If Zeref were to describe his brother’s work ethic, he’ll put it like this: Natsu is absolutely terrible when he’s forced into something he doesn’t want to do, he’ll power through some if necessary just to put his family at ease, but when he actually sets his mind on something, he throws his whole self into it.
When Zeref says that Natsu throws his whole self into something, he means that his brother tackles a goal with almost single-minded determination, and knows better than to spare time for complaints or something as trivial as his pride. Natsu had never really been one for the fine details, the strategies or the numbers, he wasn’t one to learn new geographies, cultures or even languages... but once he sees that these are needed before he can achieve whatever it is he’s trying to achieve, he willingly adds those to the list.
Growing up, Zeref watched his brother run from his lessons about runes and ancient languages, only for him to later pour his heart and soul into learning them when he was told that it was a crucial step to spellcasting and using magic. Zeref watched over his brother’s career and had observed that it was simply the way Natsu did things. He sat through what he claimed were boring meditation sessions because it was part of learning martial arts. He learned intricate runes and magic symbols because he wanted to be a fire mage. He joined the soldiers in training to familiarize himself with their routines. He learned military commands and practices from Igneel and Gajeel so he could lead. He took strategic cues from Mavis to establish himself as one of Zeref’s strongest generals.
Natsu might never seek these things on his own time, but if they made it to the list, he’ll do them. Simple as that. If he needs to learn something, he’ll study. If he finds himself at a loss even then, he’ll readily admit that he needs help and seek it himself.
Zeref’s old advisors, ones he practically inherited from his late father and Emperor, often called Natsu ‘reckless’. Even Igneel, with a soft spot a mile wide for the boy, didn’t argue with that assessment, but lovingly used the word ‘willful’ instead.
It had been Mavis who first claimed that Natsu is simply ‘practical’. While Zeref couldn’t, for his life, remember a time that his brother had been practical , Mavis had said that “An asset is only as good as how you choose to utilize it, Zeref. Your advisors are old jerks who don’t realize how strong Natsu’s ‘willfulness’ makes him.”
He believed her then, and he believes her all over again as he leans against the wall, listening in amusement to a conversation he had almost ignored as he passed by before he realized what it was about.
“This list is- This list is… how many pages?” Natsu asks, sounding shaken. Zeref knows how much he hates long lists.
Rogue sounds unfazed as he says, “Three.”
“We have dirt on all these people?”
“Those are the only ones with lots of… dirt. Ones with only minor, harmless offenses were not included.”
“Hells, do we have clean people at all?”
“Of course we do!” Laughter, from Sting. He sounds very amused. “Natsu, you underestimate the number of trading families and companies we have in the Empire. This is simply a list of the ones you’d want to avoid. Say… see that name at the top of the list?”
“Yes. Everyone knows this family.”
“They started out very clean, right, but now Metallicana is preparing to raid that company because the Shadows finally tracked evidence that they’re slave-trading. I doubt you’d wanna work with ‘em, eh?”
“Slave-...The head of this family was at that fancy banquet we threw a few months ago! That’s… that’s him, right? Old, tall, super boring, talks everyone’s ears off? About… about the rats on his cacao fields...”
“And now you know he’s evil.”
Natsu groans. “How do you get so much dirt on these guys? His dad was like… Igneel’s drinking buddy!”
There’s a pause, and then, “Um. Training?” Another pause. Zeref can just imagine his brother’s dumbfounded face. There’s a sigh, and Zeref can also pretty much see Rogue’s helpless expression. “It’s kind of my job, Natsu.”
“I knew you spy on royals and rich people for like… treason, illegal stuff and whatnot… I didn’t know you also look into businessmen.”
Zeref isn’t so surprised by this, by Natsu’s unfamiliarity. Natsu has always been under Igneel’s wing, and the Fire Dragon’s office is less… formal than the other offices. With only a choice few mages, they guarded the Temples, kept in touch with the priestesses and communed with the Land to ensure the balance of magic in the Empire. Most of Igneel’s agents were dispatched to the other offices, ensuring magic is being practiced rightfully. A good amount of them went to the army, under the Iron Dragon’s ranks. They are fierce fighters as fire mages, but they did their primary duty in the territories, evaluating the stability of magic in new lands.
Zeref knows that Natsu is familiar with the primary functions and some minute details of the Shadow and Light offices. The Light Dragon’s office protects the Empire’s history, art and culture through business, trade and tourism. The Shadow Dragon’s agents are spread in a network of information to keep the Emperor up to date with things… behind the curtains. Natsu had learned, during the war, that their information about the culture of their enemies came from Weisslogia’s men, while tips on the movements of insurgents and invaders were from Skiadrum’s agents.
What he must not have realized was that war is just another kind of business deal, and that both the Light and Shadow Dragons offices handled much more beyond historical artifacts and suspicious foreign dignitaries.
“You’ll be surprised how much of their dirty laundry go together, the businessmen and royals.” Rogue says.
Zeref has always admired the young man’s patience, a thing learned growing up with excitable souls like Sting and Natsu. He himself can be quite cutting at times.
“Our empire thrives on trading. Our nobles and our richest families are all businessmen.”
“Oh. I guess… I never thought about it like that, until now. I knew they have land and fields. Mines and people. They are all trading companies in the end, huh?”
“They are.” Rogue continues. “In the old days, maybe the Shadows and the Light Dragon’s office had let pass some… misdemeanors, among these companies as long as it doesn’t affect the Imperial Treasury, but lately, with the war efforts and all, these might cause complications. You know how they always say Emperor Zeref changed the rules, fixed the system?”
“Um… yep, only the reason for so many assassination attempts. And wars. Old geezers weren’t fond of him. Said he listened to foreigners too much - which… were Mavis and Lady Anna, so like, two? They said he was messin’ up tradition. They liked Father’s rule better.”
“Messin’ up tradition, my ass.” Sting scoffs. “Your brother did so much for the people. He’s a hero.”
Natsu lets out a bitter laugh. “Hah. Rich snobs don’t like heroes.”
That, Zeref knew all too well. His newer, younger advisors and counsellors were enthusiastic about the shifts, but the old families? His father’s old advisors? Oh, he only made so many of them unhappy.
“Okay. History lesson, Your Highness.” Sting says. “So you know how important it is that we have, as you say, dirt on these potential trading partners.”
“Ugh, I hate history lessons…” There’s a sigh, a resigned one, but Natsu only replies, “But fine, let’s hear it. So this all makes sense.”
“So… the common people. They looked up to your father and his predecessors, right?”
“The Dragonil line is one of strength and might.” Natsu drawls. “We carry the Empire and lead our people with… absolute power and some shit like that… It’s lame, they made me memorize it once, don’t remind me.”
“Right. So, people love your family, but it doesn’t mean your family’s always done the best for the people. They made the Empire rich, because of all the rich families, trading and shit, countries and allies… but let’s face it, some businesses are dirty, dabbling on blood and dark magic, and some of our former allies had slaves, some oppress their own minorities. Heck, Belserion’s still a mess. It’s just Queen Eileen’s mad and holds valuable hostage that we haven’t cut ties with her yet.”
“Don’t let Erza hear you say that.”
“Oh, Natsu.” Rogue chimes in with a chuckle. “She’d probably be the first to say that.”
Natsu groans. “That’s fair. Right. So, we were rich, people were fine but not as happy as they should have been, and we had bad friends.”
Zeref almost wanted to laugh - his brother always made things sound so simple.
“That’s the gist.” Sting continues. “Until your Father passed, and your brother became Emperor. Now, he continued the rule just the same, right? With Commander Igneel guiding him. Igneel’s open to change, we all know that, but Emperor Zeref was young and new-”
“I know this. He couldn’t make any major changes until his rule’s… stable… ‘cause otherwise there’s risk of making a bunch of nobles and counsellors sulk about it and dethrone him. He told me about a lot of things he wanted to change but can’t because… uh... traditions?”
“Right. Dad said that Emperor Zeref was slow in those first few years, but all the tiny moves he made were careful and sure. He got Mavis into court by convincing everyone she’ll only advice on war tactics. He granted higher than expected positions to a choice few foreigners and representatives from the territories, saying it’s to pacify people who may feel underrepresented. He allowed Grandine to take in commoners and refugees, not just nobles as apprentice healers. He told Dad to open the Light Dragon’s main hall of artifacts to the people. He asked Skiadrum to keep tabs on our shady allies.”
“It’s little by little,” Rogue said, picking up easily - they were always a unit. “But by the time he’s in a stable position, he’s all set to suddenly give the Empire an overhaul, without risking his position. He’s got an expert tactician in case of wars. He’s got Invel, Dimaria, Brandish, a hand-picked personal guard who are all from different lands and wouldn’t be bribed by local nobles. He’s gained the adoration of the people for his generosity, and he has ammunition against our questionable friends and allies for their... illegal… deeds.”
Zeref listens in, reminiscing. It seemed so long ago, but Rogue was right - those years were some gruelling years, where he had to quietly just gather defenses around himself, where every move was calculated. It was painful to keep his distance from Mavis, getting to know her and working so closely with her - he couldn’t risk her position if she had been accused of seducing her way into court. He had also unintentionally neglected his relationship with Natsu, and had left him in Igneel’s care instead during what should be his brother’s formative years.
“And then…” Natsu says now. “And then he changed everything. I remember that. So many questions. So many people who quit, or who told him he’s taking too many risks. And wars were started. But the people… Man, the people held festivals. We didn’t have to issue a summons when war broke out because they were volunteering to fight instead.”
“Emperor Zeref is a champion to them when he made it clear that they matter as much as their masters do.” Rogue says. “Igneel, Weisslogia, Skiadrum, Metallicana and Grandine… they lobbied behind your brother because they’ve wanted to do all this for long enough. Emperor Zeref cut ties to allies and families who were involved in human trade and dark magic, also to countries who still practiced slavery. Wars happened because they resented that we’re not supporting their endeavors anymore. Your brother pushed back but didn’t attack their people, just their suspect rulers. Which… you have to admit, somehow sent the right message to the new territories.”
“And throughout all that, the ones who’s been gathering all the intel…”
“...are the Shadows. And the office making sure ends would meet even after cancelling a dozen or so trade routes to now former allies, hand-picking which family or country pose major risks to the economy if we lose them-”
“-is the Light Dragon’s office.” Natsu finishes, taking a deep breath. “Okay. I got it. So now, with us taking our trade and culture to Ishgar…”
“We need the absolute best. The cleanest. I’ve drawn up a plan, some estimates. How much and how many - people, goods, art and fancy stuff you hate but look great in - that we’ll have to bring. And they need to be the best.” Sting replies, firm and decisive. Zeref is reminded that the young man is Weisslogia’s finest apprentice and heir, after all. “We can’t afford dirt aired in a foreign land. The reputation of the companies and traders we’ll be bringing with us, introducing to our new partners, should be spotless. We should always have the upper hand in things like these, and our new friends musn’t find anything to question about us.”
“Why can’t we simply take the partners we already have?” Natsu asks, sounding thoughtful for once. “We have those, right? We have many companies around, but there are chosen ones who already provide for the palace, exclusively? They are clean, right? They must be. They’re… ours .”
“Yes, we do. And yes, they are. But that already risks favoritism, and besides, we can’t be sure they’ll be able to constantly supply both the palace and Ishgar at the same time.”
Natsu makes a humming noise. “Oh. Good catch.”
“Also, it won’t be just your business in Ishgar that would be at risk if we bring in suspect traders.” Rogue adds. “The rest of the company that remains here could easily use their Empire-sanctioned trading deal with the Royal Ambassador at Ishgar as an excuse for all sorts of activities. Bribery, fraud, illegal goods could slip easily, and all under your name, Natsu. That’s trouble for everyone, specially your brother, who appointed you in the first place.”
“Huh. So… you’re saying, I have to choose partners who won’t take advantage of my title and their appointment.”
“Just like how you chose yours truly! So,” Sting starts again, and there’s sounds of paper rustling. “You might want to make note of this list again.”
“Mm-hm. Basically… this is the list of companies I shouldn’t allow anywhere near this trade deal.”
“Some of them are the head companies, some of them are known partners of said companies that could be used to get to the deal anyway.”
“Do we have a list of companies we actually like?”
More rustling. This time, it’s Rogue who says, “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Huh. One page.”
“It was five, but Sting had it shortlisted further.”
“You should have given this to me first!” Natsu complains. “Why didn’t you just show me this?!”
Sting sniggers. “Well, I figured it was important that you learn about your enemies before your friends first, Your Highness.”
Natsu groans, then only grumbles to himself. He must be reading the new list. “I recognize most of these names… somehow. Alright, but I want to meet with them first before I really choose-”
“Done.” Sting sings. “We’ve arranged for a gathering of all available major traders and companies next week. Weisslogia’s started preparations to accommodate it in our halls.”
“Oh- Wait, what?! ”
“You’re meeting them all!” Sting says, very joyful. “We need to pick people you can get along with. Also it’s common courtesy to announce to every trader that we’ll be opening a new channel. Give them a chance to bid and offer, you know, even if we already have a shortlist. Of course, they don’t know that we do, but it’s still good to see how they react-”
“This… this is happening. Next week?”
“Yep! Prepare a speech, I guess? Weisslogia and I can handle the announcements and the statistics. Of course you’ll know all about that too. But it’s our job to talk about it.”
“You just…. You just did… all this?”
“It’s... my job? You told me to give you a to-do list and I did, and you looked through everything and said it was fine.”
“Well… it was fine, but-”
“Then I asked you when you wanna do which, and you told me to manage your schedule as long as I keep a couple of days and all evenings free for training and for you to spend time with your family.”
Natsu groans. “This is prince lessons all over again.”
“But better ,” Sting corrects, sounding every bit like the persuasive, charismatic businessman he was born to be. “Because you get to shake hands and make friends.”
“With old businessmen? Take me back to boring solitary lessons, will you? Wait- you said I get to meet everyone ? That includes the… bad ones?”
“Yes. Now, try to keep your distance, but not too much-”
“I can’t possibly remember all those names in your lists! What- Rogue, do you-? Do you remember every name on there? Wait- Does-... During banquets… Zeref-... Does Zeref memorize all those names? With all those faces ?!”
Zeref holds back his laugh at the sound of disbelieving panic in his brother’s voice.
“I don’t.” Rogue replies. “Sting does, though.”
“That’s what you have me for, Natsu. I know people. Lots. Of people.” Sting says, on the verge of laughter himself. “The banquets… when the Emperor goes around talking to our guests, you do know who’s stuck to his side, right?”
A snort. “Other side.”
There’s an intake of breath. Realization. “Weisslogia.”
“And what’s my dad always doing?”
“...whisperin’ to Zeref’s ear- Oh. Ohhhhh… I get it. Fine. You- You promise to do that for me?”
“I’ll be your date.” Sting teases, voice low. “Prince Dragonil.” - and Zeref can just see the wink that came with that. Weisslogia’s boy, through and through.
Natsu makes a gagging noise. “Stop… Gross...”
“Excuse you! I am a very attentive, considerate, and caring companion.” Sting huffs, sounding hurt now. “I am a good date.”
“He’s not.” Rogue interjects. “He flirts with everyone.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t flirt with everyone if someone would just attend these things with me for once .” Sting argues, petulant.
“I won’t abandon my job to be your arm piece in a fancy gathering of people fake smiling and fawning at each other.” Rogue replies. “I am not as good a liar as you.”
Sting gasps, offended.
Rogue remedies that by adding, “That’s a compliment. My love, light of my life.”
Sting gasps, louder and with more feeling . “I am an actor !”
“Land.” Natsu mumbles, hardly audible. “You two are unbearable. Sting, adjust my schedule so I don’t have to deal with you both at the same time?”
“All due respect, I won’t let you separate us, My Prince.” Sting deadpans. “Also, I think you’ll find it better to learn the ways of the Light and Shadow Dragons, hand-in-hand.”
“I take it you’ll also be hand-in-hand during that time?” Natsu says dully. There’s no reply. “Very professional.”
“Oh, you love us.” Sting chides.
“Not that much.” Natsu sighs. “But fine, let’s do this… businessmen gathering whatever- Shit. I haven’t even started learning about Ishgar yet! What’ll I say when they ask?”
There’s a sound of fingers snapping, and Sting proudly says, “Oh, that starts the day after tomorrow, My Prince! I’ll be bringing a very nice map, and I invited Gajeel for some assistance.”
“Gajeel?” Natsu asks, sounding skeptical. “What did you bribe him with?”
Sting doesn’t reply.
It’s Rogue who finally says, “A basket of the best kiwi fruits we receive, come next harvest.”
Natsu bursts out laughing, while Sting reprimands Rogue about blowing up his plan to make Natsu think he’s just that persuasive. Then the three agree to get started on teaching Natsu some trading basics.
Zeref smiles to himself, and decides that it is finally time to return to his duties.
His brother would be fine. Just like Weisslogia and Skiadrum never disappointed their Emperor, Zeref knows that Sting and Rogue would not lead their Prince astray.
“Say that again?” Natsu says, and beside him Sting raises a finger then nods, probably halfway to asking the same question himself.
Gajeel takes a deep breath. “ A-me-fu-ra-shi. ”
Natsu proceeds to repeat the syllables, and somehow completely butchers the attempt. Gajeel is not even sure that should be a word in any language.
Sting, his aptitude for languages a bit more refined, comes up with a heavily-accented, “ Aimfrarshi? ”
“No.” Gajeel growls.
This time, it’s Rogue who tries, “ Amerufash... Amerufashi. ”
“Almost.” Gajeel says, mildly impressed - he at least has the intonation down. “ Furashi .”
“ Ah-me-... f-furash… shi? ”
“Needs practice, but you can say that to a local and they won’t send you in the complete opposite direction, so... I guess that’ll do fine.” Gajeel appraises with a nod, then eyes the other two.
Natsu and Sting try again, and both sound just as hopeless.
Gajeel rolls his eyes, rubs his temples, and then sighs. “Fuck. Just call it Rain Country, for now. It’s always raining there.” he says, then the finger he had stuck on the map in the table slides to another spot as he continues, “Like in the Iceberg Country, where it’s frozen over. And Jewel Country, where it’s full of gemstone mines. Straightforward, if you know the language.”
“Alright, that’s a mistake on my part, I admit that.” Sting says. “We should have put at least a few language lessons first before we went to geography and culture.”
“You think?” Gajeel deadpans, but simply shrugs it off. “Whatever, let’s use names in Vistari first. So. Rain. Ice. Jewel. What else? Ah, this is Stella , it’s a word there that means stars. So. Star Country. It’s a tourist spot or something to do with stars. There are a few more villages and small cities sprinkled here in the north. That’s where I’m most familiar with ‘cause that’s where I’m from. But you’ll be staying… here.”
His finger circles the part of the map where a tiny wooden figure of a dragon has already been placed.
“Fiore Kingdom, which isn’t a monarchy at all, but whatever. You’d wanna build your embassy in the City , which is Crocus . In there, if you say City , there’s only one - which is. Well. Crocus .”
“Crocus.” - all three of his companions repeat at once, and Gajeel stops, awkward.
He is… a drill sergeant. Not a geography teacher.
“R-Right.” He coughs. “That’s… That’s where you’ll be. It’s got the major ports and docks, the… well, the acting government, most of the nobles, merchants and businesses. It’s basically the capital. The rest of the country are farms, mines, small towns… of people... working on those farms and mines, and noble family estates. Like say… their vacation mansions. Tourist destinations aren’t very common, but those are usually run or owned by some noble family too.”
“So… nobles... own everything?” Natsu asks, brows furrowed.
“Yes.” Gajeel nods. “This map? You can just as well mark ‘em up, divide spots and instead of place names, just indicate which families own which places.”
“But they’re not a monarchy?”
“Monarchy’s been abolished centuries ago. Abuse of magic and oppression of the people. I’m not big on that end of the wizards-and-royals deal, so maybe ask the Empress or Miss Zera about it. Or Lady Anna, she can tell you all about those fine historical details.”
Natsu nods back, looking thoughtfully at the map again. “But there are nobles?”
“Nobles made that whole deal happen. They’re basically just descendants of kings and queens and wizards themselves. I think. But... yeah - no more royals, no more magic, the nobles divvied everything up and also made themselves the government.”
“We have a separate lesson on that with Miss Zera.” Sting quips. “But for now- You said you were from the north region? We didn’t know that.”
“I don’t go around tellin’ people all about my hometown.” Gajeel grumbles. “It’s that place you can’t even say the name of.”
“ Amefura-shi? ” Rogue asks, and is met with raised eyebrows.
“Y-Yeah. There.” Gajeel says, blinking. Now he’s properly impressed. “Heavy on the accent, but good job.”
“The Rain Country?” Natsu recalls. “You mentioned that before, didn’t you? You were used to the cold and you complained all the time ‘bout Vistarion being a desert.”
Gajeel shrugs. “I’m used to it now. I prefer actually seeing the sun everyday. Instead of just... clouds.”
“So which nobles owned the Rain Country then? Must be real gloomy ones, I mean - what grows in constant rain?” Sting muses. “Couldn’t be that profitable...”
“You’d be surprised.” Gajeel says. “The place was all shadows and cold winds, yeah - but some rare beasts live in the near-freezing lake waters and in the forests. Plenty of fish. The trees are pine. Real tall, thick, shady ones. Good for furniture. Some fruits and flowers grow better in that cold and wet weather too. Real rare ones. Folks in the City like to acquire ‘em during wintertime because their normal ones wither without the sun and warmth.”
Sting dips his brush into ink and goes for his notes. “Interesting. Season-based products, huh… That’s good… Sale’s not year-round but they make up to that during their season. Tricky to manage but worth looking into…”
“You set him off, now.” Rogue says, a fond smile on his face as Sting starts scribbling.
Gajeel rolls his eyes. “What- This is a small country in the sticks. I think you ought to focus on the big City.”
“Eh, it is interesting. We don’t have many cold places in the Empire.” Natsu says. “We have all afternoon anyway, let’s just go over the map from north and then southwards. I wanna know this stuff.”
Gajeel scoffs, looking irritated as he glared down at the map.
“Rogue and I are gathering information from a few of our traders who’ve been to Ishgar.” Sting tells Natsu. “They only come there for quick barter, like a supply stop before other channels. But they know some stuff about the City and the businesses. We’ll get to the big names as soon as I’m done compiling everything they gave me.”
Natsu only nods. “That’s good. We gotta know who we wanna do official business with...”
“Nobody’s mentioned this Rain Country before, though.”
“Because it’s in the countryside and your traders don’t need furs or special winter orchids now, do they?” Gajeel deadpans.
“Well, we won’t be just traders on a supply run. We’re planning a long-time partnership. You didn’t answer me earlier. Which noble family owns this one? I wanna take note of it-”
“I don’t know.” he cuts in, and the steel in his voice instantly catches his companions’ attentions.
Sting lets out an uneasy laugh. “W-What? Man, you said you used to live there, you must know who your landlords were-”
“Like Hells I’d know.”
Gajeel lets out a huff, not meeting any of their eyes. He had never really been one to lie, even white ones, even of omission. Gajeel simply says ‘No, I won’t answer.’ when he is asked a question he doesn’t want to share the answer to. In the time that Natsu had known him, Gajeel had never been one to hide, and always held tight to his right to silence.
“I just need the family name for reference.” Sting says, sounding slightly miffed, hand still flying over the parchment.
Sting doesn’t know Gajeel as well as Natsu does. Sting is probably too wrapped up in his business planning, in his mental tally of names and faces, to notice Gajeel sneak another glare at the spot on the map where his old home had been.
Thankfully, while Rogue doesn’t know Gajeel as much either, he sees Natsu’s imploring expression and reads the intent right. “He said he doesn’t know, Sting. Let’s just mention it the next time we find the traders in the docks. Surely they’d tell us if they know, it must have simply slipped their mind the last time-”
But of course, it’s probably the thought of someone else having to intervene for him that snapped Gajeel’s attention back to the others. He cuts Rogue off with another low growl. “Fine.” he says, and grabs the paper and brush from Sting before writing the name down on paper, not trusting foreigners to do justice to the place names. He slides the paper and brush back as if burnt.
Sting blinks down at the foreign letters. With what little he had studied of the language so far, he tries to pronounce the name. “ Lok…? Loksee? ”
“ Lockser .” Gajeel says. “They used to... hold all business in Rain Country. Now I don’t know.”
“You don’t know for certain, or you don’t know now because it’s been a while since you’ve been there?”
“I don’t know for certain .” Gajeel answers, curt and distant. “They don’t have anythin’ to do with the place anymore. That’s the last I heard of that.”
Sting nods, squinting at the letters again, then at the map, still deep in thought. “Is that normal? A business turnover? This doesn’t look like a small place, or a small operation.”
“No. It was- It was complicated, alright? Special case, nothing worth notin’ about ‘cause it won’t happen to other places. So just- Move on. Here, you oughtta eye this - Joya .” he says, haphazardly grabbing Sting’s wrist to point his finger to another country instead. “Jewels. All mined from mountainsides and underground reserves. I’m pretty sure your partners will use those for leverage. Precious shiny stones for the rich.”
“Oh, we will be bringing some of our own.” Natsu says, and receives a nod from Sting when he looks to clarify.
“Bring big ones. Nobles in Ishgar love jewels.”
Natsu grins. “All nobles love jewels.”
“I mean, it’s a whole… deal . The women have this tradition of commissioning this one piece of jewelry to pass on to their first daughter. The older your family, the more heirloom jewelry you have, specially if you’re the first daughter of the first daughter... - and these daughters look at all their options and choose favorites. The bigger the stone, the more established the noblewoman who had it crafted would be recognized as.”
“Oh…” Natsu furrows his brows in thought, looking wistful. “Like that gold and ruby bracelet Lady Anna has?”
“Probably.” Gajeel shrugs.
“That’s how they leave their legacy.” Rogue says with a bemused smile. “The same way we inherit swords from our predecessors.”
“Alright, then. Big stones, bigger than they can get in their Jewel Country. There’s nothin’ like noble ladies tryin’ to one-up each other.” Natsu says. “Sting?”
“I know, Your Highness. On it.” comes Sting’s mumbled reply as he continues to write. “Joya, right… Carry on, then. What’s in… Bas… Bals…?
“ Balsam. ” Gajeel answers. “Hot springs. It’s in an opportune location, high up to have good views, not high enough that carriages would give on the trip. Surrounded by forests and the widest river in the continent.”
Natsu listens as Gajeel gives them further rundown on the countries and places in the map. He seems to ease up the further they go south, and once again Natsu wonders just what kind of life led Gajeel this far away from his homeland. He seems to hold disdain against Ishgar as a whole, but mostly for the Rain Country he came from. Natsu had asked Gajeel about his home before, but the answers he got were always vague. Honest, straight to the point, but stripped of all the details. Gajeel had always answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘I don’t remember’ or ‘I don’t think about it anymore’ .
But sometimes, like now, Natsu catches Gajeel reach up to trace idle fingers on the intricately-carved silver cuff wrapped on his bicep, and he couldn’t help but think that maybe Gajeel does remember, does think about his life before Alvarez, after all.
Igneel walks in by the time Gajeel moves his lessons to the city of Crocus . The man quickly waves dismissively when Gajeel, Sting and Rogue make to stand, and tells them to carry on as he sits with them. He is curious, if not slightly bored, as Gajeel proceeds to tell them about the many ways travellers enter the city from within the land. He beats Natsu to asking questions about the ports, and Gajeel thinks about it for a while before answering to the best of his ability.
Rogue has questions about the Hill that Gajeel describes. It’s a district for the City’s elite, which is not unheard of, but in Alvarez, the royals and noble families have their estates scattered across the lands.
“It’s mansions with their big gardens and lawns and fancy gates. Clean streets. Shiny carriages. Servants in fine cloaks. All in one nice hill.” Gajeel says, then chuckles at Rogue’s squinting expression. “ I know , it’s heaven for thieves, right?”
“It’s only missing a bow to tie it up nicely.” Rogue sighs. “We haven’t really talked about their culture and traditions, but they already sound like obnoxious people.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to tell the Empress you think her people are obnoxious.” Igneel teases.
Natsu sees horror fill Rogue’s face and laughs. “Nah, she’ll be delighted .”
Gajeel continues on to the Middle City, catching Sting’s and Igneel’s attention with talk of the markets, businesses, foreign trader compounds, the University and the City Guard. His knowledge is limited, but Sting says they’d have plenty more information from the traders he and Rogue are meeting.
Gajeel is in the middle of trying to explain what little he knew of how the University works when Natsu hums and leans forward, eyeing a spot on the map with scrutiny.
“Is that… a lake? With an island on it?”
Gajeel takes one look at the aforementioned lake and shrugs. “Yeah. That’s a lake, connects to a river cuttin’ through the city. It’s a pretty big lake, though, enough to have an island on it. People live in that island, there’s a bridge, should be around… here.” he says, indicating to a spot, tracing where a bridge could be from the city to the island.
“Huh. That’s new.” Natsu says. “Anythin’ special about it besides it being… you know… in a lake in the middle of a city?”
Gajeel seems to think about it, and eyes his companions before saying. “It’s called Magnolia . Not a city, just part of it. They call it that after the wildflowers that grow by the lake and riverside. It’s the most dangerous part of Crocus .”
Three pairs of brows lift up. “Is it, now?” Natsu says, now more interested, ever the adventurer. “Most dangerous part of the city and they named it after a flower?”
Gajeel snorts, but answers anyway. “Yes, it is. It’s a den of thieves, killers, all sorts of criminals, whores and swordsmen. It’s where young city boys go for adventure and dares, but even then they only go to the pubs and whorehouses nearest to the bridge, never in the heart of the island. It’s where you go to sell something illegal, gamble with questionable stakes, lose coins for a quick fuck, or hire someone to silence your enemy. Permanently.”
“Have you been there?”
Gajeel is silent for a beat, and then he answers, “Yes.” His hand twitches to touch the cuff on his arm again, but he holds back. Instead he gives them a challenging, but bitter smile. “Wanna guess what for?”
They exchange looks. Sting answers first. “A… drink?”
Gajeel actually scowls . “You offend me.”
“A night of... ardor?” Igneel tries.
“Just say sex , please, Commander.” the man answers, with a roll of his eyes. “And, no .”
Natsu squints at his friend. “Were you there to… pick a fight?”
“Fun. But no.”
“You were there to hide.” Rogue says, deep in thought. “Or... to acquire something that would help you leave the continent?”
Gajeel stares at the younger man before scoffing. “ You’re creepy. ” he says, and earns complaints because he said it in his native tongue.
“Does that mean I’m right?”
“Yes.” Gajeel says, finally conceding. “They’ll tell you the best artists are in the University, or in the Middle City, where the nobles know to hire them. But the finest hands in Crocus can be found in Magnolia .”
Rogue meets his gaze head on. “You acquired some form of travel papers, didn’t you? For safe passage or a place with a crew heading for Alvarez.”
“You really are creepy.” Gajeel grumbles, shaking his head. “And too quick for your own good.”
“You’re frowning.” Natsu says, grinning because he can. “That means he’s right.”
“And you’re lookin’ mighty interested in that island, Your Highness.” Gajeel snaps back. “I’m tellin’ you. If you know what’s good for you, just keep off that place. You’re too important to go there anyway.”
Natsu lets out a noncommittal hum before saying, “I’ll think about it.”
Igneel looks at his nephew and narrows his eyes.
Natsu knows he’s in for a heart-to-heart later, perhaps after dinner - the ‘some-risks-are-not-worth-it’ talk, and he simply thinks that oh , he can bear that much.
Mavis is the one Sting consults with about the government in the Fiore Kingdom.
Erza sits with them, for once in her casual robes instead of her armor. Apparently she had gone to the temples that morning and Mavis had invited her to join their little session.
It quickly devolves into a group of very confused and somehow offended students listening to their teacher.
“So… a group of mages screw up one time , and they banned magic… forever ?” Natsu asks, scandalized.
“That’s awfully harsh, isn’t it?” Erza adds. “I myself don’t use magic, but I can’t imagine the Empire without it.”
Mavis nods. “To be fair, these mages were backed by the royals. Absolute power is dangerous, specially when it so freely advocates dark magic.”
“The nobles overthrew them but they took over.” Sting says. “What’s even the difference?”
Rogue nudges him, looking thoughtful. “They were without magic. They have significantly less power.”
“Not when the people think they’re heroes. That’s how they were able to practically divide the lands between themselves.” Mavis continues. Her lesson is very casual, just the great Empress and tactician in her plain dress and bare feet, sitting propped up on the table as four younger students listened to her. “But yes, it’s still close to royalty. The duchal houses - there are four of them, have significant land and riches, and will always each hold a seat in the table. It’s usually them, and the Council of Lords. Sometimes, the head of the Council of Merchants and some foreign ambassadors join them. It is more organized and inclusive than the reign of Kings and Queens, but in the end, it’s still the rich making decisions for the rest of the people.”
“These… Lords… in the council, they’re nobles too?” Natsu asks.
“Yes. Some upstarts may succeed in grabbing the position, but since it’s decided by votes among the noble families, it’s mostly one of them who are seated.”
Sting raises a hand for a question. “Can someone be… say, be a head of a duchal house, and hold a seat in the Council of Lords at the same time?”
“As far as I know, yes.” Mavis answers. “It’s a lot of responsibility, though. What usually happens is a head of house finding allies in the Council instead. A co-conspirator or two, always useful when you want to swing a vote.”
“Alright, so… we need to kiss up to the Council of Merchants, Council of Lords, my fellow ambassadors, and the dukes and duchesses.” Natsu says, listing all of them down by his fingers.
“You need to kiss up to everyone, yes.” Rogue nods.
Natsu groans. “That’s the worst kind of kissing.”
Sting sniggers at him. “What would you know about kissing?”
Natsu looks more scandalized than when he heard about the ban on magic in Ishgar. “Wha- Hey! ”
“Empress, if I may ask…” Erza starts, frowning lightly. “It’s called the Council of Lords. Are they all… Lords?”
Mavis blinks once, then her lips form an ‘o’ in realization. “Um… Yes, I’m afraid. Of course, foreign ambassadors are an exception, as they understand that some cultures may differ from theirs. Besides that, only men are allowed a seat in that table.”
She is met with four wide eyes and a chorus of “ What?! ”
“Oh, a duchess may represent a duchal house, if she’s a duchess of her own name and in the absence of a duke.” Mavis adds. “Which… rarely ever happens.”
“They won’t let the women in their council… thing?” Natsu asks, confused. “ Why? ”
“There are different expectations of women in Ishgar. They’re not really expected to… own their estates, or govern the house, or get involved in politics or even, really, defend themselves.”
“That’s nonsense! I mean...” Natsu trails off, and simply waves his hand at… the entirety of Erza, as if that would explain his entire point. “Erza! Look at Erza.”
“Majority of our best Shadows are women.” Rogue adds.
Sting also decides to contribute. “Same here. The Light Dragon’s office would be doomed without our most effective diplomats and negotiators, who just so happen to be women.”
Mavis looks at the four of them, amused but also wistful. “So perhaps you understand now, part of the reason why I left?”
They go quiet, letting that sink in. Mavis was born in Ishgar, too. She always said that she had felt alien in her own hometown, a girl obsessed with books not about romance and fairy tales but about history and tactics. She never found anyone who took her seriously, save for her best friend Zera.
Until she stepped foot in Vistarion, where she was able to put her skills and asset to good work. Until she met Zeref, and instead of calling her names or worrying about her sanity, he only looked at her in awe, thoroughly impressed. Until she found that she had a natural aptitude with magic and poured her being into learning the art. Until she became the Empire’s primary tactician. Until she married the Emperor and as Empress is almost as involved in politics and rule as he is.
“Now I want to bring you with me even more.” Natsu tells Erza, eyes gleaming mischievously. “I wanna see the look on their face when I announce that one of the Emperor’s champions is a woman.”
“Oh, Land.” Erza says, exchanging an amused look with the Empress. “It does make me want to go.”
Weisslogia throws a lavish luncheon with the traders and businessmen of Vistarion. Natsu gives a speech about the opening of the new official trade route to Ishgar, together with a message from the Emperor himself. After that, Weisslogia and his secretaries take over to talk the specifics. When he finishes up, the mingling starts.
Sting, a man of his word, does stick to Natsu’s side during the whole thing, now and then whispering information and advice to his ear. Natsu is still rough around the edges as he entertained the eager nobles and businessmen clamoring for his favor, but - thank the Land - he emerges from the event having punched no one.
“How was your date with the prince?” Rogue asks that night, when Sting finally settles with him under the covers. Rogue feels the heat of Sting’s body against his back as his lover wraps him in strong, sturdy arms.
Sting snuggles close and presses a lingering kiss to the other man’s neck before he answers sleepily. “I heard someone say I’m too clingy and pretty to be smart, but that it’s no wonder the prince likes me in his arm.”
Rogue snorts. “They must be new here.”
“It was Neinhart.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Well, fuck him.”
“Love, did you just say fuck ?” Sting asks, voice filled with glee.
“You are clingy and pretty, and you can be an idiot sometimes-”
“- hey -”
“-but you are the smartest person I know.”
“ Your dad-”
“Fine, fourth.” Rogue sighs. “But, how was it, really?”
“It went fine. Natsu powered through. No one got set on fire. I think he’s close to deciding who our partners should be. He’s good at assessing people like that, once he’s met them.”
“Is he?” A hum, interrupted by a yawn. “That’s good…”
“I enjoyed it.” Sting says, idly tracing circles on the other’s waist. “Picking partners. Studying the other continent, planning the books and the merchandise… It’s… Well, dad’s assigned me a couple of projects, or planning jobs before, but they’re… they’re small. But this one - this one’s a big one… And I feel like it’s mine ...”
He trails off when he notices Rogue’s silence and his steady breathing. He had fallen asleep.
“And I’m starting to feel…” he continues in a whisper, and the rest he says with his forehead pressed against his best friend and lover’s shoulder. “I’m starting to feel that I wouldn’t want anyone else to continue this job, to see it through, expect myself.”
He closes his eyes, and has almost succumbed to sleep when he feels gentle fingers run through his hair before cupping his cheek. “Tomorrow.” says Rogue, voice sleep-soft. “I’ll talk to Skiadrum.”
Wendy had finished her task early that day. She was only meant to deliver some potions and salves for a select few officials in the palace. She had been making her way back to the healers’ quarters when Natsu saw her and called her in to sit with them.
She took one look at his company and knew that the time she had to spare should be well-spent accepting the offer. She had always treasured the comfortable companionship she had with Prince Natsu, and with that came a sort of friendship with Sting and Rogue, but it wasn’t very often that she got to sit with the Emperor and Empress themselves. Not to mention Miss Zera, the Empress’s best friend, confidante, and one of the most well-known priestesses of the Imperial Temples.
She bowed deeply first, still not quite sure about proper pleasantries. Even after years of living in Vistarion, sometimes she’s still that orphan girl with too much magic and too little confidence - despite the affection her tribesmen had showered her with, the encouragement Grandine gave her when she first offered a very young Wendy a place among the Sky Dragon’s apprentices to harness her skills, the praises the woman continued to give her after, and the many accomplishments Wendy had claimed for herself through the years.
Nowadays, she is calmer, ultimately content, but in the presence of such esteemed people, she couldn’t help but falter.
“Oh, no need to be so formal, Wendy. Come sit with us.” Zeref tells her. It still amazes Wendy sometimes, that the Emperor knew her by name. Yes, many might say she was Grandine’s most favored student and that allowed her to be remembered by the Emperor, but it’s still admirable that the man puts so much effort into making everyone under his rule know that they matter . He exchanges a smile with Mavis as Wendy gingerly takes a seat beside Natsu, who slings an arm around her, ever casual.
“Zera was just tellin’ us all about the traditions and cultures in Ishgar.” Natsu explains for her.
Ah. So it is some sort of gathering about this new Royal Ambassador position that was appointed to the Prince, one that caused quite a stir in his immediate circles.
Natsu had asked her in jest, a few weeks prior, if she would like to come with him. They need a healer on board, he claimed.
She had laughed and waved it off, thinking he was fooling around, like always. Then he had said, “No. Really. There’s a place for you, if you want it.” - and she had stopped, recognizing those as almost the exact same words that Grandine had said to her, all those years ago. She was too shaken, and had only barely managed to politely ask him for some time to think about it.
‘No.’ she wants to tell him now, again. ‘I do not want to leave my home now. I do not want to leave my work. I am a girl from a native tribe in the mountains of some far off, distant territory of the Empire. I’ve already been extremely fortunate to have met Grandine, to have learned from her. I have finally found my place here. I should stay.’
Instead, she says the lesson sounds interesting, to learn about these people from the other continent, and she dutifully listens as Miss Zera proceeds the lesson.
She looks to Sting and Rogue when they come up with some questions, and then to Natsu when he says something funny, prompting laughter from the rest of their company. Miss Zera answers the question and Sting and Rogue both listen, rapt.
‘Besides,’ she thinks, in hindsight to her earlier thoughts, ‘Prince Dragonil ought to take someone more experienced, esteemed... someone who would do justice to the role.’ She knows enough about how politics work, after all, and Grandine had told her how important this endeavor is. ‘He could do better than to pick someone other than a simple, low-born girl who simply got lucky.’
“-it was something else to stay among the miners in Joya , they have all sorts of rituals around the mines while they work.” says Miss Zera. “I had thought it was silly, too superstitious, but now that I look back at it, the practices are a bit similar to how we cast some protective spells here.”
“I thought they didn’t like magic.” Natsu says.
“They don’t.” Mavis muses. “We never realized it when we were there, but some of the people’s traditions must have been rooted from old practices when magic was still prevalent in the land. Now, they’ve turned into mere superstitions. They must not know the exact history, only that it’s tradition, so they do it anyway.”
“That’s still practicing magic, though, in a way.” Zeref says. “We know magic is alive, and our mages sometimes don’t even have to consciously cast magic, and still the Land responds.”
Mavis looks to Zera, and her friend simply shakes her head. “If that ever happened, if someone accidentally used magic while only performing mundane traditional rituals, I have never heard of it. Besides, the people are pretty strict about it. Any mention of support for the old kings and queens, their wizards, and their dark magic is pretty much considered treason.”
“The land is very quiet, too.” Zera adds. “Trust me, the land in Fiore is quiet, almost dead - Mavis and I were so overwhelmed when we stepped foot in Alvarez- actually, even as soon as we got in Alvarez waters. This land is so alive, and the magic is loud , we could feel it everywhere, a completely new presence.”
“I can’t imagine feeling magic fade from the air once we leave Alvarez waters.” Natsu says, a frown on his face.
“I’ve heard from the traders that it might cause you to get disoriented, even sea-sick.” Sting says. “But they also said you get used to it. Better choose a healer who would understand what you’d be going through, then.”
“I know.” Natsu replies, nodding. Wendy doesn’t miss the fleeting glance he gives her, but he keeps his word about giving her time, and doesn’t push. “I’ll bring it up with Grandine when we ask for her recommendations.”
For that, she is grateful. She doesn’t know if she has the guts to deny him anything while in the presence of the Emperor and Empress.
“Anyways, the superstitions are only more prevalent in the Northern area.” Zera interjects, continuing her lesson. “Gajeel might have said this already, but the North is countryside, old-fashioned, traditional. People in Crocus move on faster.”
Zera is now talking about some native tribes in the smaller countries in the North. She and Mavis tell short tales about travelling through the continent and meeting these different people. It had been just the two of them, orphan girls from a small, unknown town, outcasts who decided to leave and see the rest of their continent-
They’re the same as her. Idly, Wendy wonders why it took her years to come up with that connection. She wonders how it took her so long, looking at herself as simply lucky , when here are two other women with the same experiences that she had, got to the top, and still never claimed that they landed their current circumstances through sheer luck.
The stories go on, until Zera starts talking about the city called Crocus , which Wendy correctly assumes is the capital. She tells them about all the ways people live in that city, from the Hill to the docks. Mavis catches up by then and talks about the thrill she had when she saw the ship they had been about to board on.
‘Of course.’ Wendy thinks now, again. ‘When they found that they’ve seen all of the continent, they decided to see the rest of the world.’
Despite her earlier hesitation, Wendy finds herself staring at the map of Ishgar, the vast seas separating the continent from Arakitashia, from Alvarez. It is a long, long trip away from home, indeed.
Natsu makes their companions laugh again with one of his silly jokes. He looks at her and grins. She smiles back, lets out a giggle. She would miss him so, when he goes.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible, she muses, if she goes with him. It couldn’t be so terrible, being with Natsu, her friend first and prince second. He had always treated her with an affection that reminded her of how her tribesmen cared for her, like she was everyone’s little sister.
Perhaps she should think about this some more, this time looking forward instead of back.
‘I do have a place with them,’ she repeats, like a mantra. ‘I simply have to want it.’
“-and then Miss Zera said that some of these nobles aren’t even trained in swordfighting even if they carry a sword with them. They hire other people to do the swordfighting for them, even though apparently swordfighting is a very important part of their culture. They settle arguments and prove one’s honor with it. But why would you have two men who only fight because you hired them to, decide who is the more honorable? It’s a very strange custom-”
Wendy stops when she hears her mentor’s amused laughter. Grandine is watching her, she realizes, so she quickly stops sorting through the herbs in the bowl in front of her and looks apologetically at the woman across from her.
“I-I’m sorry, Grandine! I’m bothering your work!” she says, sheepish.
Grandine is working on a complicated potion, one that required intricately-crafted spells. Like this, out of her formal robes, sleeves rolled up, an apron wrapped around her broad frame, long silver hair tied up in a homely bun and eyes focused on the web of spells she is weaving between her fingers and into the cauldron, the woman is clearly focused on the task at hand. The magic has taken form in faint, shimmering silver threads, cobweb-like, weaved through her fingers. Wendy admires her mentor most like this - intelligent, so clearly experienced and skilled, but never imposing - practical and powerful but never harsh, always nourishing and kind-hearted.
“Oh, sweetheart. You aren’t.” Grandine calls to her, fondness in her voice. “I do find it interesting. I simply think it’s nice to hear you so curious. The last time I saw you this enthusiastic about something was when I was teaching you to brew your first potion.”
Wendy looks down, sheepish. “I’m… I’m not… enthusiastic. I just… I just thought it was strange, different.”
“Of course.” Grandine nods, indulgent. “The Prince is in for a quite an adventure, I think. I’m expecting him to consult with me any day now. He would need healers for the crew.”
Wendy only nods, turning back to her basket of herbs, careful to be quiet. She didn’t want to interrupt her mentor’s work.
“I was thinking I might recommend you, Wendy.” Gradine says, in a way that made it sound like a fleeting thought, a casual mention. Wendy knows her better. Wendy knows the woman is being careful, gauging her reaction, giving her an out. “You are qualified, after all. A senior healer, healthy, and in the Prince’s good favor - I think you are quite fully-equipped to take this job.”
“Maybe so…” Wendy starts, looking uncertain. “But the Prince would wish for the best candidate… I don’t think that’s what I am?”
“Ah, but you are. Sweet girl, the next youngest senior healer we have is a good ten years older than you are.” Grandine says with a rueful smile. “The Prince would need someone young and light on her feet. You could choose apprentices who would do good by you and Natsu. And you’ll get to see more than Vistarion, you’ll get to see so many places. What better time to do so while you are young?”
Wendy thinks on this, finding herself ultimately holding on to her mentor’s next words. “Do you really think so?” she asks, because she had to.
Grandine only chuckles, her sky blue eyes trained on her spells. Wendy watches in awe as the woman closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, and then gently blows at the magical threads glowing faintly, weaved between her fingers. The glow intensifies, and then she claps her palms together as if to capture whatever spell she had cast. When her clasped hands loosen, a trickle of silver fluid flows from her fingers and into the cauldron. The potion turns a different color, then bubbles, and Grandine starts stirring.
“Look into your heart, child. I think you already know the answer.” the woman says, only slightly breathless from the magical feat. “And you know, whatever it might be, I am right behind you.”
The Light Dragon’s halls are empty, but Weisslogia’s office is lit with lamplight when Grandine arrives. Weisslogia sits propped up on his desk, already nursing a goblet of wine. He pours another for her as she settles in one of the plush seats meant for the man’s guests.
“You too, huh?” Weisslogia says as he hands the drink to her.
“Yes.” she answers, looking thoughtfully at the wine. It is a peculiar color, so it must be an import. Weisslogia is known for his expensive, unique tastes. “Me too, I suppose.”
She is not surprised to hear a different voice reply. “What did Igneel say to get you to let your favorite student go?”
Grandine doesn’t even look around to find Skiadrum. Although from the direction of the glance Weisslogia let slip, Skiadrum is probably by the wide window. Perhaps sitting on a sill, or behind the curtain’s shadows. No matter. He’s in the room, somewhere, and that’s good enough for her.
“Actually, he didn’t say anything to me.” she tells her companions. “I only noticed how my Wendy’s been a bit distracted lately, all curiosity and questions about Ishgar and about Natsu’s new title. It wasn’t hard to figure out after that.”
Weisslogia hums, thoughtful. “That must be nice.”
“It was.” Grandine says in agreement. “The two of you, though? Igneel had to talk to you?”
“Yes, but really, he didn’t have to.” Weisslogia says, with a huffing laugh. “Our boys had already made up their mind, it seems. They want to go. They told us as much.”
“Even before Igneel made his move.” Skiadrum continues. “It was quite amusing to watch him launch into a poetic heartfelt speech he didn’t really have to give.”
Grandine laughs, carefree in the presence of friends. “A speech, you say?”
“About how his boy has a kind heart.” Weisslogia provides, to her amusement. “Too kind, sometimes. And he needs our boys to protect him where his blade and his fists can’t.”
“Oh, Igneel…” Grandine sighs. “Ever the romantic.”
“Romantic, yes. But also unnecessary.” Weisslogia says.
“Those boys grew up together.” Skiadrum says, to no one in particular. Grandine finally tilts her head to look at the man sitting by the windowsill, a shadowy figure outlined by moonlight. “Natsu wouldn’t even need to ask.”
Lady Anna arrives quietly, one night. She joins the Imperial Family for breakfast the next day, shares about her travels through the Empire and its territories, and in turn, is delightedly surprised to know all about everything she missed out on while she was gone. Natsu’s new appointment is a highlight. She promises to help in any way she can.
She brushes up on what Gajeel taught them about Ishgar’s geography, clarifies what Mavis and Zera taught them about history and culture, and then gets right to work on teaching them about the people of Crocus . Not the northerners or the country folk, but the city itself.
Natsu, Sting, Rogue and Wendy dutifully listen to her. Lady Anna is a teacher, through and through - and she offered them new information in such a way they almost always instantly understood.
They hadn’t noticed it before, but so far, Gajeel, Mavis and Zera had mostly only taught them about the North and the country, about the common people. Their lessons so far hadn’t covered as much about the capital as it should have.
Lady Anna had accepted this graciously, and then quickly set about teaching them more about the city instead.
Her knowledge is comprehensive: giving them a rundown of the lifestyles of the people of the Hill, how the Merchant Council worked, the Middle City and its reputation as a safe, neutral ground. She helps Sting and Rogue build up profiles for the noble families and their businesses. She tells Wendy about how healing and medicine is typically done in Fiore. Erza sits with them, curious and with free time on her hands, and gets roped in the lesson somehow, fascinated by the foreigners’ customs regarding swordsmanship.
Then she tells them about the manners and conduct expected of guests and of their hosts. She shows them a proper lady’s curtsy and a gentleman’s bow. She teaches them about decorum during common social events from parties, balls, soirees and luncheons, to hunting trips and business meetings.
It is then, only then that they realize that unlike Gajeel, Mavis and Zera who were effectively wanderers in Fiore Kingdom, Lady Anna is different. Lady Anna must have lived in the City herself. Lady Anna is either a noblewoman or a rich merchant’s daughter. Lady Anna is thorough, and perhaps it was a lot to take in, but they listened anyway. That’s just what she did to people.
Finally, it’s Natsu - as always - who takes courage and asks the question. “Um, Lady Anna, do you have… uh… a title? When you were back in Fiore?”
She smiles, always open to questions. “I was a ‘ governess’ .” She takes a pause, letting them take in the word. “A sort of private teacher, a tutor, for children. Mostly high-born ones, as their parents could afford it.”
“You tutored nobles?” Wendy asks. She did not know much about Lady Anna, only that she’s an advisor to the Emperor, an advocate of peace, and that she travelled the Empire reaching out to people in the territories. She was present when Grandine met Wendy and her tribesmen.
“It’s considered an esteemed job for women.” Lady Anna says. “Men are still wary of letting women handle their finances, so their secretaries are usually men. But they don’t object to the idea of a woman teaching their children about art, history, reading and arithmetic. I suppose they think it’s a job for someone… nurturing.”
Erza makes a sound that is almost close to a scoff, quickly covered up by a cough. Rogue looks thoughtful, and Sting simply appears unimpressed.
Natsu sniggers. “I don’t know about them, but a few weeks ago, one of the most nurturing people I know almost stabbed a rough and tough soldier in the di-”
Quick as lightning, Wendy’s hand flies to muffle the rest of his statement. “No! No, that is not what that was! Not what I meant to do!”
Natsu settles for making a crude gesture towards his own crotch and then pointing at Wendy, nodding imploringly as if to say ‘No, really, that happened!’
He looks so proud, Wendy is terrified, and Lady Anna could only laugh heartily at their antics.
“Alright, then. Let’s take a break from the stuffy decorum lessons.” she says, smoothly changing the topic. “You’ve all been studying the language as well. Let’s hear it.”
They take turns saying a sentence or two in Fiore’s language. Natsu went first, and there’s a slight twitch in Lady Anna’s brow but she quickly schools her expression with practiced grace, and proceeds to power through the rest of their - probably butchered - language drills.
In the end, Erza doesn’t even try. “I… was not present during all the other lessons, I only know a few words, they are probably curses, and I wouldn’t be able to form a full sentence myself.”
Lady Anna takes a deep breath, before smiling sweetly at her students. “Those are… attempts.”
Rogue brings his hands to his face in embarrassment. “She can’t even say they’re good ones...”
“Is it... so terrible?” Wendy asks, sheepish.
“Sting sounds like a boorish pirate trying to be flashy. Rogue’s words are fine, but your accent would lead people to think you come from very very far up north. Wendy, sweetheart, you mixed up a lot of words there, some of which I am quite sure is in an entirely different dialect. Natsu… Oh, my dear one…”
They’re all holding expressions of mixed horror and amusement at this point, not even offended because they knew somehow they did sound horrible.
It’s Erza who asks, “How bad was it?”
“He sounds like a drunk northerner picking a fight in a tavern, only he’s somehow very nice about it.”
That is the last straw, and they all erupt into fits of laughter.
Lady Anna herself lets out a giggle, shaking her head. “We have a lot to work on, here, young dragons.”
“We’ve got six more months!” Natsu says, grinning excitedly.
They don’t miss the sharp smile, followed by a determined glint in the woman’s warm brown eyes.
“Oh, I’ll have you fluent by three.”
Gajeel joins them, four days later. They’re waiting for Lady Anna when he walks in and takes a seat by the corner of the room like he’s been sitting in with them since the beginning.
“What?” he snaps, when they keep staring.
“You’re here for the lesson too?” Natsu asks.
“The Lady said I’m welcome to join.” the man answers, face straight. “And I know she can take me down with like her pinky finger, and then drag me here herself. I’m just not gonna make it hard on myself and show up.” Then he nods, tilting his head at the bowl of fruits in the table. “Gimme one of those.”
Sting only shrugs and tosses a fruit at him. He catches it easily just as Lady Anna steps inside the room.
Without preamble, she smiles at Gajeel and speaks in her native language. “General Redfox, it’s good to see you. I didn’t know that you were a Northerner! Although I suppose I should have noticed.”
He doesn’t so much as blink and simply replies, “Good to see you too, m’lady.”
“Where was your hometown, again?”
“Amefurashi Village, bet ‘ya haven’t heard of it-”
“Oh, Rain Country!” She looks him over, then smiles when she notices the tattoos on his arm, and the crest on his armlet. “You were a retainer for the Locksers?”
He tenses, then looks away and rolls the fruit he holds in his fingers. “That’s long ago now, ma’am.”
Anna stops, and bows her head in a quiet apology, knowing she might have overstepped some boundaries. “Well, it’s nice that you could join us today.”
A shrug. “Just came for the food, really.”
“Wow.” Sting blurts out. “So that’s how we sounded like.”
“Like a barbarian.” Rogue says, accent still present but significantly lighter now. “I mean, compared to how Lady Anna speaks-”
“Barbarian.” the others echo.
Gajeel glares at them and says, “Go fuck yourselves.”
“Hey!” they all whine, except Wendy, who frowns, unimpressed as Natsu and Erza both raise a hand to cover each of her ears.
“Like y’all said.” the man says, and looks utterly unrepentant as he gestures at himself. “Barbarian.”
“I’ve decided.” Erza says, one night, during another one of the many gatherings in the soldiers’ camps.
This time it’s to celebrate the safe return of the last of the troops from the last war. There would be a separate, more solemn event for this, but for now they were rowdy with drinks and triumph. The Emperor himself had graced them with his presence. Zeref sits in between Igneel, Metallicana and the other commanders and generals. Mavis had shown up as well, and had chosen to sit with the women - mostly wives and daughters of the soldiers.
Natsu glances at Erza beside him and notes her flushed face and her empty cup. He goes back to watching Gajeel getting dragged off by the princes, Larcade and August clinging to each of his hands as they pulled him towards the people dancing and merry-making by the fire. The man has no choice but to sway awkwardly while the boys jumped and skipped around him.
He doesn’t ask Erza, not yet. Perhaps he’s not quite ready for an answer.
She doesn’t wait, though. With a smile, she says, “I’m going with you.”
Natsu turns to look at her, eyes wide. “You are?”
“I talked to the Emperor. At the first sign of suspect movement from Dragnov Kingdom, they’ll send word to Fiore, I’ll be dismissed of my duties to you and will sail back here.” she tells him. “I know I’ve shed my title and my allegiance to my mother, but the people of Belserion are still my people. I want to be there for them and do what I can in case something happens.”
He nods, understanding. Erza is with him until her home calls her back. He’d known this much. He always had.
“I swore my loyalty to the Empire, to you and yours.” she continues. “And I am fortunate that the Emperor doesn’t doubt that loyalty, even when I told him how much I still care about my old home. So… I will go with you, like you asked, but I can’t promise to stay through to the end. Will you still have me despite that, Prince Dragonil?”
Natsu lets out a sigh, then shakes his head. “You know, I was listening to you and I thought, oh, Erza’s not drunk - until you got to that last part and yeah, maybe you are drunk after all, if you’re asking me a question like that.”
Erza laughs, and leans sideways to rest her head on his shoulder. “Okay, maybe I am a bit drunk. I fought with a lot of these soldiers, you know. I’m glad they’re home.”
“I know. Me too.” he says. “And just so we’re clear, yes , General Erza Scarlet, I would be lucky to have you guarding my back, temporary or not.”
“It’s my honor.” she replies. “Besides, it’s somewhat hard to say no to four of the highest-ranking people in the Empire personally asking me to take charge of the security of this mission.”
Natsu laughs. Of course Weisslogia, Skiadrum and Grandine would want nobody but the best to guard their successors- “Wait, four ?”
“Grandine, Skiadrum, Weisslogia...” she counts, and then looks at him with a raised brow. “...and Igneel.”
“ A princess to protect the young dragons , is how the Emperor said it, I recall.”
“That’s awful dramatic of him.”
Erza snorts. “You know what it means, though, right? That I’m coming but I might leave in a moment’s notice?”
He blinks. “Uh… that means… we oughta know how to protect ourselves too? You don’t have to worry ‘bout that. I can fight, Rogue’s the best Shadow we have, Sting’s actually deadly when he’s in the mood for it, and Wendy’s no pushover either.”
“I know all that.” Erza says, sighing. “But what I’m trying to say is, I need a substitute. We have to find someone else who would take over for me if I have to go. A second. Or better, a partner.”
Natsu nods, thoughtful. “You need a partner.”
“I prefer to have a partner.”
“Alright, then. I’ll see what I can do.” he says. “For tonight though, I think I know someone else you’d want to have.”
She looks to him, and he only picks up his cup of ale and stands up. She watches as he walks away, towards one of the tables filled with soldiers being entertained by a group of women. Erza freezes when Natsu leans forward to whisper something in the ear of a very familiar-looking dancer, whose wide eyes quickly roam her surroundings until they stop and find hers. With a nod from the prince, the woman smoothly slips away from the group and walks towards Erza instead.
“General?” she says, soft, tentative and just a bit breathless. “The prince said you need some company.”
Erza smiles as she sets her drink aside and leans back. “He’s wrong. I don’t need company, not really.” she says, but before the woman could step back, she raises an arm to beckon her closer. “But now that I’ve seen you, I find myself wanting yours, Adah.”
The woman bites her lip as she takes the general’s hand and lets herself be tugged forward, and closer until she’s on the other’s lap.
“Oh.” she says with a nervous giggle when Erza’s arms secure her waist. “You remember me?”
Erza smiles, letting Adah’s hands roam the sides of her arms and then come to rest on her shoulders, and starts kneading gently. “Hm. You’re hard to forget, sweet one. ”
A hand cups her cheek. “ I could say the same of you, General Scarlet. ”
“Please. ” she says now, in a dialect she knows only few around them would understand. “You know me too well to call me that.”
Adah nods, still shy. “Erza. Is that better? ”
“ Much better. ” Erza tilts her head slightly, dropping a kiss to the woman’s palm, and smiles when she feels her shiver slightly. “Cold?”
“Not if you warm me up.” Adah says, pressing her body snug against her companion’s.
Erza glances at where Natsu has gotten himself busy teasing Gajeel about his dancing, and decides she could worry about the mission another day. Her attention is demanded elsewhere for now.
She leans forward and whispers, “Let’s get out of here, then.”
The next day, they tell Metallicana. Even out of his armor, the man stands tall and firm by his office’s window, his usually wild silver hair tied back into a considerably tamer ponytail. He sips a cup of spiced chocolate but his eyes are fixed on the view of the new recruits doing drills in the yard.
After a while, the man yawns and finally says, “Take Redfox.”
Natsu and Erza exchange a look before Natsu steps forward. “But he doesn’t-”
“-want to? He’s a soldier sworn to the empire. He knows to follow orders without question.” the man says, cutting off his prince.
Natsu barely stopped his laugh. “You know that’s not true when it comes to Gajeel.”
Steel grey eyes stare back into his. “You asked me for the best candidate, after Scarlet. Redfox is a general, has all the skills to back that title, he’s proficient in magic but not reliant on it, familiar with the land and the language, and he doesn’t have any other responsibilities, unlike the others who are assigned to oversee other territories, or have pressing family business. I’d say he’s even a better choice than your hand-picked General Scarlet, here.”
“Gajeel would die before he goes back to Ishgar.” Natsu argues.
Natsu stops, thinks, and then shrugs. “N-No, not really, but he told me anyway.”
Erza rolls her eyes. “You know he’s proactive like that.”
Metallicana looks at both of them for a while, stirs his chocolate and sighs. “I meant it. Take him with you. That boy has nightmares, and it’s not from the wars he fought here.”
Natsu frowns. “What do you mean?”
“You can’t fight your demons unless you face them. Just… ask him. Try. Again.” the man says, and it’s only now that Natsu and Erza realize how weary his eyes look. “Tell him you’re doing it on my recommendation.”
So they ask Gajeel. This time, with their word that they came to him in Metallicana’s confidence, he gave them a few seconds of consideration.
Seconds - and then Gajeel huffs and goes back to barking orders at the trainees.
“No.” he says, his dark red eyes hard. “Tell him I said-”
“No, and stop talking about demons. I don’t believe in them.” - Erza relays, eyes fixed on Metallicana’s experienced hands polishing a heavy broadsword. “He looked very displeased.”
Metallicana scowls. “That brat .”
Natsu shrugs. “I told you he’s made up his mind already.”
“No, he hasn’t. He keeps asking about progress on the whole thing, thinkin’ I wouldn’t notice.” the man says. He stops his task for a moment and looks at his guests. “Get the Empress to talk to him.”
“-because he will listen to me ? Metallicana said that?” Mavis asks - demands - crossing her arms across her chest.
“Y-Yeah?” Natsu blinks. “You… Are you angry?”
“I’m annoyed that he’s chosen to involve me in this when he can do it himself.” Mavis huffs. “Always so proud . Won’t talk about something as normal as feelings ! So what if they might end up crying on each other? Crying is okay! Ugh, men !”
From his lounge with the young princes on the bed, Zeref makes an affronted sound.
“Not you, darling. I do love that you are so open to sharing with me.” Mavis tells him with a smile.
Zeref smiles back lovingly, before turning back to ooh -ing and ahh -ing at his children’s messy artworks.
When Mavis looks to Natsu, she minutely shakes her head at him and mouths, ‘He’s really not.’
Natsu holds back his laughter and mouths back, ‘I know.’
“Fine.” Mavis sighs. “I will talk to Gajeel.”
“Do you know?” Natsu asks. “About… him? Why he’s so… angry and bitter about Ishgar all of the time?”
Mavis looks down, her smile sad. “Unlike Zera and I, who came here of our own volition, Gajeel came to Alvarez to escape.”
“I knew that. He said he’s not welcome in that land anymore, so he left. Was he chased away? Was he…. Was he running from something - something he did, something done to him, or…?”
Mavis reached out to lay a hand on his arm, making him stop. “Natsu, I know you’re worried. He is a good friend to you, and he has been a brave soldier for the Empire. He’s our own, now, and we care for our own. It is not for me to tell you about his past, it’s up to him - but I can tell you this - Gajeel came here because he had to. He doesn’t want to go back because he’s chosen to move forward.”
“So… we shouldn’t bother him about this anymore, then?”
“Of course we shouldn’t force him.” Mavis shakes his head. “But Metallicana is a wise man, he’s been our Iron Dragon for decades, and he had mentored Gajeel for years. If he thinks Gajeel might need this - might need to go back, I am certain it’s for good reason. So I’ll help you present a better case for him to go.”
Natsu nods. As much as he’d like to fully take charge of this whole mission, he knew when he was out of his depth. Sometimes the helping and healing should be left to more capable, knowing hands. “Thanks, Mavis.”
“And then I am going to talk to Metallicana and hit him on his proud, stupid, hard head.” she growls. “How hard is it to simply talk things out with your own student? I bet he’s just scared to get emotional!”
“Did Natsu send you?”
“I haven’t even greeted you good morning and you’re already questioning me.” Mavis says breezily, ignoring the steel in the man’s tone as she sits down on the grass of the backyard. “And really, is that any way to talk to your Empress?”
Gajeel doesn’t stop to bow. He continues his sword drills, switching smoothly from one stance to the next.
He spares a scoff. “Not much on an ideal Empress if she just turns up in someone’s yard unescorted and unannounced.”
Mavis hums, not falling for the bait. “Would you prefer I send for you to meet me in the palace halls?”
“I would prefer your darling Fire Prince stop trying to get me to go on his shitty sea voyage.” Gajeel snaps back. He doesn’t lose his stance, but his brows furrow slightly.
“If you would care to listen,” Mavis starts, propping her chin in her hand, letting the man know she’s intending to stay a while. “You would know that it’s Metallicana who sent Natsu who sent me to talk to you.”
“I already gave them my answer.” He huffs, practice blade slicing clean through thin air. “No.”
“How about me?”
“I see.” Mavis nods. “Give me a chance to make you change your mind? Or at least get you to try and reconsider, really reconsider, this time?”
Gajeel takes a while, switching from one stance to another, before he gives a barely audible huff. When he speaks, it’s in his mother tongue - accent and all.
“Only because I know you can kick my ass.”
Mavis smiles softly. It’s been a while since she heard Gajeel talk so much. Even when she once sat in his few language lessons with Natsu and the others, he withheld a lot, words stilted and accent subdued.
She remembers when he first joined the Iron Dragon’s ranks - he had been all gestures and grunts and rough, barely conversational Vistari. Even when she had tried to coax him to talk to her in their first language, he only grumbled a low ‘Don’t try to make me talk about it’ and then refused to use the mother tongue the rest of the time.
Now, she responds accordingly. “Y’know, I’m grateful that I’m one of the few folks you told ‘bout your past.”
It’s almost new to her, talking like this. She always talked to Zera this way, in their mother language, informal and provincial, like the two country girls they were. Somehow it’s different when it came to Gajeel.
“Who else knows?”
“You. Zera, ‘cause she’s been in my head. Metallicana, ‘cause I wanted to get in the fucking army. Erza, a bit, ‘cause I thought I was gonna die in that trench. That’s ‘bout everyone I told, but I bet your Shadow knows. Somehow. Did I ever tell ‘ya that’s creepy as Hells how he knows everyone’s shit?”
Mavis looks up and watches the clear morning sky. “It’s alright. Skiadrum’s trustworthy.”
“Still creepy.” she agrees, and smiles wryly at the fact that she wouldn’t have shared this with anyone but Gajeel.
“If he were in Ishgar, he woulda been in Magnolia. Fit right in.”
At this, Mavis chuckles. “You ever been there? Magnolia?”
“Once. Only stayed as long as I had to. Knew better than to stay and risk my ass.”
“You had to...?”
“You go to Magnolia to get shit done, then you get out. The Hand was in Magnolia, and she got my shit done, and then I was out.”
“Should I know what this Hand is?”
“Not if you’re a proper Empress.”
“What if I’m an outcast from the North? Kicked out of the orphanage and everywhere else because I swore I could feel something in the land, and I questioned the history books too much?”
He scoffed. “Then you do need to know who the Hand is, because she can give you what you need to get out of that continent before someone leaves ‘ya to be executed, or you get a lifelong sentence.”
“It comes at a price, I bet.”
“Nothing too much, just offing someone.”
Mavis pauses. “Nothing too much, huh?”
“It wasn’t a good person. A killer and a thug. Got droves of ‘em there. Could hardly remember him now.”
“So I’m guessin’ that bit of business is under the table then?”
A shrug, before Gajeel focuses on his exercises again.
“So you’re not… banned? Not a wanted man in Crocus? Or anywhere in Fiore?”
“Look, little lady, I might look like a goon, but I ain’t no criminal.”
“Except that one time you offed someone for travel papers.”
“Self-defense.” he says. “Technically.”
“He started it. Drew the knife first.”
“Sure. Let’s go with that.” she nods amicably. “What I’m gettin’ at here is that... there’s really no issue if you return, this time as the Royal Ambassador’s guard. You’re under his employ, you’re doin’ your job.”
“Then why no?”
“You know my story. You know the answer.”
Mavis takes a moment to think of the right word. “You feel... guilty?”
“I don’t.” he grits out. “I just know that I had a job, a responsibility, and I didn’t do it, turned my back on it to save my own ass and things went to shit.”
She doesn’t flinch. “That’s guilt, Gajeel.”
It takes him a while, and then he just scoffs. “Whatever.”
“I know my words mean little. I know I’ve said this before, and perhaps Zera, or Metallicana, or Erza have said this too, but-”
“-it wasn’t my fault. Right. Can’t expect you to understand-”
“Except I sort of do. I’m a Northerner too, Gajeel. Me and Zera, we’re from a small village, like yours. We know the old traditions. The bonfires, the ceremonies to Old Gods, believing prayers and sacrificing goats and sheep can improve harvest- It’s borderline belief in magic, but they refuse to see it that way. Hells, it was why I was exiled, remember? Because I pointed out that they might as well be practicing the rituals of the wizards of old and they were taught to look at resistance as treason.”
“Look, I don’t need a lecture of your sob story-”
“We’ve been to Rain Country. We were travelling from village to village after leaving ours and… Gajeel, we’ve seen your people, we’ve seen Lord Lockser, and you told us yourself-”
“I used to serve insane masters. I know.”
“No, you said the Locksers were fair landlords.”
“But also insane.”
“You still wear their crest on your arm. You don’t really think that.”
“Of course I don’t! No one in our country did, but look what it got ‘em anyway!” he snaps, finally breaking his stance to face Mavis.
Mavis looks back at him, expectant. “What did it get them, Gajeel? You were always unclear about that part.”
He takes a deep breath before he grits out an answer. “Amefurashi was a fucking old country, it’s small, it’s isolated, you gotta cross a river, a mountain and a fucking forest to get there. You’d figure the people are old-fashioned, traditional - hells, I’ve heard old folks say the royals and wizards didn’t deserve what happened, that t’was only magic corrupted that did ‘em in. Now I know they’re right, but back there? No, it’s fucking treason.”
Mavis closed her eyes, brows furrowed and head bowed in sympathy. “I know. Crocus has a very defensive take on their history.”
“We had old beliefs and old customs, which never fucking hurt anyone, and fucking Southerners, nobles with their Hill houses and country estates in Crocus probably thought we were some sort of cult when we’re-...” Gajeel stops at this, and he takes another breath before he continues. “We were just a bunch of farmers, hunters and fishers. Loyal to our landlords, like everyone else. The Locksers are as old as those fucking Dukes and Duchesses but never quite as rich because they never tried to flaunt that shit in that big city Hill and instead just shared everything with us. But just ‘cause we… what? Liked dancing in the rain and singing to the sky? ‘Cause as guards we pledge our blades to our masters and take oaths and shit, we were a cult? We were tryin’ to bring magic back? Fucking bullshit.”
“It’s unfair.” Mavis whispers. She had already heard this. Gajeel herself had told her this, but back then, he was cold, steely, even clinical about it. He had been angry, but it was a closed off anger. Now it’s an open one, perhaps because he’d known her longer, perhaps because now she’s not just asking about his past but telling him to face it.
“Hells, yes, it was fucking unfair.” Gajeel growls. His grip on his practice sword tightens. Mavis can see the energy around him shift, notes his hands start to turn metallic silver, hardening with uncontrolled magic. “Lord Lockser welcomed those bastard businessmen in our country, treated them like our own - and then they stab ‘im in the back, accuse us of treason and we had to scatter all over the fucking continent. He’s a good man, he wasn’t insane, and he’s an even better master because he wouldn’t even fucking hold our oaths to protect himself.”
“He didn’t make you stay for him.”
“He told us to leave because they’ll come after us retainers next. Told his people to keep doin’ the good work under their new masters. Sent off his daughter to safety and then took the fall for everyone.”
Mavis looks him in the eye as she asks, “You think you should have stayed and taken the fall with him?”
“We all should’ve. We made an oath. We woulda been caught anyway. We had three shitty choices: leave the continent, stay and die, or stay, shed the crest and live on without honor. We all should’ve done the second one.”
“Lord Lockser would have preferred the other two.” Mavis says. “Is this why you don’t want to go back? Because you would regret having left in the first place?”
“Maybe.” he answers, and this time he turns his back to her, perhaps trying to calm himself before he broke his practice sword with the intensity of his hold. “You don’t understand - I lost touch with everyone, even before I left Fiore. I don’t know who made it and who didn’t. I don’t know where they laid Lord Lockser to rest, if they even did it properly. I don’t know what happened to Lady Juvia, ‘cause I don’t even know where he sent her off to, if she even made it there.”
“Oh…” She lets out a breath, lips curling into a sad smile. “ You don’t want to go back because you’re afraid you’ll learn what happened. While you weren’t there.”
‘You’re afraid to know who perished while you survived.’ goes unsaid, but he hears it anyway.
“Imagine that, huh?” he scoffs, chuckling humorlessly. “You swear an oath to someone, and when they needed you, you don’t even know where they were, ‘cause you were busy running to save your own ass.”
She doesn’t speak for a moment, knowing he needs time to gather himself. She can still feel his magic spiking erratically, but not as intense as before.
After another moment, Mavis finally speaks again. “I know this is not what you want to hear…” she starts, careful. “...but it really wasn’t your fault. I can say this now, based on my own experience - your masters cared for you as much as you cared for them. Whoever lived and whoever didn’t, I don’t think they would hold your survival against you.”
“I know. But thinking about it just makes me so… fucking… angry.”
“You’re always angry.” she says. “Don’t you think some… some closure… might ease that, even a little?”
“Yes, but- fuck, if I come back, if I come with Natsu…” He runs a frustrated hand through his messy hair, shaking his head. Mavis recognizes the slump of his shoulders as resignation. “If I come with him, and we happen to… to meet one of those scheming bastards who betrayed my old master, I don’t think I can hold myself back. I might just kill them myself.”
Mavis looks at him, open and expectant.
“And I don’t do politics, but I know that’s not something you do for diplomacy.” he says, almost inaudible, as he finally takes a seat on the grass, a couple feet away from Mavis. “I don’t want to compromise this job, I know it’s important for Natsu, for you.”
“Then what if… What if he really does need you?” Mavis asks. “Natsu trusts you. If you ask him to exclude you from a meeting, he’ll work something out. You’re important to him too. Erza will be there with you. Will you consider his offer one last time?”
“I… I don’t fucking know. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Your job. Your new oath. To serve your Empire, to protect your Prince, to accompany your friend in a place you know well.”
He looks confused when he eyes her. “Is this a command? From the Empress herself?”
Mavis smiles. “Was it a command, when the Prince asked?”
He thinks about it before he answers. “No. It sounded like-... Fuck, it sounded like a goddamn request. Is this a request? ‘Cause you’re giving me a choice?”
Mavis thinks about it as well, then she shakes his head. “No, it’s not a command, it’s not a request.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s advice. From a friend. From a fellow runaway Northerner.”
She reaches out to lay a hand on the intricately-carved silver cuff in his arm - the symbols are waves and fish and raindrops - and he doesn’t flinch from the action.
“Closure would bring you some peace of mind, Gajeel. Better than any war victory, better than any of Zera’s spells.” she says, smiling softly. “Better than revenge.”
Gajeel waits a week and neither Natsu, Erza, nor Metallicana ask him again. Another week and he sits in on some of the Ishgar trade deal meetings. Everytime they only assume he’d only humored someone’s invitation. They don’t think that he’s coming.
He breaks on week three, when he overhears Sting and Rogue talk about other potential generals who Natsu and Erza asked them to look into.
He goes to the palace and finds Natsu in his morning exercises - sword katas - he’s been doing those lately, less magic and more weapons. He doesn’t state his business, then asks if the Prince is up for a spar.
Natsu blinks, then acquiesces, grinning in challenge. They don’t lay out rules, but on an unspoken agreement, they fight with swords and no magic.
The prince had gotten better with his slashes and his parries. When Gajeel grabs his sword’s scabbard from his hip and uses it for support, Natsu extracts a dagger from his belt to match him.
Gajeel is aware that they’re attracting a crowd, servants passing by stopping to watch. Gajeel knows Natsu is more aware, more adept at sensing others around him, because he falters several times, distracted.
Natsu wins because Gajeel ventures too close for comfort and by instinct, he lets go of his dagger and swipes up a fist covered in flames. Fire magic is second nature to him. Gajeel barely avoids it, stepping back, arms raised in defense - they were only just turning into metal then. It wouldn’t have held against the prince’s fire. Magic might be in the prince’s blood, but for Gajeel it’s a skill he only just learned, a thing he only just began believing in.
“That’s cheating.” he says, but without malice. “‘Ya gotta ditch fallin’ on that instinct by the time you get to Ishgar, princeling.”
“I know. Sorry.” Natsu grins, sheepish. “Erza says I’ve gotten better, though.”
A snort. “She coddles you.”
A pout. “Does not.”
He looks around to the small, scattered audience they’ve gained, and smiles at them, waving his hand in dismissal. They all jump out of their daze, bowing and greeting the prince and the general a good morning before scurrying back to their duties.
“So, what’s this about?” Natsu asks as he sheaths his sword and picks up his dagger. “You got bored with the recruits and looked for someone to match? Erza’s just a few blocks from you, ‘ya know.”
Gajeel answers straight and to the point. “I’ll go with you to Fiore.”
Belatedly, he realizes now how so rarely he called the place Fiore . He’d always said Ishgar - the way the foreigners did. Perhaps that’s how he’d seen himself all this time, from the moment he’d left his birthland’s shores.
Natsu stares at him. “You-... But you didn’t- I thought-...” he blinks a couple more times before finally getting out an actual question. “What changed?”
Gajeel only shrugs. “My mind, duh.”
This time, Natsu gives him a knowing look. “Mavis?”
Gajeel’s sigh comes out as a huff. “Goddamn Mavis.”
“Knows just what to say, huh.”
“How the fuck does she do it?”
“She can talk herself into and out of anythin’, let’s just be grateful she’s nice.”
Gajeel shakes his head. “Nevermind that. It’s-... She just- It’s not all on her. This is on me. I’ll be Erza’s partner, I’ll be your bodyguard for this fancy vacation-”
“Trade deal.” Natsu corrects.
“-trade deal, whatever, that you’re goin’ on. Even though I know you can handle yourself. But I have conditions.”
Natsu crosses his arms across his chest and looks at him expectant. “Let’s hear it, then. How may I accommodate you, General Redfox?”
“Shut up.” Gajeel glares, then takes a breath before huffing out an answer. “First. Unless someone asks, you don’t tell anyone I’m from there. You don’t flaunt off the fact that you got one of ‘em in your guard.”
Natsu nods. “I never planned to do that.”
“Second. I’m not takin’ this -” He taps a finger at his armlet. “-off.”
Natsu tilts his head, squinting, curious. “You never do. Should I be worried about that?”
“When I was there, I was a retainer of a noble family. Me and mine have served them for generations. That family’s been accused of treason - forbidden magic practice, you know that law by now - and us retainers got scattered. My family and my masters were run down on false grounds. Most of us were probably executed. I managed to come here to escape.”
He tells the prince just like how he told the Empress years ago. Withdrawn, factual, just the necessary details.
“I got this arm ring as a symbol of an oath I took to protect my masters, and after everything, it’s not one I’m ashamed of.”
Natsu nods, expression grave and more serious this time. He doesn’t offer his sympathy or his sorrow - he knows Gajeel would see that as pity. He only says, “I see.”
“I’ll protect you, I’m loyal to the Empire, but I’m not shedding this crest. I wear it with honor. It’s part of who I am.”
“I understand.” he says, because he does .
“Third.” Gajeel continues. “The man behind all that is called Jose Porla. He’s a businessman. A dirty one - one of the dirtiest. If you do any kind of business with the man who destroyed my country, I’m out.”
“Of course you are.” Natsu says. “I’ll have Sting and Rogue know this. We don’t need backstabbing business partners. Anything else?”
“Just… one last.”
This time, Gajeel seems to brace himself before he answers.
“I can’t be sure, but there might be one survivor from my master’s family. His daughter. Don’t worry, I won’t come running back to her, if she’s still alive. Just… don’t make me do anything that would cause her harm, or hurt her. Because if it came down to it, I made an oath to her first, and I’d choose her over you.”
Natsu looks back at him, sees his dark eyes and knows he had meant everything he said.
He chuckles wryly. “I’ll have two of the best generals as my protectors, and yet both of them would choose something else over me in a heartbeat.”
Gajeel looks down. “If you feel that compromises you, I understand. I’ll step back, even help you look for someone else-”
“No.” Natsu says, and he shrugs at Gajeel, grinning. “What the hells, right? I’ll risk it.”
Gajeel stops, looks back at the prince. “You will?”
“I will.” Natsu answers, more determined. “So… are we good? You’re coming?”
Gajeel nods, crossing his arms across his chest. “I am.”
“Great! My team’s complete!” the prince beams, then tilts his head, indicates Gajeel to follow him. “Glad to have you on the team, General Redfox-”
“Don’t call me that.” Gajeel snaps, but follows him anyway. “It sounds bad , comin’ from you.”
“-let’s grab some breakfast! I bet Mavis would be so pleased with herself when we tell her.”
“She’ll be so smug.”
“She will, yeah.”
“Metallicana will say all kinds of shit ‘bout me bein’ soft.”
Natsu snorts, and he couldn’t help but mumble, “Nah, he’s the soft one.”
“What was that about? Hey. Hey, tell me-”
“It was nothing!”
“It wasn’t! Tell me! What’s this about Metallicana?”
“Oh, he’s a sap.”
“No it isn’t. You know something I don’t!”
“Ask him yourself! Land, I know why Mavis got so annoyed now. Just… go to him and admit you care about each other under all that tough armor...”
“Why the fuck would I do that?”
Natsu groans. “Ugh, men .”
Zeref stands beside Natsu when they unveil the Royal Ambassador’s ship. It boasted an impressive cargo hold and a majestic build.
“She’s made by our best, using our best.” Sting says, as if he still needs to sell the thing. As if it hasn’t been set that the prince would sail in it in only a few months’ time. “Fitting for the Royal Ambassador. She’ll be a picture of our majesty and wealth to everyone who witnesses her dock.”
Natsu whistles. Beside him, Zeref nods, impressed. To Zeref’s other side, Invel remarks, “She’s a marvel indeed. Have we named her?”
“Eclipse.” Sting grins. “Lady Anna chose it.”
“Miss Anna drunk us all under the table, claimin’ the right to name the ship.” Natsu says. “And thank the Land she did, ‘cause Gajeel wanted to name this beauty somethin’ like Iron Glory or whatever.”
“Glorious Beautiful Iron Maiden.” Sting supplies with a shudder. “If I recall correctly.”
Invel looks faintly nauseous. “He has… quite the peculiar taste.”
“It’s okay, man.” Natsu deadpans. “You can say it’s horrible. We all think that.”
Zeref laughs. “Well, she is beautiful and glorious, so he at least had that part right.” He turns to Sting. “You and Rogue will be going on ahead, as planned?”
“We’re takin’ the less majestic but very speedy Sabertooth.” Sting answers. “Although there’s a smaller delegation we’re sending even ahead of us - a few Shadows, a couple of guards and some of my men, to get started on finding and acquiring a place we could use as a compound. Just so we have somewhere to settle in when we arrive, since Rogue and I are bringing a fourth of the goods and some supplies with us. To tease the Council with.”
The Emperor nods. “Good. Your team’s been doing fine work, Ambassador.” he says, and Natsu beams.
“If I may,” Invel starts, a slight frown on his face. “I am still a bit wary about the people you’ll be bringing, My Prince. Sting and Rogue hold the second highest positions in their respective offices. General Scarlet’s post with you is a conditional one. General Redfox may pose a conflict of interest. Miss Wendy is the brightest healer we’ve had in the Sky Dragon’s nest in ages. They’re all… if I may say, top assets of the Empire.”
Natsu nods along with all of these points, and after the man finishes speaking, he only raises an eyebrow. “And your concern is…?”
“Is it very wise to bring them all away?”
“I don’t know.” Natsu answers, blatant and unreserved. “Never been one to know the wisest thing to do. All I know is they’re the right people for the job to be done, so they’re coming with.”
Invel opens his mouth to argue, but Zeref raises a finger and gives him a placating smile. “Why don’t we look at it like this, Invel? Ishgar thinks we’re fairy tales, sees magic as ancient, as barbaric, even. They might think we’re war-hungry and backwards, with our traditions and government. However, now we’re sending a young prince, with equally young companions, and they might see that we’re not as backwards as they might think.”
Invel considers this, and asks some more. “Won’t they think this batch is too young, though? Will they able to see past obvious inexperience?”
“We sent our experienced and grizzled minds and bodies off to war.” Zeref answers with a sentimental smile. “In a time of peace, in this offer of business and opportunity, we’re sending in young and eager talents their way to establish a trustworthy alliance.”
“It’ll be nice.” Natsu remarks. “‘Cause one day we’ll watch the old ones pass the torch, and I, for the record, would think it’s mighty impressive to have new leaders who can say they’ve been to places beyond the Empire.”
“Also, all due respect,” Stings adds. “I don’t think the offices would crumble just ‘cause a couple of teenagers went off to make friends with the neighbor.”
Natsu sniggers, and Zeref spares a chuckle. He sends his brother a proud smile then raises an eyebrow to his aide. “You heard the Ambassador.”
Invel closes his eyes and raises his hands in defeat. “I did, and I got better answers than I expected. I rest my case.”
“Did I just…” Natsu blinks, incredulous. “...outsmart Invel for the first time in my life?”
All three of his companions pause, and then nod. “Yes.”
He whistles, grinning in satisfaction. “Wow. I like my new job.”
Preparations are finished down to the very minute details according to the timeline, Sting tells Natsu. Natsu smiles proudly and tells him he couldn’t have done it without him.
When Natsu asks Rogue if any Shadows are coming with them, Rogue only nods. “Of course. You’ve met most of them, haven’t you?”
“Oh. I don’t… remember-... Really? When? ”
“Just trust me, Natsu. You’ve met most of them.”
Natsu pauses, struggling to parse the words.
“Rogue.” he says, slow and wary. “Did you... embed spies in our crew? Without me knowing?”
“You little shit.”
“What? Sting finishes his tasks and gets praised, but I get mine done and I’m a little shit?”
“What do you want me to say? Good job infiltrating your own team, Rogue! I never even knew that’s what you were up to!”
Natsu stares. “Please don’t. I’m so scared of you right now.”
One day, Wendy impresses them all by managing to disarm Gajeel in a practice spar. They’d all taken up lessons from Gajeel and Erza, just to polish up their skills with blades, weapons and hand-to-hand combat. All their previous self-defense training had relied on magic, and they decided that would be a disadvantage.
Wendy is terrified when she realizes what she’s done, but before she could apologize, Gajeel reaches out and ruffles her hair.
“You’re officially the scariest person on this team now, kid.”
Wendy blinks up at him with wide eyes. “W-What…?”
“You heal, you fight, you look harmless but you can kick our ass, you’re smart, and… hells, you’ve studied poisons too, haven’t you?”
“And you’re immune to them?”
“Um… most of them.”
Gajeel looks at Natsu, who is perched on a chair nearby, eating fruit happily. “What do you even need me and Erza for? This kid’s a one-man team.”
Natsu shrugs. “Wendy’s too cute for grunt jobs.”
“I… I don’t really like fighting.” Wendy says.
“See? Leave her alone, Gajeel.”
“You bastard, you just had to have a secret weapon up your sleeve, huh?”
Natsu blinks, then literally reaches up his sleeve and takes out a small blade. “You mean this?”
Gajeel rolls his eyes. “I hate you.”
“I’ve requested a month’s leave. I won’t be able to see Sting and Rogue off, but I promise to be back in time for our voyage.”
That effectively distracts Natsu from the picture he’d been trying to decipher for the past ten minutes. August had shoved the paper to him earlier, saying he drew a picture for Uncle Natsu. Natsu thinks it’s a boat. Or a ship. Because it’s a big brown chunk on a series of bright blue squiggles that might be the sea. Perhaps that pink scribble is supposed to be Natsu on the boat, but for the life of him, he doesn’t know what the yellow thing is, nor the orange one beside it.
Nevermind that now.
He looks up and at Erza, curious. “Alright. Care to tell me where you’re going?”
She picks idly at her nails, and very casually says, “Caracole Island.”
‘What-?’ He straightens up. “Caracole- The… The resort ?”
“Yes. That one.” the woman answers. “I thought I’d go on a short vacation before we leave for Ishgar. Besides, Brandish had been inviting us to come over for ages. It’s about time someone humored her.”
“Huh.” he says, nodding. “Well… Have fun, I guess? Are you going alone?”
“I’m going with a friend.”
And then… ‘Oh.’ The prince puts the pieces together and his lips break into a knowing grin. “Ahhhh… A friend, huh.”
She looks miffed, even a bit guilty, like a child caught stealing treats from the kitchen. “Yes, Natsu. A friend. Don’t make it weird.”
“I’m not making it weird.” Natsu shakes his head, eyes wide with false innocence. “I’m just sayin’... I did not expect you of all people to elope, General Scarlet.”
“We are not eloping.” Erza grits out, cheeks tinged pink. “It’s a short vacation.”
His grin is sly now. “Don’t they have stories about couples who get drunk and get married at Caracole?”
Her eyes narrow, a sharp glint to the warm brown of it as she warningly hisses. “Natsu. It’s. A. Vacation.”
“Fine, fine. A vacation. Enjoy your vacation.” he says, letting out a mischievous laugh. “I mean it, you know. Have fun.”
Erza coughs, regains her composure, and manages a pleasant, “Thank you. I leave the day after tomorrow.”
“Noted.” he says in dismissal, and she bows her head before turning for the door.
Natsu goes back to studying August’s drawing. He waits until Erza is almost out the room before he calls out.
“Say ‘hi’ to Adah for me, yeah?”
He delights in his friend’s furious blush and stammered answer, and laughs when her voice breaks as she bids him a hasty goodbye and scurries out his quarters.
Natsu is there when Sting’s scouts and agents set sail. He personally wishes them a safe trip and thanks them for their valuable service. The crew of the ship salute him and tell him it’s their honor.
“In a month, that’ll be us you’re seein’ off.” Sting tells Natsu as they watch the ship sail away.
“Yeah.” Natsu smiles. “Excited?”
He’s surprised when it’s Rogue who answers. “Surprisingly, yes. I suppose I am.”
“Watch out, Ishgar.” Sting says, grinning sharply. “We’re gonna show you what the real Alvarez Empire goods look like.”
Natsu and Rogue keep quiet.
Sting coughs. “Too much?”
“The beginning was okay.”
“You ruined it.”
“Was it the end?”
“There’s no way to say what you said without sounding lame, man.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Please don’t challenge him.”
“Oh, you’re on . Watch out because I am going to come up with an awesome line and you’re going to love it.”
“Naw, we’ll probably hate it.”
“ I beg you, stop provoking him. You’re not the one who deals with him saying puns in his sleep! ”
On a night much like any other night, Natsu is intercepted by a servant carrying a message for him. It’s from Igneel, and Natsu only raises a brow before curiously doing as the note had asked.
Igneel is there when he arrives in the Imperial Armory, and without preamble, the man hands him a long item, wrapped in dark red embroidered silk.
“It’s late, I know. But I never did properly congratulate you, with the victories, and now your new title.” the man says. “I want you to have this, now.”
Natsu peels away the silk to reveal a sheathed sword. His eyes widen in recognition.
“Igneel, this… This is your sword…” the whispers in disbelief, looking down at the weapon he held in his hands.
The hilt showed signs of repair work and reforging, the dark red dragon scales embedded in it gleaming again. The dark scabbard is newly-polished, the previously faded swirling brush strokes depicting a red dragon now vibrant again with a fresh coat of paint.
It looked different, almost new. Natsu could only tell it wasn’t because he had spent so many time looking at it, dreaming it might be bestowed to him someday, if he put the work to be worthy of it.
He looks to his uncle for permission, and when Igneel nods, he unsheathes the sword and looks at the blade in marvel - it is newly-polished, probably re-forged, but the orange tint to its edges stayed.
“Take it with you to Ishgar.” Igneel says.
“What-” Natsu gapes, then shakes his head. “N-No, Igneel, I can’t!” He sheaths it again, then thrusts it back to his uncle. “This… I shouldn’t be holding this. This is the Fire Dragon’s sword-”
Igneel lets out a wry laugh. “It is, and I’m giving it to you now.”
“You-... No, you can’t do this. It’s rightfully yours.”
Igneel shakes his head this time, closes his hands over his nephew’s and presses the weapon back into the young man’s space. “Just take it, kid. I had it re-forged, re-done, for you. I want you to have it.”
Natsu looks up at him, his uncle, the man who raised him. His eyes are still clouded with conflict, but he finally tightens his grip on the sword. “You do?”
“Yes. Take it, use it to protect yourself. We’re not fighting wars anymore. I’d have no use for it, I have plenty other swords.” Igneel says, smiling.
“This… This isn’t just another sword, though.” Natsu whispers, looking down at it again, his fingers tracing the dragon scales in the hilt. “It’s an imperial heirloom.”
“Then look at it as a guarantee.”
Igneel only grins fondly and nods. He starts walking away, ruffling his nephew’s hair when he passes him. “You’re takin’ an imperial heirloom on a voyage with you. Gotta make sure it comes back safe and sound, eh?”
Natsu watches his uncle go. He looks down at the sword in his hands again and then chuckles.
“Always so dramatic, old man.”
He comes to the Temples one early morning, without Mavis. He finds Zera in the priestess’ gardens, and she knows it’s him even before he announces his presence.
“You have the warmest aura I’ve ever sensed, do you know that?” she says, not moving from her perch on a slab of stone she had always used as a bench. She is twirling a bright yellow flower on her hand. “Igneel’s is pure fire, intimidating. Touching him burns . But you’re fire and light and somehow you’re easier to touch.”
“Uh.” is all he manages. “Thank you?”
Zera shudders a bit then, and shakes her head as if shaking the thoughts off. “Oh. Natsu. Hello. Was I strange again? I come here to think but sometimes I drift off.”
He sighs in relief. So it’s one of her episodes.
Mavis and Zera were both curious cases, when they first came to Alvarez. They had a natural affinity for magic that was most uncommon for foreigners. It took Lady Anna and Gajeel years before they were able to feel even the slightest connection to the Land, and then months to really understand magic. With Mavis and Zera though, it was as if they’d been born in the Land itself.
Mavis’ intellect and mental aptitude had allowed her to study runes and spells, to cast magic with calculated skill. She is adept at practical magic, but her mind is still her greatest asset. Meanwhile, Zera’s more instinctual approach allowed her to connect with the more... abstract forms of magic. Besides light and soul magic, she’s in touch with the Land itself, and so they all understood that sometimes she acted… less like Zera and more like something else .
“It’s fine.” Natsu reassures her, stepping forward and wading through the garden, careful not to step on the flowers. “You weren’t as loopy this time.”
She hums. “What did I do last time, again?”
He scratches his head, laughing sheepishly. Of course she doesn’t remember. “You made me wear five whole flower crowns, man.”
“Oh, that one.” she nods, recalling the memory. “T’was the fairies, you know.”
“You were going off to war then. Those flowers were blessings. Protection.”
“They like you. They know you’re theirs.”
“Okay.” he nods. He’s learned to just accept things as they were, when it came to Zera. When he reaches her, he sits on the ground, right in front of where she sat. “So… I came to visit you.”
“I can see that.” she says, looking down at him expectantly. “I appreciate the visit. What can I do for you, Ambassador-Prince?”
“Uh…” he thinks through his words first, then waves his hesitations away. “I’ll be leaving soon. It’s been a long year.”
“A busy year.”
“Yeah. It was… a lot. So I thought, it might do me good, if I, y’know, cleared my head, before I leave?”
“You want a cleanse?” Zera asks, reaching out to touch soft fingers to his forehead. He doesn’t shy away from the touch, knowing how the priestesses do their work. “It would be good for your head-spirit indeed. A clear, peaceful connection to the Land before you go to another without magic.”
“Yes. That.” he says. “Can you help me?”
Zera laughs, knowing. Her smirk is different than Mavis’ - smug and wry. “What kind of question is that?”
He shrugs. “So?”
“Come here.” she says, bringing her hand to the back of his neck and pulling him to lay his head on her lap. He comes easily, closing his eyes, letting his body go slack against her legs. He feels her tuck the flower she had been holding behind his ear. He opens his eyes once to see her mumbling a spell, then closes them again as her glowing hand presses gently to his temple.
He instantly feels light and heavy all at once, he’s floating, but also grounded. He connects to the flow of magic in the Land - it’s not unlike the feeling he gets when he prays, only much more intense and deafening.
“Just let yourself drift.” he hears Zera’s voice, distant. “I’m here, I’m your tether. Don’t fight the current, take your time. Trust me to pull you back when it’s time.”
‘Okay.’ he thinks.
He stops fighting the currents, and he drifts.
When Natsu wakes up, he finds himself in the grass, cross-eyed as he looks at the butterfly that had perched itself on the bridge of his nose. It flies away when he scrunches up his nose. He sits up and looks around. He’s still in the garden. Zera is gone from her stone bench. He lifts a hand to run through his hair and finds the flower still tucked into his ear.
He looks up at the sky - it’s late afternoon.
He was out for most of the day.
“Welcome back.” a voice says from behind him, and he whirls around. Zeref sits on the grass across the tiny field. His brother has a small bouquet of assorted flowers in one hand, while his other is hovering thoughtfully over tiny wildflowers. “How do you feel?”
“Lighter.” is the first thing that comes to his mind, and he finds himself saying it just as soon. “Much, much lighter, actually. I still feel weightless. And everything’s… all quiet, and I just… My head’s all clear . That was… something .”
“That’s good for you.” Zeref remarks with a small smile. “Zera was tired, by the way. I told her to go on to her quarters and rest.”
Natsu nods, and sits up straight. “So… You’re here too?”
“Mavis got wind of your little trip and gave me the tip. It’s been a while since I prayed too, and when I got here, Zera has just pulled you back.” Zeref says. He finally plucks a flower and tucks it with the rest in his other hand. He lifts his too-colorful little bouquet with a small fond smile. “How do you think Mavis will like this?”
Natsu stares for a moment. “Do… Uh… Do you want an honest answer to that?”
The corner of Zeref’s lips twitches, but he maintains the smile. “Is it hideous?”
“It’s totally hideous.” Natsu chuckles. He knows that his brother knows that he’s a hopeless case when it came to art and aesthetics. Zeref had only remained impeccably-dressed for so long due to Invel’s and Weisslogia’s joint efforts. “It’ll make her laugh, though.”
“You think so?” Zeref asks, hopeful.
Natsu snorts. “Yeah. You’re both saps like that. I bet she’ll go like this-” He clasps both his hands to his chest, bats his eyelashes and hitches his pitch up. “ Oh, darlin’! It’s absolutely ridiculous! I love it so much! ”
Zeref laughs at the outrageous impression, and only busies himself with picking up more wildflowers. He waits until Natsu groggily gets on his feet, walks across the field and joins him on the grass before he speaks again.
“So… a cleanse, hm?” he asks, curious but casual. “Is it part of your preparations for your trip?”
Natsu nods, idly watching as his brother fussed over the position of two flowers in the bouquet. It made no sense either way, if he were to be honest, but he supposed Zeref had something in mind for it. Whatever it was. Again- hopeless case.
“I want to have a clear head-spirit when I go.”
“Didn’t you do this a bit early? You’re not set to leave until another month.” Zeref muses.
“Aw, no. I did it just in time.” Natsu says, grinning. “You see, when Sting and Rogue leave next week?”
“I’m gonna stow-away. I’m leavin’ early, so I’ll arrive ahead of schedule and take my sweet time gettin’ to know the city before I have to act all Ambassador-y and Prince-ish.”
Zeref only snorts, shaking his head. “Oh, little brother. I can actually see you doing just that.” he says, absently rearranging his mismatched bouquet.
“Oh, I’ll do it.”
“No, you won’t.” Zeref glances at him with a knowing smile. “That’s too reckless, even for you. Besides, you’ve laid out all these schedules so carefully, worked so hard for things to go as planned. I think you’d hate to risk that.”
Natsu lets out a noncommittal grunt. “Preparations are done, you know. Sabertooth and Eclipse’s ready to sail out any day now. We’re really just spacing it out for convenience. Oh, and also waiting from Erza to come back from her elopement.”
Zeref raises his head at that. “Did she really elope?”
“I think so, but you didn’t hear it from me.”
“I heard it was a woman?”
“A caravan dancer.”
“Didn’t peg you for a gossip, Emperor.”
Zeref rolls his eyes and minutely shakes his head.
“But… really.” Natsu starts again, looking down at the flower Zera left with him, twirling the stem in his hand. “If I stow-away, would you get mad at me?”
Zeref hums, thinking, but find his answer easily. “I don’t think so.”
“You won’t get mad, just disappointed?”
A chuckle. “Not that either. I’d hate that I probably wouldn’t have known to spend more time with you before you go, but I’d think it is perfectly you to go rogue. I only wish that you be safe.”
“But you’re not going to do it, anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”
“I am, though.”
“No, you are not.”
“You won’t do it.”
“ Watch me. ”
Natsu watches as Zeref hands Mavis his colorful wildflower bouquet. The woman gasps loudly and stares down at the gift. Then she clutches them to her chest and screeches.
“Oh, darling! It’s absolutely ridiculous! I love it so much!”
Zeref chokes on his own spit. Natsu cackles.
A day after the Sabertooth leaves the shores of Vistarion, Zeref is surprised to find what looked to be his war council together with a peculiar assortment of other people gathered together in the throne room, waiting for him. He exchanges a look with Mavis beside him before he asks the room in general.
“Everyone. Is something the matter?”
Invel swallows pointedly avoiding meeting his eyes. Igneel rubs his temples. Beside him, Weisslogia looks amused , while Skiadrum for once is out of the shadows - Zeref couldn’t quite tell if the man is grimacing at something, or is squinting in the light. Gajeel is frowning deeply, arms crossed across his chest. Metallicana just looks disgruntled, still clutching a cup of chocolate. Grandine stands, serene, but beside her Wendy looks ready to faint, while a younger, novice Sky Dragon apprentice hid behind her back, trembling.
Invel opens his mouth to answer, but immediately closes up again, reconsidering his words. Unusual for the man.
It’s Igneel who finally steps forward and says, “We can’t find Natsu.”
Zeref freezes. Mavis springs to action before he does, always the level head of the two of them. “What do you mean?”
“The little shit decided to stow-away on the ship that left yesterday.” Gajeel says, looking just done.
“What?” Mavis demands. “How-... How did you know?”
“He left a note.” Igneel sighs, offering a piece of parchment to Mavis, who quickly takes it. “Supposedly, he’d gone ahead with Sting and Rogue. Left some instructions, said the rest of his things have been packed, in his room, ready to be brought aboard the Eclipse when Erza, Gajeel and Wendy are ready to follow.”
“All other preparations have been finished.” Weisslogia says. “It seems he made sure of that before gallivanting off to a whole sea voyage. Eclipse is prepared, just awaiting its passengers and crew.”
“How did he even-?” Mavis asks, at a loss. “He saw them off, didn’t he?”
“He managed to have someone disguised as him stand in for the rest of the time while he snuck on board.” Grandine says. She turns to Wendy and the other apprentice.
Wendy is nervous as she answers. “I thought it was just a silly project he was curious about… He asked about a potion that would temporarily shift someone’s appearance. And I indulged him, because… well, it was an interesting topic? And Illi here-... Um…”
“H-He… He said it was just for fun, Your Highness…” Illi stammers out. “I helped him with the spell to change the color of his hair and eyes… Please-... I didn’t know-”
Metallicana actually chuckles into his cup. “A menace, through and through.”
“Probably got that from Igneel.” Skiadrum mumbles.
“Hey!” Igneel pouts.
“Anyway, we thought it might just be a prank.” Invel says. “But we couldn’t find him, not even in the Temples, or in the City. So… I think it is safe to say that… the Prince has indeed gone ahead and found a place for himself in the Sabertooth, and-”
He stops when they hear a strangled sound from the Emperor’s direction. They all turn as one to look at Zeref. The Emperor’s head is bowed down, his face obscured by his hair and a fist he had pressed to his lips. His other arm is wrapped around his own torso.
There’s a stifled snort, and they finally notice that his shoulders were shaking.
“My Lord?” Invel inquires, concerned.
They had all refused to come to the Emperor when they realized the situation, and only decided to come to him together when they encountered the inevitable conclusion. Everyone knew how close the brothers were. No one had wanted to be alone to face the Emperor’s wrath-
But then Zeref breaks, finally, and he bursts into-... laughter?
The rest exchange bewildered looks.
When was the last time they saw the Emperor this… uninhibited? They all watch and wait as he gets the laughter out of his system, until he regains his composure, and is gasping for breath.
“He… he actually did it.” he breathes, finally. “ That little- ” He breaks into another round of short, breathless laughter. “That petty little shit , he actually did it.”
“Darling?” Mavis asks. “Are you alright?”
Zeref smiles fondly at her, waving off the concern. “I’m splendid, my love.” He turns to the others. “So… you say he didn’t leave business unfinished? We’re only waiting for Erza and the rest of the passengers and crew before sending Eclipse off?”
“Y-Yes, My Lord.” Invel says. “I’m… I’m sorry, just to clarify, you knew that your brother was going to do this?”
“I did. I realize that now.” Zeref nods, still quite unable to hide the amusement from his face. “Well, then. Weisslogia, I believe I can count on you to take charge of the launch a month from now?”
Weisslogia shrugs, looking at his companions. All of them are just as bewildered at the Emperor’s reaction somehow. “Of course. I’ll… I’ll double check everything, and I’ll make sure that the crew are up to date.”
“Thank you.” Zeref smiles. “Gajeel, Wendy - do brief Erza about whatever she missed when she comes back.”
Gajeel grunts his assent, eyes wide. Wendy bows deeply. “As you wish, Your Highness.”
“So… So it’s fine? You’re fine?” Igneel asks his nephew.
“I’m fine, uncle. Thank you kindly for your concern.” Zeref says, not losing his smile.
“You’re not angry?”
“I am not angry.” Zeref reassures the man. He looks to the other again. “So… I… don’t remember calling this meeting, but I think everyone may be dismissed? Let’s go about our duties, now.”
That seems to snap the others out of their haze, and they all bow and wish him a good day, still quite bewildered, before filing out the throne room again.
Mavis makes him promise to tell her all about what really happened, later, when they’re in their quarters. She gives him a kiss to his cheek and then goes to attend to her duties as well.
Invel is the only one who stays, as always.
“So, Invel.” says the Emperor of the Great Alvarez Empire. “What’s our first order of business for today?”