In which there is a tearful reunion
The Ambassador attends a meeting in Fullbuster House. Gajeel accompanies him, and is greeted by some familiar faces.
FORMATTING NOTE: “Italicized dialogue” means the characters are speaking in another language or dialect than the local one used in Crocus.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
When she reached out, took his hand and tugged, he followed.
Gajuvia friendship fuels me, always.
Next week – an inside look at the Fullbusters’ lives!