scratchy rug, neither seeming to notice the front door opening. Gray had managed to flip the tables, getting Gajeel on his back, when Natsu's voice entered the room.

"Stay out of this!" Knowing what the firey man's first instinct would be made Gray speak before he could jump in. He noticed that his voice was mirrored, and he glanced down to Gajeel. Apparently, he knew Natsu as well as Gray did. He thought he saw Gajeel smirk before the fight resumed, Gray getting slammed back into the rug. He pushed to his feet before Gajeel could get a good hold on him, using his speed to his advantage. Gajeel was strong, but physics made it harder for him to move as fast as Gray. Using this, Gray launched himself against Gajeel's back, wrapping his arm tightly around Gajeel's neck. He grabbed his wrist with his other hand, knowing the move was locked in tight. Gajeel thrashed on the ground, nearly knocking Gray off his back. Gray held on tight, locking his legs around Gajeel's torso.

The move started to serve it's purpose when Gajeel fell to his hands and knees, gasping for the air he couldn't produce. In that instant, Gray knew he had won.

"I don't feel like having your unconscious ass on my floor, so I'll make a deal with you." Gray paused to let his words sink in and loosened his hold a bit. "You can come over here any time you want; I've got a guest room with a TV the same size as Juvia's. Just as many channels, too."

"What's the...catch?" Gajeel was still able to talk, which was more than Gray expected from him.

"You don't stop me from asking her to move in with me." Gray released the hold completely, the two falling apart on the floor. Gajeel had one hand around his neck, rubbing the sore skin there. Gray put space between the two of them in case Gajeel tried to attack again. Holding the move for as long as he did strained his muscles, and he wasn't sure he could get another arm bar in lock again. Without that sneak attack in his back pocket, Gray wasn't sure he could win another round. Gajeel turned to him, but made no effort to move any closer. Instead, he sent Gray a guarded look.

"You're not kidding around here, are you?" Gray shook his head, not hesitating for a second.

"It's a thought I've been tossing around since the orphanage got torn down. We're getting pretty serious, and she doesn't like to sleep alone anymore. She doesn't have a lot of space in her apartment, and I've got more than enough room. Like you said earlier, living with someone cuts the bills in half. It'll be cost-effective, and she'll be closer to town. I can also keep a better eye on her if we're living together. The nights I don't sleep at her house are the nights I worry something will happen to her. This way, we both can feel she's safer. It's a win-win situation."

"You know what that means, right? That one day, you plan to marry her?" Both looked over when hearing a random groan, Natsu now banging his head against the wall.

"Why does everyone keep bringing up marriage?!"

"Has someone gotten bit by the love bug?" Gajeel smirked when Natsu's shoulders tensed, his blush quite evident as he looked to the two men on the floor.

"What's it matter to you?!"

"You're not planning on asking Lucy to marry you, right?" Gray asked bluntly. The levels of red to Natsu's face were rising as Natsu tried to shake his head, seeming to look for a way to escape.

"I never said I was going to marry her. Stop putting words in my mouth. I can't even find the right ring!" Natsu paused in his words, then his eyes widened. "…Je-Jellal is proposing to Erza too, you know!"

"Oh God," Gajeel mumbled, holding his hand out to Gray. "Hand me a beer, I have a feeling this is going to be a long night."

"Forget beer, I'm pulling out the tequila." Gray pushed up to his feet, rotating his shoulder as he walked to his kitchen.

"If it's the good stuff, I won't mind crashing here a night or two." Though the comment was a joke, Gray felt himself grin at the meaning.

All of his barriers were gone, and Gray was not going to miss his opportunity again.

"Happy birthday!" The girls laughed as Lisanna blushed, though a giant grin filled her cheeks. They exchanged clinks of their glasses that Mira demanded they buy for their wine. As the night grew older, the bottles lost their weight. Though she never indulged in this type of alcohol, Lucy allowed Mira to refill her wine glass for the third time. It was a special night, after all!

"You guys really didn't have to do all of this for me," Lisanna said, Lucy instantly shaking her head.

"I said the same thing, but they just don't like to take no for an answer. You'd think they've never had birthday parties before."

"We just enjoy having reasons to kick the boys out and drink together," Mira said, filling Erza's glass while she giggled. Lucy rolled her eyes, realizing the answer didn't surprise her as much as it should. Trying not to think about it, she turned her attention back to the youngest Strauss.

"So, Mira has told me that you've got an interest in astrology?"

"Mira!" Lisanna glanced to her sister, who shrugged at the accusation.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of! We've all used her expertise and it worked like a charm." Lucy was surprised to see the three other girls nodding at Mira's statement. She never realized that her work had such an impact on her closest friends. A part of her warmed at the thought. She knew her mother would be proud, and despite their differences, she hoped her father was as well.

"But I don't know what I want in a relationship." Lisanna's surprising statement caught everyone's attention. Despite the looks, Lisanna smiled and shrugged. "You all went into this with a guy in mind. Sis has been crazy about Laxus for years, and Erza and Jellal were engaged before. Juvia never swayed from her dedication to Gray, and it was only a matter of time until Levy and Gajeel got their spark going. As for you and Natsu, we all knew you two were made for each other. All he did was talk about you when we went to dinner."

"I'm sorry!" Lucy apologized for her best friend, making a mental note to smack him later. Lisanna only laughed and waved Lucy's apology away.

"Don't be; I've never seen Natsu so happy before. It's nice to finally see Natsu in love." The innocent statement sucked the wind from Lucy's lungs, her eyes widening in shock.

"Love? Me and Natsu? We're not in love!" Lucy tried to laugh the statement off, but lost some of her smile when a sense of fear struck her. "We've only been dating for a little while; Natsu can't be in love with me."

"You don't think Natsu's been crazy for you since you two met?" Levy joined Lisanna's side, making Lucy's pulse race. Why was she feeling so nervous?

"No way! The first time we met, I was a hot mess outside of a locked car, and he was some creep who nearly ripped my door off. There was no chemistry back then! He was just as clueless as I was, until we did this astrology thing. We've been best friends for years, so I'm sure we've always seemed close. But that doesn't mean he loves me!"

"Wait, you two haven't exchanged 'I love you' yet?" Lucy shook her head rapidly, face resembling a tomato. Even though she had thought about the subject, and ever admitted some intense feelings to herself, she'd never thought to tell Natsu. In her opinion, it was way too early. What if he got scared by her serious talk? They had only been having sex for a few days; love took way longer than that to form!

But when Levy sent a worried glance to Erza, Lucy felt her nerves increase. Erza shook her head, as if a silent conversation was going on between the two. The whole situation was making Lucy feel light-headed. She swallowed, feeling her throat dry up and her palms start to sweat. Did those two know something she didn't? Had she made it obvious that she had fallen for him? Or maybe Natsu had told them something she didn't know?

She wanted to ask, but Juvia's loud outburst cut her off.

"Gray-sama told Juvia that he loves her!" The group gasped at the information, even though Lucy already knew it. Juvia sighed dreamily, making it obvious that she was re-living the moment in her head. Mira clasped her hands together in pure delight at the news.

"I knew he'd come around! You two will make the cutest babies." While most of the girls choked on their wine, Juvia's eyes sparkled with hope.

"Juvia wishes for Gray-sama's hair, and Juvia's eyes. Fullbuster babies, several of them of course. Juvia would never settle for anything less than three." All of this baby talk was making Lucy feel much further behind in her relationship than before. But then again, Erza's flushed faced showed she wasn't exactly on the baby path either. Trying to steer the conversation back to safe territory, Lucy turned toward Lisanna with a smile.

"I don't want you to feel pressured into dating someone, or taking my advice. Things like this should never be forced upon you. And astrology is more than just who is good for you romantically; it can teach you things about your positive and negative traits, what types of people you should surround yourself with, and even what career choices you may prefer later on. It all just matters what you're interested in."

"It's not that I don't want to know who I'd be good with. It's just...what if I like someone, and then they're not good for me?" Lisanna's quiet question made Lucy curious, but she tried not to show it in her response.

"There is only power in what you do with the information. While there are couples that I would never suspect, that doesn't mean they're impossible. Astrology is a guide, not a law. Occasionally, people who really feel a connection can work through their sign's dysfunction and be truly happy. I own a book that's called "Sign Mates". It tells the reader the problems that can come from any two signs. Even if you're absolutely perfect for each other, you will still have fights you can't agree on. This book gives you ways to work through those problems. It's really handy for cases of contrasting signs."

"If you had two signs to use as an example, would that help?" Seeming to catch on to Lucy's idea, Erza tried to help. When Lucy nodded, Erza turned to the birthday girl and sent a supportive smile. "What to help her out?"


"Good idea!" Mira said, nudging her sister. "You're the birthday girl, after all."

"I guess that's true. But I don't know much about astrology except my own sign. Even that information is pretty limited."

"So we'll work with Virgo then. You happen to know any of the signs that Virgos struggle with?" Lisanna nodded at Lucy's question, seeming happy to help.

"I know they don't do well with Aries. I think it said something about Aquarius and Sagittarius too."

"You did a little research on your own?" Levy giggled when Lisanna looked away, twirling her short strands around her finger.

"I guess so."

"Juvia was doing re-search on Gray-sama's sign because she had feelings for Gray-sama. Does that mean Lisanna has feelings for someone in particular?"

"Nobody specific. I find a few guys cute, but that's about it."

"There's many charming men in our bar," Mira suggested, Erza shaking her head.

"And just as many immature boys."

"Don't be such a pessimist, Erza." Mira's smile looked sweet, but it was the same kind she had used at the last sleepover. Erza seemed just as affected, looking down to her glass of wine. The moment seemed tense between the ex-rivals, and Lucy wondered if Erza would counter with something out of character. Instead, it was Lisanna who spoke up.

"I think Bixlow's kind of funny." All eyes went to her, but her gaze was focused on Lucy alone. "We get along really well, but sometimes I worry he could never see me as anything other than the youngest Strauss. That's how most of the bar sees me now."

"Well, Bixlow is certainly a character," Erza mumbled, finishing her drink in one chug. The group seemed to agree with her statement, yet none seemed to see that as a bad thing.

"He's one of the funniest guys at the bar, and that's a challenge with our group." Lucy was never close to the eccentric man, and yet she could instantly see what Levy meant. Bixlow hung out with a very serious group. Laxus, Evergreen, and Freed were not known for their humor. Bixlow evened the scale with little effort. Not only was he a social butterfly, but he made it a point to enjoy life to the fullest. He never seemed bothered by what life threw at him. It was no wonder this prankster had caught Lisanna's eye.

"What do you think of him, Lucy?" Lucy looked to Lisanna, who closed her eyes and smiled. "It's kind of weird, right?"

"Maybe for me, but we're two different types of people. You know how everybody has their own taste." Giving a light squeeze to Lisanna's hand, Lucy continued. "Being an earth sign makes you crave someone who will spice up your life without ruining it. That's probably why Natsu's a great friend to you, but not in a romantic sense. You don't want all of the immaturity that comes with him. Bixlow definitely has the humor and fun that Natsu has, without the lack of control."

"So you think I should give him a shot?" Lucy paused at the question, tapping her lower lip with her finger.

"I don't really talk to the man, so it'd be hard to say at this point what sign he is. But..." Lucy nodded to Lisanna, giving her a soft smile. "If you like him, then go for it. The problems that you may have in the future shouldn't stop you from trying. And when that time does come, I'll be right here for guidance. I have no problem helping you when I can."

"You're so amazing, Lucy!" Lisanna jumped at Lucy, yanking her into a hug that the blonde wasn't expecting. The rest of the group laughed, their noisy banter carrying through the night. Lucy tried to keep up with all the conversations going on, but she felt her eyes continue to stray towards Levy and Erza. Though the look between them had been short, she knew that something was going on.

And she was going to find out what they were hiding, one way or another.

Well...how was it?! I hope that you enjoyed it, because we're coming down the stretch! What is Erza and Levy hiding from Lucy? Will Juvia say yes to Gray's apartment change? How will Lucy react to Natsu's secret? Will it go as plan, or will something happen? And how red do you think Erza's face will be when Jellal pops the question?! Review and find out!

Chapter 17- A Voice From the Past