One of the first things a visiting foreigner would come to learn upon stepping foot in Vistarion is that the people of Alvarez Empire loved their Emperor.
It was no secret among the neighboring countries that the empire was a fearsome one, a stronghold of power and wealth with an established monarchy and renowned military force. It was no secret either, how its people trusted the land’s rulers to do good by them.
One of the first things that might surprise a visiting foreigner, however, is how much the Emperor loved his people in return.
It has bemused their foreign guests for generations, how this seemed to be part of the culture itself: The citizens think the crown jewel of the Empire was the Royal Palace, and the royals think the crown jewel of the Empire was the people’s marketplace.
It was no ordinary marketplace.
For one, it might as well be the most magical place in all the land.
The marketplace sold everything. It sold goods: from textiles and jewels to crops and grains, and it offered services: from guides and guards to healers and killers. It sold information: every sort, from the most general knowledge down to the most specific. Of course, it also sold pleasure: from the cheapest ales to the most expensive courtesans.
But the Empire’s main trade is magic. Spells and curses, magical trinkets and equipment, spell books and scrolls, potions and elixirs, pets and familiars - all these have been assimilated to the Empire’s society and lifestyle that they were considered ordinary items, so casually mixed together with the non-magical goods that they were commonplace in every stall.
Magic has colors visible to one’s naked eye when active, but particularly gifted mages see these colors even when the magic is dormant. This is why to an experienced mage, the marketplace’s wide plaza might look like a paradise bursting in light and rainbows.
From a distance, say, from the Great Imperial Palace, the marketplace may appear like a shining jewel, inlaid at the heart of the capital, within the desert and the trees.
The people might admire the palace because it shines like gold, but to a pair of trained eyes, like those of the Prince Natsu Dragonil’s, perched in one of the many palace balconies overlooking the land, the marketplace shines like a diamond, almost blinding in the bright midday sun, reflecting all sorts of colors known to man.
Today, the Prince observes, the marketplace was shining more than usual. Perhaps it is because it’s almost time for the Harvest Festival. He had heard that the harvest was rich this year, the crops were healthy and the trade was strong. Plus, the tourists were abundant.
Idly, he wonders if perhaps he can find someone to go wander the market with. It might be fun, a break from duties, a few hours to relax.
His thoughts, however, are interrupted when someone clears their throat and calls out to him.
“My Prince.” a familiar voice says, cold and formal.
Natsu looks down to see the source of it standing in the garden below him. The man bows, as per protocol when addressing royalty. Natsu doesn’t need to see his face as he simply recognizes the long silver hair gathered into a golden ring resting on one stiff shoulder, and the elegant robes as pristine as the man’s reputation.
“Invel.” the Prince addresses, dismissive. Also protocol, even though Natsu hates the stiffness of pleasantries and protocol.
But it’s how the man knows that he’s allowed to look up again, and so Invel does, standing straight and looking up at the Prince who is perched in the balcony in a very un-Prince-like way.
Natsu doesn’t miss the furrow on the man’s brow and the frown on his face.
“Anything I can help you with, man?” Natsu asks, sparing a small grin. He has known Invel for years, and the man might be too much of a stickler for rules, much to Natsu’s chagrin, but he has always been polite and peaceable.
Invel nods, frown still in place. “Your Highness, please believe me, I would not be bothering your private moment otherwise, but I am at a loss… and I do apologize-”
Natsu rolls his eyes, groaning. “Just get to the point, Invel.”
Invel coughs, and finally asks. “Very well. Has His Highness perhaps… heard of, or seen the young princes today?”
Natsu blinks. “The who? D’you mean my nephews?”
“Yes. Prince August and Prince Larcade, Your Highness.”
Natsu hums, thinking of it. “Well… yeah…” he starts, and watches Invel’s eyes widen slightly with hope. He shrugs. “A while ago, at breakfast.”
Invel’s face falls. “And after?”
“Haven’t seen ‘em today, no.” he shakes his head. “So why’s the Emperor’s Trusty Shield looking for two little boys?”
Invel sighs. “They escaped from their lessons. Again.”
“I don’t remember babysitting being part of your job description, though.”
Invel flushes slightly, but huffs and holds his ground. “The Emperor has entrusted me with his children’s education, Your Highness. I have sworn never to break his confidence in me.”
“It sucks to be you.” Natsu shakes his head and clicks his tongue. “Well. Good luck looking for two very smart and very sneaky kids.”
“Thank you, Your Highness. I do apologize again, if I had troubled you.”
Natsu waves him off. “Eh. No problem. Just go and look for the boys.”
Invel bows again, and goes on his way.
Natsu waits several more minutes before he tilts his head to look behind him. There’s a large ornamental vase standing by a pillar. The sight is normal enough, but Natsu’s pretty sure said vase isn’t supposed to shake like that.
“You guys, I can’t cover you forever. I suck at matching auras.”
A small, blond head peeks out from behind the vase and grins sheepishly. Another appears under the the first’s arm, two heads shorter, cheeks pink from smiling. The princes took their hair and skin after their mother, but their eyes were unmistakably Dragonil.
“Didja see where he went?” the older one asks.
Natsu snorts. “I’m pretty sure he’s heading for the kitchens, August. Maybe to see if you two’re gonna steal some snacks or somethin’.”
“Kitchens. East.” August whispers, moving to take his little brother’s hand. “We go west, then.”
“Where’s west?” Larcade, the younger, asks.
“Greenhouse.” August answers, and pulls the other boy with him. He beams at his uncle. “Thanks, Uncle Natsu!”
Larcade lets himself get dragged by his brother, but waves at his uncle happily. “Bye, Uncle Natsu!”
Natsu waves back, and watches the two disappear down the wide palace hallways. He stays quiet for a while, staring at the distance, trying to track the familiar magical signatures from the boys. Auras were never his specialty, but the princes were family, so it came natural to him. He can feel them, growing distant heading towards… ah. Yes, good , they were going the right direction, at least.
Something feels strange, however. He didn’t sense it before, but while he can undoubtedly feel the two presences fading due to the distance, there’s… another one…
“You always sucked at matching auras, you’re right about that, but you’re getting rusty on detecting them, too.”
Natsu stiffens, but only for a second, before the presence behind him shifts - and suddenly it’s not the soft gray mix of Mavis’s pulsing light and Zeref’s steady dark - suddenly it’s red and orange and flames and sky and sand, dominant but warm and familiar-
“Commander.” Natsu says, turning on his perch with an easy grin. “Hiding under kids hiding under me? That’s really sneaky, old man.”
Commander Igneel crosses his arms across his chest, shrugging just as easily. Natsu takes in the older man’s appearance - no armor, a loose breezy robe that showcases old scars on the commander’s chest and arms. His uncle might as well have just roused from a nap in his quarters. He yawns, confirming Natsu’s thoughts.
“It doesn’t take much. They’re kids, and...” The man’s golden eyes narrows. “You have your guard down.”
Natsu avoids his uncle’s gaze and turns again. “We’re not at war. I’m at home. I can let my guard down.” With an attempt at humor, he adds, “What else are we paying the guards for?”
Igneel chuckles. “That’s fair.”
Natsu knows what his uncle wants to say after that. ‘It’s been a while since you let your guard down’ or ‘I’m glad you feel well enough to relax’ - but his uncle Igneel always knew him best, so what he hears instead is, “You know, the responsible, adult thing to do, is to send those boys back to their lessons.”
Natsu scrunches up his nose. “And ruin my reputation with ‘em? No way. I’m the fun uncle!”
Igneel laughs, deep and amused. “You’re the only uncle.”
“Exactly! I’m the only, fun, awesome, favorite uncle.” Natsu points out. “I’m not gonna blow that by being responsible and adult… ” He scoffs at the words, like they’re offensive. “That’s their parents’ job.”
Igneel sighs. “You spoil them.”
Natsu grins cheekily. “I learned from the best.”
Igneel shakes his head, but doesn’t retort. Guilty as charged, he accepts the answer and steps forward, leaning against the same railings that his nephew has perched in.
“So,” the man starts, observing Natsu’s faraway gaze. “Is there are reason you’re staring longingly at our imperial jewel?”
Natsu grunts. “I don’t do sappy things, like longing. I’m planning on when to come visit and enjoy the festival before I get stuffed into some ridiculous outfit and made to stand in a boring parade behind-... “ he falters, but only for a second. “Behind the Emperor.”
“Your brother.” Igneel says.
Natsu nods. “My brother the Emperor.”
“Zeref.” the man adds, hopeful.
“My brother the Emperor Zeref.” Natsu huffs, and he rolls his eyes. He tries to look annoyed, but he takes one glance at his uncle, and he breaks.
Igneel has always been in tune with both brothers’ moods. Igneel knew them as boys. Igneel always knows .
Natsu ducks his head, sticks up his shoulders. It’s a posture of defeat, of guilt . It’s unbecoming of a prince, of a general , but Natsu couldn’t care less. It’s Igneel with him, and he knows he can allow this moment of weakness.
“Look.” He sighs. “I know , okay? I know what I did, I know what you’re going to say, and yes , it’s my fault. I’ll talk to him later, I’ll say sorry, when he’s… when he’s less Emperor and more Zeref.”
Igneel is quiet, and Natsu allows himself to shrug, smiling bitterly.
“Sometimes, I can’t stand the Emperor.” he says under his breath. “Sometimes… sometimes, I really just want to talk to my brother.”
Natsu feels a rough hand on his head, and smiles a bit when it ruffles his already unruly hair. Igneel has a way with his nephews that makes them feel like children, despite them already being grown men, despite one being a feared and respected general, and the other one being the revered emperor of the most powerful nation in the continent.
“Your brother is dealing with a lot.” Igneel says. Natsu starts to say that he knows that, the man brings down his hand to his shoulder and clasps firmly. “I know you understand. I’m not saying it’s an excuse. But it’s enough of a reason to give him some slack. You two just need to be patient with each other.”
Natsu nods, but he still looks unsure. “Is… Is he angry?”
Igneel chuckles. “He’s tired. He’s busy. He’s a little frustrated. But kid, your brother could never be angry at you, not really.”
Natsu raises an eyebrow, dubious. “You know I punched a potential ally in the face. During a diplomatic dinner.”
“I know.” Igneel grins, flashing teeth. “I was there. Good punch, too. Flames and all. Really effective, I knew that ridiculous beard was a fire hazard.”
Natsu groans. “Don’t try to downplay it, old man. I asked Sting, and he gave me an estimate of how much gold we’re not getting anymore.”
“Eh.” the man shrugs and waves dismissively. “I’m sure our Emperor and Empress can sort something out.”
Natsu looks to the distance again and accepts the answer. He nods, resolute. They were Zeref and Mavis. They’ve faced way worse than one angry noble.
“Now, then.” Igneel starts, smoothing down his robe and stepping away. “I am off to find… hm… I don’t know, some company, I guess. I want to enjoy the marketplace on Harvest Festival before it’s swarmed by tourists. I wonder which of the men would want to come with their boring old commander...”
Natsu sniggers at the blatant invitation and stares after his uncle’s retreating back for a while. Finally, he hops off balcony railings and follows.
“Fine, I guess I have time to keep you company to make sure you don’t faint in the crowd, old man.”
A scoff. “Brat.”
“You raised me.” Natsu points out.
At that, Igneel only sighs. “That, I did.”
Several soldiers join the prince and the commander when they get to the marketplace. As they had come to expect, it was more festive than ever. The citizens who recognized Natsu and Igneel greeted them with enthusiasm and good wishes. The foreigners could only stare open-mouthed upon realization of who the two were, and as always, they were baffled by how casual and humble the royals of Vistarion were with their people.
Natsu let his company pull him to a good few hours of merrymaking in a pub they considered one of their usual haunts. He indulged in a couple of drinks, enough to take some of the edge off, but not nearly enough to render him swaying. He bids goodbye early, to his men’s vocal disappointment, but he makes sure they hear him when he hands the bartender quite a sum of coins and says it’s for his friends. They cheer loudly, praising his generosity. All Natsu asks in return is that they drag their commander home safely when the man inevitably drinks himself under the table. Igneel is red-faced as he looks indignantly at his nephew, but is quickly distracted when one of the soldiers nudges a pretty and eager scantily-clad woman to occupy the commander’s lap.
The marketplace never really slept, this close to a festival, so Natsu has to weave his way through the crowds. By the time he comes back to the palace, he feels sticky with sweat, and knows that his robes look tousled and well-worn.
This doesn’t stop him from his purpose, only bothering to wash his hands and his face quickly before he is knocking on the door to the imperial bedchambers.
No need to be so formal, no need for pleasantries, he thinks. He’s only going to see his brother, after all.
But when the door opens, Natsu is greeted not by his brother, but by his Emperor. Zeref hasn’t changed into his sleeping robes yet, and in his hand he still holds a scroll.
It’s protocol to bow, but Natsu has always been very light on that, when it came to family. He didn’t bow so much as he only nodded. “Your Majesty.”
Zeref spares a tired smile. “Little brother.” he says, as he takes in the younger’s appearance. “Gone to the marketplace today?”
“Only for a bit, with Igneel and some of the men.” Natsu answers. He drops his guard slightly and nods at the scroll the other man is holding. “It’s late. You’re still working?”
Zeref steps back to let his brother in. “You know I’m always working.”
“That ain’t good for you.” He steps inside, but doesn’t follow when Zeref goes to a table filled with more parchment, maps and scrolls. Instead he settles on leaning his back against the door as he looks around. “Where’s Mavis?”
“With the boys.” Zeref says, carefully plucking at his workspace. “Tucking them to bed with another one of her tales.” then he smiles. “Or maybe teaching them that it’s not very nice to run away from their lessons. Again. They just… won’t sit still, I’ve been told.”
Natsu snorts, and whether or not his brother knows he aided the boys in their mischief-making, he doesn’t try to look guilty. “Can’t blame them. Invel’s a bore.”
“That may be, but he’s patient, committed, and one of the Empire’s best scholars. He can teach them everything that young royals need to know.”
There’s one more thing Natsu knows his brother doesn’t say, so he does it. “And he’s a strong fighter if the situation called for it, so he can protect them.”
Zeref’s smile doesn’t fade, but his gaze withdraws from Natsu’s and settles on his work on the table.
“I knew something was up when you didn’t wait for Lady Anna to come back and just picked Invel for the job.” Natsu continues, frowning. “We’re not in war anymore, you know. You’ve been doin’ these speeches every week tellin’ everyone we’re in a time of peace. You don’t have to assign your best general to tutor your kids for their protection.”
Finally, Zeref sighs. “Peace is a fragile thing, Natsu, specially this soon after a war. We can’t expect our enemies to stay pliant. My children are my weakness, and I have to protect them.”
“We have guards everywhere.” Natsu argues. “And… and I’m here, with nothing better to do. Give the boys to Lady Anna when she comes back, they like her and I bet she can teach ‘em without making them want to sleep through the lesson. If you’re worried about an attack because she’s not a fighter, I’ll guard them during lessons.”
Zeref looks at his brother and chuckles, mirth dancing in his tired eyes. “Are my ears fooling me? Natsu Dragonil, volunteering? Haven’t you just been telling me that looking after children isn’t a general’s job?”
Natsu looks down, sheepish. “Well… I’m… not a general, anymore… right?”
The Emperor’s brows furrow at this, and his teasing smile disappears. “What do you mean?”
“I mean… You said it. It’s a time of peace.” Natsu says, shrugging. “No need for more generals than necessary. I’m just a prince again, now.”
“You’ll always be one of my strongest generals, Natsu, war or no. Your soldiers look up to you. You’re also my brother, an Imperial Prince, and one of the throne’s trusted advisers and most formidable protectors.” Zeref says firmly. “Your titles don’t have to take away from each other.”
Natsu doesn’t look back, not yet. “If you say so.”
“I do say so, and as Emperor, my word is law.” continues Zeref, but despite his words, his voice is soft. “You haven’t been yourself lately, little brother, and I understand. I know that… I know we’ve all had a difficult year-”
“Years.” Natsu mumbles.
Zeref indulges that with a nod. “Years, yes. But we’ve sought after peace for a reason. I don’t want you to think that just because you’re not winning battles for me, that you have no place in the palace or the court anymore. This is your home, and it will always be.”
“I know that. I know I’m home, and I’m glad to be here with you again, Zeref. I- I just… I just…” Natsu trails off, and finally looks up at his brother, eyes wide. “I’m not good at being what I’m supposed to be, here. Like… Like last night. Last night, I-... The dinner- I know it was important for you and Mavis, for everyone , and I ruined it. I’m sorry.”
There. He’s said it. Natsu looks down again and purses his lips. Waiting for the verdict. Zeref has always been level-head, and unafraid to say the truth, no matter how harsh, even to the people he cared for the most.
Zeref walks away from the table, towards Natsu, and starts speaking. “Oh, Natsu… You know I’m not-”
“I know you’re not mad at me. You’re never mad at me.”
Natsu huffs out a sigh. He doesn’t want his brother to coddle him, dammit. He’s an adult, and Zeref is the Emperor, he has more important things to do, better uses of his time, than spoiling his little brother. Natsu doesn’t need - or want - to wrestle with a whole continent for his brother’s attention.
“I know you care. I know you want me around, but you can’t risk pissing off every diplomat for me. I’m not good with those dinners and stuff. Next time, just… don’t invite me. I won’t mind, and it’ll be better for everyone.”
When Natsu looks up, Zeref is standing in front of him, brows furrowed, eyes tired, smile resigned. He looks fond , perhaps, but maybe that is wishful thinking. Between Zeref’s duties, his wife and sons, and several wars, it has been a while since Natsu had the opportunity to really be with his brother. He couldn’t read Zeref as much as he used to, anymore.
Zeref shakes his head and raises his hand to ruffle Natsu’s unruly hair. “I will not kick you out of the dinner table, Natsu. No matter how many guests you end up setting on fire.” he says softly, chuckling.
Natsu feels chastised, though he doesn’t know for what exactly, so he just nods. “I just punched him. He’s the one clumsy enough to set himself on fire after.” he says, defending weakly.
Zeref rolls his eyes, but chuckles. “Gods, I am not supposed to say this, and I will not forgive you if you tell a soul, but I do think the bastard had it coming. I saw the way he looked at Mavis and I only barely managed to stop from decking him myself.”
Natsu snorts. “He was bein’ a huge asshole, with Mavis, and Zera, and he made Wendy uncomfortable too. Erza was ready to slice him in half, you know.”
“Oh, I know. I’m almost jealous at how you were able to do the honors.”
Natsu’s smile shakes slightly. “There were other people there, though. I know you didn’t want them to see that. So I really am sorry. I’ll try to do better.”
“I know you will.” Zeref nods this time. “You’ve never let me down, Natsu. And these… these thoughts you have? Feeling out of place in the palace, is that what’s been bothering you? Why you seem out of sorts lately?”
Natsu averts his eyes again. “I… Yes. No. Maybe?”
“Thank you for telling me.” the older brother says, his hand moving from the younger’s hair to cup his cheek, giving it one comforting pat. “We’ll figure it out together. Alright?”
Natsu closes his eyes and nods, smiling. “Alright.” When his big brother pulls him in for a hug, Natsu falls into it willingly, burying his face on the older’s shoulder, hands heedlessly gripping on expensive robes.
“I’m just glad to be home.” he says, in a voice so vulnerable it reminded them both that he’s a young man fresh out of his boyish days.
Prince Natsu Dragonil of the Great Alvarez Empire may have already fought and won several wars for his Emperor, but he is still only twenty-one.
Zeref grips him tighter, knowing that his little brother had to grow too fast, too soon, and it had been none other than himself who had the biggest hand in that.
Against the younger’s hair, he mumbles, “We all are, little brother.”
“And now that all that’s done, there’s just one more concern I want to discuss.”
Invel looks up at his Emperor’s long, tired sigh. It wasn’t new that his Master adds some last minute concerns in their meetings, but he always did so with authority and composure. This time, his voice was softer than usual. The advisor’s gaze sweeps first towards their company - the Empress has a minute, concerned frown, and Commander Igneel has straightened up in his chair. Of course they had noticed as well.
“Invel?” Zeref calls, and finally the man turns to him.
“Yes, My Lord?”
“This is… a personal matter, that I would discuss with family. Thank you for your valuable time and assistance, as always.” the Emperor says, still gentle. He smiles. “I know you could use a break. Dismissed.”
Invel nods in understanding. He gathers his scrolls and parchment, then stands.“It’s my honor to serve, Your Majesty. I shall take my leave, then. Empress. Commander.” He bows to each of his companions, dutiful as ever, and leaves quietly.
Mavis exchanges a quick look with Igneel before walking over to her husband, laying a hand on his sleeve. “You look troubled, my love.”
Zeref’s eyes soften as he looks at her, and he allows himself to lean down and nuzzle the crown of her head, running a hand through her long golden hair. For many, it is strange to see an Empress wearing her hair down, without a headdress, face free of paint, but Mavis only ever went fancy on formal dinners and special public appearances. At home, even when receiving guests, she always dressed simply. Zeref had always adored her for her humility, but it definitely took time for the palace staff to adjust to their foreign mistress’ ways.
When he straightens up again, he lays a hand over hers and looks across the table to his uncle. “It’s about Natsu.”
Igneel’s furrows his brows. “He told me he already apologized to you, said the talk went fine.”
Mavis considers this and frowns. “You shouldn’t be so hard on him, Zeref. That… guest… was pretty unsavory. I don’t condone violence, but I can hardly blame Natsu for taking offense on mine and the women’s behalf.”
Zeref chuckles at this. “Must you think the worst of me?” he asks, squeezing his wife’s hands. “We’ve already talked about that, we’ve moved past it.”
Mavis brightens up. “Oh, wonderful! I’d hate for you two to fight over something so silly.”
“I assure you, it’ll take more than an offended diplomat to break us.” Zeref says. He pulls over the nearby chair, and gestures for his wife to sit. The woman obliges, and Igneel walks over to take the seat across hers. Sitting close to each other like this, the atmosphere instantly becomes more personal.
“So, what’s this about the kid?” Igneel asks, curious.
“As I was saying,” Zeref continues. “We had a talk, recently. It seems like we have to find something for him to do. A job, some sort of… responsibility.”
Igneel snorts. “Boy. You’re tellin’ me. Natsu, your kid brother, told you he wants responsibilities? You know, I’m quite sure he’d drunk a bit that night...”
Zeref shakes his head. “He didn’t tell me that, exactly. He only told me that since coming back, he’s been having trouble fitting in.”
“Fitting in… here?” Mavis asks, folding her hands together, concerned. “This is his home…”
“It is, and he considers it as such. But it seems like he’s feeling a bit lost, on what his role here is, after coming back from war. Several wars. He thinks he’s not good at what he’s supposed to be, and he can’t seem to choose what to be, a prince or a general…”
Igneel sighs, heavy, and the pair turns to him. “You sent that boy out to fight- to win your wars, Zeref.”
Zeref frowns. “It was not my decision alone. He chose it, too.”
“He was seventeen, a boy , barely a proper prince ,” Igneel grits out. “...and eager to please. He became a soldier for the good of the Empire. You can’t expect him to go home unchanged. You can’t expect that soldier- no, that general to just go back to being a prim and proper prince who knows how to navigate his status like the back of his hand. He’s not you.”
“I know that, uncle.” Zeref says, rubbing his temples. “That’s why I don’t want to think about this alone. You’ve been with him, fighting. You’ve looked after him and watched him grow. Mavis, you’ve been working strategies and battle formations with him this whole time. I… I remember, what he said, back when he asked me to let him go to the battlefield for the first time… He said that he’s unreliable about other things, and maybe fighting is what he’s good for.”
“That boy…” Igneel shakes his head. “He’s your brother. He’s the Emperor’s brother, he’s a prince. Before August and Larcade, he used to be next in line for the throne, after you. But now you have proper heirs, and he needs to find another purpose for himself, not just the next-Emperor-in-waiting. It was like that for me. I was next in line after your father, before you were born. You and Natsu were healthy, well-protected, I simply never thought I’d ever be Emperor, then. That’s why I insisted on finding something else I can do, that’s when I decided to join the ranks instead.”
Zeref nods. He knows all this. He is eternally grateful that when he took over the throne after his father’s untimely death, he as a newly-crowned, barely fifteen year old Emperor had his wise uncle’s guidance, and a formidable army led by the same man. Igneel had been his pillar during the early years of his reign, and he admired how the man never wavered in looking after him and Natsu during such a turbulent time in their lives and in the Empire’s history.
But it’s different, this time.
“There are no more wars to fight. We’ve closed that book.” he says. “Natsu has to find himself again . I’m afraid he thinks he doesn’t have some sort of purpose, anymore. I don’t want him to think that war is all he’s good for. That’s… that’s not Natsu.”
“Then we’ll figure something out.” Mavis says, smiling this time as she reached out to take her husband’s hand. “It’s the start of a new era, haven’t we been insisting on that? A time of peace, so our boys don’t have to grow up worrying about their home. There’s a whole world of new possibilities, opportunities, other than battle. Natsu is skilled, smarter than he lets on, and loved by the people. He’s extremely resilient - I’m sure we can find something for him, my love.”
“Mavis is right.” Igneel reassures his nephew. “He has his family and friends here, he’ll find the right place for himself eventually.”
Zeref gives his wife and his uncle a grateful smile, and they all agree to sleep on the matter and reconvene when they’ve thought of something helpful.
“I asked him what he wants to do now, that we’ve taken a break from all the fighting.” Igneel says nonchalantly, lounging on a chair on the Emperor’s office as he helped himself to the fruits on a table nearby.
“And what did he say?” Zeref asks, sifting through letters upon letters on his desk.
“He just says that he’s bored. He wants to be useful, but he hates numbers.”
Zeref looks up at his uncle, an eyebrow raised. “Numbers?”
“Apparently he’s been hanging around with Sting. You know those boys.”
“Ah. Yes, we have been busy there, lately.” Zeref shakes his head. “A lot of finances and accounting have to be sorted out, as you know.”
“Oh, don’t I know. It’s all Weisslogia complains about when we go out drinking. Sting even joined us, once. Poor boy inhaled all that wine.” Igneel says, laughing at the memory.
Zeref couldn’t help but let out a smile of appreciation for Weisslogia. The Light Dragon’s office is the heart of the Empire’s trade - from local culture to foreign relations. Alvarez had always thrived most on trade and tourism, so Zeref owes it to Weisslogia’s work that the Empire’s economy is standing strong in the face of war and other such trials.
“And Natsu has taken to sitting in with Sting the past few days?” Zeref asks now. He has always approved of his brother’s close friendship with the young man. It is well-known that out of Weisslogia’s apprentices, Sting would most likely take over the man’s title, one day. The boy is mischievous and free-spirited, but he had a sharp mind, and the perfect mix of noble breeding and friendly disposition needed for a job that capitalizes on the arts and cultural relations.
“Oh, you know our boy.” Igneel huffs. “He didn’t last that long. Hasn’t got the patience for the fine art of accounting. Says he didn’t expect there to be so many numbers involved when the job’s just to launch trade ships, gather art, plan festivals and build plazas for foreigners.”
Zeref frowns. “He should have, though. All of that is business.”
“And yet he didn’t.” the commander shrugs. “I think he’s just not very keen on the minor details. And you know you’ll never catch that boy sitting on a desk all day, figuring out statistics. That’s just not him.”
“Indeed, it isn’t.” Zeref nods knowingly. “So that’s it, then? Whatever job we ask of Natsu, it better not involve an office?”
Igneel hums in thought, and then finally says, “You know, I remember something he told me, once, during a siege on one of the territories.”
Zeref puts down the letter he was reading to look at his uncle.
“He said that he’s thankful that when we expand territories, we don’t destroy cultures.”
Zeref nods. “It’s something I disagreed with my predecessors with. Something Mavis insisted on, the very first time she offered her services as a strategist.”
‘It’s a defense, not an offense, because ultimately we just want to protect what is ours, don’t we?’ he remembers Mavis telling him. ‘We shouldn’t expand by destroying. It’s not very practical.’
Before Mavis, he had thought it impossible to achieve, but the woman he loved and married had always been a made of miracles from the day he met her.
Zeref is pulled to the present when he hears his brother’s name. “...and then Natsu said that someday he’d like to go to one of these many places when there’s no war, see them as they are, explore their different cultures. So… maybe you can make him travel?”
“You mean as an overseer for a territory?”
“Something like that. You’ve appointed plenty of nobles for that, haven’t you? Even some of the generals. You’ve even sent Brandish to her own home with that very job. It only requires good insight, an understanding with the natives and loyalty to you.”
Zeref nods, but looks wary. “It might work. I’ll consider it. I’m wary of sending him away, though.”
“I think a change of scene might be good, and he’ll still be home - that territory would still be Alvarez.”
“Magic is weaker on newer lands.”
“You know that Natsu is far from helpless, magic or no.”
“Yes, that may be, but he’s just… he’s just come back.” Zeref looks down. Igneel watches as the man smiles, soft - too soft, it almost startled the commander - it almost looked sheepish . Softly, he asks, “Is it selfish of me to still want my little brother around for a bit longer?”
It gives Igneel pause, because the words tugged at his chest, because he understands. The man smiles at his nephew as he shakes his head. “Not at all, son. Not at all.”
“I went to visit Zera today.” Mavis tells her Emperor husband, one evening, as they sat on either side of the Imperial Princes’ bed. They had tucked the boys together that night, and so their voices were soft so as not to wake their children. “On my way, I noticed that Natsu has joined Gajeel in leading the drills for the new soldiers.”
Zeref hums in thought, absently running a hand through little Larcade’s unruly blond hair. It looks so much like Natsu’s.
He knew what Mavis is trying to ask, and he answers before she sees any need to elaborate.
“He’s a good leader, we all know that much. The soldiers look up to him because of his fierceness as a fighter.”
Mavis nods, slightly frowning at a small scrape on August’s cheek that the boy must have gotten rough-housing with his brother and their other playmates. “And?”
“It’s an option.” he says. “Although, when we talked, I got the impression that he did not really expect to continue serving in the army.”
Mavis sends him a small smile. “And you don’t want that for him, either, I suppose. The war, the fighting.”
Zeref smiles back. This woman knows him too well. “I never wanted that for him.”
She lies on her side then, snuggling close to her sleeping son. She sighs into the boy’s hair and closes her eyes. “We’ll find something better.”
“They’ve always gotten along well like this, haven’t they?”
Zeref looks up at his uncle, then follows the man’s gaze. He ends up looking out into a view of the gardens and couldn’t help but warm at the scene. It’s his two sons, sitting on the grass, rapt and excited as they listened to their uncle’s animated retelling of some story. Perhaps a battle, or an adventure. Natsu is lying on the grass, his head pillowed in Lady Erza’s lap. The woman is looking fondly at the child princes herself.
The sight is domestic and endearing.
“We’ve gotten several very indicative letters from our noble retainers.” Zeref says, thoughtful. “A handful of them made sure to mention having a daughter or two or marriageable age.”
Igneel snorts. “I know it’s always been said that a wife and a child would always make a right man of anyone, but surely you can’t be considering that for your brother right now.”
“Of course not.” Zeref says with a short laugh. “I only thought it funny, how not subtle our lot are, sometimes.”
Igneel sighs. “You should have expected it, you know. We have ourselves an Imperial Prince, fresh off several war victories, known and loved by the people, and most importantly, he is not promised to anyone. You better decide what to do about that, because with things settling down and Natsu staying idle, you’ll simply have more nobles vying for you to consider their beautiful young daughters as a bride for their dashing prince.”
“Once, I would have scoffed and called those attempts futile, because we already have the perfect candidate right here.”
Igneel raises an eyebrow at the young Emperor, then eyes the scene again. Natsu’s arms were raised now, little flames dancing around and above his fingers in hazy shapes, painting a picture. The children look on in wonder. Larcade tucks himself to Erza’s side and the woman abandons the scroll she had been reading to pull the little boy close.
“Once, eh?” Igneel asks. “Still true to this day, I think. Who can be a better fit for a prince, if not a princess?”
A familiar soft voice drifts over to them. “I resent that.” Mavis says, and settles gracefully between the men, folding her arms over the railings of the balcony and smiling down at the gardens. “I was no princess, and yet now I am Empress.”
“Oh, you know I didn’t mean it that way, Mavis.” Igneel laughs, apologetic. “Just saying, this arrangement had been in the books for sometime, even before Zeref took his title.”
“Is that true?” Mavis blinks, looking to her husband curiously.
“It had been an ideal fit.” Zeref said. “Father had always planned to have one of us court Erza in time. He and his advisors always thought that she’s a political goldmine.”
“She still is. It may be in shambles at the moment, but the Dragnov Kingdom still stands.” Igneel says, and then his smile turns serious. “Your Majesty, we can’t ignore that forever.”
Mavis hums, and when she turns back to the scene, she realizes that the children had noticed them watching, and were now waving at her enthusiastically. Natsu is grinning, while Erza inclines her head in a little bow. Mavis waves back. Igneel and Zeref do the same.
“Igneel is right.” she says , finally, and leans close to catch the Emperor’s attention.
He looks at her and stops as he sees an edge to her smile.
“But, Erza came to us all those years ago to swear her loyalty and her sword to your Imperial Majesty, and we took her as a soldier, not as your brother’s bride.” Mavis reaches up, brushes raven hair from the man’s cheek. “You have to fix this mess in Dragnov in time, but if you think the solution is forcing our brother and our greatest warrior into an unhappy marriage to gain political leverage, I will be quite sad.”
Zeref’s eyes widen minutely, and then he grins, challenging. “Just sad?”
“Perhaps a bit angry too, my love.” Mavis sniffs, eyes narrowing. “You can’t be that stupid. You too, Igneel.” she adds, glancing pointedly at the commander.
Igneel rolls his eyes. “Come on, Empress. We were just spitballing, here.”
“And suggestions so far involve sending him to cities he probably helped conquer, getting him to train new soldiers, and now having him marry his best friend so… we can… what? Rally to Belserion, depose the mad queen, and have someone we can very easily lay claim to sit on the throne? We’ve scrapped that plan ages ago. No use bringing it up now.”
Zeref sometimes forgets that after Natsu, it had been Mavis who opened her arms to Erza the night the girl had come to the Imperial Palace seeking sanctuary. It was only Mavis who Erza had been able to confess to about the extent of her mother’s abuse.
“We aren’t gonna do that.” Zeref sighs. “It’s just… Eileen’s still a threat. You know this.”
Mavis frowns. “She’s a threat I can take. Erza wants nothing to do with that woman, so she’s not going back, nor will she be used as leverage in this feud, and that’s final.”
Zeref sees and feels the surge of protectiveness in his wife - it’s the same shine in her eyes whenever their children ask about where Grand Uncle Igneel went off to fight, whenever she comes up with a plan that involves in Natsu fighting, whenever she hears that there’s been another attempt in her Zeref’s life. Mavis has always been calm and serene, but when it comes to people she holds dear, she is fierce and frightening.
“Of course, darling.” he concedes. “I’m sorry if this upset you. We’ll never mention this again.”
Mavis nods, quiet. “Thank you.” She lets him lift her hand and press a kiss to her fingers.
Zeref exchanges a helpless look with Igneel.
“Also, I think I may have a solution to this Natsu situation.” she says, and the men blink. She couldn’t help but let out a small laugh at their bewildered expressions. “Oh, you’re such men. Stop being so militant for a minute, would you? Natsu needs a purpose and you think soldier, overseer, political leverage - when he can just be himself. An Imperial Prince and a representative of the Emperor’s court.”
“Prince and representative?” Igneel raises an eyebrow at the woman. “Empress, aren’t we in this predicament in the first place because he’s so bad at diplomacy and table manners he punched a guest?”
Zeref nods in agreement with his uncle.
“Oh, he’ll do just fine.” Mavis grins, eyes shining in the way Zeref knows they did when she’s had a brilliant idea.
“Well then.” Igneel says, looking impressed. “Let’s hear it.”
“Actually,” she says, airy. “I want to run this by Natsu first.”
“Mavis?” Zeref eyes his wife curiously. “What are you thinking?”
Mavis looks to him in confidence. “Do you trust me, Emperor Dragonil?”
Zeref knows then that she’s addressing him, strategist to commander. “You know I do.”
Then she asks, “Do you believe I only have our little brother’s well-being in mind?”
And now it’s just them, just Mavis to Zeref. He smiles. “I believe you do.”
Mavis claps her hands once, and turns to leave. “Then rest easy, and let me take care of this, my love.”
Zeref tries his best to stay patient. His wife had told him to rest easy, but he simply couldn’t. He sees his brother, his family and their inner circle regularly, but Natsu seems to have made himself scarcer than usual, while he and Mavis have their own duties to attend to. He is a busy man, so despite his worries, he throws himself into his work as always.
He heard a passing remark once that someone had seen Prince Natsu accompany Empress Mavis on her usual trip to the temples. His wife usually came to the place to confer with the priestesses, most notably her friend and confidante Zera, but he knew that Mavis also came to the place for much needed solitude sometimes. It’s where she goes to pray, to think, to be quiet.
He tries to recall if he noticed any change in Natsu after that trip, but he hardly saw his brother afterwards, so he couldn’t tell.
Two more weeks pass, and then he’s taken by surprise when, as he sits down with his usual advisors and staff for their regular meeting, Natsu walks in the room, dressed in his more formal robes. He’s always had a place in the table, though everyone was accustomed to the sight of it empty during the period the Prince was out in fighting in the war, and even when he’s home as he always chose not to attend because he wasn’t really required to. Now he sits in his rightful place, taking the surprised faces of the rest of the room in stride.
Members of the council didn’t dare comment, but Zeref catches Mavis smiling at Natsu and Natsu nodding minutely.
“It’s nice of you to join us today, My Prince.” Invel says from his seat, not unkindly.
“And dressed up for once.” Igneel adds with a bemused grin.
Natsu shrugs at them both. “Eh, I was told my chair here’s about to grow cobwebs, and this robe’s going to waste in my closet. I still think it’s stuffy, though.”
“It suits you better than you think.” Zeref says, earning a sheepish grin from his brother. He eyes the rest of the table and nods. “Invel, if you would start the proceedings?”
The meeting goes as usual, reports are shared, concerns are brought up and decisions are made. Zeref keeps one eye on his brother beside him. Natsu’s arms were propped up on the table, his chin resting on his hand. He stays quiet and only listens to the others talk.
More debates and decisions later, and Zeref begins to wonder just why Natsu chose today of all days to suddenly join them for a meeting he always called ‘boring’ and ‘not for me’ .
“-and for our next order of business, we’ve long been planning to formally open an official trading relationship with Fiore Kingdom in the continent of Ishgar. My Emperor, as you requested-”
This draws Zeref’s attention from his brother, as Invel hands him a scroll. Zeref unfurls it quickly, revealing a list of names in Invel’s neat writing.
“-over the past few months we have put together a list of potential candidates to lead and serve as the Royal Ambassador to Fiore. We know the continent’s… caution towards royalty, so we only chose minor nobles from the royal families. We also included some notable merchants, but only those we could seek to re-employ to serve the throne directly, and not their current companies, to avoid bias. Lastly, there are some names there who are-”
A voice cuts through Invel’s prompt explanation. “So about that.”
The room falls silent, and Zeref looks to his brother beside him.
“My Prince?” Invel inquires, ever polite.
Natsu is sitting straight now, and is looking right back at his brother. “The Ambassador position.”
Zeref’s brows furrow, and he catches a glint of doubt in his brother’s eyes. He knows he isn’t supposed to, in this formal setting, but he softens his voice. “Yes, Natsu?”
He doesn’t miss the way Natsu glances at Mavis, and how Mavis smiles and nods encouragingly.
Natsu takes a deep breath, then lifts his chin to meet the Emperor’s eyes, and his voice is steady when he speaks.
“I’d like to volunteer.”