Raindrops fell heavy on the rooftops of Crocus. It was almost deafening, loud in the cold quiet of the dark night. Only a few streetlights remained lit, and the people inside their various homes and establishments only relied on the blazing hearths, thick furs and snug blankets to keep themselves warm. Despite the roar of the rain, the City held an air of stillness and peace.
Alvarez Compound, however, hadn’t quite settled into the same atmosphere as the rest of the City. They had experienced heavy rains in Alvarez, of course, but those were different. Rain in Alvarez was an expected thing, carefully forecasted, and usually much quieter.
Most of the Ambassador's staff weren't accustomed to how loud the rain could get against streets of high concrete buildings in Crocus. As such, there was a restless energy about Ambassador House, late into the night. Most of the servants had gathered into groups engaged in hushed chatter and traditional games. Some were nursing warm drinks, a few had even acquired cold but good leftovers from the night's dinner. A number of higher ranking officials either joined them, found a spot to lounge and idle somewhere in the large manor, or chose to stay up in the solitude of their rooms.
General Redfox of the Iron Dragon’s Camp, sworn protector to the Alvarez Empire’s throne and his Prince, was one of the few exceptions to this. In his quarters, he slept, deep but distracted - dreaming.
He dreamt of rain. He dreamt of cold. He knew it was a dream. He knew rain very well, once, and this was a different rain. It was not the harsh fall of raindrops in city roofs. Those sounded different, he knew. This one was another rain - more quiet, more… intimate.
This rain fell against leaves, down the trees, in a familiar forest, beneath the mountains and the cliffs. There was the sound of running water - the river, a familiar brook. His dream was a haze of colors, only guided by the sound of the raindrops and his own steps against the wet ground.
How long had it been since his footfalls sounded like this?
Then there was the rustling of leaves, and a soft hand in his. He found himself recognizing the memory. The colors settled. The fog slowly cleared. He heard a small voice humming, saw flushed cheeks and a shy smile. His other hand found a tiny waist as he helped the girl hop down from the fallen log.
“Thank you.” she said, in the manner people did in dreams. Her voice was a half-forgotten memory, sounding right and wrong at the same time. It had the accent, but it was too soft, too tinny. Her hand was too small in his, though, so perhaps she was young in this dream.
He looked up to see her face - he'd probably forgotten what she looked like - all he knew was that she had her mother's ocean blue hair and her father's dark gray eyes-
Brown stared back at him.
He was not in the forest. The rain had stopped. The room he was in was dark but warm.
This face was also a memory. This girl was another girl. Blue hair, almost the same shade but not quite, and brown eyes the same color of the wooden walls and tables and chairs surrounding them.
“Here you go.” this one said. Her voice sounded wrong too, but he couldn't tell how.
He only knew her for a very short while.
She was offering him something - a small, neat stack of papers, and in the way people did in dreams of memories, he saw his hand take them.
“Safe travels.” she said, tucking ink-stained hands behind her back.
He was looking at her, and even though he could make out the individual details - the curl of her chapped lips, the little ink smudge on her cheek, the shape of her wide eyes and the shadows under them - he couldn't seem to paint a full picture of her face.
“Thank you.” he was the one to say this time.
“I'm not sure if I am doing this right, but…” she took a deep breath, and the next words she spoke haltingly. “May the... wind... clear your skies, and if the skies... give you rain...? Yes. If the skies give you rain, may the rains bless your fate.” she paused for a beat, before asking, “Did I get that right?”
He heard himself take a deep breath. When he spoke, his voice sounded muffled. “How did you know that?”
“My great-grandfather, he had family from Rain Country. His son - well, my grandfather, he liked to tell me poems and songs from there. I remembered that one prayer. And I know this may not mean much, coming from a stranger, but I do feel sorry for what happened to... your home.”
Gajeel felt himself nod, and then everything was dark for a split second before he bolted upright, his eyes flying open as the deafening late night rain in the City screamed in his ears.
He panted, a hand to his chest. As he caught his breath, he was overcome with a scent of something different, something familiar. A scent that… shouldn’t be present, had not been present in his quarters for a long, long time.
“What the fuck.”
With that, Gajeel threw his covers aside, grabbed his robe and stomped out of his quarters.
A sharp turn in a hallway and he almost ran over Wendy.
The girl squealed and would have fallen over if he hadn't been fast enough to steady her and the tray of hot drinks she was carrying.
“Sorry, kid. Was distracted.” he said, watching Wendy sigh in relief. He raised an eyebrow at her tray. “Those are a lot of cups.”
“These are for the guards outside, they must be cold out there in the rain.” she answered softly. “A lot of us couldn't sleep so we made drinks to warm up. There are still some in the kitchens, if you want.”
He nodded, and Wendy sent him one of her bright smiles before going on her way. He kept walking as well, towards the general direction of the kitchens but keeping a pace of one wandering aimlessly.
He didn’t reach the kitchens. Instead, he caught a glimpse of color. He stopped by one of the empty rooms, spotting the vibrant red of Erza’s hair as it stood out against the dark and cold hues of the house. She sat in a window seat in her loose sleeping robes, a blanket draped over her shoulders, a warm drink in her hands, looking out and watching the heavy raindrops fall.
Gajeel approached quietly and leaned against the window frame beside her. She looked up at him, not a bit surprised. “Hey.” she greeted, voice raised to be heard.
His reply was a grunt.
“It never rained this loudly in Vistarion.”
“Never rained this loudly anywhere.” he said. “This city’s all concrete and bricks and tiled roofs. As if that wasn’t loud enough, the buildings are crowded together and the alleyways and walls make the noise bounce off of each other.”
Ezra nodded, taking that in. “That makes sense.” She looked him up and then down before raising her cup towards him, offering to share.
He accepted the drink easily and took a sip. Spiced chocolate. The very best, too. He had always liked chocolate, from the very rare he would be given as a child, to the ones he could find anywhere when he set foot on Alvarez. It took him a while, however, to get used to the spices. But once he did, there was no going back. He felt a bit spoiled, in a way. Being a General and acquainted with a lot of nobility, it afforded him access to really good chocolate. It was one of the very few luxuries he allowed himself.
He let the warmth trickle down his throat, savoring the taste, then gave the drink back to Erza. She took a sip as well before speaking.
“Did you ever get used to it?” she asked, looking out again. “This… deafening rain?”
“Didn’t get a chance to.” he answered with a shrug. “Didn’t stay here much, and almost never in the rainy seasons. I’m used to rain, from… the old country. Rain on forests, on mountains. It was still loud, but the trees and soil muted the sound. It’s less - I don’t know - disruptive. I guess.”
Erza only hummed in consideration, taking another sip before passing the cup to him again.
He took it, staring down at its contents, swirling them around. “Hey, uh. I have a question. About… well. Magic.”
At that, Erza raised an eyebrow, lips quirked up in bemusement. “And you ask the only person in the house who is not a mage?”
He rolled his eyes, passing the cup back. “I’m asking the only person in the house who’s here.”
She chuckled, shaking her head before lounging back against the pillows in the window seat. “Well. I am in no way a master, but I shall try my best to answer.”
“So. Uh. Magic is tied to the Land, right? I was able to do magic fine in Alvarez, after I’ve… worked… established a connection with the Land... Even though it didn’t know my blood. Lady Zera once told me the Land didn’t need to know my blood, it knew the blood I spilled - enemy blood, and it judged me by that.”
“I never knew that.” Erza mused. “But it does make sense. The Land always knows, as they say. Even us who do not practice magic believe superstitions, because they usually bear meaning, and it was a way to respect the Land as our guide.”
“Back in Vistarion,” he said. “Even though you don’t practice it, you could still feel the Land’s magic, right?”
She nodded. “Remember our first days sailing? I felt sick. You were worse, and Wendy couldn’t even stand. Natsu, Rogue and Sting said they felt as much, too. So… yes, I suppose. I know the Land’s magic, not intimately, but I do know it like I know the winds of Belserion and the sands of Vistarion. It’s just… familiar, in that way. I am not sure about you or the others, but it took me at least two weeks to get used to the… absence.”
He considered that. “When we docked here… did you feel different? About the absence?”
This time, she looked up at him, eyes narrowed, not in suspicion, but in thought. “I don’t believe I did.” she answered, slow and considering. “There’s the feeling of stepping into foreign shores, sure. But… not anything magic. You heard Natsu and the others complaining. This land’s magic is dead. You said it yourself, way back. Empress Mavis and Lady Anna too.”
“Yeah....” He couldn’t help but sound distracted, because he was. “Yeah, I… I did.”
“Gajeel?” she called, gentle. “Do you… feel something off? Somehow?”
‘Yes. ’ he should say. ‘Yes, I do. Yes, I had a dream too vivid, and I woke up breathing in the smell of pine and rainforest, and the pull of something else. Yes, it might sound insane but I swear I felt magic - perhaps I’ve always felt it, and simply didn’t know what to call it. Yes, this land had felt dead in my memories, but now that I know what living magic feels like, I can faintly feel this land breathe slow and unsteady like some shivering exhale-”
It had unsettled him more than he cared to admit.
Gajeel knew how dreams were, how dreaming about one’s past was like - and then he knew dreams from magic, he had grown familiar with them, back in Vistarion. There had been a time when nightmares threatened to overcome him, especially after the first war he fought for the Empire, under Metallicana’s wing. The very man suspended him from duties and ordered him to spend some time in the temples, to seek the priestess’ advice and perhaps achieve some peace of mind. There was magic for dreams, for expelling darkness, and Zera had helped him with it.
That dream he just had - it felt too much like the dreams he had after a meeting with the priestess, only this time it was… weaker, less direct, but somehow more familiar and intimate.
“The Land knows who it's children are.” Zera had told him, once.
Another voice, nearer this time, snapped him out of his thoughts.
“Gajeel.” called Erza, voice grounding in its firmness.
He let out a huff of breath and finally shook his head, glancing at his companion before gesturing for the mug of chocolate again. “Y-Yeah.” he managed, taking a quick sip when Erza handed him the beverage. “It’s just. It’s just me. Don’t worry your pretty head ‘bout it, probably just… still getting used to being back here in this shit country. It’s… a lot’s different, but like, nothing has changed, either. It’s fucking with my head. That’s all.”
It wasn’t a lie, and if Erza thought that he wasn’t telling her everything, she only let it slide.
Outside, the rain continued pouring. After a few moments, Wendy came to join them, curling up warmly with Erza on the window seat. They were quiet as Ambassador House drowned in the deafening noise.
Habit did not let Gajeel sleep in the next morning. He’d always been an early riser - from his childhood as a retainer, later a guard, and then eventually a soldier. He did wake up groggy and light-headed, due to the fewer hours of sleep he got. Still, he got up and went through his usual routine - he put on some light robes, stretched and practiced a few sword drills to meditate, took a bath, and then headed for breakfast.
Their people were trudging through the morning more than usual, but they were dutifully milling about the hallways attending to their duties. He asked a passing servant about Natsu and was told that the Ambassador was in the dining room, having breakfast with Sting and Wendy.
Gajeel was not one for elaborate pleasantries. He raised a hand to knock on the doorway before stepping into Natsu’s private dining chambers, but paused when he heard voices - soft, hushed - unlike the usual lively conversations the Prince and his entourage had during the mornings.
“I can’t believe I missed it.” It was Sting, sounding disgruntled. “Sorry. I’ll find a way around it. I swear, Natsu.”
Natsu didn’t sound too bothered, but it was still more hushed than his usual. “It’s fine, Sting. I know you’re handling a lot, and it’s an honest mistake. Just... next time-”
“-consider Gajeel. I know, I know - won’t happen again. I’ll find someone else today.”
Gajeel furrowed his brows. They were talking about him. What could this problem be, concerning him?
“What about Erza?” this one was soft, concerned - Wendy. “I’ll be fine going to the tea party on my own if you choose to take her with you today. Or, since she’ll probably fare better than I would in that event, you can take me instead. I can... guard.”
Sting chuckled. “I’m sorry, Wendy. I don’t doubt your abilities, but Lady Akatsuki sent invitations to both you and Erza. It might be rude if only one of you turned up.” He sighed. “I got this. I’ll find someone to fill in for Gajeel.”
Gajeel did not like the sound of that. He stepped into the room, knocking twice to announce his presence. “I don’t remember asking to take the day off. Why d’you need to have someone fill in for me?”
All three turned to him, slightly startled. It was only them in the room. Erza was not present, but then her morning drills always ran later than most. Rogue was not there either, but they all knew him to follow his own schedule most of the time.
“G-Gajeel.” Sting blinked, cringing slightly as it dawned on him how they had reacted to the new presence. This land made them… vulnerable. Jumpy. Had they been in Alvarez, he could have sensed someone coming. Only Shadows were known to be able to sneak up on high-level mages. “Uh... Good morning to you.”
“Yeah.” Gajeel grunted, plopping unceremoniously in one of the plush seats and beginning to pile up food on his plate. “So what's this about finding a replacement for me?”
Sting opened his mouth to answer, but Natsu raised his hand to call for silence.
“I have a meeting today. Erza is going with Wendy to a tea party. Sting has errands elsewhere. Rogue is... doing Rogue things. So Sting scheduled for you to be the one to come with me.” Natsu sighed as he turned to Sting. “Do I really need a guard? You know I can take care of myself.”
“Not the point. It’s simply how they do things here.” Sting answered, firm. “You’re a master, you have a guard. Besides, we promised the Emperor you’ll always have a protector with you.”
Natsu frowned. “Zeref is overprotective.”
“No, the Emperor is simply cautious.” Sting said, and to make sure he won the argument, he continued, “And he only instructed us after the Empress's advice.”
“You're already so lucky we let you run around Magnolia on your own with your masquerading Miss Stella.” Gajeel added, then he tilted his chin at Sting to address him. “What’s the problem here? Trailing after this idiot prince is my job. I’m here. Don’t have anywhere else to be. Why do you have to get someone else?”
Sting only awkwardly looked down at his food.
Natsu took over, looking up and into his friend's eyes. “The meeting is to be held at Fullbuster House.”
“We thought you might prefer not to go.”
“Huh.” Gajeel breathed, nodding as he took that in.
“We would have told you. Sting just wants to be certain we can get someone to fill in, if you'd prefer to pass on this one.” Natsu continued. “We’ll go with whatever's more comfortable for you. It's fine. It's just one meeting.”
They knew him well, as they kept quiet while he mulled over it. Waiting for his decision.
It should be simple, really. They never held it against him, all the times he stepped back if the meeting involved the Fullbusters. It was easy to “trade shifts” with Erza. Their presence as protectors was mostly for show, anyway. Everyone knew Natsu was a fighter himself, and no one in Fiore dared threaten the Ambassador in the first place.
He remembered the night before - the rain, the dream, waking up with the lingering scent of the forest in his quarters and a rush of something in his veins.
He was not born into it, but he knew magic when he felt it. Magic might be new to him, but Fiore wasn’t - he was born into this Land, and he knew a call when he heard it.
Maybe he could still run from this. Turn his back. Ignore the call.
But what good would that do?