In which flowers carry messages
Gray seeks a friend’s help to send a message. Gajeel meets a little girl selling flowers. Levy has a visitor.
hi sorry i’m late my writing ability was in quarantine
anyways – i’ve kept y’all long enough. LAST CHAPTER. LET’S GO.
FORMATTING NOTE: “Italicized dialogue” means the characters are speaking in another language or dialect than the local one used in Crocus.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“And tables, if you’re feeling generous.” she said. “For the children.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.’
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.”
“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.”
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?”
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.”
“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…”
With that, he finally stepped inside, with purpose.
yey, a surprise asuka-chan!
it took almost a year to write this whole thing. i lost my dad early in january 2019, so when i was writing late last year, juvia’s parts were really hitting too close to home and i had to distance myself from it. then came this year, and the quarantine has been a real stressful time for me. i never really got back into the right headspace to continue this fic until recently. but gods am i ever grateful to every one of you who stuck by it!
thank you so much to everyone who’s been sending love to this here super niche little series! this is really slow going, and i’m not very active in the fandom anymore. truth be told, i’m not quite sure if i’ll be writing more for this series – i do still have outlines of other stories, though. so maybe, if the inspiration strikes, i’ll pick it up bit by bit.
with that – thanks for reading, don’t be a stranger, and leave a comment, i love hearing for y’all! <333