Actions

Work Header

The Duke's Wife

Chapter Text

On her first visit to Dreyar Manor, there were three things that Lady Mirajane Strauss was certain of.

First and foremost was the fact that her actions that day were a shameless breach of noble pleasantries that would surely prompt whispers among her family’s peers. Not that there weren't any unsavory stories about her already.

Second, was her parents knew that it was so, they did not care - or maybe they did, but they were willing to risk it. They had willingly sent - ordered - their eldest daughter to enter the lion’s den and be devoured whole.

The third and last, was that she came anyway. She was hesitant and terrified, but she was also resolute.

Her parents may have sent her for the Mad Duke, but Lady Mirajane made herself go for a chance to meet the swordsman with the beautiful long hair and deep blue eyes.

She arrived in her family’s best carriage, wearing her best dress, and promptly took the Dreyar Manor’s staff by surprise at her unannounced visit. They couldn’t very well turn a noble away. The family butler welcomed her cordially and she was led to a salon to wait as he informed his master of her presence.

As she sat down in a plush divan, she took in the room’s fine decor and furniture. There were beautiful paintings on the wall, decorative vases and little trinkets carefully-placed in well-polished tables and shelves. Everything looked expensive, gold-lined - hand-picked to form a grand display of wealth to any house guest.

For all that she wished she wouldn’t have to do this by herself, she was grateful that her parents had sent her alone. She did not know what to say if someone were to point out how much the Dreyar fortune visibly lived up to the house’s reputation, and what it could mean for the lucky young noblewoman who would manage to catch the Duke’s eye.

She did not have to wait long, as the butler came back shortly to lead her to a room he pertained to as the Duke’s study. She braced herself, took a breath, and followed.

Duke Dreyar was sitting behind his desk and did not look up when she entered, busy going through various documents. Mira kept quiet as the butler sat her down on a couch and another servant laid a tray of tea and treats on the low table within her easy reach. They asked her if she would require anything else and she only shook her head and conveyed her polite thanks. The butler asked the same of his master and was given a wave of dismissal.

The door was shut. Lady Mirajane watched the Duke continue to read, waiting for her host to address her first, because she may have called in unannounced but that did not mean she had lost all her manners.

But the Duke remained quiet, as if he had not registered her presence at all. His brows were furrowed in his work, but then Lady Mirajane had never seen him look peaceful. The handful of times they had attended the same event, he always looked bored, or slightly annoyed - and always always intimidating. She had never talked to him before, and maybe it was this fact that took her off-guard when he finally spoke.

“Well?”

It was one word in his rough, deep voice - and it was said in such a casual manner that Lady Mirajane actually thought she might only be hearing things in her head.

He proved her wrong the moment his eyes strayed from the documents and towards her, an eyebrow raised in question.

The only thing she could say was a shaky, “Y… Yes, My Lord?”

Not her most impressive, she'd admit that.

“Did you come here just to sit there and watch me read, or was there something else you wanted from me?”

She stared in poorly-concealed disbelief. She had heard stories that the Mad Duke didn’t care for rules and pleasantries, but she did not expect him to be so… dismissive.

Also, very rude.

Still. She was the guest, and he was her gracious host.

She quickly thought of an appropriate reply, but when she only managed to stammer, he stood up and put his papers down.

He sighed, shaking his head as he approached. “You poor thing.”

That finally got her indignant enough. She frowned deeply. “I beg your pardon?”

He raised an eyebrow, a hint of a grin on the corner of his lips. “So you can speak, after all. Good.” He grabbed a biscuit from the tray as he plopped down on the round chair across her. He nibbled on the biscuit and looked at her critically.

“I…” she started, gathered her composure as fast as she could, and then looked back at the Duke. Forget protocol, this was the Mad Duke. What’s the worst that could happen if she greeted him first? “Thank you, My Lord, for the warm welcome, even though I came unannounced.”

He hummed. “Figured it wouldn’t be very tasteful to turn away a lady who came to see me. So. Lady… what was it again?”

“Mirajane.” she provided, trying not to outright scowl.

“Strauss.” he finished, and the way he eyed her down and then up made her want to pull on a cloak to hide herself. “Lady Strauss, you’re the eldest child, is that right? I believe I haven’t had the pleasure of your acquaintance. You haven’t been in the City for some time.”

“That is indeed so, My Lord.” the lady said, this time trying for a smile. “I had been… spending my days in my family’s country estate, until lately.”

“And you are here now, why?”

“Well, you see… My parents thought it was about time we reintegrate ourselves in the City. We had been occupied on the business and estates in the countryside for some time and-”

He cut her off with a scoff. “Yes, yes. Everyone with working ears knows about that .” he rolled his eyes, as if details of her family and their lives were the most tedious things he’d ever had the misfortune of listening to.

Maybe he was right.

“What I meant was, why are you , Lady Mirajane Strauss, here ? In Dreyar Manor, unannounced and unaccompanied?”

Lady Mirajane blinked in surprise, but quickly recovered and reached into her purse. She took out a scented envelope and offered it to the man. “In behalf of the Strauss family, we’d like to extend our invitation for a musicale that we will be holding next week.”

The Duke accepted the envelope and only looked at it uninterestedly before snorting. “I don’t really like these things much.” he remarked, tucking the item, unopened, in his coat pocket. “And was I so important that you couldn’t have a messenger deliver this?”

She took a steadying breath, fighting to keep her smile as she had been taught. “Well, you are the Duke Dreyar.”

The smile he sent back was almost sweet, but she saw the sharp glint in his eyes. “And you’re an unmarried noblewoman at twenty-four - we’ve all heard why , our people spread news quickly. And you have a brother, of age now and with a cleaner name, who would surely be the one to carry the family's meager fortune. So you… well, you’re in a pretty precarious position.”

She resisted the cringe, opting simply to look down in shame. She had told her parents that this plan would fail. Duke Dreyar might be mad, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew exactly what this little stunt meant.

He took the liberty of pouring tea for himself as he continued. “I was surprised, I’d give you that. But what I really want to know, Lady Mirajane Strauss, is… did you come here of your own will, or were you following your parents' orders? Because the former would make me at least respect your bravery.”

She gripped her purse in her lap.

That was enough.

Since she arrived in the City a month ago, she had heard nothing but whispers and gossip about her, about her family, why they had withdrawn from society, why the first daughter remained unwed, and oh, where was the younger one? And the son? She had withstood her parents dragging her to luncheons and dinners and balls, trying to introduce her to potential peers and husbands, where the other guests only smiled and greeted out of courtesy, trying to avoid her afterwards.

And now she was in the study of an arrogant Duke, who hadn’t even bothered to greet her properly, and was now actively demeaning her-

“Twenty-three.” she finally said, lips drawn to a thin line. “I’m twenty-three, not twenty-four. You missed that part, My Lord.”

A shift in his expression. Was that what he wanted? For her to fight back?

“Ah.” he said indulgently, nodding before sipping his tea. No apology.

“And I came here of my own will.” she added. It was the truth, or at least some of it. She came on her own, although she had a different goal from her parents. “I know it’s unconventional, but I’d heard that prim and proper isn’t what Duke Dreyar was known for. So here I am, with an invitation. It’s the first event in years that the Strauss family will be holding in the City, and Duke Dreyar would greatly honor us if he granted us the grace of his presence.”

He finally grinned. “Well, since you went through all this trouble, Lady Strauss, I will consider it.”

She braved through, not letting him out too easily.“May I ask what my odds are?”

“Odds are looking good.” the Duke hummed. “Is that really all you came for? I get the feeling you’re still holding back on something.”

She met his eyes, fervently hoping to find something that will give his intentions away - they were a warm shade of amber, but they turned a stunning shade of gold in the light of the afternoon sun streaming through the windows. It was… startling. Disarming.

Oh, who was she trying to fool? She was not good at these games. The Duke was probably an expert.

“Hey, you said it.” he shrugged. “I’m not known for prim and proper. Try me, Lady Strauss.”

She didn’t want to try Duke Dreyar. She didn’t know what that would mean for her.

Still.

She had gone this far.

“Very well.” she finally nodded. “I take it you remember the Vastias’ luncheon last week, My Lord?”

He picked up another biscuit - he really seemed to like those. “I was there, yeah.”

“As was I. With my mother.” she continued. “I watched the duel that afternoon. You challenged a Lord and won.”

“You just said you were there.” he smirked. “Then you would know that it was the other way around. I was the one challenged, and thankfully I had my swordsman on hand. He’s very reliable, never lost a fight for me.”

“I am curious. May I ask what the challenge was about?”

“I thought you’d have heard. I spilled wine on a young lady by accident and her parents didn’t take too kindly to my apology.”

“I didn’t hear you apologizing. I only heard you insulting Lady Daphne-”

“No. Not insult. I was taunting your Lady Daphne. There’s a difference.” he said, and his tone was so serious she had to believe he meant it.

And now she was more curious than ever. “What’s the difference?”

He grinned, it was disarming in more ways than one. “You insult once . You taunt repeatedly .”

She raised an eyebrow, hardly restraining a smile herself. “And don’t you look proud.”

“Don’t you look pleased.” he countered. “Don’t like her much either?”

“I refuse to answer that.” she said quickly, looking down. “I just… I was curious. Is all. You seemed to enjoy your… taunting. One would have thought you spilling that wine wasn’t an accident.”

He stirred his tea absently. “Maybe so.”

“And your swordsman? He didn’t think it was too… petty?”

“There are no petty fights for swordsmen, Lady Strauss. Nobles squabble, their swords duel. No matter how terrible your point is, if you win the duel, you win the argument. That’s how it works.”

“You’re saying they don’t have opinions.”

“They shouldn’t have opinions, if they’re to be professionals.”

“But your swordsman is also your aide, isn’t he?”

“He is.”

“He doesn’t have… opinions, either?”

“Interested much?”

She stopped. She had forgotten herself, and she really was no good at this game.

He smirked, as if she had played right into his hands. “I won’t blame you. He’s a very interesting person, my Freed. That’s his name, by the way, if you didn’t know. He’s an invaluable part of my humble household.”

‘Humble.’ she almost scoffed. ‘You’re the richest man in the land. A King, if we still had one.’

She held her tongue while he put down his teacup, and held his eyes when he looked at her. “So. As I asked. Are you interested?”

“Yes.” came her answer, unbidden.

“Why?”

“He-” she struggled, caught her breath, and whispered her answer. “He looked at me.”

It was a far-fetched concept, what she was thinking about, but it had been keeping her awake for days. To the point that she actually went to ask her mother about it, and that was how she got into this mess in the first place.

She came up with an insane thought that her parents misinterpreted and eventually twisted into: ‘This is an opportunity, Mira. Maybe you caught the Duke’s eye, somehow? Maybe he would take you. We have to make sure - this is your chance!’

But it was never about the Duke.

It was about the long-haired swordsman and his piercing blue eyes looking straight at hers, from where he stood over his fallen opponent - (it was a fight to first blood, yet he cut a deep gash) - to where she watched amongst the other luncheon guests, as he declared the result of the match in a voice as deadly as his blade-

“You’ve bled. This duel about disgraceful remarks said against a Lady’s honor has been concluded.”

He had nodded, a curt one - maybe it was for his opponent, but Lady Mirajane could have sworn on her life that it had been for her.

Disgraceful remarks against a Lady’s honor. He hadn't said which of them won, only that it was concluded. Maybe she was making foolish things up in her mind, because it was clear that his Master’s words won, no matter how inappropriate they were, against the Lady Daphne-

And yet.

Yet, she couldn’t perish the thought that it was another Lady he was referring to, and the alleged remarks were not the ones his Master made.

She couldn’t stop thinking that maybe he had fought for her .

She had been within earshot when the swordsman had returned to his Master. Duke Dreyar had leaned down to ask in a soft voice, “Better?”

And the swordsman, Freed, had only nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”

She had turned her back to them before they could notice that she lingered nearby.

That led to confessing to her mother a few days later, about what happened earlier in the luncheon, how that might have led into a duel that was vague enough to imply something else. Perhaps her parents thought she had lost her mind. But they were also desperate, and had somehow twisted her suspicions into another idea entirely.

So here she was now, about to confess the very same to Duke Dreyar, bracing herself for his ridiculing laughter.

And there it was - a chuckle.

But the laugh never came.

The Duke shook his head. “I told him you wouldn’t notice, and he claimed that he didn’t care.”

She looked at him with wide eyes. “D-do you mean…?”

“Were you satisfied?” he asked instead.

“I…”

“It was the best we could do, at the time. Without drawing attention to you.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

She didn’t bother anymore, she finally asked, “Why did you fight for me?”

“I did no such thing.” he replied, and this time as he crossed his arms across his chest, he had an unreadable expression in his features.  “It was all him.”

He fought for me ?” she asked again, disbelieving. “You knew- You let him, you made it happen-”

“He asked.” the Duke provided. “And I never could deny him anything, anyway.”

The duel was for me.’ she thought. A duel over disgraceful remarks against her honor. She had walked through Lord Vastia’s grand hallways and overheard Lady Daphne with her parents and sisters talking about her - why she had been hidden in the country so long, why she remained unwed, what foolish things she had done years before that caused shame and loss to her family - they were true , and that was why it hurt. She had made mistakes that still haunt her to this day, but did they really have to be so cruel about it - did they have to laugh?

Tears had fallen from her eyes before she realized, and she had whirled around to run, only to stumble against someone. He was a handsome man, finely-dressed but not a noble - with lips drawn to a thin line as the mocking laughter echoed through the halls.

He had offered her a handkerchief, too fine for a servant, and she could only shake her head and stammer out a dismissal before shoving past him.

An hour later, she would look into the eyes of the same man as he delivered swift justice for the words and mockery said against her.

So that was how it was.

Lady Mirajane wanted the truth, and now that she had it, she did not know what to do.

The Duke had asked if she was satisfied. She wasn’t. How could she be, when-

“Before you ask ‘ why’ yet again - you would have to ask him yourself.”

She nodded. Maybe, when she knew exactly why a stranger was the first person in years to fight for her, to take her side, she would have some peace of mind.

She looked at the Duke hesitantly. “When… When can I… meet him, if it’s not too much trouble?”

He seemed to consider before answering. “How about we make a deal, Lady Strauss?”

“A deal?”

“You make your parents happy by successfully bringing Duke Dreyar to your little musicale.” he started, slow, still considering. “In return, you come to my party, two weeks from now. Freed will be there, and you can ask him what you want to know.”

It… didn’t sound so terrible. But this was the Mad Duke, there had to be some catch, right? “Where will this party be held, My Lord?”

This time, he grinned. “At Dreyar House in Magnolia.”

.

.


 

.

.

“...and then you did what ?”

Laxus shrugged. “She wanted to talk to you. I figured the party would give you enough escape routes if you wanted to avoid her instead.”

Freed looked at him with a disapproving frown, but it didn’t look too threatening, with the man curled up naked under the rumpled sheets, still quite breathless. “You still gave me away.”

Laxus finished putting on a robe before joining him under the sheets. “I thought you’d be open to answering her questions.”

Freed avoided his gaze and instead burrowed further into the pillows. He looked soft like this, and even after years together Laxus still couldn’t help but he fascinated at the way those blue eyes shone under pale moonlight from his window.

“I regret it, you know.” Freed finally said in a whisper. “The duel. It was a foolish thing to do.”

“I agree. But it didn’t matter, at the time. You needed it.” Laxus said softly, tucking his lover’s tousled hair away from his face and behind his ear. “You never did tell me why.”

“There’s no… why. You already said so, I needed it. You knew how it was. One of those days.” Freed sighed, closing his eyes as Laxus brushed a thumb against his flushed cheeks. “It still is one of those days... I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not doing that. Not with me. You are not going to apologize for the bad days.” Laxus frowned, moving to pull the other man against him. He didn’t miss Freed’s shaky exhale as he did so. “And you don’t have to tell me. You never have to.”

Freed shook his head. “I want to. I asked you to pick a fight for me. For a woman you don’t even know. You should know why.”

Laxus only pressed a kiss to his forehead and said nothing. He only waited.

After a while, Freed finally spoke. “I just… I heard what those people were saying about her, and I saw her face when she heard too, and she looked… so ashamed of herself. I-... It was a bad day. I remembered… things, from before. I had to- I just had to feel in control again. She was- That look she had… It used to be mine, I had to prove that they were wrong… and-”

When his voice broke, Laxus only held him tighter. He didn’t say anything as he felt tears leak into his shoulder and waited until his partner’s sobs died down before speaking again. “Those people were pathetic, and you beat them at their game, all on your own.”

Freed sniffled for a while before nodding. After catching his breath, he let out a soft, shaky laugh. “You know, I forgot how good you are at pissing people off?”

Laxus scoffed. “How could you possibly-? That’s my only talent, and you forgot about it?”

The laugh was more lively now. “No, no, I only meant-”

“I run my business by my reputation of pissing people off, and you say you’ve forgotten about it-”

Freed shoved him playfully. “No, stop-”

“I won’t, you just hurt my feelings.” Laxus persisted, chasing the other man with peppered kisses to his jaw, earning him more tickled laughter. “Only thing I take pride in, and you promptly forget, Freed. How could you? I-”

He finally stopped when Freed took his face in his hands and silenced him with a deep kiss.

They withdrew for breath. “I meant,” Freed said, breathless. “That it’s been long since we were angry, scrappy boys hiding out in the dark corners of Magnolia, picking as many fights as we could get away with.”

Laxus stole a short, chaste kiss before grinning. “You were sixteen and you’d ask me to piss off some fool so you could fight him.”

Freed let out an embarrassed groan. “I was silly.”

“We both were.”

This time, Freed managed a grin. “Yes, because what were you even thinking, the only Dreyar heir, spending his days running around with peasants, sleeping on a poor penniless scholar’s old battered couch?”

“You let me on the bed sometimes.” Laxus chided, fingers lightly tracing patterns on his companion’s bare side.

Freed huffed. “I pitied you.”

“I always brought you fish.”

“You didn’t pay rent.”

“I liked watching you study.”

“You always tried to distract me.”

“Also, you were a swordsman. No one dared lay a hand on me with you around. You were safe.”

Freed’s expression softened as he replied, “You, too.”

“What?”

“You were safe, too.” he smiled, moments of their simpler life years ago warm in his memory.

For Freed back then, practically every day was a bad day - days when it was hard to meet other people’s eyes, when he felt everything and nothing all at once, when he should be perfectly fine but he still felt like everything was spiraling out of his control.

He remembered how Laxus was there trying to make most of those days better, until they were. Until years later when they were few and far in between.

He knew it was difficult to deal with him on those days - he either didn’t want to be touched in the slightest, or he wanted to be taken and wrapped up in his lover’s arms else he felt like he might shatter into pieces.

Laxus never questioned - no, that wasn’t right. Laxus always asked . He asked what he should or should not do, and honored whatever the answer was. It was the foundation of their relationship from the moment they met. In the beginning, Freed had thought that it was the noble gentlemanly manners instilled in him, but it was actually not anything that complicated. Laxus simply saw his choices as something to respect, and expected that same respect in return.

Their relationship was a series of questions and answers. Of asking ‘May I?’ and giving an honest answer.

It was why, whenever they let someone new to know them, the first thing they do was tell that person that they were free to ask anything.

That was how it was with Bixlow, when the informant found out years ago who Freed’s new lover really was, and promised to protect the secret simply in exchange for the truth as to why a noble son chose to wander with a fledgling swordsman amongst the dirty streets of Magnolia. That was how it was with Evergreen, when she asked why Freed and Laxus trusted her to be a spy who will never betray their trust by turning into a double agent instead. That was how it was with Lucy, when Laxus first decided to take her under his wing and make her the most successful Duchess in her long family history.

For them - for both of them - that never stopped. It was a constant. The questions, the answers.

As Freed thought this, he whispered, “You make it so easy to feel safe.”

Laxus pulled him close again, pressing their foreheads together. “For you. Always.”

.

.


.

.

Duke Dreyar was in attendance at the Strauss’ musicale the following week, surprising both the event’s hosts and their guests, who were mostly relatives, minor nobles and some richer merchants.

He looked bored and arrogant, but that was his usual.

When Lord and Lady Strauss personally thanked him for gracing them with his presence, he answered with a sharp smile.

“Your daughter was very persuasive. She didn’t even have to try much, really, with charm like hers. I wonder why you ever thought to keep her from us. Send her often, why don’t you?”

The Lord and Lady seemed very pleased, and then proceeded to call over their daughter to ‘entertain’ their most honored guest.

As soon as her parents left, Lady Mirajane clipped her smile for the Duke. “I have never seen my mother and father so happy with me in years, literally. It makes me wonder what My Lord said to them.”

“I told them to be kinder to you.” he said bluntly, making her blink in surprise. “Not that, exactly. But it should have the same effect.”

She looked down, considering. “Oh. Well… that is… I am grateful, then. You… You really shouldn’t have.”

He shrugged. “I did my part. So, can we expect you on Magnolia House next week?”

She took a breath before answering. “May… May I bring someone with me? My brother?”

He looked pleased. “Ah, that’s how I know you’re new here. Everyone knows Magnolia House’s parties are always an open event. But yes, do bring your brother, if you must. He might enjoy the festivities.”

Then, in a softer voice, she asked, “Should we bring masks?”

A chuckle. “You’ve asked around, at least.”

She tried to hide the embarrassed blush on her cheeks. As he said, she was new to the City. She might not have many peers yet, but she was able to subtly prod some of the servants to sharing whatever information they had about Dreyar House’s parties, passing her questions off for a country lady’s curiosity. They had very varied answers, but that was because Dreyar actually threw various parties. Some had told her that they were just like the Hill’s nobles-only balls, only a bit rowdier because of the common-folk in the mix. Some had said they were pandemonium. Most had said that a lot of them were masquerades.

“No need for masks, it’s not that kind of night.” the Duke finally said. “But you can still wear one, if you’d like. You wouldn’t be the only one. Some guests prefer their privacy.”

“Then we’ll be there, My Lord.” she said, granting a small smile.

Duke Dreyar only nodded. “Good. He’ll be there, as well.”

.

.


 

.

.

It took some white lies and pulling several strings. Mira was able to convince her parents to let her take Elfman with her to what she told them was a night exhibit of artworks by a foreign artist in town. Said exhibit did actually exist, and had been the latest buzz in the City for a while. Then it only took some well-placed coins for her to buy the coachman’s and the guards’ silence as she ordered them to bring her and Elfman someplace else.

Elfman was unsure of it all, and had been fidgety the whole way, but it was also rare for Mira to ask anything of him so he tried to be brave for his sister.

The gates of Dreyar’s Magnolia House were wide open. Guests were streaming in both on foot and on carriages. No invitation was needed when they entered the hall, and the festivities were on full swing, loud and lively.

It was easy to spot the party’s host. Duke Dreyar was standing atop the grand staircase like a king, a confident smirk in his lips and in an animated conversation with several ladies and gentlemen. He looked quite different tonight, Mira thought. A bit… softer. Maybe it was the light? Or the wine? Nevertheless, she stuck to her brother’s side and let him navigate them through the crowd - the people parted easily to make way for his large bulk, but most didn’t seem to spare them a second glance.

Elfman fetched drinks for both of them, and found an unoccupied divan for his sister to take a seat as they watched the other guests interact with each other.

It was, in some ways, reminiscent of the few times Mira had glimpsed the servant parties in the country. Rowdy dancing, toasts, unfiltered laughter. People were more free here.

She was roused from her thoughts when her brother coughed to get her attention, and she looked to see Duke Dreyar approaching them, a beautiful brunette on his arm.

“Young Lord and Lady Strauss, you both made it.” the Duke said with his signature grin. “Haven’t joined the party yet, though.”

“We just arrived, My Lord.” Lady Mira replied, standing up and curtsying as proper to the event’s host. “We’re still... getting settled in.”

The Duke’s companion let out a soft laugh behind her fan. “So polite. You must be new.”

“Be nice.” the Duke said, but his tone sounded lenient. He turned towards his other guests again. “This is Evergreen. The best actress that Crocus has to offer. You should see one of her shows sometime.” he introduced, while the woman in question smiled a dazzling smile.

Lady Mira let out a little gasp. She was told all sorts of people went to these parties, but she hadn’t heard about a renowned actress attending. “Oh! It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Evergreen! I am Mirajane Strauss, and this is my brother, Elfman Strauss.”

“Charmed.” Evergreen replied, her smile still in place. Her gaze swept across the siblings, and she raised an eyebrow at Elfman, who was staring dazedly at her. “Like what you see, Lord Strauss?”

Lady Mirajane had never quite seen her brother so flustered, mouth moving as if to say something, but failing repeatedly.

“Ever. No.” Laxus said, exasperatedly scolding now.

Evergreen looked innocently at him. “What?”

“You’re doing your thing again.” the Duke shot back.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Try not to intimidate our new guests, this is their first party.”

“All the more reason to give them something to look forward to, then.”

“Are you even trying?”

“Oh, I’m just that pretty.” Evergreen waved him off with her fan, then winked at Elfman, who blushed and stammered harder.

Duke Dreyar rolled his eyes. “And the poor man’s broken now.”

Lady Mirajane struggled to keep up with their banter.

“It’s adorable.” Evergreen argued with a pout, then turned towards Elfman again. “So, would you ask me to dance, or should I do it?”

They were all kind enough to wait for young Lord Strauss to stammer out a shaky ‘Milady, if you would you do me the honor-’ and before they knew it, the actress had whisked him away, leaving Lady Mirajane alone with the Duke.

“He’ll live. She’s not that cruel.” the man reassured her. “And you can drop most of the formalities. They just call me Laxus around here.”

She nodded meekly. “Very well. Lord Laxus?”

He snorted. “Eh. A bit better.”

She smiled. “This is… quite an event you’ve thrown. And such guests... Even in the country, we know of Lady Evergreen. Although few have had the fortune to see her Crocus shows.”

“You should join their ranks soon. Her performances are quite an experience.” he said, watching the actress in question tease Elfman Strauss as they danced.

Lady Mirajane nodded, fascinated at this new side of the Duke she was seeing. It wasn’t the light or the wine, after all. He was softer, tonight. He was still very much the tough and authoritative man she met last time, but there was a relaxed side to him. As if somehow he can breathe easier in this environment.

She had to admit, somehow she felt more at ease, too.

“Laxus, thank the Gods.” They were cut off when a man approached them, breathless. He had a mask on, so Mira couldn’t quite make out his face, but she noted unruly raven hair and an elegant attire. “I couldn’t find Freed.”

The Duke raised an eyebrow. “What do you need him for?”

“Miss Levy and Lu-... Iris.” he coughed. “We need someone to stop Miss Levy and Iris and my wife . And Cana! They’re about to do something that’s very impressive but also totally foolish. I tried, Bixlow tried, didn’t work- Maybe you can-”

Laxus rubbed his temples and groaned. “You got them drunk.”

“It was a game!” the man said despairingly.

A more pained groan. “Fine.” he sighed. “Go. I’ll be there.”

The man was both relieved and terrified. “Thanks.” He finally noticed Lady Mirajane, and bowed quickly before running off again.

“I have some inebriated damsels to save from themselves.” Laxus turned towards his guest. “And I’m saving you the tragedy of witnessing whatever it is they’re up to. You should enjoy your first party without being scarred.”

“Of course.” she said, laughing unexpectedly. Duke Dreyar’s sense of humor was dry and cutting, but she was getting accustomed to it. This whole party… this whole place, the people… they were so strange to her. They were… free, and they all felt so alive. For the first time in a long time, she felt eager to explore. “Please, don’t let me delay you.”

“Feel free to roam around. Talk. Watch.” he said, starting to walk away, but quickly reconsidering. He looked at her thoughtfully before speaking again. “You’re in the company of people who have better things to do than judge you. You can let go a little bit.”

She watched him go, and his words were still echoing in her thoughts long after he was gone in the crowd.

.

.

She kept mostly to herself as she navigated through the crowd. She was content to simply walk around with her drink in hand, watching the other guests mingle. Some of them made small talk with her, compliments about her dress and how pretty her hair was, remarks about the food, the drinks, if she had seen the Duke yet, about what they thought of this party compared to the last. She was surprised at how easy it came to her to talk with these strangers.

Ever since coming to the City, she had mostly hidden behind her parents and looked down when she was approached, knowing she was being judged, knowing that her reputation as the cause of her family’s shame was an open secret among these noble families they called their people. On the Hill’s luncheons and dinners, everyone who had tried to talk to her were either simply doing it out of politeness, or for their need to gossip.

Maybe that was why she found the Duke’s blunt and detached manner towards her so refreshing.

After a good while, when she noticed that her brother was still thoroughly engrossed with Lady Evergreen as they talked to other guests, and that the party’s host was still nowhere to be found, she chose to wander towards the quieter spots of the hall.

She ended up rounding a corner and found just the man she had originally come for.

The swordsman with the long green hair, the ocean blue eyes, the deep red velvet coat.

Freed Justine, she was told his name was. He was clearly making his way towards the great hall, but he stopped short at the sight of Lady Mirajane.

He didn’t bow - nobody bowed or curtsied in here, she had noticed - but he did stand straighter and nodded at her. “Lady Strauss.” he said by way of greeting. “This hallway leads to the kitchens, if that’s where you’re headed?”

“Oh.” was all she was able to say as she took a step back. “Um, I was… I was a bit lost, I’m afraid. Master Justine, is it?”

The swordsman smiled. “Please, just Freed. Should I show you back to the main hall, my lady?”

“No.” she answered, a bit too quickly for her liking, but Freed only tilted his head slightly in question. “I- I meant to say that... no, I left the main hall on my own, and… I just needed some space for myself, I suppose. It was getting quite crowded for my liking.”

His expression remained passive, professional. “I see. I can show you to a sitting room, if you’d prefer that.”

It was a common gesture. She nodded gratefully and followed him as he led the way to another hall and opened the door to a sitting room. Like everything else in the house she had seen so far, it was finely-decorated but not as lavish as the houses on the Hill, and had a more comfortable, lived-in feel to it. She settled down in a plush couch, taking note that Freed didn’t bother explaining or putting away the coat draped on the back of it, or the book sitting idly on the coffee table across her. Any other host on the Hill would have apologized for the ‘mess’.

“Thank you… Freed.” she said, not quite used to calling people without their titles.

He nodded quickly and started to turn. “Of course, my lady - let me see to getting some refreshments brought for you.”

“Oh, please don’t bother, I-... I am doing just fine, thank you.” she quickly said, almost raising a hand to reach out before remembering her manners.

Freed stopped in his footsteps and looked contemplatively at the door for a moment before turning to her again. “Then, is there anything else I can do for you, Lady Strauss?”

His face didn’t betray any trace of emotion besides professional courtesy. Before coming to the party, when she imagined their confrontation, she always somehow saw Duke Dreyar being in the same room. But now they were alone, and she knew that this was it . This was her chance - this was what she came for.

“I have some questions.” she said, not quite to-the-point, but direct enough that she conveyed her seriousness. “For you.”

He breathed deeply, bracing himself perhaps, and she was grateful when he answered with the same honesty. “I shall try my best to answer them.”

The Duke had been arrogant and all-knowing when she first talked to him, and Freed had been such a gracious and polite person so far… yet Mira felt more nervous talking to the latter than the former.

But she came here for a reason, she had seized this chance - she would not let go now.

“I’ve been told that the duel you fought during Lord Vastia’s latest luncheon was for me.” she said, meeting blue eyes only a shade darker than hers. “I’ve been told that it was your will, your decision… So now, I need to know... Why did you do it? Why did you fight for me?”

His gaze was unflinching as he answered her without hesitation. “Because I wanted to.”

“Yes, but what made you want to?” she prodded, and when she saw his surprise at her open curiosity, she retreated to herself. “I knew you saw me cry- Was it that? Did you- Was it... pity? Did you pity me?”

He was quiet. With each passing second that he didn’t answer, Mira deflated. Of course it was just pity, he seemed a good man, one with a sense of justice and fairness about him… and she must have looked pitiful indeed-

“No.”

She raised her head to look at him.

He didn’t quite meet her eyes, but his brows were furrowed, as if he was struggling to say his next words. “I… I didn’t pity you. It wasn’t… It wasn’t you. It was all me. What you were going through, being… talked about, shamed… I had gone through that. It wasn’t my best day, that day… and seeing myself in someone else, I was- I let my emotions get the better of me, and I needed to direct the frustrations somewhere.”

Mira watched as he walked across the room. He stopped by the window and looked out to the bustling night streets of Magnolia before he continued speaking.

“I didn’t want to fight without a cause, so when I asked Duke Dreyar to give me a duel , I thought if I fought for you, at least, it wouldn’t be so senseless. That’s all it is.” he looked at her then. “Before you ask, I don’t expect anything in return. I didn’t even expect you to realize, honestly. I wouldn’t care either way.”

When he went back to looking out the window, she knew he had finished given her answer.

So that was it. The only person after all these years to take her side, and the truth was that he was simply confronting his own demons and she just happened to be there.

For a while, she had thought that someone had bothered to look at her, and found that she still had value. It seemed that she had been wrong, then.

It was disheartening.

“Did you believe them?” she asked, voice soft and resigned. “What they were saying about me?”

“I wouldn’t laugh like they did.” he answered, distant. “But yes. I know some facts. You let a thief in your house. Some said he was a lover, that you let yourself be seduced and deceived… or that you let him in on purpose to spite the family. There was a fire. Property loss. You had a sister. The official statement was that she died in the fire. Some swore that she had been gone before it. Many said you let her be taken by the thieves and your parents were ashamed enough to declare her dead. House Strauss hasn’t been able to recover from the damages since. Accounts vary, but you were always at the center of everything. That part must be true, at least.”

“And you still thought I was worth fighting for, when they were only telling the truth?”

He was unfazed. “You have kind eyes.”

She blinked, she didn’t expect his answer. “What?”

“When I met you.” he continued, still not looking towards her. “Your eyes were kind, and I thought that whoever that person was, the one they talked about, you are not that person anymore. You’ve changed, you looked sorry. So I thought it wouldn’t be wrong to take your side.”

She felt silent, again.

She had gotten her answers now. They weren’t what she expected, but she decided that she would take what she can get.

Someone had bothered to look at her, and found that she was kind . That was enough, for now.

Mira was about to thank him for his time and honesty, but she was cut off when the door burst open and two people stumbled inside the room, giggling and swaying on their feet. They were two women: one a pretty blonde with rosy cheeks matching her pink gown, while the other was a beautiful brunette with olive skin accented by an elaborate robe made of foreign silk - and they were very much engrossed with each other, lips locked and hands roaming clumsily to find laces to undo.

Freed cleared his throat. “Ladies?”

The two jumped at the voice and quickly sobered up.

“Freed!” the blonde squeaked, brushing disheveled hair away from her face.

“Oh, shit- Sorry!” The brunette laughed apologetically, but didn’t let go of her partner’s waist. “We didn’t know you’d be here.”

Freed rolled his eyes. “Clearly.”

“My stars- you have company! Hello!” the blonde said, smiling sweetly at Lady Mirajane, who wasn’t able to hide her surprise as she stared at them, one hand over her parted lips and another gripping her fan over her chest. She was blushing harder than the two were, who looked more apologetic than embarrassed. “We’re very sorry for intruding. We’ll be leaving now...”

“Yes, we’ll find another room.” her companion continued, already starting to walk away and pulling the other woman by the hand.

To everyone’s surprise, including her own, Lady Mirajane stood up. “It’s fine, uh, please, there’s no need for that-” she looked towards Freed, who looked slightly concerned. “I have to find my brother, anyway? It’s very late, and… well, my parents were told that we only went to see an art exhibit.”

“That’s a nice alibi.” the brunette said.

Freed nodded, walking towards her. “Very well, milady. Let me see you to the hall then.” He regarded the other two women with a pointed look. “You have a room upstairs, Iris.”

The blonde looked guilty. “But there are geese upstairs, including my room.”

Freed gaped. “Wha-? Geese?”

A nod from the brunette. “The bird.”

Live geese?” Lady Mirajane couldn’t help but ask.

“It’s a long story.”

Freed shook his head. “Where did you even-”

“Bixlow’s fault. Well, mine too… and Laxus! But mostly Bixlow! He'll try to tell you that it's me, but it's him, really.”

“We really are sorry for the intrusion.” the lady in pink, Iris, finally said. To her and her companion’s credit, they did look sincere in their apology.

Freed sighed as he led Lady Mirajane out the room. “I’ll check on that, then. You two lock the door while you go about your activities here, please.”

The brunette nodded. “Sure, we’re just waiting for-”

“Stop.” Freed interrupted. “I don’t want to know who your third person is, Cana. I’ll see you both later. After I check on those geese.”

“Good idea. Laxus and the children are trying to catch them.”

“Gods.” was all Freed said as he sighed heavily and led Lady Mirajane out into the hallway again, closing the door to more giggles. He grinned softly as he took in the woman’s still flustered expression. “Quite a scene, no? Guests tend to drop most of their guard this late in the party.”

“I see.” Lady Mirajane nodded awkwardly. She didn’t expect to see something like that tonight, but then she should have known. The Mad Duke’s parties were famous for notoriety, after all.

“Iris and Cana. The Duke is quite fond of them, lets them do as they please. They enjoy... each other. Occasionally.”

She did not miss the implication. “I see.” she said again, but this time she looked thoughtful. “I feel like I’ve seen them before… somewhere.”

“Cana’s father is from the Hill. You’ve heard of Lord Clive.”

“Oh! That was Lady Alberona?”

“The one and only.”

“And the Lady Iris?” she asked, hopeful, because in contrast to Lady Alberona who already had a reputation as a rule-breaker, Lady Iris looked like a very sweet and gentle young lady. Lady Mirajane would like it if she had more peers like her on the Hill, ones who didn’t care for the rumors about her.

This time Freed gave her a mysterious smile. “She goes around.”

She was about to ask more - there was something about the man accompanying her, that she felt like he would accommodate her as long as she remained polite and sincere - but they had reached the grand hall again, and she saw her brother. As always, Elfman stood out simply because of his stature. He was looking around in agitation.

“Oh, the poor dear. I musn’t keep him waiting.” she said, laughing lightly. “Freed, I-”

She stopped abruptly when from out of nowhere, a child appeared between her and Freed. The little boy clung to the swordsman’s sleeve. “Master Freed, you gotta help us upstairs! There are giant murder birds!”

Freed groaned. “So I’ve been told. Now run along, tell Laxus I’ll be there shortly.”

The child was gone in a whirl of white and gray feathers.

Freed turned towards her again. “Now, should we get you and Lord Elfman home?”

“Please, there’s no need for that, we’ll see ourselves out.” she said, shaking her head with a smile. “It seems you are needed elsewhere. We don’t want to trouble you.”

If it were any other gathering, Freed would have insisted, but this time he nodded and stepped back. “I understand. There’ll be guards at the entrance to help with your carriage. I hope you enjoyed the party, Lady Strauss.”

“I did, very much. Please extend my gratitude to the Duke, for inviting me.” she replied in earnest. “Thank you, Freed. For… tonight. Your time and company, and… for being honest with me.”

He graced her with a small smile. “The Duke appreciates candor. As do I.”

“I can see that.” Lady Mirajane met his eyes. “And… I know you said you don’t expect thanks, or anything at all, in return for the duel, so I won’t insist. But I want you to know that I am very grateful, and what you did means the world to me.”

The swordsman only nodded quietly.

Having said her piece, Lady Mirajane curtsied gracefully, and then turned to fetch her brother. She accomplished what she had come for, and she was ready to go home.

.

.


 

.

.

The second time that Lady Mirajane found herself sitting on the couch in Duke Dreyar’s study, she wasn’t afraid so much as she was slightly embarrassed. Also a little bit angry, but she tried not to let that show.

This time, the Duke wasn’t too busy with the documents. Instead, he was lounging on his chair and tinkering with some kind of wooden toy in his hands. It appeared to be some kind of puzzle.

“You’re here again?” he asked, eyeing her as she sat down, struggling with the many ruffles of her dress. They were the new fashion, apparently. Everyone talked about how beautiful and graceful Duchess Heartfilia looked when she wore them.

“Yes, My Lord. I am here again.” she said, voice resigned. “My Lord father said I should deliver this invitation to you personally because it’s very important. My Lady mother insisted that you would just love to see me.”

A snort, and his eyes fell on his toy again. “What is it this time?”

“A luncheon.”

“I could very well afford my own luncheon. They know that, right?”

“With a short private stage play.”

“That settles it. I hate that shit. Not going.”

“I understand.” she nodded, unaffected. She had been expecting this. Surely, her parents weren’t really counting on the Mad Duke to humor their every invitation, just because he once said that she was charming. “Thank you for your time, My Lord. I don’t want to intrude further. I think I shall take my leave.”

He glanced at her shortly. “Well, you seem to be in a sour mood.”

She frowned. “I was forced to go here like some common messenger, Lord Laxus.”

“Hey now, don’t say that.” he said in a chiding tone, and she almost thought that he was trying to comfort her until he added, “You were forced to go here because your parents hate you, that’s all.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I beg your pardon?”

This was much like their first meeting, only now the Duke somehow managed to be more offensive.

Only now, Lady Mirajane was angry from the argument she had with her parents when they ordered her to deliver the invitation to Duke Dreyar, and that meant that she had been at her temper’s end upon coming to Dreyar Mansion. It was a bad idea, really, but her parents were stubborn, and there were two of them and one of Mira. So she had come, intent to go as soon as the Duke had rejected - because of course he would.

Really, she wouldn’t have snapped if the man wasn’t so insufferable and rude.

“You’re fun company when you’re angry.” he smirked.

She frowned.

“I was jesting. Partially.” the Duke said, still busy with his puzzle. “It’s just, I think it’s either your parents really hate you, or they’re desperate to be rid of you. Or both, also possible, but what do I know?”

“Why do you say that?” she demanded.

“Come now, Lady Strauss. We both know why they insisted you come here in a new dress, in your finest jewels. Again .”

It took all of her will to stay still in the couch. “Enlighten me, My Lord.”

“They want to marry you to me. You’re a porcelain doll they polished up and are trying to sell. Haven’t we established this the first time?”

She knew that. But it didn’t mean that she wanted to hear it. Hearing it made it feel more real. “You’re a Duke, Lord Laxus. Any parent would want their daughter wed to a man of such high position.”

“Oh, stop trying. We all know that no sane or loving parent would want to wish me upon their daughter. I’m terrible.”

“Indeed, you are.”

He raised an eyebrow and said, dryly, “It fills me with joy that you feel comfortable enough to say that.”

At this, Lady Mirajane knew that maybe she had gone too far. Well, in any normal circumstance, that was what she would call it, but Duke Dreyar always had a way of twisting and dancing around conventions. He did not seem to mind her little outburst. When it came to him, the lines to cross were different. Still, she felt bad that she lost her temper and took her frustration out on another person.

She sighed, shoulders slumping as she loosened her grip on her purse. This posture would earn her a reprimand from her old governess and her mother, but at the moment, she tried to set thoughts of them aside.

“You don’t care, anyway, do you, My Lord? That I think you’re terrible?”

He hummed. “Oh, now you’re upset. What makes you think you can be upset in my presence? Go back to being angry, that was fun.”

She looked at him with a weak scowl, then turned her gaze away again.

“Seriously, woman. Are you sulking ?” he asked, this time squinting at her from behind his desk.

This time she shrugged. And realized she had never shrugged before. It was part of her noble upbringing. A lady simply didn't shrug.

After a while of sullen silence, she finally said, “I am sorry. I didn't mean to be so… emotional.”

He waved a hand dismissively.

“This… might seem a strange request, but… would you allow me to stay here, for a while?”

That made him look up at her, expression curious. For the first time, she knew that he hadn’t expected her to say that. Good. So he can still be surprised, after all.

“N-not necessarily here , I don’t want to trouble your work. But… just in your house? A sitting room or even the porch will do-”

“Are you seriously hiding out here until your head cools off and you can face your parents again without yelling about how dreadful they are?”

The accuracy was too much that it hurt. Still, she was asking for a favor, so she held herself from talking back. “Yes.”

The Duke, for his part, looked amused. “You know, I literally don’t care what you do, Lady Strauss.”

She gave a half-hearted shrug. Gods, shrugging actually felt good . It’s what everyone should do when they’re at a loss for words. Why ever was she only taught to smile and look pretty and stupid?

“Please call me Mira.” she said, while the Duke thoughtfully studied his toy puzzle.

“Very well.” he finally spoke up. “Lady Mira. I think you would rather enjoy the gardens. It’s the Duchess Heartfilia’s favorite place in here. I assume you know how exquisite her taste is.”

She looked down at her beautiful but ridiculously ruffled dress and smiled. “I do, though I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her.”

She didn’t know why he laughed, but filed that away because she didn’t know why he did more than half of the things he did, anyway. She stood up. “Thank you, Lord Laxus.”

“Oh, and take this.”

Lady Mirajane never in her life had anything thrown at her before, and she almost dropped her purse to catch the item that the Duke threw across the room. She stood there cluelessly, blinking down at the wooden toy puzzle now in her hands.

She blinked at the Duke. “Um… why?”

That was not a very graceful inquiry, but at this point, she was just grateful she was able to say something .

“It’s something to do. I don’t want to look out my window to see you in my garden miserably staring into oblivion.” he answered, finally sitting upright and cracking his knuckles as he looked over to the abandoned documents in his desk. “Also, it’s pissing me off, and distracting me from work.”

“Oh. Well… Thank you, My Lord.”

He waved her off. “Tell us if you’re staying for dinner too, just so we don’t surprise the poor cook.”

She smiled, bowed, looked at the puzzle in her hands again, and left.

.

.

“You like her.”

Laxus finished signing a document before he looked towards the window seat where Freed had comfortably settled with a book. His swordsman’s eyes were deep in thought as he looked out the window to what Laxus knew was a scene in the gardens.

“She’s surprising.” Laxus said. “And she asked to stay. Never had one like that, before.”

“Except Cana.”

“Cana is Cana.”

Freed chuckled lightly at this. “Mm. Cana is Cana.” He still remembered Lady Cana Alberona demanding that Duke Laxus Dreyar let her stay the night because she was ‘absolutely smashed, Laxus, give me a good bed, I don’t care if you’re in it I just wanna fuckin’ sleep- Don’t look at me like that, s’this the first time a drunk girl climbed up your window?’

Those were the days.

Well. Those were still the days. But not to get off-track- “Is this like Lucy again?”

Laxus stood up from his chair and massaged his shoulder as he walked towards the window as well.

He watched Lady Mirajane in the gardens. She had left her purse and expensive shoes in the fancy table and instead sat carelessly on the grass, surrounded by flowers as she busied herself with the toy puzzle. Every once in awhile, she would make pleasant conversation with the gardener trimming the nearby rose bushes.

“It’s different.” the Duke answered. “Lucy had everything she needed.”

“And Lady Strauss has nothing but her tenacity.” Freed nodded. “You know that you letting her stay here would just make her parents think you actually favor her.”

“I know.”

“But you think that’s for her to worry about.”

“I do.”

“You make her feel safe here, she’ll come back.”

Laxus reached out to cup the other man’s face, and Freed looked back at him with curious blue eyes. “Do you mind?”

There was a little amused crinkle in the corner of those eyes. “No.”

Laxus blinked. “You like her too.”

“I like her honesty.” Freed replied, bringing a hand up to the back of the Duke’s neck and pulling him down for a kiss. “I like that she’s stubborn. She reminds me a bit of you.”

Laxus raised an eyebrow when they parted. “Should I be jealous?”

“Never.” Freed smiled. “Should I?”

A scoff. “You never get jealous. You know how much you’ve got me wrapped around your finger.”

“I do, huh?” Freed let out a small laugh, and looked out the window again only to see that the subject of their conversation was gone from where they saw her last.

Instead, there was a knock on the door. Laxus stood straight, taking the other man’s hand from his neck but not letting go of it. “Come in.”

Lady Mirajane walked inside, looking a tiny bit disheveled, but much more relaxed. If she saw their twined fingers, she didn’t comment on it as she walked towards the table and set down a perfect wooden cube.

“I solved it!” she said with delight.

Whatever happened between her and that puzzle, it was clear that the activity greatly eased her mood.

Laxus pouted. “And that’s supposed to impress me why?”

“Because you were never able to solve it yourself.” Freed chimed in, amused. He turned towards the woman with a smile. “Congratulations. But it’s late afternoon. Will you be staying for supper, My Lady?”

She smiled back, but shook her head. “I’d love to, but no thank you. That would make my parents too happy.”

Laxus laughed. “Damn right. Can’t give them everything, huh?”

“I should make it in time for supper at my own house.” she said. “Thank you again for letting me stay, Lord Laxus.”

He shrugged. “Well, I didn’t want to throw you out. I’m not that terrible.”

“No, you’re not.” she laughed lightly. “It’s nice to see you too, Master Freed.”

Freed smiled. “Same to you, Lady Strauss.”

With that, Lady Mirajane bowed and left the room.

It took a few seconds before Freed realized something. “Oh. She just saw herself out. I was supposed to do that, wasn’t I?”

Laxus crossed his arms across his chest and squinted at the door from where their guest had made her exit. “You think perhaps I made her too happy?”

A thoughtful hum. And then Freed returned to his book. "I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

That afternoon, neither men could have known just how much Lady Mirajane Strauss would come to mean to Dreyar House.

.

.

.

Chapter Text

Lady Mirajane visited a third time. Three times turn to four and then five - and by that point, she was growing uncertain whether she went because she had simply grown to resign herself to her parents’ whims, or because she actually wanted to come visit the Duke and his aide.

Her parents were always nicer to her when she came from Dreyar Mansion. This was when part of her would think that she was only moving to another cage - but a part of her felt that this was also a form of escape. She knew Elfman felt nothing but affection for her, so when he once told her that she always looked a little more sprightly after a visit with the Duke, she knew that he meant it.

She always told them the same thing when they asked how her calls went.

“Duke Dreyar is a gracious host.”

She meant it, too. Duke Dreyar was generous with his accommodations despite his trademark biting remarks and crude behavior. Mostly, she had grown to appreciate the dry humor and brutal honesty with which he approached all things with. She preferred that over the visibly forced politeness and careful dancing of everyone else on the Hill. The Duke never postured, and treated Lady Mirajane with detachment borne of simply not giving a care about where she had come from before she had turned up in his study that one fateful afternoon.

On the other hand, Freed always looked busy with various things, between University and his duties. But when his eyes were not focused studiously on books or fondly on his lover, they were pointed to her. Like she was another one of his academic papers, something to observe, to study. Lady Mirajane did not mind that much. She liked studying him too, and whenever she stared back, he never flinched. They were both mysteries to each other and to this society they navigate. They haven’t revealed all their secrets yet, but they were slowly starting to drop little truths around each other here and there. And for Lady Mirajane, that was enough.

When she looked at things as they were, afternoons spent with a Duke who let her breathe freely and a swordsman who somehow always managed to ease her mind, she found that she really did not mind these visits after all.

.

.


.

.

It was during Lady Mirajane’s eighth visit, as she sat on the floor of the Duke’s study helping the man put together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, that she asked the question.

“My Lord, would you marry me?”

Duke Dreyar, who was sprawled on the floor across her and was staring down frustratedly at a handful of puzzle pieces, didn’t even look up. “Now, I know you came here upset, but I wasn’t aware you were that upset.”

“Are you asking him to, or was your question merely hypothetical?” Freed chimed in from his seat on the couch right behind her, looking over some documents.

“Yes, that, too. You don’t just ask a man to marry you while the love of his life is in the same room.” the Duke added. “That’s common good manners, Lady Strauss.”

The woman let out a weak smile. “My parents think that you’ll be asking for my hand any day now. I keep telling them that my extended visits here are simply due to your gracious hospitality.”

“Hah. Gracious.” Laxus snorted, thoroughly amused.

“I know, it’s foolish.” Lady Mirajane gave him a wry smile. “By now, they should have resigned to the fact that I will end up a spinster, live off my dowry in the country estate… Who would want to marry someone like me?”

She stopped when the Duke suddenly looked up, brows furrowed. “What do you mean? Someone like you?”

“I’m old, and I’ve been… spoiled.” she said softly, avoiding his piercing eyes. “No one would have me, with my reputation. I am damaged goods.”

“Did they tell you that?” he asked further, and Mira hated how cold his voice sounded.

“They don’t have to, I know it, everyone knows it-”

“But did they call you what you’re calling yourself right now?”

She paused, putting down the puzzle piece she was holding to dab at her eyes. She breathed deeply as she held more tears back. “They... didn’t know I was listening.”

The Duke didn’t speak further, but when she risked a glance towards Freed, the man put down his papers and extended a hand to her.  It didn’t take much for her to shift so she could face him and take his hand. It was strong, his grip tight, and when he leaned forward to cradle her face with his other hand, she finally broke down.

Laxus watched as she cried quietly on Freed’s lap. Even as she cried, she held back, letting out only the softest sobs and hiccups. The swordsman was silent, too, and only ran his fingers through her hair and rubbed comforting circles on her back.

When the tears subsided, the Duke was the first to break the silence.

“I would never ask to marry you.” he said. “As long as you offer yourself like that.”

She looked at him, tear-streaked. “Like what?”

“Like what you said - damaged goods, permanently.”

She frowned, hurt, because he was being cruel again and here she had almost begun to think that they slowly becoming friends. “Then how would you like to have me?”

He looked away. “Damaged, but healing.”

She felt Freed’s gentle hand wipe away a tear, and she leaned in to the warm touch. “I’m trying.”

“Then look like you believe you are.” The Duke stood up then, walking towards the door.

Before disappearing, he said, “Stay for dinner.”

His voice was so cold she visibly flinched, but as much as she found it terrifying, she did not feel that the anger in his eyes were meant for her. It as like waking up cold in the winter, and then sitting by a fireplace that has been ready to warm her.

She realized then that this was how Dreyar House had been making her feel for quite some time, after all.

.

.


.

.

Lady Mirajane stopped counting her visits after the first time she had stayed for dinner.

One afternoon, she had barely caught Duke Dreyar getting on his carriage.

“You really should let us know beforehand if you’re looking to call.” he said with a reprimanding sigh.

“My apologies. I can return another day.” she replied meekly. There had been several times that she had dropped by while the Duke wasn’t there, but usually she only had to wait an hour or two for him to arrive. The servants themselves had begun to be accustomed to her presence, and were always accommodating. However, this was the first time she came just for him to leave.

He shook his head. “Are you up for a visit to Magnolia House?”

She blinked, hesitant. “I… don’t want to intrude, if you have business there.”

“No, I was just going for a change of scene.” the man said. “Actually, I want you to come. I’ve been meaning to introduce you to someone.”

That settled it for her. With quick instructions to relay a message to her coachman, she let Duke Dreyar pull her into his carriage.

.

.

True to his word, when the Duke arrived in his Magnolia house, he only checked with the servants over a few important things, and then he claimed that he was going to take a nap. No one argued. They had all observed the shadows under the man's eyes.

Lady Mirajane was left to the company of an old retainer called Yajima, who was very sweet and kind as they had tea together. He asked her about the countryside, and she answered his questions with fondness.

She felt an ounce of gratefulness to Duke Dreyar then, for introducing her to this kindly old man. It was refreshing to talk to someone from the city who had positive feelings for the countryside, where she had spent her last few years. A lot of her ‘peers’ in the Hill had seemed very unimpressed whenever their respective country estates were brought up.

After tea time, she found herself roaming the strange house, ending up in a salon, where she sat down in a divan and picked up one of the books on the nearby table.

It was a novel, and when she read the first few paragraphs, it quickly resolved itself into a romance. There was a single blue ribbon tucked in the book, must be to mark where the previous reader had left off. She made sure it stayed in place as she slipped off her heels, tucked her feet up beneath her and made herself comfortable on the divan to continue reading in earnest.

It was in this state that a rumpled Duke Dreyar came into the room and saw her, before sighing and muttering something about ‘unnecessarily drawn-out dramatic romance’ .

“You’ve read it?” she asked.

“Iris did, and wouldn’t stop marvelling about it.” he answered, scrutinising a tea set from the nearby table before pouring a cup for himself. “So she made Freed read, and he told me everything about it. It sounded dreadfully boring.”

“It’s quite exciting.” she said, smiling slightly, now wondering who the blue ribbon could be, if Miss Iris and Freed have both already finished their read.

By then she had thought that the afternoon will carry on peacefully, just her reading, and the Duke going about, drinking tea or whatever he did in his free time.

But then the door burst open and in strode a familiar face in a flurry of wild brown hair and green frills underneath a black and gold cape.

Lady Evergreen’s face was pale, her eyes panic-stricken as she sought out and found Duke Dreyar.

As soon as their eyes met, she let out a relieved gasp. “Laxus.”

Something seemed to snap inside the Duke, and he slammed down his tea cup and swiftly crossed the room to gather the distressed woman in his arms. She clung to him helplessly, sobbing against his chest.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, voice eerily calm and steady as he held her tight against him.

The answer was shaky. “Laxus, I'm sorry, I-... I’m so scared...”

He nodded, as if he understood fully. “You’re here now, with me. Tell me what happened.”

“My-… Everything! It’s all ruined! My dressing room, it was- All the dresses, and the flowers, they were all torn up. And the jewels he gave me, they’re all gone! He knows !”

At this, the Duke drew back slightly, studying Lady Evergreen’s face first before looking at the rest of her. “Are you hurt?” he asked, brushing brown hair from her flushed face.

She shook her head, and finally noticed Lady Mira watching from across the room. She turned away and hid her face in the folds of the Duke’s robe, fingers curling on the expensive silk. “I wasn’t there when it happened, I just found the... aftermath. The company quickly took me away, and I sent for one of the rats to fetch for Bixlow and get him to bring me here. I’m sorry, I- I don’t know if we were followed-”

“That’s not important.” he cut her off, rubbing her back soothingly.

“It is! What if they realize you’re involved in this-”

“Then they realize I’m involved. I don’t care. I'm not letting the bastard get away with this.” he said, and when she let out a miserable sob, he cupped her chin to make her look at him. “Ever- No, it's not your fault. Ever. Where are you?”

She hiccuped. “At Dreyar House.”

“With who?”

“With you.”

“What did I promise you?”

She breathed deeply, closing her eyes and clinging tighter. “That you’ll keep me safe.”

“Yes, I will.” he said firmly, then pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll take care of everything. You should rest. Let’s get you to bed so you can lay down.”

She nodded, and this time it seemed that she did not cling to him, but instead leaned against him as he began leading her out the salon.

Duke Dreyar cast a short look towards Lady Mirajane, and she only nodded shakily and watched the two leave.

She put down her book. She was not in the mood for it anymore.

.

.

An hour later, Duke Dreyar returned, picked up his tea, grimaced as he realized that it had gone cold, and then drank it anyway.

Lady Mirajane studied the way he breathed heavily, back turned to her. “Is… Is Lady Evergreen alright?” she tried to ask.

“She’ll be fine. She's been through worse." he said, still calm and steady.

She was burning to ask what happened, but thought it was not her place to do so. Maybe she should just leave, after all, it seemed like a private affair…

She looked up when the door opened and Freed walked briskly inside. He seemed surprised to find Lady Mira, but after a quick nod, he turned towards the Duke.

“She’s here?” he asked, his face a mask of coldness. The only other time Lady Mira saw that expression from the swordsman was before his duel, back in Lord Vastia’s luncheon, as he was spelling out the stakes of the battle.

Mira had an hour to come up with theories about whatever just happened, after Duke Dreyar left with a distressed Lady Evergreen. Now from Freed’s seething anger, new thoughts came to mind. Was Lady Evergreen the Duke’s lover, too? Did Freed know her, or about her and whatever the Duke had promised to her? Is Freed angry because of jealousy, or possessiveness?

“She’s sleeping.” the Duke answered, and for the first time that day, he sounded deeply tired. “Our bed.”

“Was she hurt?”

“No injuries, but she’s shaken.”

Freed nodded, and only said, “Fix this.” before he walked past the man and out the room again.

“I’ll need you.” Duke Dreyar called after the man.

“You better.” was the firm reply, before the swordsman’s footsteps faded.

So little made sense for Lady Mirajane at that moment, and as soon as the Duke sat down in the chair across her, she broke.

“Lord Laxus?”

He sighed and crossed his arms across his chest. “Don’t tell anyone.”

Of course he knew that she was going to ask.

She nodded. “My lips are sealed.”

“Good.”

“You and Lady Evergreen… you’re lovers?”

“Publicly, we wouldn’t deny that certain rumor. People’s assumptions are useful, sometimes.” he said. “Privately, it’s me suffering from her habit of using me as a pillow while she spends hours talking about her job, and her friends, and dresses she wants, and her most annoying admirers. Though sometimes, she whispers secrets to my ear.”

“Secrets?”

“A woman with charm, beauty, freedom and fame like hers? She makes a good trade in rich men’s secrets. And those men rarely care or think to care if she keeps their secrets to herself, or if she passes them on to someone.”

Lady Mirajane stared as realization dawned on her - Lady Evergreen was a seductress and a spy. Of course. Dreyar House wouldn’t be as strong as it was if Duke Dreyar didn’t have a safe network of information to keep its businesses and reputation secure.

“And you pay her to tell you these secrets?”

“I am a patron of the theatre, I contribute a reasonable amount to her art. After all, she’s a friend.” he said with a shrug. “But she’s not one to ask for coins for herself. She makes enough. She simply made me promise her safety.”

His eyes darkened then.

“Then… earlier… One of those rich men found out that she sold a secret?”

He nodded. “He’ll pay for it.”

“And Freed?”

“Freed will make sure he pays for it.”

“She’s a friend to him, too?”

This time, a rare, small smile crossed his face. “His best and oldest.”

Once again, things fell into place for Lady Mirajane. The coldness of Freed’s eyes when he arrived. His urgent question: ‘Was she hurt?’ His firm insistence that Duke Dreyar ‘fix this’, plain and simple.

She realized that she knew the Duke better when he was here in Magnolia House. That he might have welcomed her into his Hill mansion and shown her pieces of himself, but it was here in his sanctuary in Magnolia that she saw the things- the people who most mattered to him.

Duke Dreyar had a loyal and steadfast swordsman who he proudly claimed was the love of his life. An old guardian who gave him wise counsel. A beautiful actress who worked as his spy not for money but out of mutual friendship and trust. A host of people who attended his parties because of the freedom and liberation it made them feel.

These people, he protected fiercely.

.

.

The following week, Lady Mirajane went to eat breakfast with her family, and listened as her parents talked about a nobleman who fled to his country estates out of shame after losing a duel against Dreyar House. The man had denied accusations of spreading stories that spoiled several avenues of Dreyar’s trade and business despite solid evidence, and when he was questioned, he had foolishly and smugly accepted a challenge to his honor, not even hiring a swordsman and choosing to fight himself.

It was a foolish stand.

Accounts claimed that the gash on the man’s face was deep enough to probably leave a lasting scar.

Another realization settled in her then. This was a part of Dreyar House. Enemies. She might be part of rumors about her being her family’s shame, but no one would try to attack her for it. Dreyar House was more powerful, its enemies more ruthless, the rumors - it didn’t matter whether they were true or not - they were a threat not only to the Duke but the people under his protection.

It terrified Mira, to even consider being a part of something that so often fell under threat.

But it also gave her reprieve, for she knew that the Duke seldom made promises, but when he did, he always kept them.

.

.


 .

.

Dreyar Mansion remained open for Lady Mirajane. She visited often, keeping the Duke company, listening to him complain about his work or the other nobles. A few times, Freed would be there, and as always he was a perfectly polite, but also bitingly entertaining company.

She was happy when the two asked her if she would like to accompany them to Magnolia House again.

While Freed went about preparations for another trademark Dreyar House party and Laxus set off to… somewhere, she found herself back in the salon, picking up the same book she started but never got to continue the last time.

The blue ribbon bookmark was in the same page, and once again she wondered whose marker it was. Did this person stop midway because they wanted to? Or had they simply not gone back to continue since the last time? Brushing the thoughts off, she went on to read.

She spent a good hour getting lost in the story, when a vaguely familiar voice brought her back to the present. “Oh, hello! I did not know that Laxus had a guest over!”

Lady Mirajane looked up to see the woman she remembered to be called Iris. She was wearing a simpler dress today, her hair in a loose plait. The girl had a friendly smile as she bound across the room and settled herself on the divan, right beside the other woman.

“You must be the Lady Mirajane I’ve heard much about.” she said, perfect smile still in place.

Lady Mirajane smiled back. “And you are… Lady Iris, if I remember correctly?”

A hint of surprise, quickly replaced with a laugh. “Please, just Iris!”

“Then call me Mira.”

“Mira.” the blonde nodded. Her eyes caught the book that her companion was holding, and she grinned. “Enjoying the story? It’s a very good one.”

“It is.” Mira said, looking down at the book. “The Duke doesn’t seem to agree, though.”

When was the last time a young lady close to her age talked to her so casually, without tip-toeing around pleasantries? As she studied the other girl, she couldn’t help but miss her sister. Lisanna would be around this girl’s age. Did she talk to Mira like this because she did not recognize her or didn't know about the rumors? Or was it that she did not care?

“Laxus has no taste.” the girl said bluntly, with a roll of her eyes. “I don’t know how Freed could stand him sometimes.”

Mira would have to agree - sometimes the two men were so different that she found it difficult to see how they got along at all. But sometimes they come together so effortlessly that it left no doubt in her mind that they were built to fit perfectly together, like halves of a whole.

“Freed told me that he’s quite fond of you, though.” Mira said.

A touched smile. “I’m very fond of Freed, too. He’s a dear friend.”

“Oh, I'm sorry. I meant the Duke.”

This time, a blink. And an answer that was as mysterious as it was revealing: “Well, I like to think that I’m as fond of Laxus as he is of me.”

Mira let out a wistful sigh. “How I wish I could think like that, too.”

Iris tilted her head and looked at her thoughtfully. “You think our beloved Duke doesn’t appreciate you?”

Mira looked sheepish. “Oh, he shouldn’t have to trouble himself with that. At most, I’m probably just someone he keeps because I do something he thinks is funny once in a while. I’m just grateful he lets me follow him around. It’s still a better time than whatever my parents push me into.”

The blonde hummed, and for a second Mira swore she saw amusement in those bright amber eyes. “Tell me, Miss Mira... Do you ask him questions?”

“Well… sometimes. I guess.”

“Does he answer?”

“Yes. He does.”

Iris then gave her a satisfied smile and reached out to give her a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Then I believe you’re doing nicely.”

“Pardon?”

“Laxus only ever entertains questions if he thinks you can handle the answers.” the girl explained. “Take it from someone who’s had to study his moods. I think he sees you more than you think he does.”

Mira stared back, brows furrowed, before she finally asked, “Miss Iris, may I ask what your relationship with the Duke is?”

A beam, and a nod. “I like you.”

Mira blinked. “T-Thank you?”

“Oh, and I’m his protege.”

“His… protege.”

“He’ll probably tell you I’m an annoying child he’s resigned himself to look after.” Iris continued, chuckling. “He won’t admit it, but I make him proud.”

Before Mira could ask further, her companion looked at the clock  in the far wall across the room and gasped. “Ah, the time! I’m sorry, I should really take my leave. My presence is demanded elsewhere. It’s nice to meet you, Mira.”

Mira nodded hastily, watching the other girl gather her skirts and stand up. “It’s been my pleasure, Iris.”

“You should come by and have tea with me. On the Hill!”

“I… I would love that...”

“Yes! I’ll be free to receive you anytime next week. Don’t trouble sending a letter, just come by the house, I’ll let the staff to know to expect Lady Strauss. Will that be good?”

“Um… Of course...” she answered slowly, caught off guard that the girl knew who she was, after all.

“Excellent! I look forward to it.” the girl said, walking towards the hallways that led towards the private suites. She stopped on her way. “Oh, and my friends call me Lucy. ” she winked, and then was gone.

Mira took several moments  to think about what just happened. She got invited to tea by a young lady her age, who was friendly and kind and so awfully sweet…

There was just one problem.

Which could be solved by the man who had just walked in, busy rifling through documents in his arm. He smiled when he noticed her in the room. “My Lady. Enjoying the book? It’s a good one.”

“I have a question.” she started, catching his full attention. “Where does Iris- I mean, Lady Lucy… Where does she live, on the Hill?”

Freed blinked, as if she had asked a trick question. “Well… in Heartfilia manor, of course.”

The name caught Mira off guard. Heartfilia manor? Was she a lady’s maid? But she invited Mira for tea, and she had a staff, so she must be a young noblewoman. Lady Lucy. Heartfilia. There was only one Heartfilia in the Hill that Mira knew of and that was- Oh. Oh.

“H-Heartfilia manor, you say?”

The swordsman nodded. “Yes.”

Noble lady lessons be damned, Lady Mirajane exclaimed, “ That was Duchess Heartfilia?!”

.

.


 .

.

Tea with Duchess Heartfilia made Lord and Lady Strauss so happy that they didn’t insist their daughter throw herself at Duke Dreyar for the week.

Lady Lucy was everything her reputation claimed her to be, and more. She was undeniably graceful, but not afraid to laugh freely. She was gentle-hearted but mischievous, and ever-accommodating.

She was a friend.

“Laxus told me to take you away from him.” the young Duchess confessed. “And that’s how I knew that you’re something special.”

“What do you mean?”

Lucy smiled into her cup of chocolate. “I’m one of the Duke’s best-kept secrets, you see. Oh, our friendship is well-known in our circles, but most people simply think he likes me because I’m charming, and I bear with him because I’m a saint. We’re much closer than that.”

Mira nodded. “I see that now.”

“He trusts you, Mira. Freed does, too. They’re two of my most precious friends. They’re family, really.” Lucy said softly, looking into the other woman’s eyes. “So, I’ll trust you as well.”

Mira didn’t know what to say. “Thank you.” she managed weakly. “What… I don’t know what to do with that, I’m just… me.”

“You’re perfect.” the other woman said, without any hint of dishonesty. After a sigh, she continued, “That’s why you should ask him to marry you.”

Mira almost spilled her drink. “P-Pardon?”

“I think you’ll be a good addition to the household, Lady Strauss.”

“But- My… reputation- Everyone knows-”

“Oh, that’s nothing to Laxus. His reputation lets him do what we wants, including blatant disregard about anyone else’s reputation.” Lucy said with a roll  of her eyes.

“He already turned me down once.”

“Were you sure when you asked him?”

“Well… I was a bit out of it. I was terribly upset, and he knew it.”

“Then ask him again when you’ve made up your mind.”

“That’s… I don’t think I can, even if I wanted to.”

“You have to, because he won’t.”

“I know. Because he doesn’t want me." Mira said, looking down, resigned. "I know he would never want me, not it that way, he already has Freed. But I had hoped he would consider it, at least in convenience. But... I guess he simply doesn't want anything of me. I cannot hold that against him.”

Lucy sighed and shook her head. “Oh no, sweetheart, it's because he cares about you.” she put down her cup and smiled softly. “Laxus is a Duke. I told you that he can do anything he wants - and believe me when I say that no one knows that more than him. He knows how much power he has, and he doesn’t want to use that over you. He doesn’t want to make you an offer that he knows you can’t refuse. Mira, if he asked you, would you ever be able to say no? Would your parents let you?”

Mira took that in. She had never considered that the Duke would want her, but if he did, what would she do? It would be so easy to say ‘yes’. That’s what would make everyone happy. Everyone except her, because the moment he asked her parents for her hand, it would be final.

Lucy’s eyes were knowing. She knew that Mira was starting to understand. “He wants you to come to a decision on your own, and trusts you to come to him when you’ve made it.”

“But… there’s… Freed?”

“Have you ever gone between them?”

“No, I would never, they’re… I admire them, apart and together, I could never dream of coming between what they have.”

Lucy nodded and looked at her with such a fond expression that made her breath hitch. When was the last time someone had looked at her so reassuringly?

“Going by that, I believe you’ll be fine.”

.

.


 .

.

She told Freed first. Not because she was asking permission, but because she knew that he would be able to help her sort out her feelings about the matter.

“I’m glad that you were able to figure out what you want.” he said, and then he looked her in the eyes. “But there’s one thing I would ask of you before you ask the man I love to marry you.”

Mira nodded.  “I shall try my best.”

Freed’s gaze did not falter as he said, “Tell me the truth.”

She didn’t have to be asked twice.

Mira told him how her sister, the kindest and bravest of the three of them, fell in love and did not run away so much as she simply followed her heart. Lisanna had left, never to look back at a life she did not want for herself.

Mira told him that the fire in the Strauss country estates had indeed been her fault. She was shaken after her sister’s decision, had lost herself in her feelings and gave her everything to a lover who took so much more. She was young and naive, and let herself be fooled by a person who only used her.

Mira told him how she told her parents the truth, and of course she got the blame, someone had to get the blame - and for a family in a society like theirs, they had to hide in shame until people forget. But people remembered downfalls more than they do victories. And their meager fortune only served as a constant reminder, to them and everyone else.

It all sounded too simple, too detached, when she said it all out loud. She only realized there were tears in her cheeks when Freed raised a hand to wipe them away.

She saw the softest look she had ever seen on the man’s face. “Promise me something?”

“Yes?” she asked shakily.

“The very moment you become the Duke’s wife, you’ll let go of that burden on your shoulders. No blame, no paying, no believing that you’re only as good as everyone else’s opinions of you are - there’s been enough of that. We’ll start anew.”

She nodded. “I promise.”

Lady Mirajane let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. Somehow she felt like she had been holding it for years.

.

.


 

.

.

Laxus’ reaction was less impressive.

“Why the Hells would I marry you?” he said through a mouthful of cookies.

For a minute, she questioned her decision. But… well, nobody’s perfect. And maybe she could have waited until he finished eating to ask him to wed her.

Mira rested her hands on her waist. She had seen her governess do it, and she never realized how much confidence the pose could give her. “You need an heir, Duke Dreyar.”

“True, but why should I choose you for that?”

“Well, I am beautiful and healthy. And I like children.”

“Everyone can afford to like children if their husband’s rich enough.”

She took a deep breath and sighed. He was insufferable .

She loved him.

“Lord Laxus, for some reason, I trust you and I care about you. Not just you, but the people and the things you care about. I’ve grown quite attached to them too. I can promise that you can trust me, with yourself, with Freed, with Lucy, Lady Evergreen and that… strange funny man who claims to be your best friend but won’t give me his name, with Dreyar House here and in Magnolia… I am here for all of that. I want to be part of all that.”

He just stared. And then he shook his head. “That’s disgustingly romantic. I hate it.”

“Believe me, My Lord, I hate it too.”

“What else have you got?”

She thought about it. “This will make my parents happy, and I will finally be rid of them?”

“If I married every girl with dreadful parents, I’d have a rather large harem. No, not good enough.”

And then a strange gleam came to her eyes, and she looked at him with the most brilliant smile. “People have called me shameful. A loose woman. Past my season. My dowry isn’t even that big because my family is poor. We’re social climbers.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And your point is?”

Her voice was sickly sweet and innocent when she continued. “My Lord, wouldn’t everyone just hate it if someone like me managed to marry into the richest duchal house in the land?”

The Duke let out a hum of consideration.

Yes, maybe that was the answer he was looking for. A confirmation that the woman before him didn’t offer herself up to him in hopes that he could solve her problems but rather in determination that she herself could rise above them, with a little help from a rich, powerful friend.

He stood up. “Well, then, what are we waiting for?”

She blinked, watching him walk around his desk and grab his coat. “Y-Yes, My Lord?”

Laxus offered his arm with a grin. “Bring me home to your parents, Lady Strauss. I need to ask them a most important question.”

.

.


 .

.

On her wedding day, Lady Mirajane wore a gown fit for a young queen.

“You don’t look terrible.” her new husband said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Is that the best compliment you’ve got for me?”

He shrugged. “Yes. You’re not exactly my preference.”

She laughed. “Neither are you mine.”

“Do you know what would make you look better?”

The woman blinked in question, and was answered with a finger cupping and raising her chin.

“Hold your head high.” the Duke said. “You’re a Duchess. Look the part.”

She nodded. She hadn’t held her head high in years, but she decided that she could get used to doing so, once again.

.

.


.

.

They spent their wedding night on the same bed - it was only right. There wasn’t much they could do after the exhaustion of the day’s events but to simply lay across each other, face to face, under the faint light of the moon from the window and the lamp in the bedside table.

Lady Mirajane spoke first in whisper. “Husband.”

A quirked brow. “Wife.”

“Tell me a story.”

He scoffed. “What are you, a child?”

She sighed. “No. I am tired, but cannot sleep. I am not used to sharing a bed with anyone.”

“You can always go to your room.”

He was right. She had her own lavish suite in the house, perfect for the Lady of the House. Many couples shared rooms after being wed, but staying separate wasn’t unheard of, either. A lot of noble ladies like space to themselves, to enjoy their privacy and have room for their wardrobe collections.

“No. I want to be with you. Tonight.” she insisted softly. “Besides, what would everyone think if we did not at least spend our wedding night together?”

“You have to get used to the fact that ‘what would everyone think’ hardly constitutes an argument for me.”

“Well, I used it once, and now we’re married.”

He had to admit that was her win. Damn woman and her sharp tongue. He groaned. “Why don’t you tell the story? Maybe you’d doze off in the middle. Everyone wins.”

“My stories are… not good.” she said, looking away. “They will make me miss my brother... and my sister.”

“Well, my stories are boring.” he argued.

“Including the ones with Freed?”

He frowned. “Of course not. Those are good ones. Most of them.”

“Will you tell me, then?” she tried, scooting closer. “How did you and Freed meet? It was in Magnolia, wasn’t it? He said it was in a… um, a house...”

Against the moonlight, her porcelain skin and silver hair looked almost luminous. He wondered if the lamplight lit his hair and his eyes too warmly, too - Freed always said it did.

“A brothel.” he supplied, eyeing the faint tinge of pink in her cheeks. "Don't be afraid, o dear wife, I will not judge you for saying a dirty word."

She pouted. "Fine. A brothel."

He sighed, finally resigning to his fate. “He was a gift.”

“A… a what?”

“My friends- well, former friends now, the good-for-nothing noble little shits - they thought it’d be entertaining to treat me to a whore for my seventeenth birthday.”

“And Freed was that… treat?”

“Yes. But after getting locked in that room, I saw that he was just this scared little thing who’s had a terrible day, and I’m a bastard but I wasn’t that kind of bastard - he was fifteen for Gods’ sake, that’s sick - so we ended up just sitting there… talking. About all sorts of things.”

She smiled softly. “That’s... sweet, in a way.”

He scoffed, but looked thoughtful. “And then I made the mistake of telling those fools that I had a good time - because I did , strangely enough, just not in the way they intended - and… Well, they wanted to kiss up to future Duke Dreyar, so they got ‘that one pretty whore’ from the brothel for me again . The fuckers had the audacity to sneak him into my bedroom while my grandfather was out in the country hunting with the other Dukes.”

“And?”

“When I got there, Freed was reading one of my books, and then he told me that he also read the essay I left on my table - t’was something I had to do, assigned by some tutor - and he proceeded to ridicule my writing.”

This time her laugh was louder. “He didn’t!”

“Oh, he definitely did. This fifteen-year old boy, sitting on my bed all gorgeously dolled up and seductive, lecturing me about proper grammar and tearing all my debate arguments apart. He was absolutely ruthless about it all, too.”

“That does sound like him.” she said, grinning. “And then?”

Laxus ran a hand over his face before continuing. “And then I was doomed.”

“Doomed?”

“Because I hadn't even touched him, not once, but when it came time for him to go, I asked him if he might want to come back for me again.”

.

.


.

.

Duchess Dreyar, after the wedding, was a revelation.

Before, Laxus knew that she had yet to fully open up to them. After, he realized just how much she had been holding back.

“Did you know about her?” he asked Freed one night, after their breathing had calmed down. Not much changed after Dreyar House welcomed its Lady, but at the same time it was vastly different from before.

“About who?”

“Mira.”

“What about Mira?”

“Did you know that she’s… a lot?”

She was a lot . That was all he could think of at the moment. She was lively and outspoken, with an infectious laughter, a sharp tongue and a streak for mischief. He had known that she was smart, even wise, and specially perceptive. He hadn’t known that she took pride in those traits and knew how to show it.

It was surprising, how much she changed after she had moved out of the confines of her family home, after she had decided that the whispers about her didn’t matter anymore. Was this confidence new, or was it simply hidden deep, after her sister, after the fire?

He was distracted by Freed’s laughter by his ear. “Are you complaining about your new wife, My Lord?”

“No.” he said bluntly. “She’s perfect.”

He meant it, too.

“You didn’t answer my question. Did you know?”

“I had a feeling.” Freed replied softly. He meant it, as well. He had always felt that Lady Mirajane might have been holding back the life inside her. But oh, how beautiful it was when she let go. He could just as well value her for how she made Laxus laugh, but more than anything, it was rewarding to see her - just her - make her own decisions and take pride in them. “She’s good for you.”

“She’s good for you .” Laxus added, because he did not miss Mira hovering over Freed whenever the man got carried away in his work. He did not miss how Freed’s eyes soften in her attempts to help him with things around the house. He did not miss how their relationship had grown from kindred spirits to trusted friends.

House Dreyar was different with Lady Mirajane at its helm, and it was all the better for it.

.

.


 .

.

Things fall into place. Days and weeks and months pass. Duchess Dreyar had grown into the house as if she had always been meant for it. Duke Dreyar reveled in getting other nobles angry. Freed kept busy because that was how he liked to be.

“So how’s the new Lady of the House, Laxus? I heard that she’s quite the good match for you.”

Laxus turned his gaze to where Evergreen was lounging luxuriously in soft pillows on his fur carpet, curled up with a heavy picture book of flowers and butterflies. He himself had his head pillowed in Freed’s lap as the two of them occupied the divan.

He glanced towards the fireplace where Bixlow and Lucy were intensely focused on a game of cards, then looked to Evergreen again. “What do your suitors tell you?”

Evergreen smiled as she traced a gorgeously-illustrated flower with her fingers. She wasn't much of a reader but she had always liked looking at pretty things. “They tell me that only a madman like you would have taken such an unsavory wife.”

Freed let out an unimpressed scoff behind his own book. “ Unsavory .”

“Well, they’re missing out. Mira is brilliant. And do you know she plays a most challenging game of checkers?” Lucy chimed in.

“That, she does.” Freed said, still half-lost in his book. “I’ve never played such a good game with anyone other than you.”

“Truly!” Lucy laughed. “For years , I’ve had to pretend to lose against countless men on the Hill. And then there she was. Finally! A worthy opponent who’s not Freed.”

“Where is the Lady, anyway?” Bixlow asked. “I thought she would have joined us today.”

“If she knew you would all be here, she would have. But you all just showed up without telling me, and she’s busied herself, decided to renovate an entire wing of the mansion.” Laxus answered, eyes closed as he relaxed against Freed’s fingers idly scratching at his scalp. “About time, anyway. Cana had promised to bring some exotic carpets within the month, claimed they would make for perfect decoration.”

“Cana is back?” Lucy asked, pouting. “Why didn’t I know this?”

“Maybe because you’ve been too busy running around in the streets with your new toy.” Laxus said lazily.

Lucy frowned at him. “Loke is too kind and smart to be treated like a plaything, no thank you. He is my friend .”

Bixlow let out a low whistle. “All due respect, you know I am your humble servant, but the poor man looks at you like you hung the moon, milady… and your eyes usually say much of the same.”

Lucy turned her frown to the other man, disappointed - but really she should have expected that from Bixlow. The man made a living by being a snitch, after all.

Evergreen, never one to hold back on opinions, sighed. “My Lady, a swordsman? Really? You should know better, they’re all stubborn fools with a death wish.”

They all heard a cough.

“Except Freed.” the actress hurriedly amended, casting her best friend an apologetic look. Freed only shook his head and rolled his eyes, quick to forgive.

After all, he had been a stubborn fool with a death wish himself, on his starting years.

Lucy only laughed good-naturedly, before laying down her cards with a smirk and making Bixlow dramatically moan about never winning at cards against sweet Duchess Heartfilia.

As the two debated the merits of starting another round, Evergreen spoke to the Duke again. “While we are on the subject of friendships, has Lady Mirajane made any new friends yet? I know she enjoys spending time with you two, and there’s Lucy, but I imagine she’d want to expand her circle…”

Laxus thought about it. “She’s been planning a tea party for… who was that, again?”

“The Fullbusters.” Freed provided. “It’s just as well. Duke Silver is very generous with his friendships. Lady Juvia is easily charmed. As for Gray… well...”

“Oh, my dear Gray has a real soft spot for his lady wife.” Lucy said with a sincere smile, watching Bixlow expertly shuffling cards across her. “With a gentle heart over that. Mira made a wise choice, inviting the Fullbusters first. You chose a very sharp-minded wife, did you, Laxus?”

“Wrong.” Laxus said, finally sitting up.

He stretched as he yawned, and smoothly draped an arm around Freed’s shoulder, pulling the smaller man close so he can rest his chin on top of the other’s head.

He grinned at Evergreen’s and Lucy’s inquiring stares. “I’d say a sharp-minded woman chose me.”

.

.


.

.

Laxus knew from years of being with Freed that even when everything was fine, there would still be bad days. Sometimes, scars hurt even after years had passed.

He had discovered that Mira had those days, too. He was only grateful that she knew that she could come to him when she had them.

Hers was different. Hers was an eerie calm. Hers was silence and melancholy smiles. She would lean into his arm, rest her head on his broad shoulder, and absently watch him read and write and sign, working late into the night. She did not need to be held or to be left alone like Freed, but she needed to be accompanied. To be grounded .

“Still with me?” he asked, once, when her silence had been too long and deep that he felt like there was only a ghost clinging on to him.

“Yes.” she answered, soft and distant. “I’ll be okay, darling.”

After they got married, she had taken to calling him sweet names, claiming she liked that he lets her do so. He lets her because it was his way of telling her that he appreciated the open affection.

“Do you love me?” she asked after a long stretch of silence.

Whenever Freed asked him that question, Laxus knew that the man asked not because he had forgotten, but because sometimes he found it hard to remember. Laxus wondered if it was the same with Mira.

“Are you asking because you want to know the answer, or you just want to hear it?”

“I just want to hear it.” she said, clinging tighter, hiding her face in his shoulder.

“I do love you.” he said, honest and open, and he pressed his lips to the top of her head. “And you can always ask me again whenever you want to hear it.”

He felt the nod against his shoulder, and the grateful squeeze of her hands in his arm.

The silence broke with careful footsteps, and Laxus glanced over to see that Freed had entered, eyes sleep-heavy but intent. He paused when he saw them, and he didn’t need to ask - he just knew . The man crossed the remaining distance and raised his hand to stroke his Lady’s hair.

“Hello, Mira.” he greeted, voice a gentle whisper.

She managed a smile. “Hello, Freed.”

“Do you want to stay here tonight?”

“If you’ll have me.”

“Of course. Let’s get to bed? We’ve had a long day.”

Laxus watched as Mira let Freed pull her up to stand, and the two of them left to head to bed. He knew he’d find them later, curled up against each other later, safe and feeling better.

There were things the two shared that he could never understand, would never try to, because it wasn’t his place. He was content that they had each other for it, and that they know that they also have him.

.

.


.

.

Freed was smiling an odd smile when Laxus arrived from a meeting with some of their trading partners.

As soon as the man approached him to take his coat, Laxus raised a hand to touch the aide’s cheek in a silent question. Freed simply turned his head to press a short kiss to his fingers before taking his coat and walking away to hang it up.

“Hey, now. You’re acting very strangely.” Laxus chided, tailing the other man and capturing him in his arms. “What was that?”

“You’re required in the upstairs balcony, My Lord.” was Freed’s answer, though he did not make any move to withdraw and instead leaned his back against the other man’s chest contentedly, and even tilted his head to meet the kiss he already knew was about to be pressed into his cheek.

Laxus peered at him, all curiosity. “And what’s waiting for me there, may I ask?”

“Exotic carpets.” Freed said, still smiling that smile. “Along with something I think you’d find very interesting.”

“Cana’s already brought her wares, then? I assume Mira received her well?”

A chuckle. “You have to see for yourself. Go, I’ll be right behind you.”

Laxus let out a skeptic hum. “As you wish.” he said, finally releasing the other man and turning to heed the instructions.

He saw the carpets first. Most of them were rolled up and pressed against a wall, some unfolded and being scrutinised by some select house staff. They indeed looked colorful and majestic, but he’d look at them closer later.

He sought out his wife and their guest, and found them in the balcony as Freed had told him.

There was a set of drinks and snacks on the table. Lady Alberona, in her rule-breaking jacket and trousers attire, was sitting precariously on the balcony railing as she told what seemed to be a most exciting tale. Duchess Dreyar sat in a chair close to her, listening in rapt attention.

He had to knock on the doorframe to be noticed.

“Darling!” Mira greeted, smile and eyes bright. “Welcome home! Lady Alberona is here, as you can see.”

“Hello, Laxus.” Cana said with a grin. “I heard you settled down and I didn’t quite believe it. I thought everyone was only teasing, fooling poor ol' me.”

“Well, you have the proof right in front of you now.” Laxus answered, nodding towards the other woman. “You’ve met my wife, Mirajane.”

“Oh, I have.” the brunette said, exchanging a smile with the Lady of the House, and her eyes never left the woman’s as she continued to speak. “And I think I understand why you simply couldn’t let her slip away.”

Laxus raised an eyebrow, while Mira laughed shyly. “Oh, you flatter me, Lady Alberona.”

Cana hummed innocently. “But you deserve all the compliments and more, Duchess.”

Laxus watched as Mira looked up shyly at their guest. He saw the bashful purse of her lips, observed the blush blooming on her pale cheeks, and the hopeful glimmer in her blue eyes and- Wait, hopeful? Oh. Oh .

He felt Freed step up beside him and looked pointedly at the man, who only raised both eyebrows and smiled expectantly.

Laxus turned to look at the two women again, and this time he did not miss the sharp glint of Cana’s eyes as she looked back. He recognized that look. It was one that she got whenever she eyed a certain piece of art that made her both want to stare at it for hours in fascination, and also to simply acquire it for herself at all costs.

And Duchess Dreyar was returning that look quite openly.

Well, then.

“Cana.” he started, and tried not too smirk too much. “Would you care to stay for dinner? Entertain our Lady with tales of your voyage?”

It was with effort that Duchess Dreyar and Lady Alberona withdrew their gazes from each other.

Cana flipped brown curls over her shoulder and grinned brightly. “Why not?”

Yes , he thought, as Lady Mirajane looked to him and to Freed with both apprehension, much like a deer caught in the headlights, a blush high on her face.

Instead of speaking, he only grinned at her and mouthed, ‘Why not?’

.

.

Chapter Text

The wet cobbled streets of Magnolia were slowly coming back to life late that afternoon. The townsfolk had kept indoors during the rain that had been falling in torrents since the previous night, but as soon as the weather let up, they had begun crawling back out of their respective shelters.

In this little town by the river, night was the busiest and most profitable time of day, so the denizens of Magnolia - from street vendors and tavern owners to thieves, whores and killers - all of them were intent on making sure they were back and ready for business by nightfall.

Among the few busy bodies making their way downtown were two women. The folk who dwell on alleyways and trade their eyes for business easily recognized the two, who were not only both eye-catching in different ways, but also were both ladies to be kept at a careful distance.

The first of the two was a beautiful brunette, dressed in an unconventional manner that easily told everyone who she was - a comfortable blouse, trousers, sashes of different silks on her waist, a seafarer’s trench coat on her shoulders, long curls wild behind her head. Lady Alberona was generally a friendly face around these streets. She walked comfortable and unafraid of pickpockets despite the gleam of the gold and jewels that hung from her ears and looped around her wrists and fingers. The folks of Magnolia knew not to try. She had a sword, and knew how to use it. If she ever appeared not to have it on her waist, they were sure that she must have at least one dagger in her person: under the scarves and sashes, up a sleeve, tucked into a boot, or all of the above.

They know this not because they know the woman, but because they know themselves.

They knew that Lady Alberona knew these streets because she grew up in them. No. That’s not quite right. One does not grow up in Magnolia. One survives .

Recognizing the lady was enough for the street’s eyes to avert their gaze ever so slightly. They would glance once in a while, maybe note her presence, because that was their job, but they wouldn’t watch. They knew the lady sees them too, and she knew where to find each of them if she so desired.

Ah, but her company called for curiosity. The young lady on Miss Cana’s arm was quite an ordinary sight on these streets, but her presence had always prompted whispers.

The young blonde in the Dreyar House colors had many names in Magnolia. During recent years though, she had seemed to settle with ‘Iris’. Most people associated Miss Iris with her haphazard braid, bright eyes, stunning smile, and the armor that was the gold-trimmed black cloak that only those under Duke Dreyar’s employ wore. On the number of times she was asked of her business, she only often smiled and answered that she was on an errand for the House. They knew her by her perpetually clean servant’s ensemble - it was a humble attire, but never dirty, always pristine. That fact alone spoke volumes - Miss Iris was not an ordinary maid, perhaps not a maid at all, and certainly not one of theirs, but she was not someone they could attempt to take advantage of either without consequence. Lately, she had also taken to a certain swordsman’s company, a fact which halted any sort of remaining attempts to pursue her.

Some people think they knew her real identity, but they only voiced it in whispers. The chosen few who did know the truth, they knew well enough to keep it to themselves. In Magnolia, silence was a skill as marketable as ruthlessness.

Miss Iris was under the Mad Duke’s protection. The man was not their own either, but there was a different story to that altogether. It simply came down to this: at the end of the day, Laxus Dreyar was powerful and not an enemy, he had done a few notable denizens some few notable favors, and for a neighborhood like Magnolia, that was as good as friendship.

So the whispers started, seeing the Lady Alberona and the Mad Duke’s mysterious ward walking together, arms looped and heads bent in conversation. A few curious eyes followed, but they maintained their distance, and no one attempted to catch the words exchanged.

In Magnolia, sometimes not having all the pieces of the puzzle was better than seeing the whole picture.

This was a consideration Cana Alberona made before she spoke.

“So… I met our newest duchess a few days ago.”

Miss Iris raised an elegant brow. They had only been talking about some local artists, an enthusiast seeking an expert’s opinion, and the change in topic was quite abrupt. “Did you, now?”

Cana gave her a rueful smile. “I can’t believe I missed our favorite Duke’s wedding. My old man went on and on about it as soon as I came back.”

“Well, it was quite the surprise for a lot of us.” her companion mused. “Although apparently it was something that had been bound to happen eventually. At least that’s what I learned from Freed. I didn’t really stick my nose in it as much as some would think.”

Cana hummed. “I haven’t heard what you think about her, yet.”

Iris gave her a curious look, and Cana did nothing to hide from it. Her friend knew her well enough. “It was about time that we have another Duchess Dreyar. I was in favor of it, of course.”

“Only of the marriage? What about the lady?”

“I quite like her. I think she’s lovely.” Iris said, smiling softly. “I would not have encouraged her to go through with it if I didn’t think she would fit the role nicely.”

Cana let out a chuckle. “So the Duke did ask you to help.”

“Only a little nudge.” and then Iris turned to peer closely at her friend’s face. “So what did you think about her, Lady Alberona? I am very curious.”

“Well, she was quite excellent at what she does.” Cana answered, nonchalant. “Perfect manners, beautiful face, very intelligent and… well... she was interesting.”

“Cana, you only use that word for surreal paintings.”

“There’s just… These. She has-...”  the brunette waved her free hand around, struggling with the words, and only managed to come up with - “Eyes.”

“She has two of those, yes.” Iris said with a light laugh, earning an exasperated look. “Alright, so. What about them?”

“They’re pretty and they remind me of the ocean.”

“Do they?” Iris blinked, brows furrowed in thought. “I always thought they were closer in shade to the sky.”

At this, it was Cana’s turn to laugh, giving the other woman’s arm a small squeeze and tilting her head to press closer. “And that, my sweet, is why you don’t deal with art.” Iris opened her mouth to protest, but Cana brought a finger to her lips, making them pause right where they stood. “It’s not the color.”

Iris looked back at her companion for a long moment before taking the other woman’s hand from her face and twining their fingers together instead. “There’s something different with you today.” When Cana only slipped slender arms around her waist and pulled her closer, the blonde planted her hands on her friend’s shoulders to steady her. “And now you’re trying to distract me. What is it you can’t tell me?”

“Nothing you should worry your perfectly pretty head about, Lucy.” Cana said in a whisper - and just like that, Miss Iris’s flimsy disguise dropped, and she was just Lucy. Confused, curious Lucy. Cana took a step back. “Also, you’ve arrived at your destination. My job here is done.”

Lucy looked around to realize that her friend was right. She now stood on the front steps of a familiar humble apartment. She climbed up a step, so she could look the slightly taller woman directly in the eyes. “Thanks for walking me here then, Cana.”

“Always my pleasure, you know that.” Cana said, taking the other woman’s hand to press a kiss to it. The typical gentleman’s gesture had always managed to charm when it came from her. When she looked up, she met concerned brown eyes. She only smiled sweetly before closing the distance between them, pulling the other woman against her once more and claiming her lips.

Lucy returned the gesture, sliding her arms around the brunette’s shoulders, melting into the kiss. It had… something to it, from the way the familiar hands held steady into her waist before a hand crept up to brush her hair, to the way her friend and lover’s lips pressed against hers a little hungrier than usual. Something different. Something more, and also something less...

When they broke apart, they were both breathless. “That,” Lady Alberona panted, grinning. “Was not an attempt at distraction.”

Lucy’s concerned look didn’t fall. “It felt like a goodbye.” She frowned slightly, eyes searching, hands cupping the other woman’s cheeks. “Are you leaving again? So soon?”

Cana shook her head. “Oh, not for a month or two. But you are about to be rid of me, very soon.” She took the blonde’s hands in hers to put them down. “Rumor has it, a certain picky Duchess has fallen for a certain dashing swordsman.”

“Oh.” Lucy breathed out, finally understanding. Oh. So it was about that. She should have known, should have expected. She should have come up with it first. When she smiled, it was bemused. “Cana, you walked me across town to break up with me.”

Cana snorted. “I’ll never break up with you. You’re my Duchess, forever.” She chuckled when she received another kiss for her words. “But you , Miss Iris, have got it bad right now. I mean, going to a shady apartment in Magnolia to meet with a man?”

“You’ve done more insane things!” Lucy pouted. “Also, this is Levy’s apartment!”

“Yes, and don’t think I don’t know who her current favorite tenant is. No offense, My Lady, but I have known this neighborhood and this man a lot longer than you have.” Cana grinned, then rolled her eyes. “Gods, I can’t believe I lost you to him, though. Just because you like his sword better-”

“That’s not it!” Lucy giggled. “And you didn’t lose me. I love you, Cana.”

“I love you too.” Cana replied, stealing one last, short kiss. “But you’re not in love with me, and I am not in love with you. We’ve always been an odd fit. T’was fun, though.”

“It was.” Lucy nodded, sighing wistfully. “You’re not… upset, are you?”

“No.” and they both knew it was the truth. “You know me. You know us.”

“I do.”

“I’ll still drop by for cakes. I love your little tiny cakes with the candy frost things.”

“You’re always welcome to all the little tiny cakes you want.” Lucy said with a laugh. “But please please use the front door?”

Cana finally pulled away, taking a step back. “I’ll consider it, but I make no promises. Now, I’m not gonna keep you from your little lover’s rendezvous. Make sure he walks you back to Dreyar House after this, alright?”

Lucy had to roll her eyes at the remark. “Yes, mother .”

“Brat. If you weren’t adorable...” was all the brunette said, waving dismissively before turning around to walk away.

Lucy watched her friend go, staring at her back. A feeling of content settled in her, but as she looked back to the past few hours with Cana, she knew that she had not been told the whole story, not yet.

“Cana!” she called out, loud enough that the brunette still stopped and turned to her, only several paces away. “Is there… someone?”

Cana blinked.

“Someone for you.” was all she said to elaborate. “Because I think there is.”

She got back a shrug. “We’ll see if it goes there.”

Lucy laughed, shaking her head. So it hadn’t been just her, after all. It all made much more sense now, and she felt much more at ease. Their relationship had always been a fleeting, casual thing. They were friends first. Lucy knew Cana went through lovers like they were one of her many sea voyages. Duchess Heartfilia’s bed, however, was more discerning. Lady Cana Alberona had only found herself invited after a while of charming and trust building.

If it was Lucy who had taken another lover, Cana would have no qualms sharing their bed with their consent. It wouldn’t be the first time.

It was a different matter altogether, however, for the famed Lady Alberona to pursue someone. Lucy knew then that there was no competition, no negotiation there.

“Do I know them?” she asked.

“A part of them, I think.” Cana said, and the little smile on her face was mysterious and private. “I’ll be sure to introduce you, if it works out.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Lady Alberona.”

The woman simply bowed with a flourish, tipped her invisible hat, and went on her way.

.

.


 

.

.

Freed didn’t notice the questions until later.

Perhaps it was because he simply had been busy, lately. It was trade season, which sent him and his Lord both busy going around and managing things. Both he and Laxus had always been hands-on when it came to business. With most of their time and attention focused on those, they had little time to notice the little things.

Or perhaps it was because Lady Mira has always been an inquisitive person, especially now that she was part of a new household. She had much to learn not only about Dreyar House but their business and relationships with other nobles. Fortunately, the new Duchess Dreyar had a keen mind for politics. It was a mind made for assessing rather than scheming, but she understood how things worked in this society.

Perhaps it was both. Freed had been busy, and also had dismissed Lady Mira’s questions for curiosity.

Perhaps another reason, as well: Lady Mira was quietly cunning. She had lived the past few years of her life laying low, blending in, denied of favors. She always always had to get what she wanted through subtlety.

Freed watched her in action now, and he would admit that she was quite good at what she did, given a right target.

“...and then you know what that brat said? She said, ‘You’re sleeping with your swordsman and you haven’t told me of any disadvantage to that so far.’   Did you hear that? The nerve on that girl- Who does she think she is?”

Duke Dreyar stopped pacing for a moment, perhaps waiting for a reaction from the room.

Lady Mirajane indulged her husband, but did not take her eyes off the jigsaw puzzle she was putting together on the carpet. “She is Duchess Heartfilia, darling.”

Freed watched them quietly. He was in his usual perch on the window seat, only this time he was joined by stacks of documents.

Laxus continued pacing. “I know , and that’s nice, but she’s not thinking- Fine, I went off with Freed in Magnolia as a teenager, but that was before I had a title and an estate to go with it. We changed our game as soon as I was Duke. Lucy’s different, she counts on her reputation being spotless. I can take her sleeping with the swordsman, sure, but she’s dressed up frolicking around Magnolia with him and also taking him to parties here in the Hill while she does it. Reckless.”

Mira looked up to watch him this time. “Maybe you can advice her to keep their dates to the Middle City?”

Laxus looked back at her. “That’s worse.”

“How so? It’s not as dangerous as Magnolia…”

“Exactly.”

Freed finally spoke up. “My Lady, the Middle City folks have seen nobles in public gatherings and celebrations. There’s a higher chance to be recognized. On the other hand, Magnolia is filled with people whose connections to the nobles on the Hill are mostly through their agents… it’s both dangerous and untasteful to nobles. In a way, it’s the safer choice for their… rendezvous.”

“I see… That makes sense.” Mira nodded thoughtfully.

Laxus grumbled. “This is Cana’s fault.”

Freed watched as his mistress’s posture straightened just a slight bit. Lady Mira had a tell, he had slowly discovered over the past few days. She brushed her hair over her shoulders and then clasped her hands together - hiding nervous excitement by appearing prim and proper.

“Lady Alberona?” she asked.

Freed could tell that Laxus didn’t notice the change in demeanor. But then, when Laxus got to vent, he never really noticed anything else. “Yes, who else? She was the one who introduced them. She was the one who had Lucy gallivanting off to Magnolia on every spare minute. First, it was for Levy-”

“Lucy’s secretary?”

“No-... Yes-... Sometimes.” Laxus said dismissively. Freed made a mental note to tell Mira about Miss Levy McGarden later. “Anyway, it wasn’t bad when she was just taking Lucy to see Levy, because that was business. Then I find out she’s spirited our favorite Duchess away. On a boat.”

“Ship.” Freed chimed in, amused. “Cana will never forgive you if you call ‘Cornelia’ just a boat.”

“Her ship has a name?” Mira asked, practically lighting up. “She didn’t say, last time!”

“Named after her mother, milady.” Freed smiled. “The late Lady Cornelia was a phenomenal actress, it was a shame she passed on very young.”

Mira looked down in sympathy. “Oh…”

Laxus only rolled his eyes. “Fine. Ship . The thing is, they eloped. Sure, I joked about her eloping with Cana before she marries the Fullbuster kid, but I didn’t know she’d take it to heart! And it wasn’t even to run and frolic in some vacation island. They met up with pirates. Pirates!

“They did?”

“Pirates. Lawless drunk pirates.”

“Lady Alberona and Duchess Heartfilia are quite close, then?”

“Very close.” was the duke’s grudging answer.

“Even now?”

“Well, not anymore, apparently. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if Lucy has both Cana and Loke in her bed these days.”

“They’re both… attractive choices.” Mira considered, a careful edge to her tone. “Are they… partial… to that kind of arrangement?”

Freed chose this time to speak again. “I’m certain that both of them would be fine sharing, but Cana never really commits. It’s all fun for her. Lucy prefers stable company. Loke, for his part, probably prefers a stable income. All swordsmen do. Why do you think we don’t complain when we get called in to break up petty noble fights?”

“Swordsman like that, wouldn’t pass on the chance to be the House Swordsman under Duchess Heartfilia’s name.” Laxus continued. “Good pay, clean reputation. A record to hold, because Lucy has never employed a House Swordsman before. Until he came around.”

Mira was quiet for a while, before she looked at Laxus who had stopped pacing to glare at some of the pieces of the puzzle strewn around her. “My Lord, I think you sound more worried than angry.”

“That man has enemies. Rich men. Worse: rich women.” Laxus mumbled, crouching down now to put two pieces together. “Trail of broken hearts and all that shit.”

“So you do admit it. You’re worried for Lucy?”

“Don’t say it like that.”

Mira laughed, reaching out to comb back the man’s hair. Laxus had ruffled it while he had been pacing. “I think you should trust her more.”

“And why is that?” he asked, picking distractedly at the puzzle pieces.

“Because Lucy Heartfilia is a most intelligent, charming and beautiful young lady, who you know very well.” she said, sliding a puzzle piece to the portion he was putting together. “And while you’re worried that this swordsman has seduced his way to an opportunity… you’re overlooking the possibility that it may be the other way around.”

Freed watched in satisfaction as Laxus raised his head to look at the woman. Lady Mira may not see through political schemes, but she had eyes for reading people. An invaluable skill, one that took Laxus years to hone, and he still failed at it sometimes.

“After all, you are her mentor.” Mira continued with a hum. “Surely you trust that you’ve taught her well enough.”

“You sound very sure about all this.” Laxus finally said.

“Oh, I’m not sure of anything, my dear. Just an educated guess, from what I’ve seen of our favorite duchess.”

“You’re confident, though?”

“Quite.”

Laxus groaned, frowning down at the puzzle pieces again. “I hate it.”

“Laxus, you should leave.” Freed chimed in.

Laxus pouted. “Am I that annoying?”

Freed shook his head, smiling. “No, you simply have a meeting in an hour. At the docks.”

Mira laughed this time, while Laxus only groaned and ran a hand through his hair again in dismay. She chastised him and tried to bring back a semblance of order to his blond hair before fixing his collar.

The Duke finally stood up and grabbed his coat, mumbling about headaches, trade and boring meetings.

He began making his way towards Freed, who reached out to him quietly. Laxus took the man’s hand and pressed a quick kiss to it. Freed smiled and poked at his cheek. “Don’t start a fight. I’m tired and I have no time to stab someone for you.”

“Duly noted.” was all the Duke said before walking away. He paused to drop a kiss to the top of Mira’s head on his way out.

Freed and Mira spent several moments in silence, Freed turning to his work again while Mira continued the puzzle on the floor. She made sure to take her time as surely her husband would want to solve parts of it himself.

After a while, Mira spoke. “Do we know the whole story about the pirates? It sounded very exciting.”

Freed smiled down as his documents knowingly. He hadn’t noticed the questions before, but now he was beginning to. “It was indeed, and I’d love to tell you all about it, but no one can tell a story quite like Lady Alberona herself. I’m afraid I’d sell it short.”

“Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t. Tell me? Please?” she asked sweetly, innocently.

Freed looked at her, still wearing his smile. “I must apologize, I am a bit… occupied.” he reasoned, shrugging as he lifted some of his papers for emphasis.  “I really think it’s best that you ask her yourself, My Lady. Why don’t you invite her for tea? Tell her you want to hear more about her crew going against the Cerberus . Cana loves telling her own stories.”

Mira pointedly looked back down at her puzzles. “It sounds a bit imposing, don’t you think? Inviting her only for that? Lady Alberona seems to be a very busy woman. She runs her own business, doesn’t she?”

Freed let out a chuckle. “Believe me, Mira. No one else has mastered the fine art of mixing business and pleasure better than our Lady Alberona.”

He almost laughed at how she hid her blush beneath the guise of running a hand through her hair.

She fell silent after that. Freed almost regretted it, maybe he pushed her a bit too much? Perhaps she could tell that he was onto her pointed questions?

“My Lady.” he called, voice unusually soft, making her look up at him in curiosity. “You do know that you’re…” he paused, considering what word he should use. Allowed? No, that made it seem like there were set rules here. Encouraged? It sounded too assuming.

Finally, he settled with something much, much simpler - “You’re free.”

She stared, her intake of breath almost audible. Had she not realized that yet, even after the past few months?

“You know that, right?” he asked, still gentle.

Mira gave a little nod. “I know. It’s just… I just… It’s been a while…”

“It takes some getting used to.” Freed continued, this time looking away and out the window. “I understand.”

He did, he really did. He’d been there. The first step he took out of the brothel knowing he wouldn’t have to go back to that life, his first few duels as a new swordsman, the first time he kissed Laxus Dreyar purely because he wanted to.

He knew how it felt like, to struggle with newfound freedom, to having a hard time believing that you deserve what you want, too.

“I just wanted to make sure that you know for yourself that things are different now. You can do things for you now.”

She nodded again, this time more resolute. “I know that.” she said. “Thank you, Freed.”

He smiled at her before turning to his work again, leaving her the room to think.

Freed tried not to smile too knowingly when after a few minutes, his mistress simply asked, “If I were to write a letter to Lady Alberona, should I send it to Clive House, or does she have another address?”

.

.


 

.

.

Duke Dreyar wouldn’t call himself an optimist, but even he had looked forward to this whole business with a kind of enthusiasm. Freed had told him not to tease or pressure Mira, and he understood, so he didn’t. He did his best to be supportive. He had simply shrugged off Mira informing him that she was inviting Lady Alberona over for afternoon tea and a chat, because they had such a grand time the first time.

However-

“Hells.” said Laxus, eyeing the lounging form of his wife, who had claimed Freed’s usual window seat gazing out the garden with an absent look on her face. “You’re pining. And in the bad way.”

She sighed miserably, and he wanted to turn back and leave her alone.

Only she whirled around and looked at him with big sad blue eyes.

“She’s turned me down twice now, Laxus!” the woman despaired. “Perhaps I was too eager? I… I never really knew how to do these things...”

Supportive. He was trying his best to be supportive, because he might be an arrogant bastard but he was a damn good friend when he set his mind to it.

Also, what kind of husband does nothing while his wife was feeling miserable?

“You’re not too eager.” he finally said, when Mira’s expression began to fall further. “And she had legitimate reasons for turning you down, none of which include not liking you.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.” he scoffed. “It’s the peak of trade season, and Cana is a businesswoman. She’s not just occupied with selling, she’s also busy buying and managing and all that. When she turned you down the first time, it was because you invited her on a day when the Alvarez goods were expected to arrive. When you sent your second invite, it was in the wake of that report on criminal activity at the docks. Of course making sure our warehouses are safe from a goddamned arsonist was more urgent than flirting. If anything, you’re simply unlucky.”

“You’re saying I have terrible timing.” she said.

“Exactly.” he crossed his arms across his chest. “It’s still trade season. It’ll be a while before we can all settle down, really. Have you even seen Freed these past few days? Even Duchess Heartfilia’s been showing signs of wear.”

“Oh, dear.” she stood up, then, alarmed. “I’ve been too inside my own head I hadn’t noticed anything… I knew you were busy, but I didn’t realize you may be tired…” she searched his face. “Are you alright? Is Freed?”

“We take naps.” the duke answered, letting his wife pull him to sit on the nearest chair.

“That won’t do- Oh, you do look exhausted!” she exclaimed, looking torn and helpless. “How could I not notice?!”

“You were busy yourself.” he pointed out, this time allowing her to help him slip off his coat and undo his ties. “Prettying up the house and mooning over your lady love-”

“I’m so sorry.” Mira said, and now she was miserable for a different reason. “I make a terrible wife, do I?”

He snorted. “I didn’t ask for your hand because of your domestic skills. You don’t even know how to cook.”

“No one does.” she pouted. Nobles simply did not cook-

“I do.”

Her hands on his shoulder froze as she stared at him. He stared back, all seriousness.

“You’re teasing me.”

He grinned. “I can even bake.”

“No!” she said, now shaking him slightly. “You can’t be serious!”

“What? I can!” he insisted, laughing as he tugged at her hands, pulling her into his lap. “Do I have to prove it?”

She giggled, leaning her head against his. “You’re mad, My Lord.”

“Yeah, I worked hard at it.”

Lady Mira sighed, snuggling closer. “I really am sorry for not seeing how hard you’ve been at work. You and Freed both.”

“You’re doing well here on your side, though.” he mumbled as he leaned back and relaxed against the plush back of his chair.

“What do you mean? I just stay here all day, like you said, mooning …” the last word she said with a whine, evidently disappointed at herself. “All I do is rearrange the furniture and talk to the servants and greet your guests…”

“Exactly.” he said.

“What?”

“We’re making good headway on the trade negotiations this year, much faster than usual, actually… because you’re here to hold up the fort.” Laxus continued, yawning. “You do know that’s what you’ve been doing, right?”

She raised her head to look at him, perplexed. “Really?”

“You’ve been running the house.” this time, he raised an eyebrow. “Keeping everything in order with the staff, receiving the guests, taking note of whatever they came over for, preparing the main hall for the many business meetings later this year… Freed and I used to split those jobs between us, before.”

“Oh.” she blurted out, and really? “Oh! I’ve been helping?

He shrugged. “A lot, yeah.”

“I thought you only let me do those because I had no friends and no hobbies!”

Laxus had to keep himself from laughing. He didn’t want to ruin the moment. “Hey, you said that. Not me-”

He stopped abruptly when Mira pulled him into a tight, bone-crushing hug. He sighed as he pat her back, shifting in his seat so she wouldn’t slip off his lap when she lets him go.

“Woman, let me breathe.” he grumbled.

Mira loosened her grip slightly, but didn’t pull away just yet. “I’ll try to help even more.” she mumbled against his shoulder.

“You do that.” he said. “And when I get word that Lady Alberona’s deals for the season have begun to settle nicely, I’ll let you know so you can send your third invite and finally get that sweet yes.”

She drew back with a shy smile. “They do say third time’s the charm.”

Laxus shrugged again as they settled against each other, his hand snug around the woman’s waist, Mira’s simple dress allowing her to curl up against him comfortably. “I know Cana. She’s never been one to turn down a pretty woman if she had any say in the matter.”

“You think I’m pretty?”

“You’re not ugly.”

“So that’s a yes then?”

“Don’t push it.” he grumbled under his breath, closing his eyes. He was more exhausted than he thought, and in a familiar comfortable chair with a warm body pressed against his and fingers carding through his hair, he was very close to dozing off.

There was a set of curt knocks on the door. Mira moved to put some space between them but Laxus only grunted, giving her waist a soft squeeze to prompt her to stay. “Come in.” he called out.

The door opened and one of the house servants walked in, carrying a large bouquet of flowers, all colorful and undoubtedly exotic. The man coughed upon seeing his masters’ compromising positions, but carried on. “My Lord, My Lady - this… ah... arrangement... arrived for the Duchess Mira just now.”

“For me?” Mira blinked, sitting up. This time, Laxus let her go and she stood up to receive the flowers. “Who is it from?”

“I… was told that you’d find a card, My Lady.” the servant said.

“Oh. Well, thank you very much for bringing it to me.” Mira replied with a smile, then dismissed the man, who bowed dutifully and left. She carried the bouquet back towards the table.

Laxus smothered another yawn as he watched the woman admire the brightly-colored flowers, her fingers ghosting over the petals. “Well?”

When she glanced at him, her lips were curled into a barely contained excited smile, and her eyes were shining with mirth. Finally, she felt around the bouquet, careful not to ruin the arrangement as she searched for the folded piece of parchment tucked within the leaves and tiny flowers.

It was amazing, really, to watch her expression light up as she read whatever was written in the note.

“It’s from Lady Alberona.” she said, looking at the duke.

He expected that much. There really was only one person in Fiore who sent orchids and lilies instead of traditional roses. “And…?”

“There’s a private gallery and she’s asking if I might want to go.” she looked uncertain. “Laxus, it’s tonight! She’s… she’s waiting downstairs!”

He didn’t help himself from grinning. Classic Cana. “Well? Aren’t you going?”

“But- but it’s almost time for supper, and you’re here-”

“You don’t cook my dinner.” he pointed out.

“I just said I’d help out in here-”

“So you can continue to be pathetic and pine? In my presence?” Laxus rolled his eyes, and with effort stood up, grabbed his wife by the shoulders and turned her around. “No, you are utterly useless like this. Go away, have your date, don’t come back until you’re functioning properly-”

She started resisting against him pushing her towards the door, but it was useless. “I’m- I’m in my sleeping gown! My hair’s not done up-”

“Gods. Call your lady’s maid to help you dress, that’s what we pay her for.” he grumbled, opening the door and starting to lead her out. “And hair is hair, no one cares-”

“I do!”

“Trust me, it’ll be a waste, you’d just ruin your stupid fancy updo when things start heating up-”

“Laxus!” she gaped at him, scandalized, cheeks flushed a deep red. “W-We- We- That- That is not -”

“I beg you.” he cut her off, expression serious as he stepped back into the room to leave her standing in the hall with the note and the bouquet held to her chest.  “Stop whining, get dressed, get out of my house, and get laid. In that order.”

“Get-! I-I-... I am not going with Lady Alberona to get-... g-get… l-lai-”

She couldn’t say it. She couldn't.

He only hummed, shrugged, and then closed the door on her face.

“What kind of husband are you?!” he heard her shout, her voice a marvelous combination of offended and flustered.

“The best kind!” Laxus called back, before making a beeline for his chair and slumping down in it. Faintly he heard Mira calling for someone, probably her lady’s maid, and he finally closed his eyes to take a well-deserved nap.

.

.


 

.

.

The gallery was indeed a quiet and private little place. A middle-class merchant’s house in the Middle City, easels set around the repurposed receiving hall of the quaint mansion to showcase canvas paintings of the family’s middle son. The young man’s father and head of their family had apparently never been much for art, but business was business, so the merchant thought it fit to finance an open exhibit for a few short days, hoping for at least a buyer or two who might be interested in his son’s art.

Lady Alberona explained all this to Duchess Dreyar on the short carriage ride to the place.  She was dressed in a silk robe-like dress with embroidered patterns for the event, her hair tied back high behind her head. Duchess Dreyar wore a simple but flattering dress the color of red wine, the shade making her long flowing silver curls and blue eyes stand out. They were a sight to behold as they made their way through the rows of paintings in the gallery.

The other guests, mostly the merchant’s relatives, family friends, and some lower-ranking noble business partners, were not nearly as subtle with their whispers as the folks in Magnolia.

It did not seem to matter, though. The two women were very much engrossed in their own little bubble of conversation.

“I have a client across the sea who was very curious about our art here, our sculptures and paintings.” Lady Cana continued her explanation. “He likes bright colors and bold strokes, and I’d promised to bring him works he might be interested in acquiring for his estate. He’s an enthusiast.”

They were slow going, the art dealer keenly taking in each painting’s details, her companion listening to her comments in rapt attention.

“And you think this client of yours would like Young Master Tearm’s works?” Mira asked.

“Eve’s style suits my client’s preferences.” Cana answered. “He has good technique, his concepts and composition are quite ordinary, but there are some works that stand out. They’re more... inspired. Charming. I should thank Hibiki for passing on his invite to me.”

They stopped in front of a painting of a mother lounging in a settee with her young daughter sitting by her feet, both of them doing needlework. In the picture, the windows were thrown open, so the room appeared brightly lit, washing the scene in lively colors.

Cana hummed, before speaking again. “You’d think people who want to acquire foreign art would prefer scenery from another land, but they’re just as interested with the simpler things. Scenes like this make them curious about the people - our lifestyle, our society, how we’re different, and how, in a way, we’re just like them.”

Mira did not realize that she had been staring until Cana turned towards her and let out an awkward laugh. “I’m sorry, I am boring you with all the pretentious art talk, am I?”

Mira hurriedly shook her head. “Oh, no, not at all! It’s-... It’s all very interesting.”

Cana let out a small smile, looking back at the painting. “Much like you.”

“Pardon?”

Cana glanced at her again, her smile now a grin. “Nevermind. I get… talkative. At galleries. Well, my friends say I’m talkative everytime, Gray’s told me I never shut up, but it’s a different kind when it comes to art. I become… sentimental? Sort of?”

“I see.” Mira said, watching again as Cana took in the painting, even leaning forward a little bit to squint at a small detail. “I think it’s… nice. I’ve never had an eye for these things. I know artists pour their hearts out for their works, and I admire people who know how to appreciate them fully.”

Mira had never been one for this kind of art. She had been terrible at sketching. Their art tutors had found both Strauss daughters a lost cause, taking to the son instead. Surprisingly, Elfman was the artist of the siblings. Mira took pride in her singing voice, though.

Cana chuckled. “Naw, I just really really like stories.”

A blink. “Stories?”

“History.” Cana elaborated, leading her companion forward by the small of her back to move on to the next work. “Like you said, artists pour their heart on their work. Every work has a story behind it. I like it when they share the history behind things, and I also like it when they let us think about it, imagine the stories ourselves. It’s kind of… intimate. It tells you something about a person.”

“That’s a very romantic take.” Mira said.

“Maybe.” her smile turned a bit bashful. “Ultimately, I think, I just like people. Listening to them. Knowing them. I find things more beautiful the more they have to say. I like it when I’m told something I don’t know… you know? Too sappy?”

Mira wasn’t fazed. “Is that why you chose to be a trader? Why you sail away from home? To hear more people, more stories?”

“Partly. Those are some good reasons.” Cana nodded, staring absently at another painting. Fittingly, it was a painting of a stormy sea. “Plus, I am forced to moderate my drinking. Contrary to popular belief, rum and ale, in fact, does not take up the majority of Cornelia’s storage hold.”

They shared a laugh at the joke, until Cana shrugged. “Mostly, I simply like the freedom of it.”

“Freedom to be away from everything you’ve known.” Mira said softly.

“Not exactly.” Cana said, making the other woman look at her again. “Freedom to be different from everything you’ve known, more like.” she grinned. “Funny, isn’t it? That a land where I can roam wherever I want feels more like a cage, yet being stuck on a ship surrounded by nothing but sea for miles feels more like freedom?”

“No, I understand.” Mira said, this time looking straight at the other woman’s dark eyes. “As my husband is fond of saying, ‘Rules are bullshit ’.”

Swearing sounded like a foreign language coming from her tongue and Cana couldn’t help but grin. “You married an anarchist.”

Mira returned her grin. “He has good friends. I like them very much.”

“His fellow rule-breakers?”

A nod. “I can’t hold that against them. It must feel liberating to just be whoever you want to be.”

Cana looked back, intent and for once, quiet. Mira saw the other woman’s gaze fall to her lips and back to her eyes, felt the hand on her back slide to her waist, watched red-painted lips part to say something-

“Lady Alberona! You received my invitation, after all!”

Mira bit her lip as she looked away, while Cana let out a small grunt of a noise before turning to the man striding joyfully towards them.

“Good evening, Hibiki.” Cana greeted. Though resigned, she looked genuinely happy to see the young man. “Thanks for sending me this way. I love the works. Where’s Eve?”

“Being shown off by Master Tearm.” Master Hibiki Lates said, snorting. “He’s surprised this took off. He didn’t expect Eve’s art to attract this much attention.”

“He’s always been a grumpy old bat.” Cana scoffed, and as Hibiki smiled charmingly at her companion, she raised a hand in a flourish. “Duchess Dreyar here thinks the paintings are fantastic.”

“I do. They’re all very lovely.” Mira said, then giggled as she saw the young man gape at her.

“D-Duch- Duchess!” he actually squeaked , before hurrying to take a bow. “Duchess Dreyar, it’s an honor! I- I knew you looked familiar- I was at your wedding- Well, everyone was, but- Oh, pardon my manners, I am Hibiki Lates, merchling and a friend to our artist.” His next statement, he stage-whispered: “Cana, you brought a duchess ?”

Cana shrugged, smirking. “Didn’t you send me the invite with a note to ‘kindly try to bring in some noble friends, to support my dearest darling Eve’ ?”

“I know , but Dreyar- !” Hibiki shook his head disbelievingly, standing straight as he grinned dashingly at Mira. “It really is an honor to have you here, Duchess. I haven’t seen the Duke around…?”

Mira should have expected that. “Oh, Laxus is- Well…”

Cana intervened smoothly. “Hibiki, you just called yourself a merchling , you should know this. It’s trade season and businessmen have no time to look at paintings.”

“Ah. Of course.” he laughed, good-natured and genuine. “My father’s been running around, himself. Barely managed to escape for a few hours to give Eve my support. Ah-! His father should be showing off to you , Duchess! Let me fetch them-”

Whatever moment the two women were getting to had been effectively dispelled when the man quickly took off to bring the Tearms to them. Like Hibiki, both Eve and his father were dumbfounded to realize that Duchess Dreyar had been milling around their quaint little gallery right under their noses, and both showered her with praises.

Merchants might also be rich businessmen, but they were different than nobles. They cared significantly less about rumors. Whatever tarnished personal reputation Mira or her husband hand on the Hill, merchants usually ignored it in favor of good business partnership.

Lady Alberona was at home in their presence, easily exchanging jokes with Hibiki, complimenting Eve on his work, convincing Master Tearm that he made the right choice to finance his son’s art. Mira smiled, nodded and complimented as appropriate - a well-learned skill in all noble ladies - but was mostly content to watch them.

Cana’s hand on her waist never moved.

But of course, as much as this little outing was for pleasure, Cana also came over for business. After a few more moments, Mira found herself in Hibiki’s pleasant company, as Cana asked for a private word with Eve and his father. She promised not to take too long. Mira did not mind. She was enjoying Hibiki’s excited anecdotes about the paintings. Being a close friend of the artist, he knew some of the stories behind them.

“-and this one, oh he absolutely hated this one!”

She blinked down at the painting her companion was  grinning at. It was not much of a painting but more of a study. The square canvas was small, could fit neatly in her palm - a perfect size for placing on top of a dresser or shelf. There were other works of this size, probably not for sale, only placed scattered around the gallery to fill the space.

It was a charming little portrait of a cat playing with a ball of yarn.

Mira furrowed her brows. “It’s adorable! Why in the world would he hate it?”

“He did it on a dare. He was complaining about moving subjects, once, so we borrowed his little sister’s cat and dared him to use it as his model. The cat won’t stop moving, and Eve cursed the whole time he was trying to sketch her!” he said with a laugh.

Mira laughed with him. “Well, he did a good job. I like cats. We had one just like this, my sister and I. He was as precious as he was precocious, we were sad to lose him a few years back. Old age.”

Oddly enough, instead of the usual crushing feeling she had when remembering Lisanna, this time it felt more like a dull ache. A lingering nostalgia, tucked neatly in a safe space in her heart where it now lay quiet and harmless.

Had she changed all that much this past year?

Hibiki continued his anecdotes, lost in a story about his and his friends in their schoolboy days. Mira looked across the room, to where she last saw Cana, Eve and Master Tearm discussing business.

They were still there. Master Tearm was speaking, Eve was shuffling shyly on his feet, and Cana was looking right back at her.

Their gazes met, and when Cana smiled, Mira pushed past her heart skipping a beat and smiled back.

.

.

“I’m sorry I had to leave you for a while there. I figured you might have heard enough business nonsense with Laxus and Freed.” Cana said as she led her companion out the gallery, finally done with her business deal.

She said she had purchased four paintings, all to be delivered to her home in a few days’ time. She bought the items from the Tearms for a good price, and promised to let them know if her client liked it, together with a commission if the piece were to sell well..

“That is actually not the case.” Mira replied. “They don’t really talk business with me. Granted, they come home exhausted nowadays, but I just think they don’t want to bring the trouble home with them.”

Cana hummed. “I’m also sorry for turning down both your invitations. Believe me, if I had a choice-”

“Please, Cana.” she said - and she realized that it was the first time she had said the other woman’s first name, without any title or honorific. “I was told that I have bad timing.”

“No offense, but you do.” Cana said. “At least, in the first two times. I just felt bad. I… wanted to see you again.”

Mira had to resist sounded too excited. “You… You did?”

“Yes.” Cana answered, and it sounded like a confession. “So the first opportunity I had, I decided I’d return the favor.”

“This was… very sweet. Thank you. For bringing me here today. I had a wonderful time.”

“It was my pleasure.” the other woman said. Then, she clapped her hands together. “So! It’s dinnertime, in the Middle City. I know the best restaurants in these parts...”

Mira went silent, realizing something. “I’ve never been to a restaurant.”

She expected Cana to look scandalized, judgmental… but she just roll her eyes and muttered, “Nobles.”

Mira looked sheepish.

“That’s a travesty, Duchess.” Cana said, one eyebrow raised, grin teasing. “We have to fix that.” Mira inhaled sharply when the other woman took her hand, then pressed a kiss to her knuckle. “Do me the honor of taking you out to dinner?”

Duchess Dreyar smiled, ducked her head and nodded. “Yes.”

.

.

Over a sumptuous dinner, Duchess Dreyar listened to Lady Alberona’s story about pirates.

Pirates. Against a trading ship crew of all women, one of which was probably the richest one back home.

It was exciting.

It made Mira wish to be there.

.

.


 

.

.

A week later, a servant came in carrying a wrapped package for Duchess Dreyar.

She tried to ignore the curious look from Freed beside her and the smirk from Laxus across the room.

“It’s from Cana.” she said, after reading the note tucked to the simple, nondescript wrapping.

“Well, you look very excited to open it.” Laxus remarked, leaning back into his chair, legs propped up on the table.

“I just… didn’t quite expect to receive… anything.” She hesitated.

He scoffed. “It’s called a surprise, Mira. Do they not have that in the country?”

Mira pointedly ignored the jab, instead simply exchanging a look with Freed, handing him the note so she could unwrap the ‘surprise’.

Freed chose to read the note out loud. “To Mira - Thank you for your lovely company. With love, C.” He heard the soft gasp from the woman beside him and leaned over to look at the object in her hands. “Oh, how charming.”

“What is it?” Laxus asked, squinting at them. All he could see from his seat was the back of a small framed portrait in Mira’s hands.

“It’s a little… painting.” Freed said, smiling softly. “Of a cat. That signature- E. Tearm? Eve? Is it from that gallery date?”

Whatever the two men were about to say next was cut off when Mira determinedly stood up, clutching the frame to her chest as she took a deep, bracing breath.

“I have a letter to write.”

Without waiting for a response, she took the note from Freed’s hand, picked up her skirts and ran out the room.

They might have heard a delighted squeal after the door closed behind her.

Laxus and Freed looked at each other. Laxus snorted. “Must’ve been damn good painting.”

Freed shrugged, but he was grinning knowingly. “It was an adorable cat.”

.

.


 

.

.

Over afternoon tea, Cana told Mira the story of how she got her ship, why she decided that Cornelia would be a small tribute to her mother, a woman who had done her best and shone brightly but had been granted too little time on her hands. Mira listened about the ship’s crew - all women, most of them from the streets of Magnolia, secret children, bastard daughters and runaway brides. Each of them quick-witted, strong-willed, stubborn to the bone and light on her feet.

They both agreed that there was indeed some satisfaction in tearing apart that silly old seafaring superstition that it was bad luck to have women on board a ship. After all, Cornelia herself had never had a failed voyage, had always managed to transport its crew and its goods.

“It’s manned by survivors.” Cana told her, grinning proudly. “A shipwreck? Even the sea gods know we’ve been through worse.”

“I’m curious,” Mira started. “How would your crew take to someone not from Magnolia sailing with them?”

“Oh, we’ve had some foreign girls aboard. There was this one girl who escaped from a slave trader - nasty things, those - and we welcomed her, dropped her to her home’s shores.”

“No, I did not mean foreign. I just meant… someone not of their… upbringing-”

“They were fine with Lucy.”

“They were fine with Iris .”

“Ah. Yes.” Cana nodded, and finally understood. She reached across the table and took the other woman’s hands. “They’d love you.”

Mira did not bother denying that that had been her question all along. “Do you really think so?”

“Yes.” Cana nodded again. “And I think, just the fact that you’re insane enough to marry the Mad Duke… that would earn you a level of respect we don’t always give people from the Hill.”

Mira laughed. It had been easy to do so since she left her old home. She was surprised to realize it felt even easier in her new friend’s company.

.

.


 

.

.

In behalf of the Council of Lords and the Merchant Council, Lord Warrod Sequen threw a party to celebrate the end of a profitable trade season in Fiore. Duke Dreyar was in attendance with his lady wife, and while the Duke was under the mercy of some eager business partners, he allowed her to slip away with the other ladies in the party.

Mira did not stay in their crowd long, for Lady Alberona soon found her and snuck her out into Lord Sequen’s gardens for some fresh air.

“He grows the healthiest vegetable garden this side of the Hill, you know.” Cana explained, when Mira voiced out her curiosity about the place looking more like a crop farm than an ornamental flower garden. “Are you alright? You didn’t seem to be enjoying the company of those other ladies.”

“They kept complaining about their husbands.” Mira said with a small frown. “I do understand that they are upset about not getting enough time and attention... but I am not upset… and as much as I want to comfort them, I don’t think I can handle that much unhappiness in such a lively gathering. And they’re… I simply do not know them well enough… to… bother… Oh, I sound horrible and unsympathetic, do I?”

Cana laughed. “No, not at all! Did they just pull you in with them and started talking?”

A sigh. “Yes…”

“I hate it when they do that.” Cana sighed.

“They were looking at me strangely. Like… like they were expecting me to complain about my husband too.” This time, she huffed. “I have no complaints! Laxus is wonderful!”

Cana peered closely. “Is he?”

“Well, he is rude… and grumpy… and eats cookies all day… and has a terrible sense of humor.” Mira said, hesitant but intent. “But he makes me happy.”

“Does he, now?”

“He does. And he’s-” she stopped abruptly, risking a glance to her companion. “He is very supportive.”

Cana only hummed in thought.

“I would have joined Lucy, but she was busy talking about business. And Juvia is not here.” Mira sighed again. “Thank you for getting me out of that.”

“Anytime.” Cana waved her off. “These stupid things get stuffy, real fast.”

They were quite for a moment, listening to the inaudible chatter from inside the mansion while enjoying the cool evening breeze of the garden.

“Cana?”

“Hm?”

“Tell me a story?”

“What story?”

“Any story.” Mira answered, sending her companion a smile. “Yours are always the best ones.”

Cana was looking at her with an expression she couldn’t quite read. It was curious, flattered, and somehow expectant, as if she was waiting for Mira to say more.

When Mira stayed quiet, Cana finally spoke. “Alright, but one question first.”

“Yes?”

“Will I ever hear stories from you ?”

Mira ducked her head and this time her smile turned sad.

Cana resisted the urge to kiss it away. She had to hear this answer, first.

“I don’t like my stories all that much.” Mira finally answered. “Is that alright?”

Cana nodded, sliding her hand across the space between them, linking their pinky fingers together. “It’s alright.” She let out a breath, staring up at the night sky before speaking again. “So, once, we managed to acquire an item that the owner insisted was cursed.”

Mira’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “Cursed?”

“By a witch, we were told.” Cana grinned, and she told her story until Laxus found them and demanded they come inside at once and join him in suffering.

.

.


 

.

.

“From the way you talk about it, it sounds so much like-... No. No, that would be completely different.”

Freed sent a rueful smile at his companion as he slid a piece across the game board. “There’s no harm in saying it, Duchess. The letters, the calls, the little presents every so often. It does sound like a courtship.”

Lucy shook her head in disbelief, but she was smiling as well. “Imagine that, Lady Cana Alberona, finally properly courting someone.” She reached over to move her own piece, in turn capturing one of her opponent’s. “I never would have imagined it, not even when she was spending her time with me.”

“How do you feel about all this, by the way?” Freed asked, considering the board. Checkers had always been a pastime he enjoyed most in Duchess Heartfilia’s company.

Lucy hummed as she waited for him to make his move. “I feel hurt, mostly.”

Freed raised his head to look at her in concern. Had he misread Lucy, even after all these years? Had he somehow overstepped-

“She didn’t tell me who it was!” Lucy was wearing a disappointed pout. “I asked her, you see. ‘Cana, is there someone? Do I know her?’ And she only gave me this cryptic answer!” She rolled her eyes, exasperated. “Mira is my friend , we’ve had several nice afternoons together drinking chocolate and getting to know each other! I could have helped you woo her, Lady Alberona, thank you very much! I- What- Why are you- Are you laughing? Freed!

.

.


 

.

.

“I’d ask if you’re alright, but it’s undeniable that you’re not.”

Duchess Dreyar froze at the sound of her husband’s deep voice from the doorway of her room. She tried to wipe her teary eyes with her sleeve, but it was no use. She was a mess, still sobbing, by the time Laxus had crossed the room and sat in the bed with her.

“Next time, we won’t go, even if they beg.” he said, voice calm and steady. He had not tried to touch her yet, probably from his experience with Freed, who sometimes preferred to be left alone to gather himself. But Mira was different - she needed to be touched, even when she was trying her best to stay composed.

She was failing, badly, yet she refused to reach out to him. “N-No. No, we can’t- We can’t just say ‘no’, we should- At- At least for Elfman? I love him-”

“-and he’d understand if you never want to go to your stupid family dinner ever again.” he finished for her. “He should know why. He was there when your parents treated you like some old furniture they should sell off because it clashed with the house’s new wallpaper.”

The dinner that night started going well, really. Laxus was not in a mood, there was still the trade season deals left as a cordial conversation topic between the men in the table, and for the most part, Mira simply enjoyed seeing her husband get along with her brother, for once. Elfman was shy and quiet, but his time being more active handling their estates was giving him more composure lately.

It was going well, until it wasn’t. Until Mira’s parents thanked the Duke again for taking Mira in his care, until her mother had apologized for any shortcomings her daughter had. It sounded like a merchant apologizing to the client for knowingly selling them a faulty product. Mira started insisting that they were doing well, but her parents began talking over her and giving her advice on how to make a marriage work- as if they didn’t believe that her marriage was working.

Mira, for all that she had regained her confidence these past few months, had turned meek and tried not to break down as she just nodded her assent to them pointing out all her flaws and telling her how to correct them.

Laxus had stayed curt and quiet, not wanting to fight her battle for her because he knew that she was trying her best.

Only, sometimes it was still too much. In the end, it was Elfman who tried to bring up another topic, letting his sister know that it he was on her side, still, and giving Laxus the opening to tell their hosts that they should be going.

Mira had held up admirably during the carriage ride home, managed a shaky ‘Good night, darling.’ to her husband, and then disappeared into her room.

Laxus stopped by his room to dress down. Freed was already asleep on his bed, and he only dropped a short kiss on the man’s cheek before finding Mira in her room, crying as quietly as she could.

“I wonder, do they really think I am that… pathetic ?” Mira asked, and this time, when Laxus opened his arms to her, she gave up trying to save face, launching herself at the man and letting him hold her tight. “Laxus, I’m not, right?”

“You’re not.” he said, rubbing her back. “You’re doing fine. You’re not what they see  you as. Your brother can see that. I can see that. Everyone in this house can see that.”

She cried against his chest for a while. She hated being needy, hated relying on him like this, but when he only kept quiet and rubbed soothing circles on her back, she was able to muster up some kindness for herself.

It was alright. It was okay to cry, sometimes.

“I just…” she started in a whisper, “I just hate that I felt so proud of myself for starting over - I even promised Freed- I promised him this will be a fresh start- but the moment I go back, it’s like- It’s like nothing happened, I felt so small-”

“No. No, you can’t say that.” he said. “I won’t allow you. You’ve done well. You’ve started over and you’ve changed. Sometimes there will be bad turns, like this time, but this is temporary. Do you understand? This will pass-”

“What if it doesn’t?” she sniffed, wiping at her eyes again

She really cried so silently, Laxus thought.

“What if I was fooling myself? I can pretend to be a wonderful lady wife but I will just turn back to this broken, failure of a daughter everytime- I hadn’t changed at all! I keep talking about having moved on, that I’m free, but I can’t even- I can’t even tell Cana about myself , I don’t know how to tell anyone -”

“You’ve told Freed.”

She stopped.

She had told Freed. He hadn’t said anything about telling Laxus, she simply assumed that he did, but now she wasn’t so sure. Did he keep her truth to himself, only? He had helped Mira breathe easy for the first time in years, and he did not share the secret to anyone, even his lover, his master?

“Did he hate you afterwards?”

“...No. But-”

“He is an excellent judge of character, he has an unbreakable moral code, this stupidly stubborn sense of justice. Whatever you told him about yourself… if he still accepted you after that, then you’re not as pathetic as you think you are. If you won’t take my word for this, at least take his.”

She fell silent, at a loss of how to respond to that. Laxus waited for her sobbing to subside before asking her if she needed him to stay.

She gave a weak nod, and he didn’t ask again.

.

.

.

Mira woke up in the morning to stinging eyes and an inaudible conversation between two familiar voices.

“-plan of yours is mad , Laxus. You’re a terror to our whole staff, do you know that?”

“I do. I’m proud of it. What about this, we double their pay for the night.”

“It’s your money.”

“What do I know? You’re the one who manages it-”

“You're incorrigible- Oh, good morning, My Lady.”

She sat up and blinked blearily as she saw Laxus and Freed sitting in the middle and the foot of her bed, respectively. Both were holding cups, and she recognized the rich aroma of expensive chocolate.

“Good morning.” she greeted back weakly, and smiled gratefully when Freed handed her his own cup. She accepted it, manners and decorum temporarily forgotten. “What is it that you’re arguing about, this early in the morning?”

“Laxus wants to throw a party in Magnolia House.” Freed said, crossing his arms across his chest. “Ask him when.”

“Tonight?” Mira guessed, trying for a joke.

Laxus grinned. “Exactly. Tonight.”

Mira almost choked on her drink. “W-What? Laxus, that’s- The invites-... the… the preparations!”

“Will get done in time if you start working on it now.” Laxus said with a shrug. “And we don’t send out invites for Magnolia House. Everyone just knows when they know and shows up when they show up.”

Mira looked at him disbelievingly. “Pardon me, are you saying I will work on this?”

Laxus nodded. “Yes. Pick a theme, make a menu, it’s all yours. Let Freed know what you need, he’ll make it happen.”

Mira only gaped at the man, looked at Freed, and received a resigned shrug.

Laxus stood up and gave her a pat on the shoulder. “I’m counting on you, wife.”

“You are the worst husband.” she declared, watching him leave the room.

Freed followed the man out, but not before turning to Mira and saying, “That’s true, and you should say it. As often as you can.”

.

.


 

.

.

The party goes through, miraculously. There were complaints from the staff, but they quickly acquiesced to Mira’s instructions. Some even said they preferred her running things -

“Everything is much more well-thought-out, milady!”

Apparently, the Duke was a menace in the party-planning department. It turned out that this was not even close to some of the Duke’s madder shenanigans. She should have figured, really.

There were fewer guests than usual, but the house was still crowded by the time the party was in full swing. There were musicians singing songs that would have gotten them kicked out in a Hill event, and the mostly drunk guests were having the time of their lives.

As proud as she was of her planning skills, she was very tired .

Perhaps that was why she didn’t notice she had company until said company spoke up.

“Congratulations on your first party.”

Mira jumped at the sound, and looked to see none other than Lady Alberona perched on the sill of the window she had been leaning against. She had seen the woman among the guests earlier, exchanged a quick kiss and a greeting, but Mira had otherwise been occupied with playing hostess. She knew Laxus had wanted to give her a distraction, and it had worked - but it also got overwhelming later in the night. So as soon as she had deemed it acceptable, she had slipped away from the party and into the labyrinth halls of Magnolia House. The usual salon where she liked to spend her afternoons was empty, and she found herself standing against the window, alone with her thoughts.

That was, until, a certain woman decided to just sit on said windowsill out of thin air.

.

.

“C-Cana! You-... How did you- How did you even get there?”

Cana gave her a shrug. “I climbed.”

Mira was too tired to argue her point, and only smiled resignedly at her friend. She had not had time to properly look at Cana, and she only now noticed the woman’s attire. Cana wore a thin, comfortable blouse that Mira could only dream of allowing herself to wear one day, men’s trousers, sashes and a thick leather belt in her slender waist. Her brown hair was wild curls only partly tamed by the scarf tied around her head, and the golden hoops in her ears glinted brilliantly in the light.

“I envy how you can always look so natural in whatever you wear.” she mused.

The other woman hummed. “The trick is wearing things you like.” then she grinned, eyes appraising Mira this time. “You don’t look so bad yourself, Duchess Dreyar. It’s the first time I’ve seen you in the house colors.”

“Thank you. This was a gift.” Mira said, looking down at her own dress - black, with gold lace, trimmings and frills. Freed had told her she looked like a queen, but she didn’t feel like it. “I hope you enjoyed the party?”

“Oh, I always enjoy parties.” Cana replied. “Would have enjoyed it more in your company.”

“I am sorry, Laxus left me in charge and I guess I took the appointment very seriously.”

“You did. You made a wonderful hostess.” Cana said, and then nodded towards her. “Are you reading that?”

Mira remembered the book she held in her hands. The same book she had first started reading on her first visit to this very house. She raised the book and let out a short laugh. “I’ve been trying to. Whenever I try to read, something else demands my attention.” she flipped the book open, to the chapter she last remembered reading. “I haven’t even reached the middle.”

Cana propped a leg up and leaned forward to rest her chin on her knee. The position look like a precarious one, but Mira figured it was nothing for a sailor used to climbing up her ship’s masts. “Would you read it to me?”

“Read it to you? Out loud?”

“How else would you read it to me?” Cana chuckled. “Look, you haven’t even reached the part I stopped at. Maybe we can both make some progress, tonight.”

Mira looked at her in surprise, then down at the book. She raised her hand to finger the blue ribbon tucked neatly between the pages. “This… This is yours?”

“This-” Cana reached out, delicately taking the edge of the bookmark before pulling it slowly towards her. “-was my mother’s. A gift from my father. I always had it with me, until I didn’t.” A chuckled. “I’ve been looking for it for a while now, and now it turns out it’s been with you all along.”

Mira only stared as Cana looked wistfully at the item in her hands, then proceeded to wrap it around her wrist, tying it carefully.

“So,” She continued. “Duchess Dreyar, I’m afraid I’ve lost my place in the book - would you read it to me?”

.

.

.

.

Laxus was the one who found them again, sitting together on the windowsill as Mira read the book to Cana. He was not surprised, but he took a moment to study them first before he cleared his throat.

“Mira,” he called. “Freed’s been looking for you.”

“He is?” Mira asked, alert. “Oh, I forgot the time. I’ll go to him now!”

She handed the book to Cana, still open to their current page, with a promise to come back as soon as she can. She left in a hurry, leaving the other two alone.

The last she heard was Laxus asking their guest if she was staying the night, and Cana only laughing and saying, ‘If I’m lucky.’

Mira looked down to hide her blush even though there was no one else who could see her. No matter - she had to go to Freed- Oh. She didn’t know where he was.

She turned around to come back and ask Laxus, but paused as she caught the conversation again.

“-didn’t tell me about that. She was really upset? Is that why you threw this party all of a sudden?”

“Part of it. So that’s it? She’s never told you anything?”

“Not… really. She talks about Dreyar House, about you, and Freed and Lucy, but…-  No. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care, I can wait until she’s ready-”

“Tell me - when are you leaving again?”

There was a pause, and Mira felt her blood run cold. Cana was leaving?

“ I-... What do you care? Do-... Do you want me to go away? Are you against this, because-” Cana let out a disbelieving scoff.

“I’m not, and you know that.”  Laxus sounded frustrated now. “But you can’t say you’ll wait for her to - what? To open up? When you’re leaving in a few weeks, gone for Gods know how many months-”

There was a pause, and then a sigh.

You’re going to take her with you.”

It was not a question, nor an order. It was just a fact.

“Is that what this is about?” Cana asked, voice softer this time. “It’s not that you want me to go away. You simply don’t want her to leave. Why? Are you jealous, possessive? Duke Dreyar likes all his things in one place-”

“Stop that.”

“Don’t you want her to get away from this shitty city, Laxus? Don’t you want to see her happy, far away from people who only want to judge her-”

“You know I do.” he cut her off. “Cana, you’ve been my friend for a long time now and I know you. You’ve always worn your scars too proudly.”

“And what is wrong with that?”

“Nothing. I liked you for that.” There it was again, the heaving sigh. “But you have to learn that not everyone can do that. People heal differently. Sometimes leaving helps, sometimes it doesn’t.”

“You’re saying this time leaving won’t help.”

“I’m saying that you don’t make it the only option. She has a family here.”

“They don’t treat her right.”

“I’m not talking about her parents.”

“Oh.”

“I’m saying that when you ask her, and she answers, you ask again if she’s sure.”

They were quiet after that, and for a while, Mira thought that they were done talking, but then she heard Cana speak again.

“Alright.” she said, voice barely a whisper. “I can do that.”

Laxus’ voice was soft when he replied. “Thank you.”

“But if she chooses to come with me,” Cana started again. “Will you allow her?”

“I don’t own her, Cana.” he said. “I just protect her.”

Mira stepped back after that. She took a breath, turned and started walking away.

She would simply find Freed by herself. It might take time, but she needed just that, anyway.

.

.


 

.

.

“Iris? Light of my life, the brightest star in my skies!” Cana called, loudly, catching several looks from the other people milling around the hallway of the apartment. She knocked twice on the door. “Are you decent?”

“C-Cana?!” came a familiar shriek from inside the room. “What- W-Wait, we’re naked!”

“That’s decent enough for me, I’m coming in!” she replied, and sniggered when she heard muffled sounds of scrambling. She didn’t mean it though, not really. She waited until the scrambling subsided, and the door was opened slightly.

“Milady.” Loke greeted, breathless and shirtless. He gave her his dashing smile as he propped a hand to his waist. “To what do I owe the, uh, pleasure… of this unexpected call?”

Cana looked at him. “I need to cry on your… chiseled, distracting chest. Or Iris’s. You know I take equal opportunities.”

Loke only chuckled before moving aside to let her in. It wasn’t the first time Cana had been in his little box of an apartment, but it was the first time she saw Lucy in it, sitting on the bed in Loke’s shirt and her drawers. She hadn’t bothered to lace the shirt up. She looked gorgeous.

Cana whistled. “Hello, you.” She looked at Loke again, who only wore trousers that rode low on his hips. He winked. “...and you. This is almost unfair. I almost regret coming here.”

“Almost?” Lucy asked, leaning back against the rickety headboard.

“Almost. Like I could ever regret seeing your beautiful face.” Cana agreed, quickly slipping off her coat and boots, and then joining her friend on the partially-made bed. She kissed Lucy on the cheek before she laid down, eyes on the ceiling. “I’d ask you two how your day is going, but I can tell it’s been going well.”

"Thank you, anyway." Lucy said.

“So what is it I hear about Cana Alberona needing to cry about something?” Loke asked, sitting on Cana’s other side. “My chest is available for said crying, by the way, in case you have any doubts.”

“You’re a good man, Loke.” Cana said, reaching out a hand to pat his knee. "Just... let me gather my thoughts, yes?"

They sat quietly together for a couple of moments, Cana staring blankly at the wooden ceiling while the two sat beside her lost in their own thoughts.

Finally, Lucy asked, “Did you know I was here?”

“Oh, not really. I came to see Levy. I had a job for her, but she told me to give her a couple more minutes. Then she mentioned that you were here, and I thought I’d come visit if you weren’t busy.”

“Well, we’re not busy now.” Lucy said. “And I’m always happy to see you, Cana, but you look like you have something heavy weighing you down. Trouble with Duchess Dreyar?”

Cana raised an eyebrow at her friend. “How do you know about that?”

Lucy shrugged, and looked to be studying her nails. “Laxus tells me everything.”

Cana laughed, while Loke chuckled, thoroughly amused.

Lucy pouted. “So that’s too much, I suppose. Freed told me.”

Cana was still laughing, so Loke looked at his mistress fondly. “Getting warmer, my love.”

Lucy rolled her eyes, giving up. “Alright. I beat Bixlow in cards until he owed me and had to tell me something interesting. He was also a bit drunk at the time.”

“Ah.” Cana finally stopped laughing but her eyes were twinkling in amusement. “That, I can get by with. How does he even know that, though?”

“Nobody knows, really.” Loke said. “A trade secret, like he always says.”

Cana hummed. When Lucy stroked her hair, she scooted closer to she can press her face to the woman’s side. She heard Lucy laugh about being ticklish, so she moved further down to lay her head on her friend’s lap instead.

“So, was my intel correct?” Lucy asked, voice soft as she tucked brown hair behind Cana’s ear. Cana nodded quietly. “What seems to be the trouble? Last time I heard, Lady Alberona and Duchess Dreyar have been very, happily, affectionate with each other. That was from Freed, honest now.”

Cana closed her eyes and said, “I’m leaving in two weeks.”

“Oh.” Lucy whispered, her voice sad. “Another voyage? How long?”

“I have clients. I closed good deals last season.” Cana said. “It could take up to a year.”

Cana let out a sigh when she felt the bed dip behind her and felt Loke’s solid body at her back. She liked the feeling of his strong arms wrapped around her waist. He said nothing, only pressed his forehead to the nape of her neck.

She came to the right people, she decided.

So she found it in her to also tell them, “I asked Mira to come with me.”

Lucy didn’t stop stroking her hair while Loke asked, “Have you gotten an answer yet?”

With another heavy sigh, Cana said, “Not yet.”

They didn’t say anything anymore after that. They simply sat and laid there, three people curled around each other.

There was another knock on the door, and they recognized Levy’s voice calling out, “Is Cana in there? Are you decent or should I come back later?”

Cana snorted as she replied, “Two of us are half-naked, and the other hasn’t pounced on either of them yet, so we’re as decent as we can get! Come in!”

The door opened and Levy stepped inside, stopping to blink at the sight of the three cuddled closely together. “Huh. I thought there would be less clothes on in here by now, honestly. Is there a reason why all three of you look mildly distressed?”

“Lady Alberona’s leaving on another voyage soon.” Lucy answered.

“Is that right?” Levy asked, frowning as she settled on the foot of the bed. “We’ll miss you, Cana. Here’s what you came here for, by the way.” She handed over a rolled up piece of paper.

The three disentangled and sat up so Cana can take the paper and inspect its contents. “Excellent work as always, Levy. How much do I owe you?”

“Just the usual.” Levy said, smiling.

“Is that a crossing permit?” Lucy asked curiously, catching sight of Levy’s latest work.

“One of my girls had a problem with her papers. We couldn’t come to the City council about it, since she arrived here in a very… undesirable circumstance.” Cana said. "One that didn't guarantee her stay's... legality."

Lucy couldn’t help but cringe. “Was she brought in by a... trader?”

“The bitch called herself a ‘procuress’.” Cana answered. “My girl was called exotic, apparently, foreign blood on her, like the last one we managed to sneak aboard Cornelia .” Then she smiled gratefully at Levy. “Luckily, the issue with the papers was easily solved by The Hand.”

“Best forger in Magnolia.” Loke added, as if on cue.

Levy cleared her throat. “Beg pardon, swordsman, I am nothing but a humble landlady, and sometimes a schoolteacher.”

“With very interesting side projects.” Loke said with a grin.

“It’s a hobby. Just… a very profitable one.” Levy insisted. “I wish you and your girls the best of luck, Cana. And I mean it, we’ll miss you.”

Cana groaned, pouting. She sniffed. “I’ll miss you too!” She opened up her arms and Levy only giggled before giving in and letting the other woman pull her close. “You smell like ink! I’ll miss this!”

Levy laughed, and squealed when Cana leaned sidewards to barrel both of them against Loke, who only caught them in his arms, laughing as well. Pretty soon, Lucy had joined their laughing ball of tangled limbs.

Cana came to the right people, indeed.

She might know real freedom in the sea, but she also had a family here in Fiore, in Magnolia.

Loke only narrowly avoided a broken noise when she raised her head to sniff at something in the air. “Do you smell that?”

It was Levy who answered. Only one word, a name: “Droy.”

“Mmm, I could use some of those pastries.” Lucy sighed.

“We should be getting in line, then.” Loke said. “Ladies?”

Without another word, the four of them scrambled off each other, and hurried to catch a nice afternoon snack.

.

.


 

.

.

When Mira came to him one night and asked, “If I should leave, on my own, for a while, would you miss me?” Laxus remembered a different night.

She asked him a different question then, but he had the same reply:

“Are you asking because you want to know the answer, or you just want to hear it?”

She seemed to remember, as well, because her answer was the same, too. “I just want to hear it.”

He heaved a sigh as he looked at her. “Yes.” he said. “Are you going to miss me ?”

“Very much.” Mira smiled, and it was a smile that was both sad and loving. This time, it was her who pressed a kiss to the top of his head before wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “But I don’t think we have to worry about that for now.”

.

.


 

.

.

In the early morning of the Cornelia’s departure, Duchess Dreyar was in the docks beside her house swordsman, Freed Justine. They stood in silence beside each other, watching the preparations happening aboard. Crew shouting instructions, running back and forth, doing last-minute checks on their ship and cargo. All of them were women, all shapes, sizes and colors, each of them so different with their crew mates, but all laughing and talking joyfully as they did their jobs. Lady Alberona mingled among them, looking less like a leader and more like a friend.

“When I decided to come see them off, I thought that when I see all this, I’d feel terrible that I have chosen to stay.” Mira said softly, so that only her companion could hear.

“And now?” Freed prompted, voice just as soft.

“Now, I don’t feel any of that.” she said, a small smile on her face. “I think, I’d love to be among them. I think it would be quite an adventure. I think that’s something I want for myself. Not now, but one day. Now, I just want to wish them all good winds, and a safe, successful voyage.”

“I think,” Freed spoke, returning her smile. “That those are good thoughts to have. You deserve that adventure, and it will happen.”

“One day.” she whispered.

He nodded. “One day.”

Freed took a step back when they saw Cana running towards them. He smiled when the two embraced as soon as they met, Mira laughing when the other woman lifted her off her feet and twirled her around.

“You look excited.” Mira said, eyes twinkling.

Cana laughed. “I am! We’re going to some amazing places.”

Mira did not waste any more time, did not spare any doubt - she leaned forward and kissed Cana on the lips. Cana made a noise of surprise before melting against the other woman, holding her close and kissing her with as much passion and affection.

“I’m sorry we weren’t able to finish the book.” Mira said when they parted for breath.

Cana shook his head. “It’s fine. I already know the ending. Gray told me because apparently, Juvia made him read it.” She smiled as she cradled Mira’s cheek. “I only asked you to read with me because I love hearing your voice.”

Mira looked down, a light blush on her cheeks. “If you ask, I will read to you again, when you come back.”

“Very well, then.” Cana raised her hand and pulled up her sleeve to untie a familiar blue ribbon from her wrist. She took Mira’s hand, laid it on the woman’s palm and closed her fingers over it. “Be sure to mark where we stopped, so we know to pick up exactly where we left off.”

“Of course.” Mira nodded, clutching the ribbon tight to her chest. “Be safe?”

“For you.” Cana said, leaning forward to give her another kiss.

She wiped the tear threatening to fall from Mira’s eye, then pulled away to also give Freed a hug. Freed returned the gesture with a smile of his own.

“You and your girls don’t wreak too much havoc.” he said against the woman’s hair.

“Can’t promise anything.” Cana hugged him tighter. “I’ll miss you and your grumpy boyfriend. Don’t let him break the city without me.”

She bid them goodbye, taking off in a jog. She turned back to them several meters away to wave. “Let me know whenever you want to sail away! I have a good reputation of introducing duchesses to pirates!”

Mira laughed as she and Freed waved back.

As they watched the ship sail away, Freed brought a hand to his mistress’s shoulder, and she snuggled close to his side, arms wrapping around his torso. She sighed. “There she goes…”

“And here you stay.” Freed continued, peering down to see her staring at the ribbon in her hand. "Are you really fine with this?"

Mira nodded, then looked up to meet his eyes. “I am Duchess Dreyar. My place is by my husband’s side.”

“You know he doesn’t expect that from you.”

“I know. Only… right now, I feel like my place is at Dreyar House with you and Laxus. I am not… not ready to leave his protection yet.” She paused, musing. “Do you mind?”

“I don’t.” he said. “Neither does he.”

“Besides,” she said, her lips curling into an excited smile. “I’ve already ordered the fabric for the new curtains.”

He chuckled, indulgent, as they began walking away from the docks and towards where they had left their carriage. “Have you, now?”

“Yes! And a new wallpaper for the sitting room in the west wing. Laxus said meetings will be held in the house soon - Oh, I can’t wait for everyone to see how marvelous the house looks by then!”

“Oh, Duchess. What would we do without you?”

“I don’t know.” she shrugged. “Stress out the staff, most probably.”

Freed shook his head, grinning sheepishly. “I couldn’t argue with that if I tried.”

.

.