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Song of the Rain

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Oh.

“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?

“I’ll go.”

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Chapter Text

Fullbuster Mansion, living up to Lord Fullbuster's reputation as the fourth richest man in Fiore, was a grand estate. It was known famously by the people as the “Winter Mansion”, called so because, according to them, the house appeared to be in a seemingly perpetual winter season.

As the Ambassador's carriage rode past the estate's silver gates, Gajeel finally understood how so. The house's walls were a pristine white, with silver accents. It stood in the center of a sprawling garden with plenty of trees and bushes, and the evergreen leaves were covered with an abundance of white flowers, the petals of which formed their own haphazard layer in the grass. More white flowers bloomed in the climbing plants and vines that were draped over the house and the bungalows surrounding it. The statues were white marble.

From afar, the whole estate looked like it was covered in a layer of snow.

Winter House, indeed.

Gajeel was neither a florist nor a botanist, but he didn't need to be to recognize the white blossoms that grew everywhere - natively - in Amefurashi, and could only have grown in the City's ever-changing climate through the careful cultivation of meticulous hands.

"Great." he grumbled. "This is a nightmare so far."

From his seat across the carriage, Natsu blinked. When he spoke, his tone was a rare careful one. "Is... Is it that bad?"

"The flowers." Gajeel said, glare sharp, directed at the white blooms. "They're from ho-... the homeland. They're from Rain Country."

"The white ones?" Natsu asked, looking curiously out at the garden. "They're real pretty."

"They're forest wildflowers. They grow best in the cold." Gajeel provided, frowning. "How the hell did they get these to grow out here?"

Natsu shrugged. "Must be a damn good gardener. Miss Anna said the Lady of the House usually made household decisions. Maybe Lady Fullbuster wanted to have a reminder of home?"

It was a struggle to take his eyes off the flowers, but Gajeel managed to look away with a disgruntled sound. He didn't think he'd be this bothered just by seeing goddamn flowers. What the hell. Maybe he simply didn't expect to be reminded too much of his homeland like this when he signed up to escort Natsu for the day.

The carriage stopped by the house's main doors. Gajeel was the first to step out, but he kept one step behind Natsu as they walked. It was easy to ignore the curious looks of the attendants along the way - between his sword, his piercings, and the tattoos that peeked out from his sleeves when he wore them short, he was used to the stares.

A man greeted them as they stepped inside the house. He somehow still looked gruff despite his perfect suit, but his grin was friendly and welcoming. "Ambassador! Welcome back, honored to have you today!"

He was rowdy and a bit casual compared to most attendants they have encountered...

Gajeel observed as Natsu grinned back at the man. "The honor is ours, Lord Gildarts."

It was far from the prince's easy grins with the elder servants from Vistarion, but Gajeel could tell that his liege was genuinely pleased to see this Lord Gildarts. It was hard not to be, the man gave off the impression of a friendly, easy-going fellow who’d crack a joke any minute.

He gave the Ambassador an obliging nod before he blinked at Gajeel. "Oh, I see you're with a different company today."

"Erza got invited to a tea party. This is Gajeel, he's my guard for the day." Natsu answered.

"Good to meet you, Master Gajeel. I am Gildarts Clive, head of House Clive, but that's not the important part - I am the steward of Fullbuster House." Lord Clive said, nodding at the other man. "If you need anything at all during your stay here, I'm your man."

Gajeel only nodded politely back. Gildarts didn't seem to mind his silence.

"Yeah, he's not a talker." Natsu said, shrugging. He looked around. "I was not informed about who else would be coming to this... investment meeting? Is what Sting told me?"

"Ah, yes. It's one of those. Very informal, really. Only preliminary talks about various ventures. Duke Dreyar is already upstairs, with... let's see... Young Lord Fernandez, and a representative from the City Council..."

Natsu whistled, then nodded. "I see. Am I the last one?"

"Well, there's the Duchess-"

"-who is fashionably late!" a familiar voice declared, and the men turned towards the ruffle of expensive frills that is Duchess Heartfilia. She was a visual contrast against the house’s muted white, blue and silver walls and decor with her vibrant pink gown. “Hello, Ambassador, Gildarts.” she said, performing one of her perfectly polished curtsies. “Oh, and General! What a nice surprise.”

“Duchess! You look like spring.” Gildarts said, earning a giggle and a brilliant smile.

This time, Gajeel bothered to bow slightly, only because Natsu did so too. The Ambassador grinned as he offered the lady his arm. “Lovely as always, Duchess. I assumed you’d be at Lady Akatsuki’s tea party.”

“Unfortunately, I had to decline. Jenny understands. I have no choice but to be a business lady, even though it’s the most boring thing.” the Duchess answered as she took the Ambassador’s arm, looking genuinely forlorn, instantly causing both Gildarts and Natsu - along with majority of the surrounding servants - to immediately dote on her.

‘Liar.’ Gajeel thought, hardly containing an unimpressed snort. ‘You enjoy it. You wouldn’t be this rich if you didn’t.’

It’s been months, but even after spending a bit of time with the Duchess whenever she had her clandestine meetings with Natsu, Gajeel, a straightforward man, still did not really understand why she kept up this act. Rogue had said it was a good tactic, with the air of someone genuinely impressed. Erza always looked amused, while Wendy looked on with wide curious eyes as if to take notes. Meanwhile, both Sting and Natsu tremendously enjoyed playing along.

Natsu always got a kick out of being a goof, anyway.

“But, this meeting is quite important to me, too. I am here to do my friend a favor.” the Duchess continued, and turned just enough to gesture towards her companion, leading their attention to the woman who had arrived trailing a few steps behind her.

“Everyone, meet Miss Levy McGarden.”

Gajeel froze. He knew that name.

He whirled around in time to see the young woman raise her head up from a polite bow. She was dressed in a simple but elegant gown, so different from the stained and ratty dress he remembered her in. It couldn’t be her, he thought, but there it was - the same blue hair, only now it was longer, done up in intricate curls and adorned with a ribbon, two strands framing her delicate face. A button nose, pink painted lips. Her cheeks were unblemished. Her bright brown eyes twinkled as Lucy introduced her to the steward, the Ambassador and then Gajeel. Those same eyes widened when they met his.

It was only a split second, but he saw how she looked down and then up, the entirety of him - surprised recognition, then confusion, then… determined composure. So quick, as she looked away and smiled at the others. No one else had noticed.

“I am very grateful that the Duchess has offered and granted me the opportunity to be here.”

“Miss Levy will be attending the meeting with us.” the Duchess said.

“Ah. Are you a woman of business too, Miss Levy?” Natsu asked. Gajeel noted his genuine curiosity. Natsu didn’t know her. Good.

Miss Levy let out a short laugh followed by a carefree shrug. “I guess you could say I am, for today.”

“For today?”

“Miss Levy is here to discuss an interesting venture.” the Duchess said. She turned towards the steward, who had only been watching them with interest. “Shall we, Gildarts?”

“Of course, Your Grace.” the man smiled, gesturing forward with a flourish. “Ah, will Master Gajeel be joining us?”

Natsu turned to his protector. In common Vistari, he asked, “Will you suffer through this meeting with me?”

Sting had said that he only had to escort Natsu to his destination. So in the same language, Gajeel answered, “Drop dead.”

“I want to.” Natsu chuckled, having fully expected that answer. He turned to Gildarts, switching back to the local tongue, “Master Gajeel will sit this one out.”

“Very well, Ambassador.” Lord Clive gestured to a nearby servant. “Please bring Master Gajeel to the sitting room and make sure he is comfortable.”

The man then gestured towards the other guests and started leading them to the grand staircase.

Miss Levy followed several steps after her companions, but paused for a moment beside Gajeel, under the guise of patting down and picking up her skirts.

“You look well.” she said, eyes forward, voice so quiet he almost missed it.

It was no use denying anything at this point.

“You look fancy.” he grunted out, just as quiet.

Her smile was a mere quirk of her lips, and with that, she walked away to follow the others. 

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The interiors of Fullbuster House was as carefully and meticulously decorated as any noble mansion Gajeel has ever seen, but it had an otherworldly beauty to it. White walls with subtle patterns, gray - almost silver - trimmings and accents, high ceilings, tall windows, sheer curtains and more of those white flowers in porcelain vases. The wood of the furniture was light-colored and the embroideries on the pillows were all shades of cool silver and blue.

It was fitting, he supposed. Duke Fullbuster’s signature piece was, after all, a blue sapphire ring. The house only followed the motif.

A servant led him into a spacious hall. It seemed to be a general sitting area for guests, as well as a little performance space. The couches were shaped into semi-circles with matching coffee tables and footstools, all of which mostly faced the same direction. On one side of the salon was a curved dais, set against tall windows that overlooked a beautiful view of the estate gardens and let out the afternoon light. In the center of the dais, standing stark against the light-colored decor making it impossible to miss, was a jet black grand piano.

“Please feel free to sit anywhere you like, Master Gajeel. I will be back with refreshments. Do you prefer tea or chocolate?”

He knew how they made chocolate here. Too sweet and milky. “Tea. Thank you.”

The servant bowed and left. Gajeel picked a couch at random and plopped into it carelessly.

There was nothing else to do but take in the rest of the decor. Painted porcelain vases, holding more of those damning white flowers. Framed paintings, some realistic - scenery, mountains, flowers - while some were more whimsical - fairies, unicorns, a mermaid. The formal family portraits were probably in the second floor - the more intimate halls, closer to personal chambers.

The servant returned with a tray of pastries and tea, asked if he may be of any more help, and was dismissed. Gajeel wasn’t hungry, but he was bored, so lazily he nibbled on a small, frosted cake, and poured himself some tea.

The mansion was mostly quiet, save for the servants milling about and doing their chores, but even then they were scarce.

Gajeel debated taking a nap. Maybe he should have gone and suffered the meeting with Natsu? 

It would not be boring, he knew that now. He’d be pretty distracted by Miss Levy McGarden, at the least. It was a surprise to see her. He had known, on some level, that he would probably encounter her, or something related to her very soon, from those damned dreams the night prior. He had resigned himself to that fact. Only, he did not expect to meet her so soon, today, in a Hill Mansion - so different from the image of her in his memories and so far from the damp streets of Magnolia. She looked well, though, and pretty content. Perhaps she had moved up in life, somehow, since the last he saw of her? Anyway, who was he to place expectations? He did not even know her that well-

Hot tea burned his tongue and pulled him back. He had forgotten to let it cool slightly first. He cursed himself - what in hells had gotten into him? Obsessing like this?

Outside, it started to rain.

Inside the thick walls of the houses on the Hill, the rain was not so loud. The tea was soothing - too soothing - and he found himself yawning. To dispel the drowsiness, Gajeel stood up and crossed the room, climbed the two steps up the dais and stopped by the window.

Outside, drops of gentle rain fell from the gray sky and down on the white flowers and evergreen bushes.

Like this, it almost felt like he was… back.

At the back of his mind, he could hear a distant humming - a familiar melody, soft and sweet.

A traditional lullaby, he remembered through the haze of memories: his mother’s soft voice as she tucked him to bed, ladies as they did their chores sitting by the cradles of their sleeping babies, a man with his young son dozing off on his back as their hunting party made their way back home from the forest to the village.

Absently, he found himself humming along, like he remembered doing a long time ago when he was a boy, for some younger cousins that he was looking after while the adults were having a discussion in another room.

It felt like hours, but he was sure that it couldn’t have been any more than a couple of minutes.

“Oh.” - a voice cut through his thoughts. Only vaguely familiar, but one he was quick to recognize. 

The humming had stopped.

Belatedly, Gajeel realized that it had never been from the back of his mind, that it was real - it was from someone whose voice had drifted from another room.

“Hello?” the voice called out, uncertain. It was gentle but it rang loud enough across the silence of the empty room.

And Gajeel realized another thing about the house: high ceilings, spacious halls, a piano - it was a house tailored for music. Voices carry easily. Of course his humming would have reached the other person as well from this wide open hall.

Taking a deep breath, he braced himself before turning around to come face to face with the woman standing across the room.

He expected her to look different - dolled up with her hair up the way Duchess Heartfilia did, donning the over-decorated gowns of the City ladies, a corset tight on her waist and skirts voluminous around her. A woman of the City. The Lady of Fullbuster House. A stranger.

Instead, she looked-

She looked the same, in many ways. Older, of course - it’s been years - but she looked... so familiar his chest ached. 

“My Lady.” he said, her title, in their dialect, before he could stop himself.

Her blue hair was down in loose curls over her shoulder and down her back, with some strands braided and pulled to the back of her head. The women from their village wore their hair like this, always, because putting it up exposed their neck and shoulders to the cold. Her dress was a simple and comfortable deep blue gown, flowy and layered, no fancy ruffles, with a fur-lined robe draped over her shoulders - it had been so long since he saw anyone dressed like so.

She looked like home .

Lady Juvia looked at him with wide eyes and parted lips as she hesitantly stepped inside the room. “P-Pardon?” she asked, her expression stormy with confusion.

Gajeel stepped away from the windows to meet her, surprising even himself that he was doing so with such willingness. She stopped where she stood, waiting for him, eyes studying him, questioning.

“I…” he started, looking down. “You… You probably won’t recognize me...”

He looked different, he knew that. His hair was longer, body bulkier, skin scarred from battles and sun-tanned from the desert, face and ears pierced with iron. He was dressed in Empire robes.

“And… I didn't mean to surprise you, or intrude on your house, or anything- “

He looked very far from that young guard-in-training she used to pass by everyday...

"You know my lullaby." she said. Land, her voice was still as soft and delicate as he remembered, and when she changed dialect - "You speak my tongue."

Home, he couldn’t help but think.

"I do."

And there was so much. So much he couldn't put into words, as she stood there before him, a reminder of what he had, an anchor to his past. Giving up on words, he simply got down on one knee and bowed his head low as he undid one side of his robe to show her his arm, and the silver armlet wrapped around his bicep.

He heard her breath hitch. She stepped back, and he risked a glance to see her fold her arms around herself, defensive. Cautious.

“T-That is… It can’t be… Father hand-picked the house guard, I knew them and I searched- They were all executed, and then him- You… You knew him?”

He nodded. He reached back, unlatched a sheathed dagger from his waist, and held it up to the woman in offering.

“My family had served yours for generations. I served under your father, under Lord Lockser.”

The dagger’s hilt was wrapped in dark silk. Lady Juvia unwrapped it with shaky hands and froze as she took in the carving: her very own family crest. There was no mistaking it - all the members of the house guard were given a dagger like this. She had seen her father bestow one to each man he himself had picked to be part of their ranks.

“I know you don't remember me. I understand. It’s been a long time. I just-”

“Stand up.” she said, and he looked up to see her looking at him and gripping the dagger close to her chest. “Please.”

Gajeel obeyed. He kept his head down as he stood before her, but he saw how her gaze roamed, taking in his appearance - the foreign robes, the tattoos both familiar and not, the unmistakable armlet, the new scars. When she finally looked up at his face, her eyes caught his.

He saw the moment her expression changed from tense confusion... to realization… to recognition. He thought of what to say, but found nothing when she heaved a shuddering breath, eyes shining, hands falling to her sides, one still gripping the dagger.

He was not prepared when she launched herself forward, throwing her arms around him, latching into his robes and burying her face in his chest.

"I know you."

Oh. 

“I’d wait for you. I always waited for you, for your turn on the watch, because instead of stopping me when I snuck out, you always let me go. When it was hunting season, you walked in the forest with me, no matter how troublesome it was. I always had trouble with the horses, and everyone coddled me, but you taught me a trick on how not to fall from the saddle while riding.”

He stood still, hardly believing the words he was hearing.

“Once, I was careless and left my pet rabbit’s cage open, and when I found out he was lost, I cried and cried, and then you came back late in the night all dirty and tired, but you came back with him safe. I cooked you a bowl of soup to warm you up and you fell asleep right at that table. I always asked Father to send you with me when I had to visit the village. You were always there. Always looking out for me. Master Redfox’s son.”

His robes were wet, but she only laughed lightly through her tears.

“It’s you, right? You’re alive. You’re here. It’s really you?”

“Yes.” He let out a breath, closing his eyes and bowing his head, hunching despite all his efforts to stay upright. Giving in, fighting everything he was taught and trained about regarding propriety, he brought his arms to wrap around her slight frame. “It’s me, m’lady.”

Lady Juvia laughed again, delighted, holding on to him tighter, and he allowed himself to press his nose against her hair, to just melt into her embrace.

Idly, he wondered how she could smell of pine and petrichor.

“Welcome home, Gajeel.”

It was so different, he thought. It was so different, hearing someone say his name like that - with that familiar lilt, with those words said in a dialect he hadn’t used in years.

He felt like someone, after so long, had finally said it right.

It took a few minutes for Lady Juvia to regain her composure, and afterwards, she was reluctant to let go of him. She had to, though, to wipe away her tears.

Then she took in their disheveled states and stepped back, eyes wide.

“Oh, dear! Forgive me, I ruined your robes! They are very fine ones, too… Are these… Are these from Alvarez?”

Gajeel nodded awkwardly as he slipped the undone half of his robe back on and tried to straighten his clothes as best as he could. “Yes. I… uh… I actually came here with the Ambassador.”

The woman blinked once, before understanding came over her. “The Amb- Prince Natsu! You were one of the Prince’s protectors! Yes, from the convocation, I did not recognize you then-”

“I stayed back. I didn’t want to cause trouble.”

“I understand.” She nodded, smile soft. “So that is where you’ve been, all this time? You went to Alvarez Empire?”

"Yes." He looked down guiltily. "And I am sorry." 

"What? Whatever for?"

“I abandoned you. Lord Lockser needed me, and I ran.”

At this, she shook her head firmly and laid her hands on his shoulders, squeezing. “No. Do not say that. We were being hunted. You did what you had to do to survive.”

He sighed. “I swore an oath to protect your family. I hadn’t been there for him… At the very least, I should have been there with you.”

“I was safe, under Duke Silver’s protection. Father cared about you all, he took the fall because he wanted as many of you as possible to live. If he-... If he was still with us, he would have been glad that you are alive and well.”

He looked at her, some of the guilt easing. How many people had told him this? It was just so different, though, to hear this coming from her.

“Father would have been happy that you were able to start over and make something of yourself.” she smiled.

Perhaps it was because she meant something else to him. She was the last remaining reminder of an oath he took, a purpose he had once thought would be his for the rest of his life. He had broken that oath. He had neglected that purpose.

But here she was, telling him that all is forgiven. That there was nothing to forgive.

“General. General Redfox? Is that your title? It sounds very important...”

Gajeel found it in himself to chuckle, rubbing his neck bashfully. “I... It was just dumb luck, I guess. Right place, right time.”

“Nonsense. I bet you did a good job, or else you wouldn’t be guarding the Prince!” she said airily, bright smile in place. Her tears had dried and she had taken his arm, leading him towards one of the couches.

But before they could sit down, a shrill cry was heard from another room. It was the wailing of an infant, and Lady Juvia was quick to turn on her heel, instinctively stepping towards the direction of the sound.

She paused and looked at him over her shoulder.

“Would you like to meet her?” she asked, eyes bright and smile open.

Gajeel held his breath. So it was… over. This was it, he’d met her, and she was fine, and happy, and didn’t hold any feelings of resentment toward him, even though she should-

He stopped himself before he went there.

He’d grown from this - he wanted to believe that.

In Alvarez, he started over, he found a new tribe, he did good. He came with Natsu for closure, to prove to himself that he was whole again, that he had been able to pick up the pieces and put them back together, strong enough to face the shadows that chased him away from the land he used to call home.

He did not come all the way back here to present himself to his Lady as something broken.

So Gajeel held his head high. He nodded, perhaps a bit nervous, but not apologetic.

“Yes.”

When she reached out, took his hand and tugged, he followed.