AN: THE END IS NIGH. No, seriously. This is it, folks. It's the final chapter, and it's a long one, so buckle up for the conclusion to the biggest project I have undertaken on this site since I began writing. It's been a year of cliffhangers and plot-twists, but also a year of tons of inspiring feedback and incredible fanworks the likes of which I have never seen. So to all of you, THANK YOU SO MUCH, be you a long-time lurker, new reader, follower, reviewer or fanartist. I hope you've enjoyed the ride; it's been a pleasure writing for you!
Disclaimer: I do not own Fairy Tail or its characters – Hiro Mashima does.
Lily wouldn't lie and say he'd seen it coming.
At least not to Gajeel. As far as everyone else was concerned, he'd seen it coming from the moment he'd first caught sight of them together, that day in the Pit that seemed a lifetime ago now. But he knew just as well as Gajeel did, that though there'd been sparks between them even then, the thought that Lily would be attending a wedding a short year later hadn't even crossed his mind, it had been so far-fetched.
And yet...here he was.
Raising his mug to his lips, he allowed his eyes to drift across the room to the couple sitting at the main table, surrounded on all sides by well-wishers – much to Gajeel's dismay, going by the throbbing vein in his forehead. He caught his friend's desperate look, but only smiled, turning his gaze away in silent betrayal. Closing his eyes, he let the din wash over him – the thrum of eager voices and the smooth tones of the band playing in the corner. And not for the first time since the celebrations had begun did Lily feel every single year of his life pressing down on his shoulders.
It wasn't that he carried any misconceptions about his own age. On the contrary, he was well aware of how old he was getting. But training in the Pit with boys a third his age had always made him feel young despite the decades weighing down on him.
Watching one of those boys get married, though...
Throwing another glance over at Gajeel's table, he could almost make his eyes see the scruffy, scrawny and dirty teenager who'd made his ramshackle gym his home a short decade ago. But there was nothing scruffy or dirty about the man sitting across the room from him now, grinning despite his aversion to celebrations of any kind, and silently tolerating the guests loitering at his elbow for his new wife's sake. He'd grown up, and cleaned up, and gone and found himself a posh upper-class girl to marry. It was almost nostalgic.
And it hurt like a well-aimed punch to the ribs.
"Hey, baby grand."
Turning his gaze back to the bar, he found Cana leaning against it, a cigarette between her gloved fingers and a sly smile on her face. But the eyes regarding him from beneath the heavily bejewelled headband covering her forehead carried none of their usual teasing glint.
The hurt roiled within him, and Lily let a smile curl his lip, the motion coming naturally after years of practice. "Cana." Ignoring the look in her eyes, he motioned to the mug in his hands. "I'm tired of ale. You got some old scotch to soothe an old man?"
That made her raise a brow, and her lips quirked upwards. "Not that old, I'm afraid. You're going to have to settle with something from my generation, Father Time." Reaching below the counter, she retrieved a decanter and a tumbler. "That okay with you?"
Lily shrugged. "Anything would taste good now, I'd wager."
She frowned. "Yer awfully morose today. Somethin' eatin' ya?"
He shook his head. "Old regrets. A fine day to nurse them, or so I've heard."
She snorted. "Sure, but you're not the type to let someone else's good luck make ya grummy. And you being the best man and everythin'." She watched him closely for a moment, before her dark eyes widened almost comically. Slapping a hand down on the bartop, she leaned towards him, eyes alight with disbelief and curiosity. "Don't tell me ya carried a torch fer dollface!"
Lily barked a laugh, humoured by her constant search for gossip. "Alas, no. Sweet as she is, she's a little young for me. And I don't think those two need any more obstacles in their path, with all that's happened. I'm happy for them."
"Sure don't look it." Crossing her arms on the counter, Cana leaned her weight on them, tilting her head. "Could it be...you're remembering some old flame of yer own? Ya never said if you'd ever been married."
Lily shrugged, raising his glass and looking into the contents, avoiding her gaze. "I haven't."
"...Is that it then? Ya didn't get to marry her, but ya wanted to?"
He threw her a sidelong glance. "Who said there was even a 'her' to talk about?"
Cana snorted. "Baby grand, I've manned this bar since the Ban went through. Ya don't think I can spot a broken heart in a man? Please." Her self-satisfied smirk was distinctly cat-like, but it was only there a second before it vanished. "What I can't tell is the how. Did she leave ya at the altar? Or for another man? Ya don't seem the type to send a girl runnin' fer the hills." The last was accompanied by a playful wink, but her look was oddly serious.
Lily said nothing to her query. It was painfully blunt, but he'd known her long enough to know that that was just Cana's way. Of course, that didn't make it hurt any less, to think that if only either of those alternatives had been the actual case.
Sighing, Lily closed his eyes, as if to physically remove the image of the familiar face; the wide, grey eyes and the white-blonde hair. Instead he found himself looking at Cana's dark hair and equally dark eyes, regarding him curiously from across the counter. But he didn't say anything, not to explain himself or to excuse himself from the conversation. He'd only been honest about his past with a handful of people, and as much as he liked Cana, he preferred her teasing to the pity his story would no doubt earn him.
Unsurprisingly, because for all her bluster she knew how to respect people's privacy when it mattered, Cana only nodded, and without further ado, refilled his tumbler. No more words were said between them, and he was left to his own thoughts again.
"Oye, Alberona! We're outta wine over here!"
Throwing him one last, lingering look, the brunette left him at the bar, hollering across the room even as she made a grab for the bottles lined up at the counter. Lily watched her go, moving towards Gajeel and Levy's table. He'd just noticed the former missing when he sensed the presence at his elbow, but didn't turn his head to greet his friend as he leaned against the bar, arms crossed ostentatiously over his chest.
"Nice party you're throwing," Lily mused after a moment of silence, throwing a sideways glance towards his friend. Gajeel smirked, but didn't meet his gaze, busy watching his new wife at the table he'd just left. Cana had taken his empty chair, and was busy refilling Levy's glass despite her protesting motions.
"I don't throw parties."
Lily snorted. "Then it's a good thing she does, or this would be one sorry excuse for a wedding."
Gajeel shrugged. "Suggested eloping, but the shrimp wouldn't hear of it."
There was the hurt again – aching, like a phantom limb. The word leaped out at him, stuck to his mind like a brand – eloping–
–"woman threatened ta force me into a bloody tux–"
"I'll go to Magnolia..."
"–told her I'd wear a suit but that's it–"
"...and you'll come with me."
"Oye, Lil, you listenin'?"
Opening his eyes, Lily turned to look at his friend, avoiding his gaze by focusing on his suit. "I see you got away with it."
Gajeel glared. "The hell's that supposed ta mean? Like I wouldn't?"
Lily shrugged, the shadows of a grin lurking at the corners of his mouth. "I didn't say that."
"Yer thinkin' it."
"I'm thinking about a lot of things."
Gajeel said nothing to that, and Lily wondered if his line of thinking was visible on his face, given that the man beside him was far from perceptive. He tried schooling his features into a casual smile, but going by the look on Gajeel's face, the damage had already been done.
"Didn't ask," Gajeel grumbled.
Lily smirked. "You were thinking it."
"Yeah, yeah." Gajeel muttered, before his gaze was drawn across the room again, to the white-clad, laughing shape still seated at the table. "Just thought I'd check up on ya." He cleared his throat. "Shorty was worried."
Lily smirked. "Give her my thanks, but like I said, I'm fine. Just...a little nostalgic."
Gajeel didn't respond, and Lily fell silent, letting his gaze once again drift back to the drink in his hand. Around them the party commenced, but there were no further words between them for several moments. Lily wondered idly if Gajeel would keep pushing. It wasn't in his nature to do so, but if Levy had indeed been the one to send him over...
"So how's the club these days?"
The question was innocent enough, but Lily knew the awkward lilt to his friend's voice, and found it oddly touching that he was trying to make him feel better by changing the subject. He didn't tell him this, of course, Gajeel being as averse to comfort as he was to lady-drinks and peashooters.
So he shrugged, and let an easy smile tug at his lips. "Business is booming, now that the loon is out of the picture. No more rigged matches. Well, for now anyway."
"You think the witch will pick up where he left off?"
Lily shrugged. "Hard to say. She runs a clean business, as far as I can tell, although her fighters have got one major attitude problem." He snorted, remembering the arrogant brats. "My boys haven't won a single fight against hers since your short-lived return to the ring. It's not looking very bright." Now he threw Gajeel a look. "Unless, of course..."
His friend raised a brow. "What're you scheming, old man?"
Lily grinned. "No scheming. Just a thought. You haven't been back in the ring since your big, bloody showdown. People have been asking for you. People with money."
"From what I remember, ya refused ta let me back in until I'd healed," Gajeel pointed out wryly.
"Hah," Lily laughed. "I guess I did." He cast another glance his way. "Well, you're all healed now, aren't you? You thinking about getting back into the business for real?"
Gajeel raised a brow. "You huntin' for fighters, Lil?"
"Maybe. You interested?"
Gajeel's gaze shifted to the other end of the room again, and his brows furrowed. "I already have a job. And I've had enough fun juggling anything more than that."
Lily nodded, and looked down into his glass, eyes idly tracing the shape of the thing, the intricate detailing in the crystal. Expensive, like most of Makarov's possessions. But then, Fairy Tail was no mere gin mill. He cast a quick glance at the room around them, and the celebrations, listening to the merry clink of glasses and the tinkling tunes from the house band. In the midst of all the cheer, he felt suddenly weary. Suspicious, though many would tell him he had little reason to be. But Lily was from a very different world than many of the speakeasy's occupants – like Cana Clive and Lucy Heartfilia. The economic boom that had put the glad rags on these people's backs might make them sleep well at night, but Lily didn't find the future quite as certain.
"Boxing will always have an audience," he said at last, his voice sounding as tired as he felt. He turned his gaze back to Gajeel. "Bootlegging brings heavy sugar, but who's to tell that's gonna last? For all we know, the Ban will be over soon. And who knows who you'll have to support by then?" He let a cheeky grin grace his face. "Kids, you know? They come when you least expect them."
The hurt washed over him again, and Lily washed it down with his drink.
Gajeel said nothing for a long moment, never taking his eyes away from the table at the other end of the room, brows furrowed in heavy contemplation. "Ya think somethin's brewin'?"
Lily shrugged. "I think I'm done trying to predict the future. But...that doesn't mean I'll walk in blind."
Gajeel grunted his understanding. "Sound advice."
"Want some more?"
He was met with a raised brow. Gajeel smirked. "Maybe," he said. "This about prize fightin'?"
"Maybe." Lily grinned. "If you're interested."
"You got a spot open fer me?"
Raising his empty glass, Lily smirked. "For you, brat? Always."
"Don't get cheeky, gramps, or I might change my mind."
Lily laughed, turning the empty tumbler over in his hand. "Let an old man have his fun, Gajeel."
"Tch. Too much fun, and you'll have a heart attack," he grumbled, and caught the glass just before it hit his head. Lily ignored the glare, responding instead with a raised brow. Gajeel muttered to himself, placing the glass face-down on the bartop. "So, lemme guess. Ya want me back pretty soon to turn yer statistics around?"
Lily grinned. "We're going up against Sabertooth next week. Would be nice with a victory, but I understand if you're not up for it. Marriage bliss and all that."
Gajeel snorted, throwing a glance at the ring he was now sporting. "Can't believe I got roped into this."
"Yeah, hard to believe you'll actually be getting married when you propose to a girl."
"Dry up, ya old cheese. I meant the damned party."
Lily raised a brow. "You've worked for Makarov for all these years and you thought you could get away with a small wedding?"
His friend shrugged. "Told 'er I didn't want a big celebration."
"And you actually thought you could get away with it. That's cute."
"Did you also think you'd have your say in where you move? Or how many kids you'll have?"
"Yes. As far away from posh town as possible, and one brat's more than enough."
Lily grinned. "And you've told her this?"
Gajeel grumbled. "Plannin' on it. There ain't no way I'm moving ta the inner city."
"And you honestly think she'd want to live here? Raise kids here?"
"Kid, Lil. Singular. And why the hell not?"
Lily gave him a look. "The Alleys isn't a place to raise kids if you can help it. And if you do as well in the ring as you did against the Sabertooth brat, you won't have to."
"Oye, I grew up here."
"My point exactly."
"What, so posh town's gonna be better fer the brat? I ain't raisin' some cushy weakling," Gajeel snapped.
Lily threw him a look. "Levy grew up there, and I wouldn't call her weak. And you wouldn't either, if you know what's good for you. Or if you've got an ounce of sense in that iron skull of yours."
Gajeel grumbled. "She's still posh as hell."
"And who says your kids will be anything like you, even if they do grow up in the Alleys? You can't decide how your kids will be; they'll be what they are."
"Kid, Lil. And I know that," he muttered. "That doesn't mean I want 'im to be a pushover."
Lily smirked. "You do know it could just as well be a girl, right? And I know for a fact that Levy wants more than one, just so you're aware."
Gajeel looked suspicious. "Shorty tell you this?"
Lily smile turned deceptively innocent. "Mira might have said something about it."
"Damn woman always pokin' her nose into my business–"
"She's got more insight into your personal life than you've got yourself, you know," Lily pointed out.
"You can't deny that I have a point. Ten years from now when you've got four kids on your hands, you'll realise I was right."
"One kid, Lil. One. And you'll be babysitting 'im."
"Them. And I'd like nothing more." He grinned. "I'm not going to have any more of my own, but that doesn't mean I can't at least be a good uncle."
Gajeel closed his mouth, effectively cutting off his next words. The sudden silence was uncomfortable, and for a moment Lily almost regretted his words, but didn't take them back. He'd been honest when he'd said he'd like to keep an eye on the brats, who, their parentage taken into consideration, were likely to get into a world of trouble.
"Don't worry about it."
Gajeel grumbled. "Ya sure?"
Lily shrugged. "Maybe not, but I'm not going to have you walking on eggshells around me. And if I catch either of you feeling guilty about your own happiness, I'll string you both up." The severity behind his own words surprised him, but he found that he was perfectly serious. He hadn't told the two of them about his past in order to be pitied.
Gajeel still looked uncomfortable, and Lily sighed. "Listen," he began, loosening the clenched fist he'd made quite without realising it. Maybe he wasn't as alright as he pretended to be, but that didn't mean he was going to go completely off his nuts. Fifteen years was a long time to hold onto his mistakes; it was time to let go.
He pushed the empty glass away, splaying his hand flat on the surface of the counter, gaze tracing the familiar lines of his fingers, dark against the equally dark wood. "I'm tired," he said, a grim smile tugging at his lips. "Bone-tired. The kind of tired that no amount of physical rest will drive away. It's fifteen years' worth of exhaustion, and what's worse, I'm tired of being tired."
Reaching up, he ran a hand down his face, rubbing at the spot between his brows, before tracing a finger over the scar on his temple. "I've got too many regrets to count, but right now I'd like to focus on what I don't regret. The Pit. The boys – and Erza," he interjected with a smile. "But most of all, getting you straightened out. Which is no doubt part of what's lead to this," he said, gesturing to Gajeel's suit, then across the room to the girl still surrounded by well-wishers. "For once, I'd like to focus on that. I'd like to grow old and weary and with a back weak from lugging around godchildren, not from carrying all my laments around like a goddamn cross. She wouldn't have wanted that. Not for a second."
Gajeel said nothing, and Lily fell silent, mind reeled in by the stray memory of a smile he'd have given everything just to see again. But for all her smiles and easy laughter, he had no doubt Shagotte would have mourned the man he'd become, if he continued to let his sorrows swallow him up.
And so he made his peace. On a barstool with the taste of scotch on his tongue, celebrating an event he wouldn't have thought would ever take place the day the scruffy brat beside him had come stumbling into his gym, Lily took a deep breath–
The voice dragged him out of his thoughts, and he turned his head, meeting Mirajane's enquiring gaze with a smile. "Mira," he greeted. "The bride miffed I've kept her man too long?" he asked, his grin widening when he caught the annoyed twitch in Gajeel's brow.
Mira shot the groom in question a pleased grin. "Not as far as I know. I just came to tell you there's someone here asking about you."
Lily frowned, instantly alert. People only sought him out about prize fighting in the Pit, never at the speakeasy. Which meant that this was about something else. And most people didn't even know he frequented Fairy Tail in the first place. He felt Gajeel tense beside him, no doubt finding the news as odd as Lily himself did. Going by the look in Mira's eyes, though, she didn't seem wary, only curious. And if they'd asked her about him, their motives couldn't be too shady – they'd have taken other measures if that was the case. Or caught him in a alleyway after dark.
"Did they give a name?" he asked.
Instead of answering, she only turned her head towards the entrance to the common room. Lily followed her gaze, brows furrowed, eyes searching the crowd for–
He blinked, at first uncertain as to whether or not his eyes were deceiving him, but then the ginger-haired man so resembling his old friend stopped, his gaze finding Lily's, before a wide, if not a little uncertain grin spread across his freckled face.
"Who's the harp?" he heard Gajeel mutter beside him, just as Nichiya turned to someone behind him, nodding his head, before taking a deliberate step to the side, nudging a few people out of the way to make room for Happy, looking very flustered with his blue sixpence clutched tightly between his hands, a pretty girl on his arm...
Lily's heart stopped dead in his chest.
"I wasn't sure what to tell them," he heard Mira say, but her voice seemed far away. "She said she was looking for her father. I was sure she'd got the wrong name when she told me, but she seemed quite adamant..."
And Lily didn't blame her for her incredulity. Who in their right mind would believe it, going by the look of her?
A stray memory drifted back to him, dredged up from a day he'd much rather forget, but ringing loud and clear, drowning out the other sounds of the speakeasy, the crowd, the music–
"She looks like me – that's what they all say. All me, and–"
"–she's beautiful, you know? Absolutely perfect."
He could only stare, gaze fixed on dark eyes, so stark in such a pale face – such a familiar face – and framed by the same flaxen hair, but cut short after the current fashion. And if it hadn't been for the few but evident differences he would have thought he was seeing a ghost. But the frown tugging her brows downwards in visible determination was different, as well as the sharp curve of her jaw and the distinct shape of her mouth. Those were his, he realised, with a start that almost sent him tumbling out of his seat.
But as she caught sight of him, and his gaze was not only fixed on hers but held by it, the frown dissolved in an instant. Her brow smoothed out, and then it was Shagotte looking back at him, wide eyes a compelling mixture of curiosity and resolve.
She let go of Happy's elbow, and Lily dimly noted that his were not the only eyes in the room caught by the pretty new arrival. The only difference was that she wasn't looking at anyone else. Only him. And in his long life there had only been one other woman who had ever graced him with her undivided attention like that.
She took a hesitant step forward, then another, and it was like a scene out of a dramatic picture when the starlet makes her entrance, and time seems to grind to a halt around her...
He barely registered Gajeel's low rumble, so caught up in what he was seeing – the sheer improbability of it all. She couldn't be here. Why would she be here? Who had told her? Not Nichiya, surely? He had half a mind to look towards his old friend, but he found it was quite impossible to tear his gaze away from the young woman walking towards him with slow, measured steps, as though scared he would turn tail and run if she made any sudden movements.
And to be honest, Lily wasn't entirely certain he wouldn't do just that.
She came to a stop a short pace away from him, near enough for him to touch her if he reached his hand out – nearer than she'd ever been, even when he'd been in Extalia. And yet he couldn't do anything but stare, struck completely speechless. And for all his bluster of being a smooth talker, for once he had no idea what to say. He'd often thought about what it would have been like, if not to meet her, then to just be allowed to see her. The thought was a companion as old and familiar as the grief that had clung to him for fifteen years, but it had always been just that – a thought. A pipe dream at best. And as such, presented as he was with what had so long been such a far-fetched idea, Lily hadn't the faintest idea of how to even react.
The corners of her mouth pulled into a brave smile, but it faltered, and he had a vague notion that his lack of response might be making her uncomfortable. And it struck him then that perhaps he wasn't the only one without a clue as to how to proceed.
Finally, she drew a deep breath, as though steeling herself, and if he'd thought he'd been unprepared to see her, it was nothing compared to the sound of her voice.
It was nothing like the voice he'd imagined; the voice in his head had always been that of a very young girl, and nothing at all like the young woman standing before him, who'd been on Happy's arm only a few moments earlier (he made a note to ask the lad about that, later). And it struck him then, in that exact moment, just how many years had passed. The sheer, exact weight of fifteen long years, not just as a part of his own life, but as the whole life of the girl in front of him. The girl that he'd left behind, and who'd sought him out, even though she'd had no obligation to do so.
He couldn't have stopped the tears even if he'd wanted to.
The thought suddenly hit him, sharp like an unexpected uppercut, that perhaps she didn't know who he was, that this was simply a scheme of Nichiya's to bring them together under false pretences, and that he was about to make a horrible mistake. Because how could she possibly know? Even if Nichiya had told her, there was no way she could have simply taken his word for it, especially after seeing who Lily was – or more importantly what he was.
He broke away from her gaze, clenching his eyes shut with an embarrassed smile as he pressed his fingers against the corners to stifle the tears before he made a complete fool of himself. "Pardon, Miss. I don't know what's come over me." Wiping a rough hand over his eyes, he tried a polite smile, forcing his face to contort even though his muscles strained against the effort. "I'm Lily, yes. I was told you were looking for me?"
And despite her previously brave smile and the severe set to her brow, her determined composure cracked like glass, pulling the corners of her mouth down, and her shoulders convulsed so violently it was like she'd been physically struck. Fat tears welled up in her eyes before running down her cheeks, and she ducked her head to stifle a sob. And that was when another thought presented itself, that perhaps she had known him by name, but that she hadn't been aware of the fact that he wasn't white. The ugly speculation rose like bile in his throat, and he had to forcibly push it down to keep from being physically sick.
But then, "Yeah."
His brows lifted at the sound of her voice, hoarse with emotion. Raising her eyes, she grinned a trembling smile, and it was her mother's face looking up at him again. "Actually," she said, reaching up to wipe at her eyes with a gloved hand. "I've been looking for you for a long time." She laughed, new tears spilling down her cheeks. "And I've found you." She sniffed, and her expression contorted. "I found you. I found you. I–" she broke off, a sob tearing its way from her throat. "I'm so sorry, I don't–" She waved a hand, as if to excuse her behaviour. "This wasn't exactly how I'd planned it would go. I was supposed to be far more composed, I assure you." She laughed again, wiping at her eyes. "Let me try this again." She took another breath, and held out a shaking hand with the same dignity he remembered from her mother.
"My name is Charle. I don't...I don't know if this was the right thing to do – to be quite honest, it's the most impulsive thing I've ever done, but I had to do it. I had to, because...because..." she trailed off, her hand clenching into a fist. "Because in her wedding picture my mother looks miserable, and I'm the only one who sees it. They always said she'd left this world too soon, that she'd been so happy, but in that picture...in that picture she looks like she couldn't go soon enough. But in this–" And Lily could only watch, numb, as she procured something from the folds of her jacket: a crinkled old letter, folded with obvious care. She held it out again, as though for him to take, but he couldn't make himself move, much less lift his arm. She proffered the piece of paper again. "In this she writes like she's the happiest woman in the world, and..." she trailed off again, and seemed at a loss of how to continue.
"Gajeel," Lily said then, without taking his eyes off the girl in front of him. "Would you check if one of the lounges are vacant? I'm sure the young lady would like to sit down." He raised his voice ever so little, "I fear you've mistaken me with someone else, Miss, but if you would follow me, I'll get you a glass of water. Or would you prefer something stronger?"
The hurt that flashed across her face was like a physical blow, but he forced himself to ignore it, raising his eyes instead to look for Gajeel. After receiving a nod that one of the lower-level lounges were indeed unoccupied – or had been made so, as Gajeel had seemingly evicted the previous occupants – Lily motioned for the girl to follow him. "Please, Miss. There's a room this way where you can have a seat."
She frowned, not understanding. "I don't–"
"Please, come this way," he emphasised, ignoring the eyes on his back as he escorted her towards the lounge. He met Gajeel's gaze as he passed him, and his friend sighed.
"You owe me," Gajeel grumbled, before walking back into the midst of people. "Oye!" Lily heard him holler, effectively grabbing the attentions of those who'd gathered at the bar, drawing their eyes away from the scene that had just taken place. "I know I said I wasn't gonna do this, but to hell with it. I'm gonna make the bloody toast you've all been harassing me about all day, so sit down and shut yer damn traps–"
Lily closed the door, effectively cutting off the sound of Gajeel's voice and casting the lounge in immediate silence, save the muted noises from the party going on in the next room. He had his back to the interior of the lounge and the girl sitting there – his daughter, the realisation dawned on him suddenly and violently, and it took all his effort to remain upright as he turned around to face her.
The hurt was clear in her eyes, telling him she'd had no idea what he'd just done, and he was once again reminded of Shagotte's impulsiveness, born from a lack of understanding of how society truly worked. A life in the upper class bred a conviction that you could get away with any number of things – a naïvety that he'd first found endearing, but that was in truth far more dangerous that Shagotte had realised. Her lack of misgivings with regards to the colour of his skin, as well as the belief that they could have eloped and somehow made it work...
He sighed, leaning heavily against the door as a further realisation dawned on him that the girl before him was her mother's daughter in more ways than mere appearance. Like Shagotte, Charle hadn't considered the consequences of her actions, what it would mean for society to discover what she had been about to reveal. Lily knew Magnolia was not like Extalia, but times had not changed enough to make her parentage accepted.
And if there was one thing he didn't want, it was to endanger his daughter like he'd once endangered her mother.
"Why?" She cut him off before he could finish, looking at him from across the lounge. "Why did you do that? Why did you pretend not to know me? You know who I am...I'm sure you do. Nadi...the man called Nadi said you would. You do know...don't you?" He saw her fingers clench around the letter in her hands. "You're my father...you do know that?"
"Don't," she snapped, cutting him off, "Don't say 'miss' like I'm some common high hat! I can tell you know who I am – why are you trying to make it seem like you don't?"
Lily said nothing to that, only continued to watch her from where he was leaning against the door. The way she was sitting, back straight, clenched hands in her lap and with a look of utter betrayal on her face...it reminded him of the day in the gym when he'd let her mother go.
Finally, after a moment of laden silence, he pushed away from the door, and made his way to the sofa where she was sitting. He didn't meet her eyes, but he could see her watching him closely, as though trying to determine what he would do next. He knew he hadn't reacted the way she'd thought he would, and had to remind himself that he was making the right decision. Taking a seat, he tried to gather his thoughts enough to say what he knew had to be said, to keep himself focused on the danger she'd put herself in rather than the fact that his daughter was sitting beside him.
"Charle," he said after another moment of oppressive silence, finally dropping the honorific. "The letter...your mother will have written it before she told me about you. She.." he trailed off, not sure how to continue. Charle was silent a moment. Then–
"She died that night, didn't she?"
The hurt was old and numbed, but he felt it nonetheless. He turned his head to meet her gaze, and found the eyes looking back at him steel-hard. Charle wrung her hands in her lap, but she didn't drop her gaze. "I thought as much," she said then, voice a murmur.
Lily didn't know what to say to that, caught between memories of her mother's last moments and the fact that his daughter was sitting next to him – the daughter he'd thought he'd never lay eyes on, much less meet. And she knew who he was. He was about to open his mouth to say something – anything – when she spoke up again, but this time her voice held none of its previous strength and conviction.
"Is that...is that why you left?"
For all its pitifulness, the soft enquiry might as well have been a punch to the solar plexus, and Lily was suddenly, painfully reminded of the fact that she had no idea why he'd left for Magnolia, only that he'd done so in the wake of her mother's murder. But before he had a chance to explain, she continued, raising her eyes to meet his again. The hurt was still there, but along with that was something else, something he recognised from the many young boys who'd showed up at the Pit throughout the years.
It was the conviction of a child that has been told it's not wanted. "I know...I know I wasn't planned," she began softly."She told me...she wrote in the letter, that you hadn't wanted to elope, and that...that was the reason she got married. Because she couldn't have me out of wedlock. But...she came to tell you anyway, the night she died..."
He watched as something flickered across her gaze – a sudden, quickly dawning horror. "Did...did they know?" she asked then, voice breaking despite her obvious efforts to keep calm. "The people who killed her, did they know about me?" There was another question there, silent but unmistakable, not spoken by the young woman sitting beside him, but the child he'd left behind all those years ago. The child he'd left to be raised by a stranger, and who now thought he'd left her because he blamed her for her mother's death.
He'd barely had a chance to react to her words when she was suddenly moving, pushing herself off the sofa with the obvious intent of making it to the door. "I'm sorry, I– I can't do this," she said, nearly tripping over her skirts in a hurry to get away.
Fifteen years ago he'd allowed her mother to walk away, and he'd regretted the choice ever since. So before she'd had a chance to make it to the door, Lily had reached out, catching her around the wrist and tugging her back towards him. Unlike everything else he'd done since she'd arrived, it was an action that had required no thinking. He hadn't turned the consequences of his actions over in his head before making the decision. He'd just acted, in a fit of desperation that she was about to walk out of his life a hour after she'd crashed right into it.
Years ago he would have restrained himself, he knew. He would have kept a polite distance, and treated her with the cool respect her class and colour demanded. He'd always been conscious of his place in society, always aware of where he stood and the limits to that position, even when Shagotte had not. It was what had stopped him from going with her when she'd wanted to elope. It was what had made him stop his daughter from revealing something that would have put her in more danger than she herself had realised.
But now, as his arms closed around the small shape that was not even nearly as tall as her mother had been, Lily found he was too old to keep making mistakes like this. Everything he'd said to Gajeel about taking chances, about making a gamble despite the risks...it would all be hypocrisy if he didn't follow his own example.
And so, for the first time in his life, Lily gambled.
"You were not what cost your mother her life," he spoke then, voice harsh with emotion. "The ones who took it did it because she was with me. They didn't need anything else. And that," he said, unconsciously tightening his grip around her, "is why I left. Because it would have been no different for you. It still wouldn't be."
He pulled away slightly, to hold her at arm's length. "I am not letting you make the same mistake."
Her brows contorted at that, furrowing sharply. "And if I want to make that choice for myself?"
Lily sighed. "Charle–"
"No," she said, cutting him off. "Don't...don't do that. Don't 'Charle' me like you're my father, after telling me I can't be known as your daughter. You're not allowed to play that card. I came here on my own. No one forced my hand, but..." she took a deep breath. "But I realise now that maybe I had misjudged the situation. I can't make you want to be my father any more than you can make me pretend I'm not your daughter."
He looked at her, at a loss of what so say, and she held his gaze without flinching. "Just tell me one thing," she said then. "Answer something for me."
Lily frowned. "Anything."
She nodded, and then, "Do you regret it? Loving my mother...would you undo it, if you could?" She made no move to extract herself from his grip, but just stood looking at him, chin held high even though she didn't even reach his shoulders and had to crane her neck to meet his eyes.
And for the first time since she'd come into his life, Lily knew exactly what to say.
She said nothing at first, but kept holding his gaze, as though searching for something. "And me?" she asked then, so softly he almost didn't catch it. "Would you undo me...if you could?"
She'd barely finished her query when he was gripping her shoulders, and he had to restrain himself from raising his voice too much. "Never," he emphasised, if the word alone wouldn't be enough to wipe the ugly thought from her mind. "Nothing could ever make me wish that I could. Nothing." He looked at her, the strange creature that had, until this moment, been a fragment of his past he'd thought he would have to live his life without. Leaving her had been his single most difficult choice, even more so than letting her mother go. Shagotte had consented to his rejection, even if she hadn't agreed with his reasoning.
But his daughter had had no say in the world he'd left her in – the world he'd chosen for her. The life of an heiress with all the possibilities in the world at her feet. His mistakes had lain the groundwork for her entire life, no matter how little he'd had to do with her upbringing. By making the choices he had, he'd helped shape her into who she'd become. And though he'd missed nearly sixteen years, seeing her standing before him answered the question he'd carried with him since leaving Extalia. She'd had everything she needed, and she'd grown up strong-willed and independent, quite at odds with what Gajeel often called 'the cushy life of posh town's fat cats'. He'd never regret her existence, but his choice to give her everything he never could have...
She hadn't said anything since he'd last spoken, but her shoulders had lost some of their rigidity. His honesty had calmed her somewhat, but it hadn't removed the hurt from her eyes entirely. Averting his gaze from the eyes looking up at him, Lily reached a shaking hand out to trace a lock of white-blonde hair where it was swept over her forehead and behind one small ear. She didn't push his hand away, and he realised she was crying, though she kept stubbornly silent about it.
He smiled. "You're so much like your mother," he said then, noting the way she was pursing her lips to keep her face from showing her feelings.
She sniffed. "So I've heard," she said. "It's all I've heard, actually." She sniffed again, and more tears spilled down the sides of her face. "Oh, applesauce," she snapped, reaching up to wipe at her eyes. Inhaling sharply, she let out a breath, before levelling him with a serious look. "I'm not my mother," she said then. "I know I look like her, but I'm not her, and I'm not going to be her. I understand why she made the choice she did, but that doesn't mean I have to follow her example."
She raised her chin, almost haughtily. "I will not live my life pretending to be someone's daughter because society can't handle the truth. And I haven't spent the past year tracking you down, only to be turned away at the door when I've finally found you." She pursed her lips again, but held his gaze squarely with her own, as though daring him to disagree.
"...and do you regret it?"
She blinked, caught unawares by his query, before her brows furrowed in confusion. Lily repeated them – the words spoken to him so many years ago by her mother. "Spending a year tracking me down. Coming here, and seeing me for who I am. Do you regret it?"
But though it was her mother's words, she was right. She wasn't her mother. And it wasn't her mother's eyes that looked back at him this time. It was his eyes, sharp and discerning. And Lily felt for the first time the uncertainty Shagotte must have felt at his rejection – the thought that it had all been for nothing, that what they'd had would be reduced to nothing but tears and regrets.
But then she smiled at him – the simple quirk of her distinct mouth spanning a distance of fifteen years in the span of a breath, and taking with it the worry that had latched onto his heart the moment he'd first laid eyes on her at the bar. Her eyes held his unblinkingly, resolute in their determination – the same determination with which her mother had first refused to let him go. But when she opened her mouth, it was her own words that fell from her lips, steady and sure and without hesitation–
"Not for a second."
Her smile widened, and Lily wondered how he'd gone nearly sixteen years without it. Charle shrugged. "That's my answer. So...you're stuck with me now, if you would have me." She tilted her head. "The choice is yours, but you should know I'm not going back, either way. I'm here to stay, but...whether or not you're willing to make this gamble is up to you." Her eyes hardened, and he could tell she was bracing herself for how he would respond. "So..."
"What do you say?"
"...can you hear what they're saying?"
"Not with you shouting in my ear I can't."
"Shh! Would you two shut it, I'm trying to listen here!"
"Damn it, Clive, would you stop hogging the bloody door?"
"My bar, my lounge, my goddamn eavesdroppin' rights, Fullbuster. Now shut yer trap and let me listen! D'ya want ta know what they're saying or not? I can't hear jack with you yellin' over my shoulder!"
Gajeel rolled his eyes at the commotion, arms crossed over his chest as he regarded the small crowd gathered outside the lounge that had been the talk of the entire establishment for the past two hours. As hard as he'd tried, he wasn't enough of a smooth talker to hold the attention of an entire room for more than a brief moment. And even if he had been, the scene with the mysterious girl who'd sought Lily out had caused much too big an uproar for anyone to contain. Now the chin music was louder than the actual music, although that wasn't so odd, as most of the band had abandoned their instruments to join the group of eavesdroppers.
On the bright side, though, it had taken the spotlight off himself.
"They've been in there a long time," Levy spoke up from beside him, eyes fixed on the crowd.
"But doesn't this defeat the purpose of the two of them having a private conversation?"
His wife raised a brow. "And wasn't the whole purpose of them having a private conversation so that people wouldn't find out who she was?"
Gajeel gave her a look. "That ship sailed the second the brat told Mira she was lookin' fer her old man," he pointed out. "D'ya really think Lil could keep that under wraps, in this joint?"
She hummed under her breath. "It's a pretty big deal, though...It's not something you shout to the world. She's put herself in a lot of danger."
Gajeel snorted. "Rebellious heiress out to get herself into trouble? Sounds familiar." He gave her a pointed look. "Kid's gonna be alright. Makarov knows how ta take care of his own. I'd bet ya my next paycheck he's itching to adopt another one." He threw a sidelong glance at the gaggle of people gathered outside the lounge, and the old man at the very head of the crowd, trying to push Cana out of the way so as to better listen. "Old fart's got to have a hobby."
He grinned, turning his head to look back at his wife. "But since it looks like we're old news...ya ready ta go?"
Levy still looked sceptical, but allowed him to drop his jacket over her shoulders as he directed her towards the door. "Are you sure Lily will be alright? You're acting like it will all just magically work itself out," she said, looking back over her shoulder as they left the common room.
Gajeel smirked. "Welcome to Fairy Tail."
She rolled her eyes, but a smile was pulling at her lips despite her attempted severity. "That's everyone's answer to everything in this place, isn't it?"
"Pretty much." Gajeel grinned as he led his wife towards the car waiting at the front entrance, musing silently on how much had changed since the day he'd brought her to the speakeasy through the back door. After a year of more action than he'd have liked to go through in a lifetime, of manoeuvring through a web of plots and counter-plots and coming out on the other side alive and with only a few bullet wounds to show for it, he had long since stopped doubting the capabilities of Makarov's eccentric speakeasy.
It was Fairy Tail, after all.
He'd known it was coming, but hearing her surprised exclamation still made his grin widen. She'd stopped in her tracks, but Gajeel kept striding towards to the car, hands in his pockets. "And here I thought we were off the hook."
Lily grinned back from where he was leaning against the hood of the car. "What, you thought I was going to let you run off on your honeymoon without wishing you good luck?" He grasped Gajeel's hand as he came closer. "What kind of best man do you take me for?" he laughed, pulling his friend into a rough hug. "Proud of ya, kiddo," he said, before adding in a low tone, "And thanks for securing the lounge with the back door."
Gajeel smirked. "Like I said, ya owe me, old man."
Lily laughed, slapping him on the back, before turning his gaze towards Levy, who was looking at the car with wide eyes. He grinned, and held out his hand. She took it, although her eyes were fixed on the vehicle. "Mrs. Redfox, I apologise for the interference, but there's someone I'd like you to meet," he said, as he directed her towards the car. Letting go of her hand, he opened the side door, from which the girl slid out, Lily's jacket snug over her shoulders to ward off the night chill that spring hadn't yet conquered.
Gajeel wondered idly if his wife's eyes could go any bigger, but the smile stretching across her face had completely wiped away the wary uncertainty that had dominated her features since Lily had first disappeared inside the lounge. And seeing that she had caught on, Lily's grin widened, tugging at the scar on his cheek and making it look more severe than usual, but he didn't seem to notice. "Gajeel. Levy," he said, as the slip of a girl stepped forward, a pretty smile stretched across her rosy cheeks.
"Allow me to introduce you to my daughter."
AN: BUT WAIT. It's not the end quite yet! As you know, the sequel is currently in the works, although I don't have a set date for when I'll start posting. Either way, I would love to hear your thoughts on Hard Liquor as a whole. What have you liked/not liked, what would you like to see more/less of in the sequel (e.g. what cameos did you enjoy/would like to see more of).
Now, if you haven't yet watched raedoodles and bluefira's epic Hard Liquor fanvid, THIS IS THE MOMENT TO DO SO. It's reblogged on my tumblr, so go feast your eyes on the fanwork of the friggin' CENTURY. Hats off to the two ladies in question for their collaborative wizardry. I am still blown away every time I see it. Also, Parov Stelar's The Mojo Radio Gang (as used in the video) would have been the perfect credits theme if this had been a film.
Until next time!
Father Time: any man over 30
to carry a torch: to have a crush on
heavy sugar: a lot of money
chin music: gossip