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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.

Chapter Text

.

.

Gray had a simple relationship with politics. He was born into it, bred and groomed for a future with it at the center. He was not a brilliant prodigy, and he was far from a cunning mastermind, but then again, he did not have to be either. He wasn’t terrible , of course - all those lessons and learning ought to have rubbed off somehow.

He chose to think that he was simply competent . He was confident in this competence. Perhaps Gray was even above average at politics. Maybe. Depending on the mood. His father was known as laid-back and lawful - so who else would he take after?

Young Lord Gray Fullbuster's betters would all say that he was the quiet and serious but polite and obedient sort. He'd heard servants and retainers describe him as slightly intimidating, but mild-mannered and kind. Meanwhile, according to his peers - his fellow young noblemen - he was… bland, a bit arrogant, but bearably so.

Let them think that, he thought. That was hardly a scandal.

(At the very least, his friends - his actual friends, the ones he chose and in turn chose him - knew him better.)

(His wife, to his relief, thought the world of him, and he didn’t always think he deserved that much - but that was just how love worked, he supposed.)

Gray did not love politics - sometimes he thought the whole thing was rather unnecessarily complicated - but he did not hate it either. It was just part of him, part of his life, and he’d grown to accept this.

It was simply in how he grew up, in how he was raised, that he always knew to keep sharp and assess the situation around him. Read the room. Read the people in the room, and as much as possible, aim to please, but never sacrifice your own agenda. The basics. He had mastered them as much as he was able.

And most of all - one should always be ready with an answer.

So when he was asked - 

“What do you think, Gray?”

- he was not to make a fool of himself.

He turned towards the one who asked the question - his father, Duke Silver, sitting across the table from him, brows furrowed in thought and focused on the documents in his hands.

“Well,” he started - it was always good to start with that while he took a sweeping glance around the room -

His gaze landed on Lucy - always Lucy, first - because throughout the years he’d learned that a good trick to maintain status quo was to please the Duchess, and she only met his attention with a soft, expectant smile.

Beside Lucy, there was Levy - who was a surprise today - but to him a clear indication that the Duchess was up to something.

The fact that it was Levy , specifically, told Gray that Laxus was probably in on this. So he looked to Laxus, who looked bored but confident. As usual.

The Ambassador from Alvarez - Prince Natsu - was grinning a little grin, open curiosity bordering on excitement at the proceedings. He was always so interested in whatever was happening.

Meanwhile, Gildarts was busy with papers too. Lord Jellal Fernandez’s expression was carefully neutral. The City Council representative whose name escaped him was trying to be neutral as well, but Gray could see that it was only through tremendous effort that the man was not frowning.

His eyes traveled back to Lucy, who then clenched her hands in front of her chest - a casual gesture - except he knew better.

Very well, he decided - a favor, it is.

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t contribute, father.” he finally said, barely missing a beat. “I am sure the Duchess wouldn’t vouch for this for no reason. Miss McGarden has a noble cause.”

“That’s very kind of you to say, milord.” Levy said, smiling and exchanging a cheerful look with Lucy, the two women twining their fingers together between them on top of the table for everyone to see.

Most people wouldn’t know to look, but Gray caught the subtle split-second grin from Jellal, and the aborted scoff from the representative beside him. Interesting. They were both in the meeting in behalf of the Council - Jellal as a proxy from Lord Warrod who he was an aide to, and the other man was a liaison of the City Hall in general. Gray wondered whether their contrasting reactions were from their personal or business agenda.

The representative coughed. “How very gracious of you indeed, Lord Fullbuster, but-”

“I am not at all surprised.” Lucy said, airy, in the tone that Gray once called her ‘Innocent Lucy Probably Plotting Murder’ tone. Her face matched the act perfectly, as did her words - “Gray is his father’s son, through and through.”

Silver chuckled, and finally put down the documents to smile at Lucy. “Oh, Lucy, sweetheart. You don’t have to butter me up. I agree with Gray. We all admire this little project of yours.”

“Ah, ah- Easily mistaken detail.” Lucy intervenes quickly, good-naturedly. “It isn’t my project, it is Miss Levy’s. I am only a minor sponsor. Helping her to look for other sponsors.”

“Apologies.” Silver nodded amicably. “We all admire Miss Levy’s project. You say it’s been around for quite a while, though?”

“A couple of years, milord.” Levy answered.

“It is actually the first time I have heard of this, surprisingly. Did we know about this before, Gildarts?”

Gildarts looked thoughtful. “Cana might have mentioned it once or twice, only in passing. I knew there was a little school… but my daughter was talking a mile a minute there and I might have assumed that it was… a code for something else.”

Lucy giggled. Silver simply chuckled and shook his head. “That does sound like our Cana, my friend.”

“I knew about it.” Gray said, gaining everyone else’s attention. He saw Laxus perk up from his slouch just slightly, raising an eyebrow. Despite himself, Gray couldn’t help but bristle at the challenge. “Some of the house staff mentioned sending their young ones there… They… told me, when I asked, because I… noticed that there were less children… downstairs.”

Laxus smirked. “Aren’t you quite the saint, Gray, always caught up with the downstairs people?”

“Laxus!” Lucy pouted. “Don’t scare off your fellow sponsors-to-be.”

“Fellow? You’ve chipped in then, Duke Dreyar?” Jellal asked, speaking up for the first time in a while.

Laxus shrugged. “A few times. I remember signing off a check or two for that… Don’t really remember how, just that I got convinced by someone who came to one of my parties. Also lost a game of cards against one of the teachers one time. She took my money, and told me she’ll buy chalkboards with it.”

Levy had to hide her self-satisfied smile behind her tea cup.

Gray rolled his eyes, trying to hide his own grin.

He’d long wondered who was the one backing that little school for children in Magnolia. He had thought it peculiar - a free school, for any child who was interested to go, teaching subjects usually only taught to nobles by hired tutors, to prepare them for University or clerical work in the Middle City. He knew the denizens of Magnolia alone couldn’t have possibly made it happen just by themselves. So was it Lucy, ever charitable and fond of little pet projects? Or was it Laxus, who had sort of laid down roots in that little island?

Now, he knew the answer.

Now, that little school was expanding - moving upwards, even, to the Middle City - and Miss Levy McGarden’s carefully-cultivated network was being put to very good use to help her reach her goal.

See, Gray was not a master politician, but he didn’t have to be, to recognize the ones who were.

Silver exchanged a look with Gildarts before finally nodding. “Well, then. I think we all agree that this is very much worth looking into. But seeing as this… item… was brought up at the tail end of our agenda today, I think everyone would need time to assess, work the figures, and make their own decisions. I’m sure you understand, Duchess, Miss McGarden?”

Both ladies bowed their heads eagerly.

“It is enough that we managed to bring this to your attention at all, my lord.” Levy said.

“Oh, anything for a friend. Ah, and of course the Ambassador is welcome to pitch in, if he is also interested?” Silver asked, turning to the Ambassador, making sure that no one is left out.

Prince Natsu nodded. “I learned much about your education system here today, very different from ours. I’ll discuss this with Sting. He knows a lot about this topic. He would know what to offer.” then he turned to Lucy and Levy, smiling. “If you have need of anything you think our people and trade can provide, Ambassador House is always open and we will see how we may help.”

“Your offer is very highly appreciated, Ambassador.” Lucy said, voice dripping with fondness. A performance, if Gray had ever seen one, but the twinkle in her eye told him otherwise.

Gray really ought to ask her what the deal between her and the Prince is, one of these days. It was fine, back in the convocation, but it has been months, and while Gray may be the patient sort, this constant flirting, dancing and dallying around each other was starting to chafe on him.

Finally, Silver turned to the last two in the room. “And if Lord Fernandez and his staff could relay this new plan to the City Council, it would be a great help.”

The representative pursed his lips, and was quite obviously about to raise a concern, but before he could say anything, Jellal laid a hand on his arm, effectively silencing him.

“Of course, My Lord.” Jellal answered, all cool composure. He gave his companion a meaningful look before turning back to the others. “We’ll make sure to bring this up to the Council as soon as appropriate.”

Gray always liked Jellal. It has only been a few years since the man started working in Lord Warrod’s office in the Council of Lords, but he had seemingly mastered the art of damage control, specially when dealing with high nobility.

He looked at the representative, who was squirming in discontent, but knew better than to grumble at his betters. The man must not know how fortunate he was, that Jellal did not let him run his tongue. Prejudiced or not, Gray wouldn’t wish it upon anyone to incur the wrath of both Dreyar and Heartfilia at the same time.

Duke Silver dismissed the meeting, thanking everyone for their attendance. Gray stood up and followed everyone as Gildarts all ushered them out of the room.

He felt a familiar hand on his arm, and slowed down to match Lucy’s pace. “Thank you for your backing there, Gray.” she said, whispering. It was Lucy, sweet and real , not-performing this time.

Gray shook his head, smiling. “I said nothing that wasn’t true. The school is a good thing. You have me for this one.”

She smiled back and then tipped her head sideways, expectant. “You continue to be the best.”

He shrugged easily, leaning down to press a kiss to her cheek. “I try.” he said, then nodded towards the others. “Don’t let me keep you. I know you’re not done yet.”

“Oh, far from it.” she laughed lightly, and like a butterfly, she flitted past the stiff representative, past Jellal talking to Laxus, and finally towards where Silver and Gildarts were entertaining the Ambassador.

She weaved in so easily in their little crowd, genial and perfect, “Ambassador, were you by chance telling the Duke about education in Alvarez?”

The Ambassador did not miss a beat, offering his arm to the lady. “Yes, Duchess. Our friends Silver and Gildarts asked.”

“How nice! I was just about to ask you too.” Lucy crooned, taking the man’s arm and clinging just a tiny bit closer than proper. If that was intentional, Gray did not know.

“Apparently, dear Lucy, the royal staff handpicks young apprentices throughout their country to study different practices in the palace.” Silver said, impressed. “That is very generous, if I may say so.”

“Ah, it’s been our way, for generations.” Natsu said, waving the praise off. “Here you have the University, yes?”

Gray tuned that discussion out, as Levy had sidled up beside him, keeping a polite and appropriate distance. “So… Lord Fullbuster.” she said, smile restrained. “This is you in your element, then?”

“Not my element, not really.” he replied, trying not to sound or look too comfortable. Here in the Hill, he was a young Lord, and Miss McGarden was merely a new acquaintance. They had not been friends for years. “How about you? You’re quite a way from home.”

“Yes, but I came with purpose.”

“Have you fulfilled that purpose, then?”

“I think it’s quite a success.” she said. Then, making sure no one was looking, she nudged his arm just a little playfully. “I appreciate what you did there.”

Gray smiled, nudging back. “What are friends for?”

The group made their way down the stairs and to the main hall, waiting for their carriages to roll into the front entrance of the house. Gildarts asked one of the servants for the Ambassador’s guard, to which the young footman said, “He is in the crystal room, My Lord. Lady Juvia had decided to bring him there and keep him company.”

Gray looked up. That was unexpected. It was not that Juvia did not like people, or keeping them company. It was simply that Juvia usually shied away from strangers.

Before Gildarts could order the servant to fetch the Ambassador’s guard, Gray spoke up. “Leave it to me. I shall go and fetch Master Gajeel.”

The servant blinked. “My Lord-”

“It’s alright.” Gray said, appeasing. “I was going to check on Juvia and Brooke anyway. I’ll handle it.”

The servant made to retort, but really, he was used to this. Lord Gray was very hands-on, and always preferred to work on things himself. The staff admired him for it.

“Oh, say hello to Juvia for me.” Lucy said, smile sweet.

Gray only nodded and then bowed to the rest of the party before walking off to find his wife, child, and their new friend.

.


.

The crystal room was called so because from the outside, it shone like crystals in the daylight. But really, it was simply a greenhouse with glass walls and ceilings, sprawling with an abundance of Amefurashi winter blossoms, with wide doors leading directly into the estate gardens.

Its centerpiece was a beautiful crystal sculpture of a mermaid. Under this marvel was a white marble round table with matching chairs. Gray knew it was his wife’s favorite place in the house. So much so that he had a separate crib acquired for the room a month before their daughter’s birth, so Juvia may continue spending time there with no worries. She liked to do her reading and needlework surrounded by the flowers. She entertained Duchesses Heartfilia and Dreyar, sometimes Lady Alberona - her closest friends - in the crystal room. Other visitors usually got treated to a less intimate venue.

So this , bringing in a foreign guard to her “nest” of sorts, was new.

Gray wondered at this as he made his way to the room. He passed by the music hall and into the salon, fully expecting to find his wife and their guest sitting perhaps in pleasant conversation in the marble table, drinking tea or chocolate, having snacks.

But several paces away, he could already hear Juvia’s laughter, bright and happy, accompanied by a man’s low rumbling chuckles, and an infant’s delighted squeals.

It made him speed up, curious more than anything.

When he walked in, he found a most unexpected sight.

Juvia stood amongst the plants and flowers, holding their baby daughter in her arms. Then, from behind the shrubbery, a man’s head emerged, tongue out and eyes crossed - and both Juvia and Brooke erupted in peals of laughter.

It was the silliest thing, and it took him so off guard, he couldn’t help the abrupt snorting laugh that he let out.

That alerted the others, though. They stopped and turned to him, frozen.

Brooke was the first to break out of it, clearly recognizing a familiar face, clapping her little hands and eagerly reaching for her father.

“My Lord!” Juvia exclaimed, blush high on her cheeks as she rocked the baby in her arms. “T-The… The meeting has finished, then?”

“It has.” he answered, walking inside to join his wife and child. He raised a hand to Brooke and the infant latched on to two of his fingers. He leaned over to press a soft kiss to his daughter’s hand, and then to his wife’s temple. “I see you’ve kept yourself occupied, too.”

Gajeel stepped out of the shrubbery, clearing his throat and straightening his robes. “Lord Fullbuster.” he said, bowing slightly, making sure to hide his native accent enough to sound neutral. “Mi-... Lady L-... Lady Fullbuster was kind to keep me company this afternoon, and your staff was very accommodating. Please accept my gratitude.”

Gray looked at the other man and nodded. “I’m glad the staff welcomed you nicely, and I have to thank you for providing what looks like excellent company for my wife and daughter as well.”

“Master Gajeel told of very interesting stories of Vistarion.” Juvia said, smiling. “And I think Brooke likes her new friend.”

“Do you, now, young lady?” Gray cooed at the infant, who giggled at him. He turned towards Gajeel and smiled as well. “I actually came to fetch you, Master Gajeel, as the Ambassador and the others are preparing to leave.”

Their guest looked surprised, but quickly brushed it off. “I see.” he said, then turned to Juvia and Brooke. “It seems I must go now. Thank you for... the warm company, my ladies.”

“And yours, Master Gajeel.” Juvia said, with a smile, gently bouncing her daughter in her arms.

“I’ll show you back, then?” Gray offered, already turning to go.

Gajeel nodded and moved to follow Gray, but stopped after taking a step. He went to face Juvia and Brooke again. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached out and gently swiped his thumb across the infant’s brow, mumbling a phrase in a language Gray didn’t understand, while Juvia looked up at him in surprise.

With another nod, Gajeel turned away, and let Gray lead him out.

As they walked through the quiet halls of the Fullbuster mansion, Gray asked, “That gesture… is that a custom, in Alvarez?”

Gajeel never liked lying, but he knew it would be strange not to answer such a harmless question. “It is a gesture of my people.”

“Interesting.” Gray said, all curiosity. “Does it have a special meaning, then?”

‘Grow like a wildflower’ . We say it to wish blessings on children, often to little girls.”

“A wildflower? That’s… unexpected.”

The answer came easy - it was a saying that everyone from his homeland knew. “It is beautiful and delicate, but can take root in the most unexpected places. Wildflower.”

“Huh.” Gray lets out a chuckle, a pleased one. “Very poetic. Thank you, then. For doing that for my daughter. It’s what I would wish for her too.”

Gajeel could tell that he was honest.

He’d met with a good deal of nobles in Crocus while he stood as Natsu’s guard, and most of them had been a piece of work, even the nicer ones. They were men that Gajeel would normally just turn his back to and walk away from - not having enough patience to deal with their arrogance, peacocking, or people-pleasing. That was the part Gajeel hated most about nobles - the acting.

But Gray Fullbuster struck him as a kind man, in a very clear, unadorned, simple way. Some kind men still put up an act, but Young Lord Fullbuster didn’t. This was just how he was - fair and open - and if he was a little bit stiff, that mostly came from an effort to be a polite host.

He reminded Gajeel of-

Oh.

No wonder Lady Juvia loved him so. Lord Gray’s brand of kindness was so much like the late Lord Lockser’s.

.


.

Juvia kept a journal. She had always done so, ever since she was a girl. A private diary of her days, her thoughts, and her plans. It was a habit she kept religiously, and her old worn notebooks with their peeling leather covers and yellowed pages were some of the few things she had managed to keep when she moved to the City to move in with her husband’s family.

Today, her journal entry was turning out to be longer than usual. After all, it had been an interesting day. In the middle of writing it, she had rummaged through her private chest for one of her older diaries and had begun flipping its pages, reading through her memories as a young girl. Her fingers traced faded ribbons, pressed flowers, dried leaves and old parchments that had been stuck and slipped in between the pages.

Elsewhere, she heard the sweet notes of Gray’s piano floating softly through the halls of the house.

She bit her lip. She had been writing and reading into the night, with the lamp on, which also kept her husband up. But Gray only told her not to mind him, to keep writing. When Brooke began to cry, Gray told her not to drop her pen as he got out of bed and picked up their daughter from her crib. When she kept crying, he decided to take her outside the room.

“We’ll take a stroll,” he had said to the baby, voice soft and patient. “Just you and me.”

He was humming, from the last Juvia had heard of him before his voice and footsteps faded out into the silence of the house.

That was about an hour ago. Juvia had to admit to herself that perhaps she had indulged too much. She penned a quick end to her entry, and put her pen and journals away.

She stood up and put on her robe. It was time to call her husband back to bed.

.

Juvia followed the sound of the piano through the halls. Gray was playing a soft, high-pitched melody, sweet and playful, new to her ears.

Gray was a quietly passionate musician, she had learned early on, like many others in his family. His mother and grandfather also played the piano, Duke Silver was known for his smooth singing voice and several late members of the family also played various instruments. This was one of the reasons why Fullbuster House was built with high ceilings and open halls.

While Juvia had grown to love listening to Gray play, nothing compared to watching him as he performed. She had arrived in the piano hall, and stopped for a while just to admire the view.

There he was. Her husband, in just his sleeping clothes and dressing gown, his face peaceful, body slack and swaying as he played in the center of the dais. Bathed in light from the tall windows, he made a surreal image, like a ghost almost, with the moon reflected on the shiny surface of his black piano.

He didn’t stop playing when he finally noticed her. Instead he simply smiled and tilted his head, beckoning her to join him.

“All done with your daily musings?” he asked, scooting over in the seat to make space for her, his fingers not losing their rhythm.

“Yes. I’m sorry if it took too long.” she answered. “Where’s Brooke?”

“With her grandfather.” Gray shrugged. “He saw me humming to her in the hallway and then took her. Now I don’t know where he spirited her off to. I just let them be, he hasn't been able to spend much time with her lately.”

When she sat beside him, he stopped for one moment, before switching to a different piece. This one was familiar. Her lullaby.

She smiled and leaned her head on his shoulder with a content sigh. He rested his head against hers. He whispered, “Sing for me?”

Even now, he could so easily make her blush.

She didn’t trust her words, when she was like this - it was already a task to speak in his language a lot of the time, instead she only nodded, and eyed his deft fingers as they flew across the black and white keys.

Taking a deep breath, she waited for her cue. And when she found it, she began to sing. The words escaped her lips, easy as breathing, words of a tongue she knew he didn’t fully understand, but appreciated hearing, anyway.

Music was the language they both know to use with each other the most. Like this, just sitting together in the moonlight, is when Juvia felt most loved. Like this, they know one song, and that was that. Even though Juvia could hardly read the notes in a music sheet, even though Gray would still stumble at even the simplest of phrases in her mother language, like this is when they felt most understood.

This lullaby was how they first connected.

.


.

Juvia first arrived in Fullbuster mansion after a tearful parting with her father in the borders of the City, where Lord Lockser made Duke Silver swear to keep her safe. Duke Silver had not even asked for her dowry, simply promising to take care of Juvia, but Lord Lockser insisted he take it.

“This is not nearly enough, Silver.” her father had said. “But nothing will ever be, I think, for what you are doing for us.”

“Niall, all I ask of you is to sign the marriage contract, so I could legitimately take her under my protection. That’s enough.” Lord Silver insisted. “You might need this money-”

Niall Lockser only smiled before reaching out to hug his friend. “I wouldn’t. You are very kind, old friend.”

Her father gave her one last kiss and that was the last she saw of him. She was fraught with tears all the way to the City, to the Hill, to Fullbuster House. It was just her, her clothes, and a chest of her things. That was all that was left of Juvia Lockser that day.

Silver did not even introduce her to Gray then, knowing that she was too deep in mourning for anything else. He only led her to her rooms to rest.

She did a lot of crying during her first few days in the mansion, never leaving her room, Silver himself bringing her trays of food she hardly touched. He always brought news with him. Most of them dire, but she appreciated his honesty. 

She had thought she’d ran out of tears by the time he told her of her father’s execution - but that was proved wrong, as she found herself crying once again. This time, Silver didn’t leave, and he held her until she fell asleep, still sobbing.

The next day, Gray was the one to bring her food.

“Father had to go out today.” he said, laying down the tray on the little table. “He asked me to bring you your food and to see how you’re doing.”

She stared at him. He was so handsome, like his father, but with a gentler face. He looked dashing in a suit of his house’s colors, and spoke with such grace. Every inch of him was the image of the romantic City gentleman she’d sometimes imagine with her young lady friends back home.

This observation only made her curl in on herself, hiding her tear-streaked face behind her hair. When she spoke, it was stilted, her accent heavy. “You… Lord-... You are… Duke Silver’s… son?”

“Uh. Yes. I am. My name is Gray Fullbuster.” 

She whimpered, hiding further. “Juvia is sorry.” She couldn’t help it, and she began to tear up again.

He made a noise of discomfort, but he stepped forward, concerned. “Hey… hey, now. I- Are you crying? You’re crying- What’s- What’s wrong?”

She couldn’t face him. Not when she looked like this. “Juvia is sorry. Juvia is not- must not be- what you desire as your bride?”

He paused. “I-... Well-” He sounded like he was at a loss, and perhaps he was.

Surely, Lord Silver would have raised his son to be as kind and compassionate as he was. Surely, Lord Gray would not want to hurt her feelings, knowing she was already going through so much.

“It’s… It’s not like I have someone I… desire… anyway? As my bride?”

“Juvia is sorry, for… for…” she trailed out with a sigh, half-frustrated and half-resigned, not really knowing how to say what she wanted to say.

“You shouldn’t be sorry.” he said, pursing his lips. It sounds like something he’d been waiting to say. “You’re the one they’ve done wrong. You… you and your father, and your people. You didn’t deserve all that happened to you. Taking you in, Father was just doing what’s right.”

She peeked at him through her curtain of hair.

“And… This betrothal just saved your life. I don’t want you to think you owe us, I just think, I think it’s a small price to pay, on my part. I think it’s worth it.”

Juvia looked down again, and it took her a while before she could answer. “Lord Gray is kind, like Duke Silver.”

He left after that, knowing that she still needed space.

.

She started to regain her appetite, slowly, and she started to poke around the room. She found several books, and tried to read one. It was hard, in the unfamiliar language, but she figured it was a way to practice her reading.

She didn’t leave her room, however. She changed her clothes, she kept herself clean, but never left her room.

Until one day, when she heard the soft notes of a piano floating through the quiet halls of the house. She could have enjoyed it, really, in the quiet of the comfortable guest room she’d come to settle in over the past weeks.

Except she recognized the melody. She recognized the song. Without thinking about it, she grabbed one of her fur-lined robes and for the first time in weeks, she exited her room. She followed the music, and it led her to a spacious hall with a high ceiling, a tall window, and a dais with a piano at its center. Sitting there, playing, was Lord Gray.

He stopped when he saw her, standing urgently. “Lady Juvia? Is something the matter? Are you alright?”

She stared at him, then at the piano, and back at him. “Lord Gray… was playing a song.”

“Y-Yeah, I was. I play, sometimes?” he answered, confused, until his eyes widened and he walked around the piano, concerned. “I’m sorry, was I loud? Did I disturb you? Were you taking a nap or-”

“Lord Gray was playing a song from Amefurashi.”

He looked shocked. This time, he closed his eyes and bit his lip, shaking his head, remorseful. “I...  I apologize, it must have upset you. I should have known.”

She shook her head, stepping closer. “Why does Lord Gray know this song?”

“Why do I-? Uh. My mother. My mother, she taught me the piano, and she… she taught me this song. She was from Rain Country.”

“Oh.” she said, staring at him like he was seeing him again for the first time.

Gray looked like we grasping at what else to say. “I… I didn’t know much about it- Is it a popular song?”

“It is a lullaby. Traditional. We sing to children.”

“Ah. Yes, that makes sense.” he said, this time chuckling, eyes softening. “She did use to sing me to sleep with it.”

With that, they’ve said all that they had to say for that conversation. They stood there in silence, the air between them that of strangers who did not seem to have anything in common, and did not know how to acknowledge it.

Juvia took the first step back. “Apologies for bothering Lord Gray. Please… please continue on your music. Juvia will now… go back…”

“A-Alright.” Gray nodded, just as awkward. “You will… go back to your room?”

“Yes. Have a good afternoon.” With that, she bowed, and then turned to leave.

Gray watched her, and before he could think about it, he found himself saying, “Wait.”

She turned to him again.

“I just… I just want… to be clear.”

She tilted her head, confused, trying to parse his words. She knew that she sometimes heard only literal meanings, and missed many expressions due to the language barrier. “Clear?”

“I want to come to an understanding.” he said, surer this time. “You… You spend all your time in your room - which is perfectly fine! It’s alright, if you really aren’t interested in going out. I just… I just don’t want you to feel like you’re not allowed to go out? Which- Well. You just... went out. So maybe you don’t feel like that at all. Argh. I’m messing this up.”

Juvia couldn’t help but let out a small smile, appreciating his effort. “Juvia just… doesn’t want to cause trouble for Lord Gray and Duke Silver.”

“Not at all. My point,” he tried again, “is that… while you’re in this house, you are free to do what you want. And it’s no trouble at all. You’re not a burden. You’re… well, you’re part of the family now?”

She looked away at that. Maybe he was right, but she still couldn’t help but feel some grief with it.

Gray looked like he regretted saying that too, but he quickly recovered. “Very well, how about this. What do you like?”

“What Juvia likes? " she asked, unsure. "Things?”

“Yeah. Things. Activities. What do you like to do? I know you-… you didn’t… come, with much. So, while you’re settling in, let’s get nice things that you like. Just so… so you can have… nice things that you like?” he trailed off, looking like a mix of confused and disappointed with himself.

Juvia could see how hard he was trying, though. And she knew she would feel terrible if she didn’t at least try to humor his request. “Juvia… Juvia would like to do needlework.”

“Needlework. So… cloth, needles, thread, all of those?”

She nodded.

“Good. That’s good. I’ll have some brought to you, then.”

She smiled slightly, and then bowed again. “Lord Gray is kind.”

He chuckled. “You… you don’t have to say that everytime.”

She shook her head. “It is how we express our gratitude.”

“Oh. Oh! You’re saying thanks.”

She nodded.

“Well. Uh. You’re welcome.”

She bowed again, and then turned to leave. This time, he let her go.

.

That very same night, Juvia received a lovely basket with fine cloth, quality thread and brand new needlework tools. The servant also asked her if she would be coming down to dinner - a first - but this time, she said no. The servant easily accepted the answer and told her that they would be bringing food to her shortly.

While waiting, she examined the contents of the basket again. What caught her eye first was the fine silk cloth, deep blue, like a dark starry night. She took that first, and began her work.

.

The next day, when the servant asked her again, she said yes. Yes, she would come to dinner.

It was about time that she tried to show her hosts how grateful she is for their kindness and understanding. It was the least she could do, really. To dine with them.

It should be simple enough. Except, as the hour was nearing, she realized that she only had her old dresses to wear. That… that didn’t seem appropriate. The City had very different fashions than Amefurashi. Even her nicest gown, embroidered and beaded by her own hand, which would easily pass as glamorous enough for a wedding or dance in Amefurashi, looked nothing close to the elaborate, complicated ones she’d seen of the City ladies.

But… she had already promised to go. She had to commit, or else she would only look ungrateful, indecisive.

So she put on her nicest gown and headed to the dining area.

Her worries were put to rest the moment she arrived. Duke Silver and Lord Gray both looked pleased to see her, and only welcomed her with warmth. Dining with them was Lord Gildarts, who was also a friendly presence. Duke Silver told her that she looked lovely, and that was more than enough.

She was quiet throughout the dinner, as Duke Silver told them about his day, and attempted several jokes with Gildarts. She exchanged glances with a weary Gray whenever the older men said something particularly silly.

After a while, Duke Silver turned to her.

“Gray’s mother, Mika, she liked to don dresses like yours, Lady Juvia.” Duke Gray said, smile wistful. “Remember, Gildarts? Mika’s long dresses?”

Lord Gildarts chuckled. “Of course! When she was pregnant with Gray, she wore them all the time. Said it was much more comfortable than anything the City ladies wore.”

Juvia smiled. “Juvia hopes Duke Silver doesn’t mind the… the outdated fashion...”

Duke Silver only laughed. “Oh, you’re at home, sweet girl. You can be yourself.”

She took a breath, then nodded, smiling down at her food. “Duke Silver is kind.”

The man humbly waved it off. “Ah, but if you want new dresses, just say so! Gray would be happy to call on the tailors. Right, Gray?”

Gray blinked. “Of course.”

Silver nodded approvingly, then started counting off. “Maybe jewelry, books, shoes, flowers, whatever you want…”

Juvia summoned her courage then. “Actually,” she started, voice small. “Juvia has… something for… Duke Silver. A token of gratitude.”

Silver stopped in his babbling, looking curiously at her. “Oh?”

She took the folded handkerchief from her pocket and handed it to the man, who accepted it, quiet all of a sudden. It was dark blue silk, hemmed with silver thread. On one corner was a neat embroidery of little white flowers with vines twining elegantly into a monogram that spelled ‘SF’.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” the man marveled, and he reached out to take her hand and press a kiss to it, making her blush bright. “You are a treasure! Look, Gray, have you ever seen something so perfect?” he said, brandishing the embroidery to his son’s face.

Gray laughed, and squinted at the embroidery before nodding at Juvia. “It’s excellent. You did this in two days?”

Juvia looked down. “Y-Yes. That is the fifth one, the others were not very good.”

Silver whirled towards her, looking scandalized. “My girl, I want them all.”

Juvia shook her head, blushing brighter, obviously not sure how to handle such a request. “But-! They are not very good!”

“You made them, I love them.” he said, grinning, as he looked at his new handkerchief again. “Are these winter blossoms? Those flowers that grow in your home?”

“Yes…”

“We should fill the house with them this winter.” The Duke declared, resolute. He looked towards Gildarts, who had only been watching them in amusement. “Gildarts, make sure I remember that come the season, you got it, man?”

“Of course, milord.” Gildarts only shrugged. "Winter blossoms for winter. Easy enough to remember."

Silver clapped. “And also for the wedding!”

Gray gaped at him. “Father!” he scolded.

“What?” Silver blinked. “Lady Juvia will look like an angel with those flowers, and they always looked fantastic with the house-”

Gray gestured to where Juvia was squirming and blushing.

Silver gasped, concerned. “B-But… but whatever flowers Lady Juvia chooses… will be good. I’m sure they will be good.”

Juvia could only nod shakily. “D-Duke Silver is... kind.”

.

After that, Juvia would join them for meals. When he discovered her love of flowers, Gray brought her to the greenhouse - the crystal room - and since then, she would come down from her room and do her needlework or reading there.

Sometimes, when Gray would play the piano, she would move to sit on one of the empty divans nearby, a quiet audience of one.

But the peaceful simplicity of her days did not last too long. One afternoon, Gray came to her in the crystal room, and handed her an invitation.

“The Realights are throwing a ball. I would be going. I thought you… might want to come?”

She looked at him. “This invitation is for Lord Gray only…”

“I’m allowed to bring a date.” he chuckled. “What do you say? It is not the biggest party, and Lady Realight is a very lenient hostess. It would be easy to excuse ourselves if it’s too much.”

“I… I am not sure.” she said, looking down again, at the small card. It had an elegant seal and a script to match.

“It’s fine, if you choose to stay. I understand. You’re still settling in.” he shrugged, smiling reassuringly. “I just thought I’d bring it up to you.”

It would be nice, she thought. To meet people, and make friends, in this City where she knew no one. She liked Duke Silver’s fatherly doting, Lord Gray’s quiet company and even Lord Gildarts’s easy attentiveness, but… she also knew, down the line, it would be expected of her to go out into society. They rarely brought it up, but she was going to be the Lady of the House one day.

“Thank you, My Lord.” she said. It took some time, but reading a lot and regular interaction with everyone in the house was helping her learn more of the language and the expressions. “Juvia… I would like to attend, but…”

He blinked. “But?”

“I have never been to a party in the City before.”

“I’ll be there with you.” Gray said, finally taking a seat at the marble table across from her. “You don’t have to talk to anyone or do anything you don’t want to.”

She nodded, but still looked apprehensive. “I also… don’t have anything to wear. Not to the City’s fashions.”

“Oh. You don’t think your dresses from Rain Country will do? Because I have seen them, they’re beautiful. You made them yourself, didn’t you?”

“Yes. And I would be proud to wear them. But I don’t think it would look good for Lord Gray and Duke Silver… I don’t want to embarrass or cause scandal.”

Gray fell silent, only now realizing it. Of course. Juvia wouldn’t want to stand out like that, specially after everything that had happened with her hometown and her family, still fresh in everyone’s minds.

“Very well, then. We’ll get you a new dress, something from the City. You can pick what you like, so you’re comfortable.”

“P-Pick? But I am not familiar- I don’t even… know how one wears them.” she trailed off in a squeak, blushing. She shouldn’t be talking to a gentleman about this...

But Gray didn’t seem worried about it. “We can get you a lady’s maid. We really should have gotten one when you first arrived. It’s just… been so long since the house required one, that we all forgot about it.” he said, thoughtful. “We’ll get you one, to help you with your dresses and… other... lady matters.”

He looked like he was just realizing how unconventional their current conversation was.

“Anyways. Let me worry about that.” he said, shaking his own discomfort off. “If we can get you a new dress, and a lady’s maid to help you with it, will you go to the party?”

“Juvia would like to.” she said, with a small, hopeful smile. “Will… Will the lady’s maid be able to help me about… about what to do in the party, also?”

He blinked. “Have you never had a lady’s maid before?”

She shook her head. They had maids, of course. But there were no lady’s maids whose exclusive jobs were to help their mistresses dress and do their hair. They did those by themselves. The maids sometimes helped, though, on weddings and special events when dresses have more complicated laces and hair had to be braided in more intricate ways.

“Well…” He thought about it, and then, nodded to himself, as if he just came up with a solution. He grinned at her, and as always, it brought her comfort, and as it seemed to do so in recent days, it also made her blush. “Let me worry about that too.”

.

Two days later, when Gray came to her in the crystal room, he was not alone. He was accompanied by a woman - a very beautiful woman, with bright brown eyes, perfectly-styled blonde hair, and the prettiest City dress Juvia had ever seen - blush pink with golden linings. She looked like one of those porcelain dolls, only very, very much alive.

“Lady Juvia,” Gray called, and Juvia stood up on instinct, as one did to greet a guest. “I’d like you to meet Duchess Lucy Heartfilia.”

Juvia’s eyes widened, and she quickly gathered her skirts and bowed. “It is an honor to meet you, Duchess!”

The Duchess smiled brightly, doing a perfect curtsy. “Please, it is my pleasure to finally meet you, Lady Juvia. I’ve wanted to pay a visit for a while, but Gray won’t let me.”

This time, she directed her pout at Gray, who put his hands up with a guilty smile. “I finally asked you, didn’t I?”

“It was about time, Gray.” she huffed, but it didn’t come across as annoyed or arrogant, merely playful. “It is only right that I get to know my best friend’s bride-to-be.”

“Lucy…” Gray grumbled, blushing.

Juvia watched them, rapt. Duchess Heartfilia was so graceful. She moved like she was dancing, and had such a natural charm when she spoke. Lord Gray was blushing, and it was new to Juvia. Lord Gray so rarely lost his composure. But who wouldn’t, in the presence of such a lady?

He cleared his throat. “Anyways. Lady Juvia, the Duchess is an old friend of mine. I asked her to do me a favor, and help you prepare for the party.”

Juvia blinked. “B-But… Juvia can’t possibly trouble the Duchess… Juvia- I thought… the lady’s maid...?”

“We still are getting a lady’s maid. Gildarts is looking. He just… hasn’t looked for a while, so, he’s taking his time.” Gray explained. “But… well…” 

“Oh, love, get yourself together.” the Duchess teased him, then she stepped forward and took Juvia’s hand. “My darling, I mean no offense to their trade, but a lady’s maid cannot possibly teach you everything you need to know to navigate the stormy seas of a City party, and in such short a time. Also, our Gray knows nothing about dresses. He doesn’t even know what to do with a corset. I know that for a fact.”

“L-Lucy.” Gray grumbled again, this time with a warning squint.

Lucy giggled, a dainty finger tracing the other woman’s jaw. “Worry not, our mutual experience with it involved lacing it back up, not the other way around.”

It took Juvia several seconds to understand the implication. “M-Mutual experience?!” she cried, looking between the two.

The Duchess laughed. “I’ll tell you the story later. It’s nothing you should worry about, my darling, your fiancee is the most honorable man I know. He’s so honorable, he’s almost boring. But he is also my most beloved friend, and you are the future Lady of his house, so I will do my best to help you.”

“T-Thank you…?”

“So, let’s get started?” she asked, looping their arms together and leading her out. “Come, I brought some of my dresses over, one should fit you, with some adjustments. Me and my lady’s maid shall teach you how it all works. The tailors are on their way, they should be bringing samples of fabric for you to choose from, and they’d be taking your measurements so we can get you some fitting underclothes too.”

Juvia struggled to keep up with all that, eyes wide. “Everything will be… made new?”

“Why, of course! It should be a perfect fit. Comfort is important. And it’s my treat, for my new friend.”

“That’s… Duchess Heartfilia is very generous.”

“Call me Lucy. May I call you Juvia?”

“Yes… Lucy.”

“Wonderful! While we wait, we’ll have tea and I shall tell you everything you want to know about Gray.”

“Lucy...” this time Gray sounded like he was pleading-

-to which the Duchess simply giggled. “I’ll take Lady Juvia now, thank you, Young Lord Fullbuster. You may go. Just remember your promise.”

He looked vaguely mortified, but he stepped forward and pressed a kiss to his friend's cheek. “Yes, I shall play at your next musicale.” Then, he sent Juvia a smile. “She talks a mile a minute, Lady Juvia, but you are in good hands.”

He bowed graciously at both ladies, and then they were off.

.

City fashion was complicated, the corsets were uncomfortable at best, and the dresses were heavy. Putting them on for the first time was torture, but by the time she had looked at herself in the mirror, Juvia found herself excited to pick from the different fabrics the tailor brought for a brand new dress.

While Juvia stood still for adjustments and measurements, Lucy was going through her closet, and was openly admiring her old Rain Country dresses.

“Oh, Juvia, these are so elegant, and they look much, much more comfortable than our dresses here.” she said. “It’s so simple, but this beadwork! The embroidery!”

“Lucy is kind.” Juvia said with a shy smile. “Juvia liked making them.”

“You did this yourself?” Lucy asked, looking at her in awe. “Darling, they’re brilliant! They- Huh…” she looked thoughtful, this time. “Juvia, would you… would you mind if one of these beautiful dresses… was to be re-purposed?”

Juvia blinked. “Re-purposed?”

“It is a good, thick fabric. With really good detail work. I was thinking,” - she crossed the room with the dress, and held it up, lined up in front of one of the spare dresses she brought. “We could use this part of your old dress as a layer in your new one, a bit like this. You know, it would provide such beautiful details, embroidery and beadwork, instead of common frills and lace.”

“We… we can do that?”

Lucy nodded, busy considering the two dresses together. “We can, can’t we, Virgo?”

“We can, milady.” Virgo said, from across the room where she was putting away one of the Duchess’ spare gowns.

“I mean… these dresses are your work, they’re wonderful work, if I do say so myself.” Lucy continued. “You should be proud of them, and it’s unfair that you can’t wear them out because our people are so prejudiced… Oh, I have been babbling, am I? Without considering you- I’m so sorry-”

“No.” Juvia said quickly, making the other woman turn to her. “No, Juvia would like that. That would be… That would mean very much to me. In… In Rain Country, it is not the lace or jewels that display a lady’s beauty. It is her needlework.”

Lucy’s smile was wide, excited. “Let’s do it, then?”

Juvia nodded, biting her lip. “Yes.”

.

Lucy came by the next day, this time without the dresses, tailors and lady’s maid. This time, she had a shoemaker, and the Fullbuster House’s jeweler.

She only had to look at Juvia’s reaction to the fancy sapphire and white diamond necklace, and she quickly shook her head. “Something simple, please. House Fullbuster is elegant and understated.” she said, voice firm. She surveyed the jewelry again and pointed at one. “How about those?”

The jeweler held up the box that the Duchess picked. “Ah, a unique choice, but if it pleases my lady?”

Juvia gasps, then smiles softly. “They… they look like frozen raindrops...

Lucy smiles too. “White pearls it is, then.”

.

When Lucy came by next, she was unaccompanied, save for a block of chocolate.

This time, they sat down in the crystal room. Lucy was patient, and never seemed to lose her smile as she taught Juvia the ins and outs of decorum in their society. Juvia thought it would be so complicated, but she had a way of making things simple.

In between the walking, posture, and curtsy lessons, Lucy told her stories about Gray’s childhood.

.

Lucy decided that she would prepare for the ball in Fullbuster House with Juvia. The night of the event, the two of them and their lady’s maids busied themselves with their dresses and jewels.

When it came time to do their hair, and they sat side by side as their lady’s maids brushes their long hair back, preparing to put them up.

“Juvia, you never seem to put your hair up. Is that a… tradition? In Rain Country?”

Juvia nodded. “If our hair is up, our neck and shoulders are exposed to the cold. We always wear them down.”

“Then what do you do for your hair, for special occasions, when you are dressed up?”

“We braid.” Juvia said. “We put them in beautiful braids on the back of our head. Sometimes, we put pins and flowers.”

“You do always have the prettiest braids in your hair.” Lucy observed. “Do you want to have your hair down tonight?”

Juvia blinked. “But… but it is not the City fashions.”

“Darling, believe me.” Lucy said with an impish grin. “If I say it is, then it is.” She signalled for Virgo to stop brushing. “What do you say? I picked our dresses. How about you do our hair?”

.

Juvia arrived in her first ball with Lord Gray Fullbuster on her side, and Duchess Lucy Heartfilia on the other.

She wore a gown that was both old and new, beaded and embroidered flowers and snowflakes under the expensive blue silk replacing the City’s traditional lace. She wore jewels reminiscent of Rain Country winters.

She wore her hair down in elegant curls, with the braids behind her head arranged to form an image of a beautiful rose, with little drops of pearl to adorn them. She was matching with Duchess Heartfilia herself, only instead of a flower, the woman’s golden braids went around her head like a crown.

“Lady Juvia,” she heard Gray whisper, and she looked at him. “I just want to say that I’m proud, of how you chose to come here as you are.”

Juvia smiled. “Lord Gray is kind.”

He only inclined his head, amused. “Lord Gray is honored.”

She giggled, and as they were announced, she remembered Lucy’s lessons and held her head high.

She stepped into her new society as Lady Juvia Lockser. The last daughter of Rain Country.

.


.

Juvia’s reminiscing stopped when the music did. Oh, she had almost fallen asleep! She looked up to see why her husband had stopped playing, and had to smile at the sight of Duke Silver, carefully rocking a sleeping Brooke in his arms.

“We can take her now, My Lord.” Juvia offered, standing up.

“Oh, no, no!” Silver said in a whispering voice. “It is fine, I will take her to her crib. You two continue to… enjoy the moonlight. Or whatever you young lovers do. Good night!”

Gray chuckled. “Good night, old man.”

With that, the Duke left, cooing and whispering sweet nothings at Brooke. Juvia sat back down again. When they were sure that the man with the sleeping infant was far enough, Gray resumed playing.

This one was something Juvia hadn’t heard before, but it was familiar - ah. It was the one he had been playing, earlier, when she arrived.

“Is this one new?” she asked, voice soft, enjoying the playful, melody.

“Mm-hm.” he answered, focused on playing. “I call it ‘Wildflower’.”

Juvia tilted her head smiling. “Wildflower?”

“Yes. It just… happened. I had a sudden urge to play, and the melody came to me. It was after what Master Gajeel said, earlier.”

She blinked. “Master Gajeel? The Ambassador's escort?”

“Yes, your new friend. Remember, when he did that… thing… to Brooke? I asked him about it, afterwards, and he said-”

“Grow like a wildflower.” she finished for him. She realized belatedly that she had spoken in her mother language.

Gray raised a brow. “You remembered the actual words? You really are good with languages. I am terrible at them-”

She looked down, wringing her hands together. “I… I am not.”

Slowly, he stopped playing, and peered at her face. “Juvia? Are you alright?”

She hadn’t told him. About Gajeel. She was still thinking about whether to tell him or not, but he was her husband and they never liked keeping secrets.

“What Master Gajeel said...” she started, breathing deeply. “It is not the custom of Alvarez. It is the custom of Amefurashi.”

Gray’s brows furrowed as he faced her, fully. He took her hands, concerned at her sudden quiet. “What do you mean?”

Juvia looked up at him, eyes staring straight into his. “My Lord… Master Gajeel is not a new friend of Juvia's. He is an old one.”

.

Chapter Text

Duchess Heartfilia was not unused to surprise visits.

Over the years, her close association to Mad Duke Dreyar had already introduced her to some… unconventional company, some of whom cared less for pleasantries and could not be bothered to drop a missive in advance. It had been a struggle, during the first years, to restrict these visits from new ‘friends’. But over the years as her pristine reputation evolved from being the perfectly prim and proper young Darling of the Hill into a confidently well-connected socialite Duchess Heartfilia, the visits had been easier to excuse. Kind, accommodating Duchess Heartfilia… surely she would always welcome a guest, however uncalled for or unpleasant. Those were those people being shameless. After all, who doesn’t want to gain her favors? But, she was too well-groomed and proper to really associate with them personally, for certain!

Oh, how fortunate she was indeed that her public persona that would have been difficult to maintain as she grew older had somehow transitioned gracefully into one that fit her more. After all, she couldn’t keep being an innocent and demure sixteen year old forever. Her current reputation - more social, more confident, but still deceptively frivolous while still having perfect manners - she liked this much better.

This is why, when in the middle of a supposedly free day that had already been disrupted by one such surprise guest who she had been doing her best to… tolerate, she could only smile when she heard a distinct knock on her door.

“If you could give me a moment, my Lord.” she told the man fumbling and sitting across from her. A middle-aged nobleman from a less notable house with various ventures - really, why couldn’t it be an artist or a poet seeking sponsorship? They were always more fun.

She turned just as Capricorn opened the door and stepped inside the room.

“Duchess, your guest has arrived. Shall I show him in?” the man said, expression as neutral as always.

Ah.

Lucy was certain she had no guests being expected for the day, so this was another surprise visit. But Capricorn knew this too, and yet he spoke as if she had been expecting this person after all. This could only mean that Capricorn knew that she would welcome this one, whoever they may be. It was a man, her steward even supplied, considerate as ever. 

Oh, how fortunate she was to have a staff who knew well enough when to save her, and who knew how to do so with such subtlety.

She brought a hand to her chest and schooled her expression into one of pleased surprise. “My, is it that time already? Do show him in, please!”

Capricorn only nodded and then opened the door to let her guest in. Lucy stood up just and her face broke into the most delighted smile as she saw just who it was.

“Young Lord Fullbuster.” she greeted with a perfect curtsy, deriving great pleasure at emphasizing her friend’s title and name to see her other guest squirm before shooting up and bowing as well.

Gray, ever familiar with her false sweet tone, and not having expected to be greeted by it, looked between the woman and the other man across the room. He barely managed to politely bow his head, only driven by years of pleasantries. “D-Duchess. My Lord. I’m... sorry if I’m intruding, I can wait a while-”

Lucy quickly perked up, eyes bright and looking directly into his. “Nonsense. I’ve been looking forward to your visit since you sent that letter weeks ago!”

“You- I did?” Gray blinked, lost, but then Lucy held a hand out and he stepped forward and took it on instinct. When she squeezed, and gave him a smile with teeth , he instantly smiled back and continued, “I did! Send. That letter, yes, weeks. In advance. And you looked forward, yes. You did tell me that. In your reply, as well. Indeed.”

Her smile turned less threatening and more sweet now. “Oh, we have so much to discuss.”

“So much.” he nodded - he just… nodded at everything now.

“Important things, you said? About…”

He took a second to consider. “The country estates?”

“The country estates! Do you think the afternoon’s enough to get it all done?”

“Well, we have to try. My father-”

Duke Fullbuster. ” she enunciated, heavily.

The man across the room had started patting down his clothes now.

“-yes, he is counting on both of us. But really, I can wait, please don’t let me intrude on you and Lord…?” he gestured vaguely towards the nobleman.

“Straight.” the older man said, walking up to them. “Lord Straight. It is an honor to meet you, Lord Fullbuster. And… and, please! I do not wish to keep the Duchess from her… more… urgent business!”

In perfect sync, Gray and Lucy both shook their heads and waved their hands in the most considerate, patronizing manner as they assured the man that it was no trouble at all, they can both change their plans, they’d be willing to wait-

It served its purpose, making the man sweat harder as he bowed repeatedly in shame for bothering two of the youngest but brightest and most prominent people in their society from their notably more important meeting. Soon, he was bowing again to them, and Capricorn was dutifully ushering him out.

“Capricorn?” Lucy called before her house steward could close the door behind him. The man turned to her and she smiled. “Thank you.”

The steward only nodded knowingly and then left.

The door slid closed. Gray and Lucy looked at each other for several moments of silence before they both dissolved into laughter, clinging to each other.

Lucy led him to a divan as they settled down, catching their breaths.

“What was that?!” Gray asked, eyes wide, lips still twitching into a smile. “Was he that bad of a company?”

“Oh, it was dreadful!” Lucy laughed as she crossed the room to get the tea set from her earlier meeting, thankful that her staff always included a spare tea cup. She set the tray between them and Gray plucked a pastry as she poured him a cup. “He came over, you see, unsolicited and unexpected! He wanted to talk about business.”

Gray picked up his teacup and took a sip, then hummed in appreciation. As usual, only the finest for Duchess Heartfilia. “What business?”

“Oh, you know. Various little trade deals, nothing new, and nothing that I haven’t already dabbled in.” she said with a dainty shrug.

“Aren’t you used to business proposals by now? Even the bad ones?”

“Of course, but he’d been going on about it so patronizingly.” Lucy rolled her eyes, and Gray finally nodded in understanding. “I suppose he thought he could chance a lucky deal with Heartfilia, and he just went on and on even though I pretended I’m not very adept about it and told him he’d do better taking it up with my man of business. Perhaps he thought if he confused me enough, I'd say yes. And he kept mentioning his son, who is about my age, and very much unmarried.”

Gray snorted. “There it is.”

Lucy looked resigned. “It really sounded like he was trying to sell his poor son, with how he was describing him.”

He didn’t find it difficult to believe that. He already felt embarrassed for the young lord. “Did it at least sound like this son had potential?”

“Of course he only emphasized how good-looking and capable Young Lord Straight is.” she smiled into her teacup. “You know I try not to judge, but after that dreadful conversation, he might as well have ruined their chances, anyway.”

Gray only hummed in sympathy. He knew that Lucy was accustomed to these things - other nobles, mostly older men, trying to get into her good graces for favors and other offers. He also knew that Lucy did not always turn them down. The Duchess was a generous woman. One should only know how to ask.

Lord Straight certainly didn’t.

Fortunately for Your Lord Fullbuster, he had already been in Duchess Heartfilia’s good graces since they were but children.

“Enough about that now.” Lucy continued with a wave, and then sent a curious smile to her friend. “What brings Young Lord Fullbuster to my humble abode? I am glad to see you, of course, but you almost never do surprise visits.”

Gray took a moment, and Lucy waited for him with a serene smile on her face.

He sighed. “I want to say I’m only here because I missed you.”

“Mm.” she hummed, expression unruffled. “I suppose we don’t see each other enough these days, but that can easily be fixed. What can I do for you, Gray?”

“A favor.” he said, never one to delay the inevitable.

“I can already hear myself saying ‘yes’.” Lucy said, glancing at him. “Why me?”

“Because I trust you.” he answered. “And you like me.”

She looked amused. “Oh, very much.”

”And you’re better than me.”

“Now I wouldn’t say that.”

“Smarter, then.”

“I… am flattered that you’d say that.”

“It’s about Juvia.” he watched her smile twitch. “You probably guessed that. I’m predictable.”

“No, you’re reliable .” she reassured him. If that came from any other person, he’d feel patronized, but Lucy was honest. With him, anyway. “I just happen to know that there are very few things you find out of your depth, your wife being one of them. So, tell me what you need?”

“I need to send a message to a member of Ambassador Natsu’s staff.” She perked up - he could tell that wasn’t what she expected - then he added: “Discreetly.”

“Ah.” she looked intrigued as she looked sideways at him. “You know you’d need to tell me who.”

“His guard. Master Gajeel Redfox.”

She seemed to take that in for a moment. “I could ask why, but I won’t. Will it be alright for the Ambassador to know, or should it be kept from him too?”

Gray thought about it - Lucy just confirmed that she was indeed closer to the Ambassador than it would seem - and he was glad that just as he trusted her, she trusted him too. “Would it burden you, to keep a secret from him?”

Lucy turned to him this time, smile rueful. “What’s one more?”

Gray only shook his head, then shrugged. “So… will you be able to do it?”

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” she asked with a pout. “Of course, I know just the man for the job. There’s no one else I would trust with this.”

“I’m certain Bixlow will be happy to have business.”

“He always is. But that’s another thing. He wouldn’t report you, not really, but he still answers to one person first. So if his master asked, well...”

“Precisely why I need you to do it.”

“Because Laxus likes me?” Lucy laughed. “You know, Laxus quite likes you too.”

“Not as much as he likes you.”

She could see his point. “Very well. But, I also happen to know about something that might get you into his good favors. So that if ever he decides to be suspicious of this mystery message we’re having his man send, he might just… turn a blind eye to it.”

“And that is…?”

This time, her smile was mischievous. “We need some chairs.”

“Chairs?”

“And tables, if you’re feeling generous.” she said. “For the children.”

Child- Ah.

The school. Levy’s school. Laxus’ project, of which Lucy had gone to be quite invested in, too, actively recruiting sponsors, gathering funds.

Gray couldn’t help but chuckle. Chairs and tables, for a humble little school, for children. It wasn’t too much to ask. For the price of Duchess Heartfilia handing a little envelope to trusted hands that would guarantee that his message would reach its destination in total discretion. For the price of Mad Duke Dreyar, who had eyes and ears in all of the City and in Magnolia, overlooking this little transaction.

It was a good cause. Gray liked to think he would have done it, even without Lucy calling it a favor from him, even without needing to make a nice impression on Laxus. Besides, the school was Levy’s. Levy was a friend, and Gray liked to see his friends happy.

“All right, then.” he said, easy, relieved. “For the children.”

“Perfect!” Lucy smiled. “Bring me this message any time, and I will make sure it reaches Master Redfox.”.

.


.

A few days later, Lucy received a lovely white box. Two envelopes were carefully tucked to the royal blue ribbon wrapped around it.

One was sealed, and the other not. She took the note from the open envelope first.

‘Duchess -

My lady wife has decided that today is a day to be spent in the kitchen,
and who am I to deny, when it filled the house with such delicious smells?
She made one too many of her treats and we figured we should
share them with dear friends.
We hope perhaps you and your company would enjoy it,
whoever they may be.

Yours, G.F.’

Lucy smiled, and looked at the sealed envelope with knowing eyes, before pulling at the ribbon to open the box.

In one partition, there was a little bouquet of fresh winter blossoms. In the other-

“Oh!” she leaned forward, and savored the wonderful smell wafting from the box.

Behind her, she heard the rustling of blankets.

“Lucy, my darling,” a voice called, deep but sleep-soft. “What’s that heavenly smell?”

A grunt followed. Between the accent and the words muffled heavily by sheets, she could barely make out, “Mm. Heavenly is right.”

She turned to eye her ‘company’. One was sitting up and trying to bring order into his messy red-gold hair, while the other was rubbing his eyes and stretching like a cat, a tangle of dark freckled limbs against her white pillows.

“You two, come here.” she said. “Lady Fullbuster has sent us her famous cinnamon pastries!”

.

.


.

.

A little more than a week after Gajeel’s unexpected reunion with Lady Juvia, he received a message from her in a most unexpected manner.

It was a slow day in Ambassador House, and he had been recruited by Erza to accompany Wendy and a few young women in the staff to their trip to the town markets. It was purely for leisure, he figured, as he trailed after them while they flitted through stalls and shops for trinkets, fabric and jewelry that were all still unfamiliar to them.

It was then that a small set of footsteps caught up to walk beside him, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a little girl, head barely reaching past his waist, carrying a basket of colorful blooms.

"Buy a flower, good sir?" she asked, voice sweet and friendly. "Something for one of your lady companions?"

"No, thanks." he replied grouchily, not taking his gaze off his 'lady companions' who were currently on a stall a few paces away from him, fussing over dainty porcelain figurines.

The girl wasn't deterred, however. "Come now, good sir! These flowers are fresh and hand-picked only this morning! Here, this one is even wrapped, free of charge, only for you!"

Gajeel rolled his eyes. Street merchants always tested his patience. He opened his mouth to give a retort - gentle, because this was a child - but then he stopped short when he saw just what she was holding out.

Wrapped in cheap paper was a small bunch of pure white winter blossoms.

"See? I knew you would like this one!" the girl beamed as she thrust the bouquet at his hand. 

Taken aback, his fingers closed around the bouquet just so it wouldn't drop to the ground.

That was when he noticed.

He lifted the bouquet to squint at it, his grasp tightening, feeling for-... there. Unmistakable. An envelope, sealed.

He looked - really looked - at the girl this time. She had dark hair in practical braids, a simple dress fraying at some seams, worn boots and a hat entirely too big for her small head. It had more flowers on it.

Magnolias.

He couldn't help but scoff, then shake his head as he reached into his robes for his pouch. "You start so young, your sort."

She grinned, raising her hand palm up to receive the coin, only to gape when she saw how much he had paid her. "O-Oh! Uh, I... Thank you, sir, though... I might not have enough change... Um... Let me check-"

He rolled his eyes when she began patting her pockets and counting coins. "Forget about it, kid."

"But- I insist!"

"How 'bout this - you go give each of those girls-" he jabbed his thumb at Wendy's entourage of young ladies. "-one of your flowers. Will that cover it?"

She seemed to do a quick count of the group. "It's still too much..."

"I told you. Just take it."

The flower girl looked up at him with wide eyes - now less surprised and more curious - before she bowed her head. "Thank you for your business."

"Don't mention it. Now, shoo."

As the girl went to distribute her flowers to the young ladies, Gajeel took the moment to tuck the bouquet safely inside his robes, making sure the envelope was safe and secure in it. He heard several exclamations from his company, the girls flustered and pleased at the surprise, some complimenting the little flower girl. Wendy, arguably the one among them who knew him best, was blinking at him as if he had grown two heads. He only shrugged, crossing his arms across his chest.

The flower girl ran back to him, brandishing her now empty basket at him. "How generous, they bought the rest of my merchandise!"

He snorted. "Good for you."

His lady companions were approaching him now, and the girl took that as her cue to leave. "If you happen to need more flowers, for your ladies, I'll be here everyday, sir. Same spot!"

Then a bunch of excitable young ladies were up in his face and thanking him for the sweet gesture, and talking about how kind the General is to buy from the little flower girl, who, in the blink of an eye, had disappeared from his sight.

Gajeel could only sigh. They really do start so young.

.


.

"-and all my flowers were gone for the day! Just like that!"

Bixlow grinned as he tossed a coin in the air and watched the child catch it in her basket. He reached over and playfully tugged at her too-big hat, making her giggle.

"Nicely done, Asuka."

.


.

The first thing Gajeel did, upon reaching his private chambers, was to put the flowers in water.

Then, he read the letter.

Then, he read it again.

Then, he made a decision.

.


.

Prince Natsu was lounging in a hammock in the gardens, eyes closed. Somewhere else in Ambassador House, someone was singing a Vistari song while their companion played an instrument to accompany them. Natsu was humming along to the familiar music all-too happily.

Gajeel stopped only a few steps away and did not bother for pleasantries. "I'm going to take a day off, a few days from now."

"Hm, good afternoon to you too, General Redfox." Natsu said, not opening his eyes. "I'm sure Sting would be happy to arrange your schedule."

"You're not going to ask why?"

A shrug. "You won't tell me anyway."

"How do you know that?"

"Have you met you?" Natsu's laugh was teasing. "Eh. Rogue will know anyway. He always does. And he'll tell me if it's something terrible, like if you were scheming against me or whatever."

Gajeel scoffed. "I don't scheme."

"Exactly!" Natsu grinned. "If you were going to murder me, you'll just do it. So I'm not worried."

Gajeel just stood there, trying to figure out if he was being made fun of. This was too easy. But then, Natsu seemed very much at ease, indeed. "Fine."

"Fine?"

"Fine. I'm going to tell Sting."

Natsu only hummed in response, and Gajeel turned to leave. “Enjoy!”

.


.

The flower girl was there the next day, in the same spot, as promised.

She was all too happy to accept his message and hide it in her basket.

This also meant that he returned with a bunch of red roses. The girl had insisted.

When he came across Erza making her way along the halls, he shoved the bunch in her arms. "For you."

The Mighty Titania almost dropped her sword to clutch at the flowers. "G-Gajeel! What-?"

"They're like your hair." 

"O-Oh? Um... Well. Thank you? This is... sweet... of you."

He grunted in reply, then kept walking.

.


.

.

The dark carriage was barely visible through the fog. This early, even before the sunset, the outskirts of the City was covered in gray and white.

It was cold, but Gajeel had definitely been to colder places.

(He had grown up in colder places.)

Nevertheless, he huddled close to his thick black cloak. He was thankful that he had the foresight to not wear the majority of his piercings. The reason he was able to get away with so many of them in the first place was that Alvarez had hot weathers, after all.

As he got nearer, he finally noticed the tall figure standing beside the carriage. He could not make out the person's face under the hood and the scarf, but he could see a grin.

"Ah, Master Redfox! Just in time." He knocked twice on the carriage door before opening it. "Please, get in!"

Gajeel saw Lady Juvia inside, looking at him with a small smile, bundled in her own dark cloak. Beside her sat Lord Gray, who regarded him with a different recognition in his eyes. Gajeel climbed inside and sat across the couple.

Then, Gray leaned towards their companion and said, "Take us there, please."

"Yes, milord-master-for-the-day." came the reply, before the man closed the carriage door again.

Gray shook his head, but he looked amused. A few moments later, they heard the tell-tale neigh of horses, and then they were moving.

Lady Juvia spoke up first. "I'm grateful you accepted our offer, Master Gajeel."

Gajeel shook his head. "I'm the one who should be thankful, My Lady." he realized belatedly that he addressed her in their dialect again, and his eyes shot up to look at Lord Gray's.

Juvia was quick to catch the tension. "Lord Gray knows. I told him. I hope... I hope you'll forgive me, but he's the one I trust most. Him and Duke Fullbuster have shown me nothing but kindness ever since Father entrusted me to their care."

Gray nodded. "You have nothing to worry about, Master Gajeel. We had always expressed our disagreement with the ruling against... against the late Lord Lockser, and your people. I do hope you'll excuse all the..." at that, he trailed off, waving a hand vaguely.

Gajeel took pity and finished for him. "I understand why it's needed, if that's what you're getting at." He eyed Lady Juvia, who looked down at her lap, lips pursed. "Our people were punished because they believed we practiced magic. And now I'm here, representing an empire proud of it."

This was why he wasn't surprised with all the measures taken to secure that this meeting would be discreet. For Lady Juvia, the last daughter of the old Rain Country, even the smallest association with anyone from Alvarez could start speculation.

Gajeel's gaze traveled towards Gray. "You're taking quite a risk here."

It was Juvia who answered him. "They know this is important to me."

Gajeel accepted that, knowing it was too late to stop it now, anyway. "And the coachman?"

Gray shrugged. "Someone we trust, too."

The rest of the ride was filled with small talk. Juvia asked about life in Alvarez and how the Ambassador's staff had been faring in the City so far. Gajeel entertained her questions with curt answers of his own, which she accepted easily, perhaps remembering that he had never been one to talk so much. Sometimes they slipped into their dialect, and Gray did not seem to mind missing the conversation.

Then the carriage stopped. The door opened, and Gray looked at his companions. "I think it's best that I stay here."

Juvia looked at him and smiled. "Lord Gray is kind." He only took her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckle before he turned towards Gajeel and nodded.

Gajeel would have to say he appreciated this little gesture, and even without being told, he knew that this spoke less about Lord Gray's trust in him and more about the man's trust in his wife's judgment.

Gajeel climbed off the carriage and instinctively turned back to offer his hand to his former mistress to help her down.

When she thanked him, he felt a chill in his spine that had nothing to do with the cold. In the fog, he could almost pretend that this was years ago, in the forests of their home, Juvia still the young girl who'd brave climbing up fallen trees and rocks too tall and precarious for her because she knew he'd be there to help her down.

It was the same memory that he had dreamt of, weeks ago.

As they started walking, her arm looped around his and guiding him through the fog, he asked, "Where are we, again?"

"A small town just outside of Crocus. Public graveyard. Duke Fullbuster said that many soldiers were buried here during a civil war, so people from other towns visited all the time and the townsfolk would not look twice at strangers."

Gajeel grunted. "Wise."

"It was not just Father we laid to rest here. Some of the guards and retainers whose bodies Duke Fullbuster managed to recover, they also rest here."

"And the rest of the others that you... lost track of?"

"We don't know exactly, but I was told they were probably put in one criminal's grave and burned." Juvia heaved a heavy sigh first before continuing. "We don't know how many. Nobody cared to count. But the ones here, at least, even though their graves had to be unnamed, they had their own tombstones. They were people, who had lives of their own."

Bypassing protocol - yet again - he raised his other hand to lay it on top of hers. She sniffled, a quiet, soft thing, and only leaned her head against his arm as they walked on.

.


.

There were about thirty unmarked graves, all in a row. Gajeel couldn't have known who they belonged too, and neither could Juvia. She said she had been in the throes of grief then, and Duke Fullbuster had not told her about them until she had snapped out of her isolation and asked about her Father and their men.

Thirty bodies bound for a criminals' grave - it had to have been expensive, to bribe the right people to obtain them, to transport them, to bury them in decent graves and not tell superior officers.

Not for the first time, Gajeel was left impressed at how much Duke Fullbuster had done for his people. Now he understood why the man was called the Benevolent Duke.

Juvia stood back as Gajeel knelt in front of one of them to pay his respects. Now, with the fog thinning and the first few rays of sun providing light, he saw that the tombstone was not blank, no - instead, there was a carving of a single winter blossom in each of them.

He touched the one in front of him and took a deep breath.

If he had stayed, if he had fought and failed and died and ended up in one of these graves...

He'd have no name. 

But he'd have a flower, at the very least. One that only bloomed in the land he'd fought for.

And that, Gajeel decided, that would have been enough.

.


.

Lord Lockser's grave was not entirely different from the others. A tombstone, unnamed, but the flower was there, and this time there were carvings in the borders of the stone - snowflakes, vines, raindrops and waves. There was still candle wax on a corner and long-dried flower petals around it. Signs of a recent visit.

Juvia was the first to kneel down, reaching out to trace the carvings gently. "Father, look who I brought with me." she said, voice soft, melancholy. "It's Master Redfox's son. He's been to all sorts of places, and has made a name for himself in the Alvarez Empire. He's a General, Father! You'll be quite proud."

Gajeel only watched her. Really, like this, she looked more like her mother than the girl Gajeel remembered, and his throat locked up as the image of the two blurred together. Lady Lockser had died when they were very young children but her beauty had always been the subject of adoration among their people. Gajeel had seen the family portraits often enough to remember the woman's face and to agree with her reputation.

Lord Lockser used to say that his daughter would grow into a fine woman as beautiful and graceful as his wife, and he never got to see it.

Deciding that he'd break down if he waited any longer, Gajeel finally knelt beside his former mistress.

"Lord Lockser, I have come to pay my respects." he said, bowing his head as if the very man was right in front of him. He had to take a deep breath before he could continue. "I have been away for a long time, but I would never forget the oath I took to serve and protect you. Instead, you were the one who protected me, and that was how I was still able to make a new life for myself."

He looked to his side and met Juvia's dark eyes - ones she got from her father - and after a moment he laid a hand on the tombstone as well.

"I have a new purpose, one that I am proud of, and that is all thanks to your sacrifice."

Beside him, he could feel Juvia shaking, could hear her hiccup and sniff. When he reached out, she took his hand and held on to it. When she swayed, he wrapped his arm around her and tucked her to his side, letting her cry against his chest. He had nothing to say, and perhaps there was nothing to say anymore, at this point.

Though his throat felt tight, and his cheeks were wet, he felt that for the first time since he came back, he could finally breathe.

.


.

.

The walk back to the carriage was less tense, and was filled with an easier banter, both of them feeling lighter. Juvia asked how he received her letter - it seemed like she really did not know how it was delivered, only that it did get to her intended recipient.

So he told her about the precocious little flower girl, and she listened, amazed and thoroughly entertained.

"Real smart of them to use the winter blossoms." he said. "How in the world did you get them to grow out here, anyway? I always thought that was impossible. How good was your gardener?"

Juvia hummed. "It was indeed difficult to grow them. They'd always wither within the week! The gardener had been working very hard, and so I decided to help him. He'd always talk to the flowers, and I asked him why he did it. He said it'll make them grow if they know they are loved." she laughed, wistful. "In those days, I am still not fluent in their dialect, so I talked in ours. I even sang to them songs from home. Then, eventually, they began to last for longer, until we were able to grow them healthily!"

"That's it? No tricks, just a lot of attention and... singing?"

"Yes! Can you believe it?"

Gajeel thought about it. He'd heard stranger things. It wasn't the first time he'd heard of people talking to plants, either.

"I can, actually." he said.

"The gardener said maybe the plants recognized my songs and decided to lay down roots when they realized they are not alone this far away from home." Juvia continued. "He was quite superstitious." 

He shrugged, and debated for a while if he should continue. Deciding it wouldn't do any harm, he began to tell her about the herb nursery in the Sky Dragon's Nest. He had been there, once or twice for some mundane reason he couldn't recall now - and apprentices sang as they watered the plants, claiming they would be healthier. Then again, those songs were laced with magic. He had felt it in the air in there, warm and nurturing, not only affecting the plants but the people in the vicinity.

"The Alvarez Empire truly sounds like a magical place." she said, then shook her head laughingly. "But here is very different, I'm sure! We might have simply gotten lucky with the winter blossoms. Fullbuster House is at the highest peak in the Hill and therefore the coldest place in the City. I wouldn't know magic songs!"

"Yeah." he nodded. "You wouldn't."

But the plants would, he wanted to say. The Land would.

As they walked the rest of the way into the carriage, Juvia started humming, and then singing a song he remembered from their childhood. Her voice was soft and sweet, soothing like the mountains and rainforests he remembered from their homeland.

As she sang, he could not help but feel more aware of their surroundings - the fog had cleared now, but the wind remained chilly. The skies ahead have hints of gray. It was definitely going to rain later in the day. The grass beneath their feet, to his eyes, were an unexpectedly vibrant shade of green. It felt more... alive, for some reason.

As he listened, there was that underlying sensation again, creeping under his skin - new but familiar, cool and slow - steadying his breath. Again, he could smell pine and rainforest.

In his ears echoed words he remembered hearing before, across the sea, in Alvarez. He'd often hear them in a quiet wistful voice that accompanied gentle fingers and magic that sent him peaceful dreams. Lady Zera.

'The people may so quickly forget, but the Land will always remember.'

Ah.

He hadn't been sure before, but he felt pretty certain now.

Magic may not be alive in the land of Fiore, but it wasn't completely lost either.

It didn't die. It simply changed.

.

.


.

.

More than a week later, the flower girl came to him with another letter, tucked once again beneath fresh, lovely winter blossoms.

He took it and sent her off with another generous payment, told her to buy herself and her friends nice afternoon snacks.

He idly wondered if he was spoiling the kid.

The next day, she was there, ready to take his response. He handed her the envelope, in exchange for another little bouquet that he was now wondering what to do with - maybe give it to Wendy this time, or to Natsu, just to see his reaction - that would be entertaining. Probably.

Before she could take her leave, he said, "Wait."

The girl turned back to him, blinking bright eyes.

He crouched down to get to her eye level and beckoned her to step closer. "I need your help with one other thing."

Cautiously, she stepped forward and let him whisper to her ear.

He watched her blink, then squint at him, cheeks pinched and mouth pouting in scrutiny. It was quite adorable, on such a tiny face. "Well?" he asked, expectant.

She seemed to make up her mind, nodding to herself first. "She lives in the same place as always, but this time of day, she'll be in the school. You should visit in the late afternoon, if you want to catch her. Or in the evening, but not too late, as often she would go to the Laughing Dolls to revel with friends."

He stared. "Revel."

"Yes."

"That's a big word for someone so small."

She looked indignant. Again, adorable, on someone so small. "I am well-read!"

He chose to indulge her on that. "Oh, I don't doubt it."

"Are you going to visit her in the evening?" she said, blinking. "Are you that sort of fellow, good sir?"

Gajeel determinedly stopped himself from asking the small child what she could possibly mean by 'that sort of fellow'. He was not going to have this discussion with her. No.

She didn't seem to mind his lack of response. Instead, she perked up and to his surprise, grabbed the bouquet from his hands. "Anyway. These won't do, I think." Quickly, she wrapped a bunch of different flowers and then shoved the new bundle to him. "Here! These are her favorites."

She beamed again, and thanked him for his patronage - 'patronage', he repeated in his head, she really was well-read - then, before he could say anything more, she was gone once again.

.


.

There was a couple very much tangled with each other on the landing. Their wandering hands and the sounds they were making didn't leave much question to what they were doing.

They also simply didn't seem to notice Gajeel, who only let himself stop for one second before determinedly continuing his climb up the stairs of the homey, cozy apartment, deciding to scrub the image from his mind. Magnolia, full of surprises.

The door he stopped on was clean with a fresh layer of paint, but the wreath of dried flowers that hung on it was the same from years ago. He clutched the stupid little bouquet in his hand. He didn't realize how that would make him look, turning up on someone's door with one, but it was too late. He knocked anyway.

Levy McGarden opened the door, and he almost made an audible sigh of relief as he took her in. She looked more like the woman he remembered with her messy hair and stained apron, ink smudged on her fingers and cheek.

She looked surprised to see him, but quickly greeted him with a smile much warmer than the carefully measured one from their last encounter. "I was wondering when you'd show up."

"Well. Sorry I'm late, then." he scoffed, looking away as he offered her the bouquet.

"Oh?" she blinked as she accepted the gift. "For me?"

"Why else would I hand it to you?"

She hummed as she smelled the flowers. "Mm. It seems like your stay overseas hasn't changed you much, Master Redfox." She stepped aside and opened her door to let him in. "Still, I'm glad to see you're doing well."

"A credit to your work. The papers did their job." he said, stepping inside and examining the cozy receiving room. Not much has changed from his vague memory of the place. Fresh paint, some new furniture, definitely new tools and stacks of paper in the busy, messy desk, but the room retained its homely, lived-in feel. It was still an artist's workshop.

When he turned to her, she was putting the flowers in water, arranging them carefully. "I am really quite touched that you thought to bring me a gift."

"Don't flatter yourself. I had it on hand."

"You had my favorite flowers on hand?"

He paused. "Well. A little flower girl sold it to me. You probably know her. Tiny brat. Big hat. Sharp brain. Sharper tongue."

"Ah! I do know her. Her mother's a good friend." Levy laughed as she crossed the room to cover up her latest works, then grabbed a tray and set it down on her dining table. "Tea? Refreshments?" He shook his head and she shrugged, setting about on pouring tea for one. "And what business does an Alvarez Empire general have that he's been associating with our little Asuka?"

So that was her name, huh. He really should have asked, before. He shook his head. "Gods, you start them so young." 

Levy gestured to the seat across hers and he obliged, though he kept his arms crossed across his chest. She recognized the unease in his voice and only looked down at her teacup, stirring. "You shouldn't be so surprised. No one grows up in Magnolia, Master Redfox. One survives."

"And is that what you were doing, that day, in the meeting with your fancy Duchess friend? Surviving?"

She did not so much as flinch at his words while taking a sip of her tea. When she put it down, she looked him in the eyes. "Yes, just like what you did all those years ago when you came to me with nothing but a sword in your hip and an offer to cut anyone in exchange for papers to leave everything you know behind you. Does your Prince know of what you did to get you on that ship to his land?"

He looked at her with wide eyes, not having expected such a sharp, cutting response.

Just then, he is struck with a reminder of what had caught him so off-guard with this soft gentle-faced woman, all those years ago. He is reminded of why he had been cautious to even approach her back then, and how he was quick to offer all he could to be in her favors.

Across from him sat the most powerful person in Magnolia. No one said it, not out loud, but he knew. Everyone knew. It wasn't the Mad Duke, no, those who believed that were so, fundamentally wrong and did not truly understand how the denizens of the little island worked. It was Levy McGarden, with the kind eyes and smudged cheeks, who really held Magnolia in her ink-stained hands. There was more to the woman's reputation than just being a master forger and kindly landlady. He was fortunate that he learned those early back then.

But just as quick as that fierceness came out, it also disappeared.

She looked just as surprised at her outbust, and closed her eyes and looked away, clearly regretting her words. "I-... I'm sorry. That's... that's different-"

"No, you're right-"

"I'm not. You were-... You were running for your life, then. Mine is not nearly as bad as that. It's just... business. That I am quite protective of. It's been a long day and I've been short." she ran a hand through her hair and smiled at him, shy, almost sheepish. "I know I must have looked suspicious that day. Someone from Magnolia, stepping inside so freely in a Hill mansion. The last time you saw me, you'd had to kill for me. I understand why you'd keep your guard up, you were there to protect the Ambassador. Does he... does he know about your past here?"

He figured it was as honest as he could get, from a woman whose expertise lay in deceit. A truth for a truth, he allowed himself to admit, "He does. So no, I wasn't worried about you exposing me or anything. I wasn't suspicious. I guess I was just... surprised. To see you there, looking so different."

She allowed that, a hint of pink on her cheeks. "I didn't quite fit in, did I?"

Gajeel wasn't the most well-versed with women, but he recognized self-deprecation when he saw it. "No!" he replied quickly. "You... Well. You clean up nicely?"

She blinked at him, and actually burst out in laughter, and that just made him feel worse - terrible - embarrassed. "Thank you!" she said, thoroughly amused. "You clean up nicely, too. Did I get it right, you are a General now?"

He couldn't help but squirm in his seat a little. It always felt different, when people who knew him from before were the ones to give him compliments. "Yes. I... fought in a war. We won. Got promoted for not dying."

"Mm. You say that, but I'm sure a known military empire doesn't give such cheap promotions." she mused, eyes now visibly studying him. "Those robes I saw you in were expensive."

"Job benefits."

She chuckled, as if he said something funny.

Levy McGarden really was a strange one, he decided. She found him funny, for one. Gajeel knew he was particularly un-funny. In the short time he'd stayed with her to serve as her protector while she made his papers, he'd seen equally eccentric folks come and go. He called them crazy. She called them friends. In speaking of friends-

"The school." he said, as if only remembering it now. "Nat- The Ambassador mentioned you were there with the Duchess gathering sponsors for your school. That little girl also mentioned it. You built a school, here?"

"Yes." she said. "Believe it or not, that really was my business going into that meeting, nothing more. It's a school for the children here. Educate them so they might qualify for jobs in the Middle City, the ones that require how to read and write. And also to keep them off the streets. Well... as much as you could keep a Magnolia child off the streets, anyway."

He believed that, easily. At the heart of it, dangerous as it was with its rules of survival, Magnolia was still a community, and he had seen firsthand how Levy protected any child she came across.

In the end, he only said, "It would help if you didn't pay the rats so much to scamper all over the place as part of your schemes."

Belatedly, he realized that was a bit hypocritical of him. He'd been doing just that with one of those so-called rats, after all.

Levy shrugged. "What's a tip for a job well done, every now and then?"

They were silent after that, as if they'd run out of things to discuss, even though there had been years between them. But then, there had been even less before that. They had never been close - they'd known each other too fleetingly, for too short a time, to have grown any sort of attachment.

Though they did share that one night, before-

No. Not the time, Gajeel.

"So..." she started, voice quieter, as she tipped her cup this way and that, watching the liquid inside just swirl. "Is that the only reason for this visit? To make sure I wasn't up to some nefarious scheme that might compromise your Prince?"

Oh. That.

He had almost forgotten that he actually did not call on her to reminisce, or to investigate, or to flirt- wait, no, he was not flirting. He was not.

"Actually, it's for business." he said.

"Oh." she blinked. "Fancy that, what kind of document could you possibly need manufactured, General and Protector of the Ambassador from Alvarez?"

"Nothing to do with that." he snorted. "I have a life, you know, outside of my job."

That made her smile. "You continue to be full of surprises. Master Redfox."

"Whatever. I need to acquire something. Wood." he said. "From a tree that only grew in the Amefurashi mountains. Not a lot of it, maybe just a piece, the size of firewood, or something."

She looked intrigued, pursing her lips, looking thoughtful. "And why couldn't you get this wood on your own from one of the artisans in the market who'd probably know better?"

"I need it acquired in utmost discretion."

"Oh- You'd have to forgive me, I am terribly curious about this-"

He sighed. "It's tradition. Every child from Rain Country receives a token to celebrate the first year of their birth. They'd keep it with them to adulthood. It is hand-carved on wood from trees that grow on our mountains. The child's parents choose a person to make the token, usually one of their guards or a retainer they're close to. It's one of the highest honors there is, something like your tradition of choosing a child's godfather-"

She listened to him, rapt, but before he could continue, she stood up and headed to her desk, opening drawers in a hurry, rummaging through them until she found what she was looking for. She came back to him and laid something on the table between them. "Is it something like this?"

Gajeel took a breath as he looked at it - it was clearly old, specially the designs, but he recognized the familiar motifs, the distinct color and texture of the wood and the distinctive braid pattern of the fraying tassle that hung from it. It was clearly a token made by someone from his homeland.

"Y-Yes. They're... believed to ward off evil and harm..." he trailed off, then looked up at her. "Where did you get this from?"

"Family heirloom. My great-grandfather, remember? Though I don't remember anyone else in the family having one, so perhaps the tradition stopped with him." she said, sitting across him again. "I didn't know what it was, really. I just admired the craftsmanship."

"Well... Yes. So, you know what I am trying to do here."

"You are going to carve a token for a child? Who- Oh." she stopped, and for a while, she just stared at him, one expression morphing to another. He caught realization, doubt, worry then ultimately, relief. "Oh, I'm glad you found each other."

He looked down, brows furrowed as he studied the token in his hands. "You know her?"

"We're... I'd say we're friends, despite... the differences." she said, voice soft. "She was so lonely for so long, you know. I mean it, I am glad you found each other." She smiled, eyeing the token in his hands. "Why did you come to me, to get you the wood?"

"Like I said, discretion. And... you already knew me, and- Well. Did you forget that you took me shopping with you, once?"

"I... did, yes?"

"You acquired a whole shitload of suspicious objects for your various jobs and no one questioned it."

"Ah." she said, then laughed, almost uneasy. Was that the reputation she had with this man? "Well... Job benefits?"

He shrugged. "I'll pay. Handsomely. Like, chocolate money. Or do you prefer silks? Feathers?"

She didn't hesitate to bargain. He was right - this, she could do. It would be so easy to do. She already had at least five different cover stories made up for when she'd inquire about the item. "Chocolate and money."

"Fine. Chocolate and money."

She smiled, sweet and sincere. "Then you have a deal."

.


.

The Hand of Magnolia worked fast. A mere three days later, Gajeel had little Asuka tugging at his sleeve. She offhandedly told him that the Magnolias by the river are ready for picking.

"Got that. Thank-"

"So you are that kind of fellow, good sir-" He quickly tugged the girl's hat down - it was enough to cover her face. She yelped and quickly tried to swat at his hands. "A-Ah! Bad sir!"

"Kid, I'm begging." Gajeel grumbled as he fought off an indignant blush. "Read less."

.


.

She handed him the package, neat and secured with rope. It was small, perhaps the size of two pieces of chopped firewood.

In return, he gave her a pouch of coins and a smaller packet of Vistarion's best chocolate. He took it from the kitchens. With the abundance of the thing, he doubted anyone would miss it.

"Happy carving!" she said, too happy as she smelled the chocolate and sighed.

Gajeel rolled his eyes. "Thank you. I might ask you for more if I screw this up. I am a shitty artist."

Her head shot up then, eyes wide as she looked at him. "I'm... not."

They stared at each other for a few long moments. Then, Levy stepped aside and pulled the door open wider.

Gajeel took a deep breath.

"How much for an... art.... consultation?"

Levy's smile was amused. "It's in the house."

"No."

"Well. All right, if you teach me how to brew this delicious chocolate-"

"Unacceptable. Name your price."

This time, she was the one to roll her eyes.

"Fine. Last time, you mentioned feathers..."

"I did."

With that, he finally stepped inside, with purpose.

.

.

.

fin