A/N: And so we return! I've been looking forward to writing this part of the story for a while. This is a wordy one, filled with chock-ful of information about both our characters and their world.

AS USUAL: This story can be a standalone, or it could be read as part of this series in any order. Chronologically, this may fit in as concurrent to the events in The Duke's Wife. Definitely before Stella and Salamander.

Hope you enjoy our trip to Alvarez!


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THE DUCHESS GAMBIT

- Young Dragons -

(in which a prince finds a new purpose)

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I.

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One of the first things a visiting foreigner would come to learn upon stepping foot in Vistarion is that the people of Alvarez Empire loved their Emperor.

It was no secret among the neighboring countries that the empire was a fearsome one, a stronghold of power and wealth with an established monarchy and renowned military force. It was no secret either, how its people trusted the land's rulers to do good by them.

One of the first things that might surprise a visiting foreigner, however, is how much the Emperor loved his people in return.

It has bemused their foreign guests for generations, how this seemed to be part of the culture itself: The citizens think the crown jewel of the Empire was the Royal Palace, and the royals think the crown jewel of the Empire was the people's marketplace.

It was no ordinary marketplace.

For one, it might as well be the most magical place in all the land.

The marketplace sold everything. It sold goods: from textiles and jewels to crops and grains, and it offered services: from guides and guards to healers and killers. It sold information: every sort, from the most general knowledge down to the most specific. Of course, it also sold pleasure: from the cheapest ales to the most expensive courtesans.

But the Empire's main trade is magic. Spells and curses, magical trinkets and equipment, spell books and scrolls, potions and elixirs, pets and familiars - all these have been assimilated to the Empire's society and lifestyle that they were considered ordinary items, so casually mixed together with the non-magical goods that they were commonplace in every stall.

Magic has colors visible to one's naked eye when active, but particularly gifted mages see these colors even when the magic is dormant. This is why to an experienced mage, the marketplace's wide plaza might look like a paradise bursting in light and rainbows.

From a distance, say, from the Great Imperial Palace, the marketplace may appear like a shining jewel, inlaid at the heart of the capital, within the desert and the trees.

The people might admire the palace because it shines like gold, but to a pair of trained eyes, like those of the Prince Natsu Dragonil's, perched in one of the many palace balconies overlooking the land, the marketplace shines like a diamond, almost blinding in the bright midday sun, reflecting all sorts of colors known to man.

Today, the Prince observes, the marketplace was shining more than usual. Perhaps it is because it's almost time for the Harvest Festival. He had heard that the harvest was rich this year, the crops were healthy and the trade was strong. Plus, the tourists were abundant.

Idly, he wonders if perhaps he can find someone to go wander the market with. It might be fun, a break from duties, a few hours to relax.

His thoughts, however, are interrupted when someone clears their throat and calls out to him.

"My Prince." a familiar voice says, cold and formal.

Natsu looks down to see the source of it standing in the garden below him. The man bows, as per protocol when addressing royalty. Natsu doesn't need to see his face as he simply recognizes the long silver hair gathered into a golden ring resting on one stiff shoulder, and the elegant robes as pristine as the man's reputation.

"Invel." the Prince addresses, dismissive. Also protocol, even though Natsu hates the stiffness of pleasantries and protocol.

But it's how the man knows that he's allowed to look up again, and so Invel does, standing straight and looking up at the Prince who is perched in the balcony in a very un-Prince-like way.

Natsu doesn't miss the furrow on the man's brow and the frown on his face.

"Anything I can help you with, man?" Natsu asks, sparing a small grin. He has known Invel for years, and the man might be too much of a stickler for rules, much to Natsu's chagrin, but he has always been polite and peaceable.

Invel nods, frown still in place. "Your Highness, please believe me, I would not be bothering your private moment otherwise, but I am at a loss… and I do apologize-"

Natsu rolls his eyes, groaning. "Just get to the point, Invel."

Invel coughs, and finally asks. "Very well. Has His Highness perhaps… heard of, or seen the young princes today?"

Natsu blinks. "The who? D'you mean my nephews?"

"Yes. Prince August and Prince Larcade, Your Highness."

Natsu hums, thinking of it. "Well… yeah…" he starts, and watches Invel's eyes widen slightly with hope. He shrugs. "A while ago, at breakfast."

Invel's face falls. "And after?"

"Haven't seen 'em today, no." he shakes his head. "So why's the Emperor's Trusty Shield looking for two little boys?"

Invel sighs. "They escaped from their lessons. Again."

"I don't remember babysitting being part of your job description, though."

Invel flushes slightly, but huffs and holds his ground. "The Emperor has entrusted me with his children's education, Your Highness. I have sworn never to break his confidence in me."

"It sucks to be you." Natsu shakes his head and clicks his tongue. "Well. Good luck looking for two very smart and very sneaky kids."

"Thank you, Your Highness. I do apologize again, if I had troubled you."

Natsu waves him off. "Eh. No problem. Just go and look for the boys."

Invel bows again, and goes on his way.

Natsu waits several more minutes before he tilts his head to look behind him. There's a large ornamental vase standing by a pillar. The sight is normal enough, but Natsu's pretty sure said vase isn't supposed to shake like that.

"You guys, I can't cover you forever. I suck at matching auras."

A small, blond head peeks out from behind the vase and grins sheepishly. Another appears under the the first's arm, two heads shorter, cheeks pink from smiling. The princes took their hair and skin after their mother, but their eyes were unmistakably Dragonil.

"Didja see where he went?" the older one asks.

Natsu snorts. "I'm pretty sure he's heading for the kitchens, August. Maybe to see if you two're gonna steal some snacks or somethin'."

"Kitchens. East." August whispers, moving to take his little brother's hand. "We go west, then."

"Where's west?" Larcade, the younger, asks.

"Greenhouse." August answers, and pulls the other boy with him. He beams at his uncle. "Thanks, Uncle Natsu!"

Larcade lets himself get dragged by his brother, but waves at his uncle happily. "Bye, Uncle Natsu!"

Natsu waves back, and watches the two disappear down the wide palace hallways. He stays quiet for a while, staring at the distance, trying to track the familiar magical signatures from the boys. Auras were never his specialty, but the princes were family, so it came natural to him. He can feel them, growing distant heading towards… ah. Yes, good , they were going the right direction, at least.

Something feels strange, however. He didn't sense it before, but while he can undoubtedly feel the two presences fading due to the distance, there's… another one…

Just... behind-

"You always sucked at matching auras, you're right about that, but you're getting rusty on detecting them, too."

Natsu stiffens, but only for a second, before the presence behind him shifts - and suddenly it's not the soft gray mix of Mavis's pulsing light and Zeref's steady dark - suddenly it's red and orange and flames and sky and sand, dominant but warm and familiar-

"Commander." Natsu says, turning on his perch with an easy grin. "Hiding under kids hiding under me? That's really sneaky, old man."

Commander Igneel crosses his arms across his chest, shrugging just as easily. Natsu takes in the older man's appearance - no armor, a loose breezy robe that showcases old scars on the commander's chest and arms. His uncle might as well have just roused from a nap in his quarters. He yawns, confirming Natsu's thoughts.

"It doesn't take much. They're kids, and..." The man's golden eyes narrows. "You have your guard down."

Natsu avoids his uncle's gaze and turns again. "We're not at war. I'm at home. I can let my guard down." With an attempt at humor, he adds, "What else are we paying the guards for?"

Igneel chuckles. "That's fair."

Natsu knows what his uncle wants to say after that. 'It's been a while since you let your guard down' or 'I'm glad you feel well enough to relax' - but his uncle Igneel always knew him best, so what he hears instead is, "You know, the responsible, adult thing to do, is to send those boys back to their lessons."

Natsu scrunches up his nose. "And ruin my reputation with 'em? No way. I'm the fun uncle!"

Igneel laughs, deep and amused. "You're the only uncle."

"Exactly! I'm the only, fun, awesome, favorite uncle." Natsu points out. "I'm not gonna blow that by being responsible and adult… " He scoffs at the words, like they're offensive. "That's their parents' job."

Igneel sighs. "You spoil them."

Natsu grins cheekily. "I learned from the best."

Igneel shakes his head, but doesn't retort. Guilty as charged, he accepts the answer and steps forward, leaning against the same railings that his nephew has perched in.

"So," the man starts, observing Natsu's faraway gaze. "Is there are reason you're staring longingly at our imperial jewel?"

Natsu grunts. "I don't do sappy things, like longing. I'm planning on when to come visit and enjoy the festival before I get stuffed into some ridiculous outfit and made to stand in a boring parade behind-... " he falters, but only for a second. "Behind the Emperor."

"Your brother." Igneel says.

Natsu nods. "My brother the Emperor."

"Zeref." the man adds, hopeful.

"My brother the Emperor Zeref." Natsu huffs, and he rolls his eyes. He tries to look annoyed, but he takes one glance at his uncle, and he breaks.

Igneel has always been in tune with both brothers' moods. Igneel knew them as boys. Igneel always knows .

Natsu ducks his head, sticks up his shoulders. It's a posture of defeat, of guilt . It's unbecoming of a prince, of a general , but Natsu couldn't care less. It's Igneel with him, and he knows he can allow this moment of weakness.

"Look." He sighs. "I know , okay? I know what I did, I know what you're going to say, and yes , it's my fault. I'll talk to him later, I'll say sorry, when he's… when he's less Emperor and more Zeref."

Igneel is quiet, and Natsu allows himself to shrug, smiling bitterly.

"Sometimes, I can't stand the Emperor." he says under his breath. "Sometimes… sometimes, I really just want to talk to my brother."

Natsu feels a rough hand on his head, and smiles a bit when it ruffles his already unruly hair. Igneel has a way with his nephews that makes them feel like children, despite them already being grown men, despite one being a feared and respected general, and the other one being the revered emperor of the most powerful nation in the continent.

"Your brother is dealing with a lot." Igneel says. Natsu starts to say that he knows that, the man brings down his hand to his shoulder and clasps firmly. "I know you understand. I'm not saying it's an excuse. But it's enough of a reason to give him some slack. You two just need to be patient with each other."

Natsu nods, but he still looks unsure. "Is… Is he angry?"

Igneel chuckles. "He's tired. He's busy. He's a little frustrated. But kid, your brother could never be angry at you, not really."

Natsu raises an eyebrow, dubious. "You know I punched a potential ally in the face. During a diplomatic dinner."

"I know." Igneel grins, flashing teeth. "I was there. Good punch, too. Flames and all. Really effective, I knew that ridiculous beard was a fire hazard."

Natsu groans. "Don't try to downplay it, old man. I asked Sting, and he gave me an estimate of how much gold we're not getting anymore."

"Eh." the man shrugs and waves dismissively. "I'm sure our Emperor and Empress can sort something out."

Natsu looks to the distance again and accepts the answer. He nods, resolute. They were Zeref and Mavis. They've faced way worse than one angry noble.

"Now, then." Igneel starts, smoothing down his robe and stepping away. "I am off to find… hm… I don't know, some company, I guess. I want to enjoy the marketplace on Harvest Festival before it's swarmed by tourists. I wonder which of the men would want to come with their boring old commander..."

Natsu sniggers at the blatant invitation and stares after his uncle's retreating back for a while. Finally, he hops off balcony railings and follows.

"Fine, I guess I have time to keep you company to make sure you don't faint in the crowd, old man."

A scoff. "Brat."

"You raised me." Natsu points out.

At that, Igneel only sighs. "That, I did."

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Several soldiers join the prince and the commander when they get to the marketplace. As they had come to expect, it was more festive than ever. The citizens who recognized Natsu and Igneel greeted them with enthusiasm and good wishes. The foreigners could only stare open-mouthed upon realization of who the two were, and as always, they were baffled by how casual and humble the royals of Vistarion were with their people.

Natsu let his company pull him to a good few hours of merrymaking in a pub they considered one of their usual haunts. He indulged in a couple of drinks, enough to take some of the edge off, but not nearly enough to render him swaying. He bids goodbye early, to his men's vocal disappointment, but he makes sure they hear him when he hands the bartender quite a sum of coins and says it's for his friends. They cheer loudly, praising his generosity. All Natsu asks in return is that they drag their commander home safely when the man inevitably drinks himself under the table. Igneel is red-faced as he looks indignantly at his nephew, but is quickly distracted when one of the soldiers nudges a pretty and eager scantily-clad woman to occupy the commander's lap.

The marketplace never really slept, this close to a festival, so Natsu has to weave his way through the crowds. By the time he comes back to the palace, he feels sticky with sweat, and knows that his robes look tousled and well-worn.

This doesn't stop him from his purpose, only bothering to wash his hands and his face quickly before he is knocking on the door to the imperial bedchambers.

No need to be so formal, no need for pleasantries, he thinks. He's only going to see his brother, after all.

But when the door opens, Natsu is greeted not by his brother, but by his Emperor. Zeref hasn't changed into his sleeping robes yet, and in his hand he still holds a scroll.

It's protocol to bow, but Natsu has always been very light on that, when it came to family. He didn't bow so much as he only nodded. "Your Majesty."

Zeref spares a tired smile. "Little brother." he says, as he takes in the younger's appearance. "Gone to the marketplace today?"

"Only for a bit, with Igneel and some of the men." Natsu answers. He drops his guard slightly and nods at the scroll the other man is holding. "It's late. You're still working?"

Zeref steps back to let his brother in. "You know I'm always working."

"That ain't good for you." He steps inside, but doesn't follow when Zeref goes to a table filled with more parchment, maps and scrolls. Instead he settles on leaning his back against the door as he looks around. "Where's Mavis?"

"With the boys." Zeref says, carefully plucking at his workspace. "Tucking them to bed with another one of her tales." then he smiles. "Or maybe teaching them that it's not very nice to run away from their lessons. Again. They just… won't sit still, I've been told."

Natsu snorts, and whether or not his brother knows he aided the boys in their mischief-making, he doesn't try to look guilty. "Can't blame them. Invel's a bore."

"That may be, but he's patient, committed, and one of the Empire's best scholars. He can teach them everything that young royals need to know."

There's one more thing Natsu knows his brother doesn't say, so he does it. "And he's a strong fighter if the situation called for it, so he can protect them."

Zeref's smile doesn't fade, but his gaze withdraws from Natsu's and settles on his work on the table.

"I knew something was up when you didn't wait for Lady Anna to come back and just picked Invel for the job." Natsu continues, frowning. "We're not in war anymore, you know. You've been doin' these speeches every week tellin' everyone we're in a time of peace. You don't have to assign your best general to tutor your kids for their protection."

Finally, Zeref sighs. "Peace is a fragile thing, Natsu, specially this soon after a war. We can't expect our enemies to stay pliant. My children are my weakness, and I have to protect them."

"We have guards everywhere." Natsu argues. "And… and I'm here, with nothing better to do. Give the boys to Lady Anna when she comes back, they like her and I bet she can teach 'em without making them want to sleep through the lesson. If you're worried about an attack because she's not a fighter, I'll guard them during lessons."

Zeref looks at his brother and chuckles, mirth dancing in his tired eyes. "Are my ears fooling me? Natsu Dragonil, volunteering? Haven't you just been telling me that looking after children isn't a general's job?"

Natsu looks down, sheepish. "Well… I'm… not a general, anymore… right?"

The Emperor's brows furrow at this, and his teasing smile disappears. "What do you mean?"

"I mean… You said it. It's a time of peace." Natsu says, shrugging. "No need for more generals than necessary. I'm just a prince again, now."

"You'll always be one of my strongest generals, Natsu, war or no. Your soldiers look up to you. You're also my brother, an Imperial Prince, and one of the throne's trusted advisers and most formidable protectors." Zeref says firmly. "Your titles don't have to take away from each other."

Natsu doesn't look back, not yet. "If you say so."

"I do say so, and as Emperor, my word is law." continues Zeref, but despite his words, his voice is soft. "You haven't been yourself lately, little brother, and I understand. I know that… I know we've all had a difficult year-"

"Years." Natsu mumbles.

Zeref indulges that with a nod. "Years, yes. But we've sought after peace for a reason. I don't want you to think that just because you're not winning battles for me, that you have no place in the palace or the court anymore. This is your home, and it will always be."

"I know that. I know I'm home, and I'm glad to be here with you again, Zeref. I- I just… I just…" Natsu trails off, and finally looks up at his brother, eyes wide. "I'm not good at being what I'm supposed to be, here. Like… Like last night. Last night, I-... The dinner- I know it was important for you and Mavis, for everyone , and I ruined it. I'm sorry."

There. He's said it. Natsu looks down again and purses his lips. Waiting for the verdict. Zeref has always been level-head, and unafraid to say the truth, no matter how harsh, even to the people he cared for the most.

Zeref walks away from the table, towards Natsu, and starts speaking. "Oh, Natsu… You know I'm not-"

"I know you're not mad at me. You're never mad at me."

Natsu huffs out a sigh. He doesn't want his brother to coddle him, dammit. He's an adult, and Zeref is the Emperor, he has more important things to do, better uses of his time, than spoiling his little brother. Natsu doesn't need - or want - to wrestle with a whole continent for his brother's attention.

"I know you care. I know you want me around, but you can't risk pissing off every diplomat for me. I'm not good with those dinners and stuff. Next time, just… don't invite me. I won't mind, and it'll be better for everyone."

"No."

When Natsu looks up, Zeref is standing in front of him, brows furrowed, eyes tired, smile resigned. He looks fond , perhaps, but maybe that is wishful thinking. Between Zeref's duties, his wife and sons, and several wars, it has been a while since Natsu had the opportunity to really be with his brother. He couldn't read Zeref as much as he used to, anymore.

Zeref shakes his head and raises his hand to ruffle Natsu's unruly hair. "I will not kick you out of the dinner table, Natsu. No matter how many guests you end up setting on fire." he says softly, chuckling.

Natsu feels chastised, though he doesn't know for what exactly, so he just nods. "I just punched him. He's the one clumsy enough to set himself on fire after." he says, defending weakly.

Zeref rolls his eyes, but chuckles. "Gods, I am not supposed to say this, and I will not forgive you if you tell a soul, but I do think the bastard had it coming. I saw the way he looked at Mavis and I only barely managed to stop from decking him myself."

Natsu snorts. "He was bein' a huge asshole, with Mavis, and Zera, and he made Wendy uncomfortable too. Erza was ready to slice him in half, you know."

"Oh, I know. I'm almost jealous at how you were able to do the honors."

Natsu's smile shakes slightly. "There were other people there, though. I know you didn't want them to see that. So I really am sorry. I'll try to do better."

"I know you will." Zeref nods this time. "You've never let me down, Natsu. And these… these thoughts you have? Feeling out of place in the palace, is that what's been bothering you? Why you seem out of sorts lately?"

Natsu averts his eyes again. "I… Yes. No. Maybe?"

"Thank you for telling me." the older brother says, his hand moving from the younger's hair to cup his cheek, giving it one comforting pat. "We'll figure it out together. Alright?"

Natsu closes his eyes and nods, smiling. "Alright." When his big brother pulls him in for a hug, Natsu falls into it willingly, burying his face on the older's shoulder, hands heedlessly gripping on expensive robes.

"I'm just glad to be home." he says, in a voice so vulnerable it reminded them both that he's a young man fresh out of his boyish days.

Prince Natsu Dragonil of the Great Alvarez Empire may have already fought and won several wars for his Emperor, but he is still only twenty-one.

Zeref grips him tighter, knowing that his little brother had to grow too fast, too soon, and it had been none other than himself who had the biggest hand in that.

Against the younger's hair, he mumbles, "We all are, little brother."

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"And now that all that's done, there's just one more concern I want to discuss."

Invel looks up at his Emperor's long, tired sigh. It wasn't new that his Master adds some last minute concerns in their meetings, but he always did so with authority and composure. This time, his voice was softer than usual. The advisor's gaze sweeps first towards their company - the Empress has a minute, concerned frown, and Commander Igneel has straightened up in his chair. Of course they had noticed as well.

"Invel?" Zeref calls, and finally the man turns to him.

"Yes, My Lord?"

"This is… a personal matter, that I would discuss with family. Thank you for your valuable time and assistance, as always." the Emperor says, still gentle. He smiles. "I know you could use a break. Dismissed."

Invel nods in understanding. He gathers his scrolls and parchment, then stands."It's my honor to serve, Your Majesty. I shall take my leave, then. Empress. Commander." He bows to each of his companions, dutiful as ever, and leaves quietly.

Mavis exchanges a quick look with Igneel before walking over to her husband, laying a hand on his sleeve. "You look troubled, my love."

Zeref's eyes soften as he looks at her, and he allows himself to lean down and nuzzle the crown of her head, running a hand through her long golden hair. For many, it is strange to see an Empress wearing her hair down, without a headdress, face free of paint, but Mavis only ever went fancy on formal dinners and special public appearances. At home, even when receiving guests, she always dressed simply. Zeref had always adored her for her humility, but it definitely took time for the palace staff to adjust to their foreign mistress' ways.

When he straightens up again, he lays a hand over hers and looks across the table to his uncle. "It's about Natsu."

Igneel's furrows his brows. "He told me he already apologized to you, said the talk went fine."

Mavis considers this and frowns. "You shouldn't be so hard on him, Zeref. That… guest… was pretty unsavory. I don't condone violence, but I can hardly blame Natsu for taking offense on mine and the women's behalf."

Zeref chuckles at this. "Must you think the worst of me?" he asks, squeezing his wife's hands. "We've already talked about that, we've moved past it."

Mavis brightens up. "Oh, wonderful! I'd hate for you two to fight over something so silly."

"I assure you, it'll take more than an offended diplomat to break us." Zeref says. He pulls over the nearby chair, and gestures for his wife to sit. The woman obliges, and Igneel walks over to take the seat across hers. Sitting close to each other like this, the atmosphere instantly becomes more personal.

"So, what's this about the kid?" Igneel asks, curious.

"As I was saying," Zeref continues. "We had a talk, recently. It seems like we have to find something for him to do. A job, some sort of… responsibility."

Igneel snorts. "Boy. You're tellin' me. Natsu, your kid brother, told you he wants responsibilities? You know, I'm quite sure he'd drunk a bit that night..."

Zeref shakes his head. "He didn't tell me that, exactly. He only told me that since coming back, he's been having trouble fitting in."

"Fitting in… here?" Mavis asks, folding her hands together, concerned. "This is his home…"

"It is, and he considers it as such. But it seems like he's feeling a bit lost, on what his role here is, after coming back from war. Several wars. He thinks he's not good at what he's supposed to be, and he can't seem to choose what to be, a prince or a general…"

Igneel sighs, heavy, and the pair turns to him. "You sent that boy out to fight- to win your wars, Zeref."

Zeref frowns. "It was not my decision alone. He chose it, too."

"He was seventeen, a boy , barely a proper prince ," Igneel grits out. "...and eager to please. He became a soldier for the good of the Empire. You can't expect him to go home unchanged. You can't expect that soldier- no, that general to just go back to being a prim and proper prince who knows how to navigate his status like the back of his hand. He's not you."

"I know that, uncle." Zeref says, rubbing his temples. "That's why I don't want to think about this alone. You've been with him, fighting. You've looked after him and watched him grow. Mavis, you've been working strategies and battle formations with him this whole time. I… I remember, what he said, back when he asked me to let him go to the battlefield for the first time… He said that he's unreliable about other things, and maybe fighting is what he's good for."

"That boy…" Igneel shakes his head. "He's your brother. He's the Emperor's brother, he's a prince. Before August and Larcade, he used to be next in line for the throne, after you. But now you have proper heirs, and he needs to find another purpose for himself, not just the next-Emperor-in-waiting. It was like that for me. I was next in line after your father, before you were born. You and Natsu were healthy, well-protected, I simply never thought I'd ever be Emperor, then. That's why I insisted on finding something else I can do, that's when I decided to join the ranks instead."

Zeref nods. He knows all this. He is eternally grateful that when he took over the throne after his father's untimely death, he as a newly-crowned, barely fifteen year old Emperor had his wise uncle's guidance, and a formidable army led by the same man. Igneel had been his pillar during the early years of his reign, and he admired how the man never wavered in looking after him and Natsu during such a turbulent time in their lives and in the Empire's history.

But it's different, this time.

"There are no more wars to fight. We've closed that book." he says. "Natsu has to find himself again . I'm afraid he thinks he doesn't have some sort of purpose, anymore. I don't want him to think that war is all he's good for. That's… that's not Natsu."

"Then we'll figure something out." Mavis says, smiling this time as she reached out to take her husband's hand. "It's the start of a new era, haven't we been insisting on that? A time of peace, so our boys don't have to grow up worrying about their home. There's a whole world of new possibilities, opportunities, other than battle. Natsu is skilled, smarter than he lets on, and loved by the people. He's extremely resilient - I'm sure we can find something for him, my love."

"Mavis is right." Igneel reassures his nephew. "He has his family and friends here, he'll find the right place for himself eventually."

Zeref gives his wife and his uncle a grateful smile, and they all agree to sleep on the matter and reconvene when they've thought of something helpful.

.


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"I asked him what he wants to do now, that we've taken a break from all the fighting." Igneel says nonchalantly, lounging on a chair on the Emperor's office as he helped himself to the fruits on a table nearby.

"And what did he say?" Zeref asks, sifting through letters upon letters on his desk.

"He just says that he's bored. He wants to be useful, but he hates numbers."

Zeref looks up at his uncle, an eyebrow raised. "Numbers?"

"Apparently he's been hanging around with Sting. You know those boys."

"Ah. Yes, we have been busy there, lately." Zeref shakes his head. "A lot of finances and accounting have to be sorted out, as you know."

"Oh, don't I know. It's all Weisslogia complains about when we go out drinking. Sting even joined us, once. Poor boy inhaled all that wine." Igneel says, laughing at the memory.

Zeref couldn't help but let out a smile of appreciation for Weisslogia. The Light Dragon's office is the heart of the Empire's trade - from local culture to foreign relations. Alvarez had always thrived most on trade and tourism, so Zeref owes it to Weisslogia's work that the Empire's economy is standing strong in the face of war and other such trials.

"And Natsu has taken to sitting in with Sting the past few days?" Zeref asks now. He has always approved of his brother's close friendship with the young man. It is well-known that out of Weisslogia's apprentices, Sting would most likely take over the man's title, one day. The boy is mischievous and free-spirited, but he had a sharp mind, and the perfect mix of noble breeding and friendly disposition needed for a job that capitalizes on the arts and cultural relations.

"Oh, you know our boy." Igneel huffs. "He didn't last that long. Hasn't got the patience for the fine art of accounting. Says he didn't expect there to be so many numbers involved when the job's just to launch trade ships, gather art, plan festivals and build plazas for foreigners."

Zeref frowns. "He should have, though. All of that is business."

"And yet he didn't." the commander shrugs. "I think he's just not very keen on the minor details. And you know you'll never catch that boy sitting on a desk all day, figuring out statistics. That's just not him."

"Indeed, it isn't." Zeref nods knowingly. "So that's it, then? Whatever job we ask of Natsu, it better not involve an office?"

Igneel hums in thought, and then finally says, "You know, I remember something he told me, once, during a siege on one of the territories."

Zeref puts down the letter he was reading to look at his uncle.

"He said that he's thankful that when we expand territories, we don't destroy cultures."

Zeref nods. "It's something I disagreed with my predecessors with. Something Mavis insisted on, the very first time she offered her services as a strategist."

'It's a defense, not an offense, because ultimately we just want to protect what is ours, don't we?' he remembers Mavis telling him. 'We shouldn't expand by destroying. It's not very practical.'

Before Mavis, he had thought it impossible to achieve, but the woman he loved and married had always been a made of miracles from the day he met her.

Zeref is pulled to the present when he hears his brother's name. "...and then Natsu said that someday he'd like to go to one of these many places when there's no war, see them as they are, explore their different cultures. So… maybe you can make him travel?"

"You mean as an overseer for a territory?"

"Something like that. You've appointed plenty of nobles for that, haven't you? Even some of the generals. You've even sent Brandish to her own home with that very job. It only requires good insight, an understanding with the natives and loyalty to you."

Zeref nods, but looks wary. "It might work. I'll consider it. I'm wary of sending him away, though."

"I think a change of scene might be good, and he'll still be home - that territory would still be Alvarez."

"Magic is weaker on newer lands."

"You know that Natsu is far from helpless, magic or no."

"Yes, that may be, but he's just… he's just come back." Zeref looks down. Igneel watches as the man smiles, soft - too soft, it almost startled the commander - it almost looked sheepish . Softly, he asks, "Is it selfish of me to still want my little brother around for a bit longer?"

It gives Igneel pause, because the words tugged at his chest, because he understands. The man smiles at his nephew as he shakes his head. "Not at all, son. Not at all."

.


.

"I went to visit Zera today." Mavis tells her Emperor husband, one evening, as they sat on either side of the Imperial Princes' bed. They had tucked the boys together that night, and so their voices were soft so as not to wake their children. "On my way, I noticed that Natsu has joined Gajeel in leading the drills for the new soldiers."

Zeref hums in thought, absently running a hand through little Larcade's unruly blond hair. It looks so much like Natsu's.

He knew what Mavis is trying to ask, and he answers before she sees any need to elaborate.

"He's a good leader, we all know that much. The soldiers look up to him because of his fierceness as a fighter."

Mavis nods, slightly frowning at a small scrape on August's cheek that the boy must have gotten rough-housing with his brother and their other playmates. "And?"

"It's an option." he says. "Although, when we talked, I got the impression that he did not really expect to continue serving in the army."

Mavis sends him a small smile. "And you don't want that for him, either, I suppose. The war, the fighting."

Zeref smiles back. This woman knows him too well. "I never wanted that for him."

She lies on her side then, snuggling close to her sleeping son. She sighs into the boy's hair and closes her eyes. "We'll find something better."

.


.

"They've always gotten along well like this, haven't they?"

Zeref looks up at his uncle, then follows the man's gaze. He ends up looking out into a view of the gardens and couldn't help but warm at the scene. It's his two sons, sitting on the grass, rapt and excited as they listened to their uncle's animated retelling of some story. Perhaps a battle, or an adventure. Natsu is lying on the grass, his head pillowed in Lady Erza's lap. The woman is looking fondly at the child princes herself.

The sight is domestic and endearing.

"We've gotten several very indicative letters from our noble retainers." Zeref says, thoughtful. "A handful of them made sure to mention having a daughter or two or marriageable age."

Igneel snorts. "I know it's always been said that a wife and a child would always make a right man of anyone, but surely you can't be considering that for your brother right now."

"Of course not." Zeref says with a short laugh. "I only thought it funny, how not subtle our lot are, sometimes."

Igneel sighs. "You should have expected it, you know. We have ourselves an Imperial Prince, fresh off several war victories, known and loved by the people, and most importantly, he is not promised to anyone. You better decide what to do about that, because with things settling down and Natsu staying idle, you'll simply have more nobles vying for you to consider their beautiful young daughters as a bride for their dashing prince."

"Once, I would have scoffed and called those attempts futile, because we already have the perfect candidate right here."

Igneel raises an eyebrow at the young Emperor, then eyes the scene again. Natsu's arms were raised now, little flames dancing around and above his fingers in hazy shapes, painting a picture. The children look on in wonder. Larcade tucks himself to Erza's side and the woman abandons the scroll she had been reading to pull the little boy close.

"Once, eh?" Igneel asks. "Still true to this day, I think. Who can be a better fit for a prince, if not a princess?"

A familiar soft voice drifts over to them. "I resent that." Mavis says, and settles gracefully between the men, folding her arms over the railings of the balcony and smiling down at the gardens. "I was no princess, and yet now I am Empress."

"Oh, you know I didn't mean it that way, Mavis." Igneel laughs, apologetic. "Just saying, this arrangement had been in the books for sometime, even before Zeref took his title."

"Is that true?" Mavis blinks, looking to her husband curiously.

"It had been an ideal fit." Zeref said. "Father had always planned to have one of us court Erza in time. He and his advisors always thought that she's a political goldmine."

"She still is. It may be in shambles at the moment, but the Dragnov Kingdom still stands." Igneel says, and then his smile turns serious. "Your Majesty, we can't ignore that forever."

Mavis hums, and when she turns back to the scene, she realizes that the children had noticed them watching, and were now waving at her enthusiastically. Natsu is grinning, while Erza inclines her head in a little bow. Mavis waves back. Igneel and Zeref do the same.

"Igneel is right." she says , finally, and leans close to catch the Emperor's attention.

He looks at her and stops as he sees an edge to her smile.

"But, Erza came to us all those years ago to swear her loyalty and her sword to your Imperial Majesty, and we took her as a soldier, not as your brother's bride." Mavis reaches up, brushes raven hair from the man's cheek. "You have to fix this mess in Dragnov in time, but if you think the solution is forcing our brother and our greatest warrior into an unhappy marriage to gain political leverage, I will be quite sad."

Zeref's eyes widen minutely, and then he grins, challenging. "Just sad?"

"Perhaps a bit angry too, my love." Mavis sniffs, eyes narrowing. "You can't be that stupid. You too, Igneel." she adds, glancing pointedly at the commander.

Igneel rolls his eyes. "Come on, Empress. We were just spitballing, here."

"And suggestions so far involve sending him to cities he probably helped conquer, getting him to train new soldiers, and now having him marry his best friend so… we can… what? Rally to Belserion, depose the mad queen, and have someone we can very easily lay claim to sit on the throne? We've scrapped that plan ages ago. No use bringing it up now."

Zeref sometimes forgets that after Natsu, it had been Mavis who opened her arms to Erza the night the girl had come to the Imperial Palace seeking sanctuary. It was only Mavis who Erza had been able to confess to about the extent of her mother's abuse.

"We aren't gonna do that." Zeref sighs. "It's just… Eileen's still a threat. You know this."

Mavis frowns. "She's a threat I can take. Erza wants nothing to do with that woman, so she's not going back, nor will she be used as leverage in this feud, and that's final."

Zeref sees and feels the surge of protectiveness in his wife - it's the same shine in her eyes whenever their children ask about where Grand Uncle Igneel went off to fight, whenever she comes up with a plan that involves in Natsu fighting, whenever she hears that there's been another attempt in her Zeref's life. Mavis has always been calm and serene, but when it comes to people she holds dear, she is fierce and frightening.

"Of course, darling." he concedes. "I'm sorry if this upset you. We'll never mention this again."

Mavis nods, quiet. "Thank you." She lets him lift her hand and press a kiss to her fingers.

Zeref exchanges a helpless look with Igneel.

"Also, I think I may have a solution to this Natsu situation." she says, and the men blink. She couldn't help but let out a small laugh at their bewildered expressions. "Oh, you're such men. Stop being so militant for a minute, would you? Natsu needs a purpose and you think soldier, overseer, political leverage - when he can just be himself. An Imperial Prince and a representative of the Emperor's court."

"Prince and representative?" Igneel raises an eyebrow at the woman. "Empress, aren't we in this predicament in the first place because he's so bad at diplomacy and table manners he punched a guest?"

Zeref nods in agreement with his uncle.

"Oh, he'll do just fine." Mavis grins, eyes shining in the way Zeref knows they did when she's had a brilliant idea.

"Well then." Igneel says, looking impressed. "Let's hear it."

"Actually," she says, airy. "I want to run this by Natsu first."

"Mavis?" Zeref eyes his wife curiously. "What are you thinking?"

Mavis looks to him in confidence. "Do you trust me, Emperor Dragonil?"

Zeref knows then that she's addressing him, strategist to commander. "You know I do."

Then she asks, "Do you believe I only have our little brother's well-being in mind?"

And now it's just them, just Mavis to Zeref. He smiles. "I believe you do."

Mavis claps her hands once, and turns to leave. "Then rest easy, and let me take care of this, my love."

.


.

Zeref tries his best to stay patient. His wife had told him to rest easy, but he simply couldn't. He sees his brother, his family and their inner circle regularly, but Natsu seems to have made himself scarcer than usual, while he and Mavis have their own duties to attend to. He is a busy man, so despite his worries, he throws himself into his work as always.

He heard a passing remark once that someone had seen Prince Natsu accompany Empress Mavis on her usual trip to the temples. His wife usually came to the place to confer with the priestesses, most notably her friend and confidante Zera, but he knew that Mavis also came to the place for much needed solitude sometimes. It's where she goes to pray, to think, to be quiet.

He tries to recall if he noticed any change in Natsu after that trip, but he hardly saw his brother afterwards, so he couldn't tell.

Two more weeks pass, and then he's taken by surprise when, as he sits down with his usual advisors and staff for their regular meeting, Natsu walks in the room, dressed in his more formal robes. He's always had a place in the table, though everyone was accustomed to the sight of it empty during the period the Prince was out in fighting in the war, and even when he's home as he always chose not to attend because he wasn't really required to. Now he sits in his rightful place, taking the surprised faces of the rest of the room in stride.

Members of the council didn't dare comment, but Zeref catches Mavis smiling at Natsu and Natsu nodding minutely.

"It's nice of you to join us today, My Prince." Invel says from his seat, not unkindly.

"And dressed up for once." Igneel adds with a bemused grin.

Natsu shrugs at them both. "Eh, I was told my chair here's about to grow cobwebs, and this robe's going to waste in my closet. I still think it's stuffy, though."

"It suits you better than you think." Zeref says, earning a sheepish grin from his brother. He eyes the rest of the table and nods. "Invel, if you would start the proceedings?"

The meeting goes as usual, reports are shared, concerns are brought up and decisions are made. Zeref keeps one eye on his brother beside him. Natsu's arms were propped up on the table, his chin resting on his hand. He stays quiet and only listens to the others talk.

More debates and decisions later, and Zeref begins to wonder just why Natsu chose today of all days to suddenly join them for a meeting he always called 'boring' and 'not for me' .

"-and for our next order of business, we've long been planning to formally open an official trading relationship with Fiore Kingdom in the continent of Ishgar. My Emperor, as you requested-"

This draws Zeref's attention from his brother, as Invel hands him a scroll. Zeref unfurls it quickly, revealing a list of names in Invel's neat writing.

"-over the past few months we have put together a list of potential candidates to lead and serve as the Royal Ambassador to Fiore. We know the continent's… caution towards royalty, so we only chose minor nobles from the royal families. We also included some notable merchants, but only those we could seek to re-employ to serve the throne directly, and not their current companies, to avoid bias. Lastly, there are some names there who are-"

A voice cuts through Invel's prompt explanation. "So about that."

The room falls silent, and Zeref looks to his brother beside him.

"My Prince?" Invel inquires, ever polite.

Natsu is sitting straight now, and is looking right back at his brother. "The Ambassador position."

Zeref's brows furrow, and he catches a glint of doubt in his brother's eyes. He knows he isn't supposed to, in this formal setting, but he softens his voice. "Yes, Natsu?"

He doesn't miss the way Natsu glances at Mavis, and how Mavis smiles and nods encouragingly.

Natsu takes a deep breath, then lifts his chin to meet the Emperor's eyes, and his voice is steady when he speaks.

"I'd like to volunteer."

.

.

II.

.

Natsu wakes up to the feeling of gentle fingers stroking his hair. Not many people are allowed this, he hazily thinks, and his brows furrow in confusion. Did Erza sleep in his quarters last night? Did he spend the night in hers? He doesn't remember-

"Natsu."

The voice is soft, warm. It's not Erza's. He sleepily blinks, catching light hair and pale skin almost glowing against the sun's golden rays. Curse the Land, who drew the curtains? He groans, straining against the glare of the light.

The voice laughs, and the hand moves to cup his face, a thumb brushing his cheek.

"Wake up, sweetheart. Come on."

Finally he manages to open an eye. "Mavis?"

Mavis smiles. "Good morning, young dragon."

"Mavis." he repeats, mind clearer now as he finally wakes up. He sits up abruptly, almost knocking her back from where she sits on the side of his bed. "Mavis! What- Why are you here?"

"Why, I'm waking you up."

"What? Why?" he blinks, then his eyes widen as he comes to his first conclusion. "What happened? What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing's wrong." Mavis laughs again, stroking his hair to bring some semblance of order to it. He knew her efforts would be in vain. "Everything's just fine."

He relaxes considerably, then yawns and runs a hand down his face. "What time is it? Why're you waking me up?"

"It's early morning." she answers. He notes that while Mavis is dressed simply, she's not in her sleeping robes anymore. "Will you come take a walk with me?"

Natsu stares. "You… woke me up. For a walk."

"Yes." she answers, beaming at him.

"Why?" he couldn't help but whine. He just wants to go back to sleep .

"I haven't spent much time with you since you got back. I do love your company."

Now, Natsu loves Mavis, he does, but he also knew he wasn't the best company out there for early morning walks. He squints. "Really?"

She pouts, grabbing his hand and tugging. "Oh, do indulge your big sister, please?"

He can't help but snort at the statement. "Last time you asked me to 'indulge you' , you dragged me out of bed in the ungodly hours of the night because you were craving for berries and you needed someone to help you steal some. And then I was only able to eat the one because you dipped the rest in some sauce you mixed yourself that I'm pretty sure is poison."

Mavis huffs, indignant. "Hey, it was fine, you just wouldn't try!"

"It was bubbling!"

"It was delicious!"

He doesn't look convinced, but his eyes trail downwards. "Am I gonna be an uncle thrice over? Is this how you tell me? By dragging me off to steal fruit again?"

"No!" she says, a light blush on her cheeks, but she's holding back a laugh. "Do you want to be?"

He grins, sheepish. "I'd love a niece. Would spoil her rotten."

Mavis shakes her head fondly. "I am craving, I suppose."

"I knew it!"

Then she smiles, bright and sunny. "For your company."

"Aw." He stares at her, pouting, for a long second. When her smile doesn't falter, he finally concedes. "Fine, I'll go with you."

"Wonderful! I shall wait outside." Mavis claps her hands happily and stands up, her robes fluttering gracefully behind her as she walks towards the door. "No need to dress up all fancy."

Natsu stretches as he stands. "Where are we going?"

The woman stops by the doorway and cheerily answers, "To the temples!"

.

The morning sun is bright, but it's a windy day, and the breeze keeps them cool. They walk closely, the Empress's arm looped around the young Prince's as they climbed up the steps carved into the hills that led up to the priestesses' temples.

They talked about what Natsu had been up to lately: helping Gajeel oversee the new soldiers' training since Metallicana and Igneel have both taken a short break from duties, their age catching up to them, and he also accompanied Wendy on her last trip to the marketplace to acquire some herbs and rarities for the more complicated potions she's been working on. He keeps to the light-hearted parts - an encounter with a strange merchant, a slip while training with formations that sent the soldiers into fits of laughter.

She shares some of her days, as well: more diplomacy, more logistics, moving pieces around the Empire to ensure things were moving smoothly. She doesn't go into the details, of course - they've both had enough that. Instead she strays into more mundane topics - a misplaced letter, an awkward misunderstanding with the locals in one of the territories that ended up more funny rather than worrying.

It's easy, with the two of them. They've always been comfortable with each other, Mavis' foreign ways and unconventional place in the court had always fit well with Natsu's mischievous streak and casual disregard for his own status. In some ways, Mavis got along better with Natsu, even compared to her own husband.

They stopped by the main temple first, as is tradition, to offer their prayers. The priestesses and apprentices who loitered about bowed to the their Empress and Prince before making way. There are already a couple of worshipers in the open temple hall, deep in prayer. The room itself is bare, save for a shallow pool of clear water in its heart, from the center of which rose a platform that held a torch lit with a flame burning brightly. It's the heart of the empire, the people believed: the flame that is never extinguished. Stories say it is the first spark of magic in the land, and legends claim that it would be the last spark to go out if the Empire fell.

In the Alvarez Empire, religion was not an institution but more of a personal practice. It is not odd to see people joint in prayer on their own ways. There are no rules for worship, only traditions that sometimes tend to overlap.

No one looks twice as Mavis slips out of her sandals, sheds her outer robe and hikes her dress to her thighs before sitting by the edge of the pool and dipping her legs in the water. She folds her hands in her lap and closes her eyes, looking down. There is a soft golden glow as the water ripples once, and then settles. As for Natsu, he kneels down on the temple floor nearby. He looks at the flame first, and after a deep breath, he closes his eyes, hunches over and lays his palms flat on the floor, feeling his connection to the ground, to the magic laying dormant around the temple and in extension, the Land.

Worship in Alvarez is an open thing. There were no gods to try to appease, the people instead reached out to the blood that tied them to the Land. Some focused their worships to the earth, some to the sky, some to the trees, to the sun, moon and stars, to the seas. Some even prayed to the dragons that roamed the old lands, while some treated the very first mages known in history as saints and prayed for their patronage. But all prayers came back to the magic that embraced all life in the Empire, and all temples are open for whatever form or focus of worship, so long as it's not to the darkness. The priestesses who stay in the temples were less like agents and more like guardians of the temple, and guides to those who feel turmoil in their spirit. They were well-versed in light magic, spells and potions to clear a person's mind and calm one's soul.

Natsu hears a soft voice in the distance, then registers words with them. Someone is singing in a language he isn't familiar with, but he takes it in stride and doesn't break his own prayer. It was just another form of connecting to the Land. It's been a while since he really did this in the temples, so he takes his time. He lets the morning wind, the songs, and the peaceful magic of his home lull him into calm.

When he finishes, Mavis is still sitting by the pool. He stands up silently and steps outside. He waits, leaning on one of the temple's pillars as he takes in the sight of the palace and the capital from this high up.

Mavis emerges from the hall and stands beside him a few minutes later, back in her robe, carrying her sandals in one hand. She always did like walking around barefoot. "How do you feel?" she asks, peering up at his face.

"Good." he answers. "Lighter."

Mavis smiles. "Can you wait a few more minutes? I'd like to drop by and say hello to Zera. I promise it would only take a while."

He nods, and is about to say that he'll wait for her where he stands, then changes his mind. "Take your time. I think I'll go visit the Fire Dragon's tower."

.


.

The tower might be considered a ruin, with its cracked stone bricks and abandoned appearance, but it still stands as it is, sturdy and firm although weathered through time. It stands at the top of the hill, peeking above the temples and other shrines. Zeref once told Mavis that the great Fire Dragon of old lived in said tower, back in a time where dragons still lived among humans. The dragons are still around, it is known, but Mavis has never seen one.

According to her husband, they have chosen to live in isolation in the farthest reaches of the land. No one knows for certain why they left, but they had assured that they were still allies of the empire, so long as the empire doesn't stand for darkness.

Accounts vary on dragons, but they all agree that the Fire Dragon was the last of its kind to be seen by human eyes. It perched in this very tower, overlooking the palace and capital, spread its mighty wings then took off, never to be seen again. Nowadays, this tower is where fire mages went to worship, to pray for their magic, that they may use their fire to bring life and warmth instead of death and destruction.

This is how Mavis finds Natsu, standing in one of the weathered balconies of the tower. He had shed his robes and sandals, only retaining his loose pants, as he moves through different fighting stances. Flames tread in his skin, weaving through his fingers and then his fists, and dancing in the air around him, making him look like a desert mirage from a distance. Mavis is reminded that Natsu may look and play the part of a playful prince, but he was also a fire mage and a soldier trained in the arts, and of course he knew how to pray like one. His aura shines golden orange and magnificent red to Mavis' eyes.

He finishes the dance with a fluid twirl, followed by a heavy stomp that sent a column of flames surging from the stone where he stood. When he exhales, there is smoke from his lips, and from his skin where the flames seem to seep into until they were gone.

Mavis knows that he's aware of her nearby, so she doesn't bother calling out. As expected, he looks down at her from the balcony with an apologetic grin. "You been waiting long? Sorry, the dragon got to me, I think."

She shakes her head, watching him swipe his sweaty hair back from his face. "Stay there, I'll come up!"

It's simple magic. Mavis doesn't bother with the stairs, and instead feels her magic flow into her feet, then around her. With one leap, she's propped up on the stone railings of the balcony. Natsu whistles, impressed. Mavis sits with her legs dangling off the edge, and then pats the spot beside her, inviting. Natsu only drapes his robe across his shoulders for modesty before he joins her.

Although it was Mavis who invited him, Natsu is the one who speaks first.

"So what did you really drag me all the way here for?"

She hums. "You don't think it really is just to catch up and spend some time together?"

He shrugs. "You don't love me that much."

That earns him a pout.

"Okay, you do." he concedes. "I still think there's something else, though. Also, they think I don't notice, but Igneel and Zeref's been poking and prodding at me lately, all these questions and talks about what I'm doing and if I wanna go somewhere. They even got others to help."

"Others?"

"Grandine invites me for tea everytime she sees me. Weisslogia keeps asking me if I want to help Sting work on the books. And the other day, I had the most awkward talk with Skiadrum. I still don't understand what it was about, but he was patting my head and telling me I'm a good boy."

Mavis bursts out laughing, mostly at the last part as she imagines the usually stern and brooding head of the Shadow Dragon's office initiating a heart-to-heart with cheerful, sunshine-incarnate Prince Natsu of all people. It's so much like Igneel to rope in his friends in his little quest.

Natsu grins at the memory as well, and waits for Mavis to compose herself before continuing. "So, you know, you can tell me everyone's worried about me for some reason now. Go on."

"Oh, you." Mavis sighs. "Yes, you are right. There is worry, from us, for you. But you must know, it's not because they think you're incapable of taking care of yourself. It's not a worry about what they think of you now, but about how you plan to move forward."

"Worried about my future." Natsu repeats, and his eyes look to the distance. "That's new."

"Natsu." she says, soft, reaching out to hold his hand. "This isn't like last time."

He doesn't seem to understand her meaning, and he only shrugs.

"Last time, we were worried because you were drifting, and you wanted to prove yourself." Mavis explains, not withdrawing her hand. "And you did, you found your purpose. This time, we're worried because you're drifting again, and I think it's because you haven't realized it yet - so let me say it, so that you know for certain. Natsu, you've already proven yourself, and we are proud of you. You feel like you need to be doing something big , so that you have a reason to be here, to keep being recognized by your brother, but you don't have to do all that. Your brother wants you around and loves you, whether you win wars for him or not."

He looks down, eyes in turmoil, and nods slowly. "You think so?"

"I know so, young dragon." she says, reaching up to stroke his hair fondly.

He sighs, slow and steady.

"And there goes the long sad sigh."

He looks out to the distance, at a loss. "No, I… I understand what you're saying, but-"

"I know."

He stops for a second, then frowns, refusing to meet her eyes. "You don't! You see, I- I just want- I want..." he trails off, struggling with his words.

"I know ." she repeats, firmer this time. "You know they'll let you take it easy. You know you'll be loved, no matter what. But you still want to help. You think you can do more, should do more, but you don't think you'll be any good with the duties expected of someone in your place."

Natsu finally whirls his head to look at her, mouth open in disbelief. "How in the Land do you do that?"

Mavis giggles. "Trade secret."

He's the one to pout this time.

With her own sigh, the woman looks out to the view of the palace, wistful. "I am a commoner and a foreigner, serving as the Empress of a centuries-old empire built on strict traditions. I think I know quite a bit about feeling out of place and having to constantly prove your worth."

He nods, finally understanding. They sit in silence for a while, letting it all sink in, almost getting lost in their recollections of what they've both been through.

Then in a quiet voice, Natsu asks, "What do you think I should do?"

She pauses for a bit, and lays her hand over his again. "Before I answer that, you know you're still free to make your choices, right? Like us working together during the war, I may come up with solutions and contingency plans, but it's you who would choose whether to listen or not. I try to come up with the best I can, but I'm just a guide, Natsu. I've always been just a guide."

"You're the best guide. Never steered me wrong." he says with a rueful smile. "Tell me."

She nods. Natsu is a grown man now, and he's faced worse. "You know that we've been planning to open official trade with Fiore? Ishgar?"

Natsu nods, a curious eyebrow raised. "Your home."

"Oh, home is here, now. But yes, it's where I was born, I suppose." she smiles. "Anyways, it's been a long time coming, but it has always been put on low priority due to the wars. Now that we've stopped those, these other priorities have resurfaced, including the Fiore trade, among other things."

"That's… good, I guess." he remarks. "A foreign land we're befriending and not fighting, for once."

"That's true." Mavis agrees. "Zeref has asked Invel and the council to come up with a list of candidates to lead this mission, to oversee the preparations and later sail to Ishgar as Royal Ambassador."

He nods again, following well enough. He's not keen on politics, but he still grew up in it, and he knew the implications, the weight of such a title. "They better be good."

"Natsu." she says, and gives his hand a squeeze. "I think it should be you."

He looks at her, surprised. "W-wha- What- Me? As… as the Ambassador?!"

She nods, taking his shock in stride. "I believe you'd be a good fit."

"What?! Mavis, I- No, no way! I mean, yes, sure, it's an honor. And a high one! But… Me? I'm the worst fit! I-!" he cries, throwing up his arms to indicate his loss for words. He shakes his head. "When you started bringing it up, I thought you'd… maybe… maybe make me a bodyguard or protector of this ambassador. Or… or make me accompany whoever it is so you can keep an eye on things… to help with… assessing? I can do that! But… But being the Royal Ambassador ? That's… that's not me."

Mavis is calm as she meets his eyes, and she remains so as she asks, "Why do you think so? Let's hear it."

"I can go all day." he deadpans. When she raises a challenging eyebrow, he huffs in disdain and shrugs. "To start with, I am very bad at management-"

"You'll be in charge, but you won't be doing the managing alone."

"How about diplomacy?"

"You'll be a foreign prince in their country, and in this transaction, we have the upper hand. We have more money, the resources that they want, primarily. Odds are, they will be desperate to please you, and would excuse minor hiccups. Besides, being Ambassador rarely entails such direct interaction - you'll have secretaries and agents for that - you only have to be controlling the flow of things, and reporting back to the Empire."

"What about the business? The books -"

"You will not be expected to handle the books and the figures, or even the intel and background, though you would have to judge the results from time to time. You can trust Weisslogia and Skiadrum to choose trustworthy people from the Light and Shadow to take with you. All you have to do is lead."

"I'm a soldier , Mavis-"

"A general , Natsu. You're a leader."

"In battle!"

"Exactly, and that would make your crew feel safe under your protection, especially in a foreign land they hardly know anything about. They know you've won battles and that you can protect them. You're their prince as well, so it would boost morale for them to be doing this mission being led by none other than their Emperor's brother. That makes this more of an honor for them, rather than simply another assigned duty."

"You know I suck at being a proper prince-"

"Then it's a good thing that they haven't met a prince in several centuries and wouldn't know better if you mess up, isn't it?"

"Oh, I'll mess up, alright. I… I don't know the language, Mavis. I don't know the geography, the customs…"

"All of that can be learned, Natsu. You know this. You learn new ones, all the time, for every territory you handled. Besides, Anna is expected to return in a month or two. There's me, there's Zera. There's… There's even Gajeel. We can help you."

He looks at her, at a loss, trying to come up with arguments in a battle he's losing. Why ever did he think to argue with Mavis Vermillion? He runs a hand down his face. All of a sudden it's too much. He knows that she raised valid points, but still… The idea is so unfamiliar, so new - one that he had never even considered for himself ever.

"Alright. Say… say this title is given to me… I have to learn all about Ishgar, I also have to learn how to do my job while doing my job. You say I'll have help." He breathes, slow but heavy, and she nods. "Will I have time?"

Mavis gives him a reassuring smile. "You'll be in charge. You'll set the pace as you see fit. You can own this, and we'll respect your choices. Say you need a year and we'll give it. Two and we'll adjust. Our economy is stable enough, this trade arrangement is more of a contingency of a contingency, just another avenue. It's been held back this long. What is another couple of years?"

He looks up at the clear skies. It's still morning, and yet he feels like an entire day has already gone by.

"If you think I'd be a good fit for the job…" he starts, frowning. "Why didn't you just add my name to Invel's list? Put me right at the top if you think it's that good a fit?"

"Because Zeref won't choose you." Mavis says, making him pause. "Not that he doesn't believe in your abilities, but if left up to him, he wants to keep you nearby. Of course, if it's you , who wants to go, he'll let you. He does trust you and only wants you to thrive."

"Have you considered that I might not want to go after all?"

"Yes." she nods. "And that's why I'm telling you this first. It's an option, not an order. A path, if you will, not one you'd normally take a second look at, but what I just did is put up a sign that it's possible to take it, after all."

He nods back, understanding. This is something to consider. An advice. "Does Zeref know?"

"He knows I'll run an option by you. He doesn't know it's this one." she says, and she smiles as the breeze ruffles her long hair. "Besides, say I explicitly told him to present this to you... if the suggestion came from him, what would you think?"

There's a pause as Natsu thinks, and after a while he lets out a short, breathless laugh. His smile is bittersweet. Mavis knew him too well.

"I'd think… I'd think he's sending me away again."

Mavis's smile is soft, and she leans sideways to rest her head on the side of his arm. "You see now? If this had come from him, it'll be just another order, wouldn't it?"

"Just another war to fight. To win for him." Natsu says. "Because that's what I'm good at."

"It is." she agrees. "But we never stop learning, don't we? We never stop growing, I think."

"In the battlefield, it always made me so proud, you know?" he muses. "I'm one of his strongest generals. I'm a weapon. His very own fire dragon. An ace up his sleeve." She rubs his arm, soothing. "But after all of that, now that I'm home, I can't stand the thought that maybe that's all I am to him."

"You know in your heart that that's not true." she says, firm but gentle as always.

She feels him nod against the crown of her head. "Of course I do."

"You need to want this for yourself, Natsu." she says, raising her head and reaching up to cup his cheek. "I think you'll do great, but you have to want this for you , not for Zeref. And if you think that it really is not for you, I want you to come to me, because there always is another option, and I will always help you look for it."

He nods, placing his hand on top of hers and giving it a grateful squeeze. "I need time."

She smiles knowingly. "You have it."

.


.

A week passes and then one morning, Natsu joins Mavis in her walk up to the temples again. This time they don't bother with small talk.

Mavis asks, "How may I help?"

Natsu says, "I have some questions."

She doesn't appear surprised. "Ask away."

.


.

"The Ambassador position."

"Yes, Natsu?"

"I'd like to volunteer."

"You'd like… to volunteer." Zeref repeats, slowly and carefully. "Yourself?"

Natsu's nod is a nod his old etiquette tutors would be proud of. "Yes, Your Highness."

All of a sudden there were whispers from the members of his council, a debate in lowered voices between Mavis and Igneel, and hasty shuffling of parchment and scrolls under Invel's hands. Zeref doesn't hear them, his gaze focused on his brother.

Natsu simply looks back, fire in his eyes. Zeref knows this expression well - it's the one his brother wears when he has made up his mind. It's the one his brother wore years ago when he told Zeref that he wanted to fight in the worst war they'd fought yet.

Zeref glances to where Mavis is calmly countering each of Igneel's arguments in hushed whispers. She had a hand in this, he knew for certain. This is not what he had expected to happen today, and it is definitely not the decision he expected from Natsu. But his wife is his best advisor, and she had asked him to trust her with this. Mavis rarely left things to chance, the solutions she offered were always solid. He is willing to hear how she laid this one out, and how much Natsu had taken to it - why Natsu had taken to such an unlikely task in the first place.

He's had enough of the squabbling, of Igneel's hisses of 'What are you thinking?' and 'We don't want him away from home!' , of Invel trying to calm the others down-

The Emperor raises a hand and there's power in his voice as he says, "Silence, please."

The table obeys. He hears himself think again.

"You want to take charge of this endeavor then, Prince Natsu?" he asks his brother, formal because that's how Natsu addressed him first.

"It'll be my honor."

"Very well, I want to hear what you have to offer."

With that, Natsu lets out a nervous huff, shrugging."Man, I don't really know how to do all this." He says, dropping the formalities easily.

Zeref nods, indulgent and expectant. "But?"

"But I wanna do it. From what I heard, this isn't as urgent as everything else we've got going on. Why bother assigning this to someone who could be doing something more important? Leave this one to me. I'm not doing anything around here, so I got all the time I need to learn the kinks of this Ambassador thing."

"There's a lot of these kinks to speak of, Natsu. You have to sort all these out with different offices, for several months."

"I have friends at Light and Shadow. I'm familiar with Iron and Sky. I'm Igneel's second at the Fire office. I can get around."

"You'll have to do quite a lot of studying, specially about Ishgar."

"Any other candidate you choose would need that." Natsu points out.

His voice softens. "You'll have to go."

"I know." Natsu says. "There's plenty of stuff to be done before then, though."

Zeref is beginning to understand now. He makes a mental note to tell his wife how brilliant she is, later. For now, he folds the scroll in his hands and returns it to Invel. "How long do you need?"

"Give or take a year." Natsu answers, and Zeref doesn't miss the way his brother's eyes linger on the scroll before returning his look again. "Two at most."

Finally, Zeref nods, and he lets out a small smile. "Very well. I'll let you take this one, brother. Invel?"

The man perks up at the mention of his name. "Yes, My Lord?"

"You heard what Prince Natsu said. One to two years. Are we on track with that?"

Invel glares sharply at a huddled group of royals who have started whispering again - the room noticeably chills several degrees - and only when the others shut up does he nod at his master. "It's a reasonable timeline."

"Good. Thank you for compiling the list of candidates. I'm sure it took quite some work. Will you be able to narrow it down further, and then give it to Prince Natsu? Just to get him started, a list of trustworthy people if he ever needs any assistance or counsel."

"Of course, My Lord."

Natsu sends the man a grateful smile. "Thanks, man."

Invel inclines his head in a polite bow. "And good luck to you, Ambassador."

"Oh, and another thing." Natsu says, catching his brother's attention again.

Zeref raises an eyebrow. "Yes?"

"I want to choose who I'm going with."

Zeref exchanges a look with Mavis, who gives him a wink, but it's Igneel who speaks. "Son, I'm afraid this wouldn't be as simple as hand-picking soldiers for your squadron." he says, concerned but not discouraging.

"I know, I know…" Natsu says, waving dismissively. "I need businessmen and traders and guards and experienced sailors and other staff…"

Invel clears his throat politely. "My Prince, I can compile another list for you, if you'd like."

Natsu only shakes his head. "Thanks for offering, Invel, but I don't think it's necessary. I'll take you up on that if I think I need it, though." He grins, confident. " But for now... I think I can pick members of my own team well enough by myself."

"Very well, then." Zeref says, and he matches his brother's grin with his own as he continues, "Good luck, Royal Ambassador."

.

.

.

III.

.

If Natsu were to describe the Shadow Dragon's office, he'd say it was more of a lair than an office. He's a creature of the sun and of warmth, so the cold stone walls of Skiadrum's dungeon always left him feeling a bit uneasy. Unlike the Light Dragon's office which Natsu frequents in comfort, the place always bustling with workers, secretaries and guests, it's rare to find a lot of people at the same time in the Shadow Dragon's office.

Today, Natsu only counted a grand total of four others, including the two guards, as he headed for Skiadrum's office. He wouldn't be surprised if he missed some, though - Skiadrum's men specialized in cloaking and concealment, after all. He simply focuses on the task at hand and finds the man himself in his typical fashion: sitting in the shadows, long raven hair falling like a waterfall down his shoulders and back and obscuring most of his face, and hunched over his table full of scrolls, brushes and ink. The ink reeked of magic, and Natsu knew if the room had been brighter, he would see the black aura surrounding it, but as it is, Skiadrum sat with only a lone lamp for company. Natsu knew for a fact that the man saw better in the dark.

He didn't even have to announce his presence as Skiadrum acknowledges him without looking up.

"Fire Prince." the man says in his deep but smooth voice.

Natsu greets him easily. "Hello, Skiadrum."

There's an unimpressed huff at his lack of proper greeting. Skiadrum tugs one of his robes tighter against himself, as if Natsu's presence somehow made him more cold.

When Natsu was younger, he had once sent Igneel in a fit of laughter when he asked his uncle if the reason Skiadrum was always hunching was the multiple layers of dark, heavy silks and scarves wrapped around his body and draped across his shoulders. Now, Natsu thinks somehow the layers have only become thicker with the man's age.

Skiadrum doesn't look up from where he's staring down at-

Huh.

"Are you still thinking of what to write? Or is the ink invisible?" Natsu asks, eyeing the blank scroll the man's eyes are glued to.

"The ink is invisible." says Skiadrum.

Natsu squints. "Are you just saying that because it's embarrassing that you actually don't know what to write?"

He notices the man's hand twitch, a touch of annoyance. "No, the ink is truly invisible."

"If you say so."

"You need to learn more about the art we practice here in the shadows, young one." Skiadrum says, fingers tracing invisible letters. Natsu sees a spark, a flicker of magic in the man's pale fingers, and on the parchment. Skiadrum smirks as the young prince's brows shoot up slightly. "Specially given your new title."

Natsu hums. "You heard about that?"

This time, Skiadrum actually eyes him, one red eye almost glowing in the dark. "If that is a serious question, I worry about your competence."

The prince laughs, hands shooting up, trying to appease. "Relax, old man! Of course I know that you know anything and everything going on! I'm not a spy like you all are, but I'm not that dumb."

"So?" Skiadrum prompts, still looking unimpressed. "What brings you here, then?"

Natsu shrugs. "You just made me say it. You know exactly who I came here for."

The man heaves a long sigh, and goes back to his blank parchment. "He just came back last night."

This part is a surprise to Natsu, and he doesn't hide it. "Did he? He's fine, though, right? I haven't heard from him in… months."

"I reckon he's had enough sleep." Skiadrum says, and the short tilt of his head tells Natsu that the man also shrugged, under all the layers and scarves. "Or maybe he hasn't. He's been gone a while. I think you can guess where he went, directly after finishing debrief."

Natsu's brows furrow in confusion before he realizes what the man is telling him. "Oh. Well, then. I know where to find him, I guess..."

"Do that, and perhaps remind him that his mission did not end with debrief, that he has a full report to submit, still."

Natsu pauses, wondering why the man is giving him an errand now. Then he caught up. He snorted to hold back his laugh. " Aw , he ditched you, didn't he?"

The man scoffs, looking utterly offended. "I have not been... ditched."

"He totally did!" he laughs, the sound loud in the dungeon. "For his boyfriend !"

"Mind your manners in my office, child." Skiadrum glares, then hisses under his breath, " Hopeless. This is because Igneel spoiled you rotten."

Natsu wipes tears from the corners of his eyes as he gathers himself and nods. "Okay, okay… I'll go now. But… I have to ask you too. Are you okay with this?"

Skiadrum raises an eyebrow. "With what?"

"With me… you know..." he trails off, hands waving around vaguely. "Scouting?"

The man raises his chin and exhales. "I'm the Empire's Spymaster, Your Highness. I serve the throne, and whatever the throne wills that is within my means and expertise, I provide."

Natsu tilts his head, examining what he could see of the man's face. "Including your best Shadow?"

"Raios serves the same master, and he can make his own decisions." Skiadrum answers, and goes back to his work. "You are better off asking him what he wants to do. As you can see, he pretty much knows how to ignore me completely, so what I say wouldn't matter, anyway."

There's silence, as Natsu thinks on what the man had said.

Then finally he nods.

"So you admit you've been ditched."

"Get out my office, fire brat."

The prince barely avoids the crumpled parchment thrown at his head.

.


.

The Light Dragon's office, in contrast, is the exact opposite of the Shadow Dragon's. The windows were tall and wide, the walls white marble, decorated with paintings, portraits, sculptures, vases and other artifacts depicting the culture and history of the Empire and its trading partners. The fabric of the curtains were light and gauzy, drawn to let in the natural sunlight. The people were abundant - of various ages, colors and cultures. The ground and second story of the office is like an open museum, and Natsu takes his time greeting and smiling at the guests who recognized him on his way to the third story.

As soon as he steps foot in Weisslogia's office, he is greeted by the man's staff - lively and accommodating, as expected of their job descriptions. Then the man himself moves to welcome him with a flourish.

"Ambassador!" Weisslogia calls, his elaborately-embroidered, feather-and-fur-lined cape fluttering behind him as he steps around his equally fancy desk. Long blond hair swings from the ponytail tied at the back of his head. "Is it true? Are you going to whisk my son off into some foreign land?"

Natsu blinks. "Well… that's up to Sting, really-" He cuts himself off, distracted. "Wait, how did you know?"

It's one thing for the Shadow to know everything. It's another for the Light to be this well-informed so fast-

Weisslogia shrugs, as if the answer is that obvious. "Old Ski told me."

-then again, the two offices always went hand-in-hand, sides of a coin.

"Wha- I haven't even really told him!" Natsu shakes his head. "And I literally was just with him, ten minutes ago..."

The man's laugh is loud and boisterous, worthy to rival Igneel's. "You really ought to learn more about how fast a shadow can spread, given the right light."

The prince only rolls his eyes as he mumbles, "Creepy, cryptic old geezers."

"What was that?" Weisslogia blinks, smiling curiously.

"Nothing important." he lies quickly. "You know… I won't whisk your kid away without his consent, Weisslogia."

The man crosses his arms across his chest. The gold chains and bangles in his arms and fingers glimmer brilliantly from the sunlight streaming in from the window. It's a running joke in the offices' inner circles that while Skiadrum always blended in perfectly in the shadows, Weisslogia always stood out wherever he is and sometimes even seemed to glow.

"I know that, little fire." the man sighs deeply. "But I also know that you'd need an agent from my office with you, and who better than the best I have?"

Natsu stares. "You and Old Ski really do say the same things. Just… you say it like you're gonna cry about it, and he says it like he's gonna murder me."

Weisslogia opens his mouth to retort, then thinks better of it and shrugs. "You know if you convince one, you get the other, do you?"

Natsu smiles, almost apologetically. "Of course I do. That's why I wanna ask them together."

"Well." the man huffs, finally conceding. It's always much easier to gain his favor, compared to Skiadrum or Metallicana. "My boy hasn't reported to me today. You can probably guess why."

"What?" Natsu frowns in concern. "I mean, I can guess , but… really?"

That's not like Sting - even preoccupied with his lover, he would probably be late at worst, distracted by last-minute kisses and wandering hands, but he wouldn't just… skip his duties altogether...

"He's sent word that he and Rogue would be at Grandine's."

"Why? What's wrong? Was Rogue hurt?"

"He was … Hm. Well..." the man mused. "He looked fine. A bit worse for wear, but already patched up last night, when he snuck into our quarters."

Natsu snorts. "You caught him… sneaking into your son's room…"

"...and I said 'Have fun, boys!' because it's infinitely more entertaining to embarrass your kid than to scold him."

Natsu couldn't suppress his sniggers, imagining the looks of horror and shame on his friends' faces.

"But it would seem like they got into some trouble again this morning, if they're heading for the healers." Weisslogia finishes, frowning slightly. "Do check on those boys, would you?"

Natsu nods. "I will."

.


.

"-and then he shouted, like, really loud - 'OH LAND THAT HURTS' and I was worried that we didn't prepare enough but it turns out it's just his stitches. Lots of blood back there-"

Natsu feels like he has to stop his friend right here, right now- He's heard enough. "Wait- Wait, you-... what ?"

"I said," Sting sounds resigned now, "I jumped him and his stitches gave."

Natsu stares. "How hard did you jump him-? Wait, no- Don't answer-"

"Well, we haven't seen each other in months so-"

Someone else cuts in before he can go further. "I really didn't need to hear any of that." Wendy says, voice soft but stern. Despite her exasperation, her hands were steady as she focused on her work fixing up the reopened stitches in Rogue's side. She had been the only one in the apothecary when the apprentices pointed Natsu to the room. Grandine was out, and the others were either in their lessons, or attending to the few patients in the palace's medical wing.

Rogue winces from his seat on the bed, but bravely bears the pain and doesn't make a sound. "I really didn't want you to hear this either, Wendy. I'm so sorry." For the last part, he directed his glare towards Sting, who throws his arms up, at a loss.

"What? His Highness asked!" the blond whines, feigning innocence.

Natsu groans, eyes closed and rubbing his temples as if nursing a headache. "His Highness didn't need details. Now His Highness has images in his poor brain, images of his friends that he really doesn't need. This is worse than walking in on you guys."

"Oh, it's not that bad, actually." Wendy muses.

Before Natsu could protest, she points to the nearby table. Having worked with healers many times before, he automatically reaches out for one of the many bottles and jars that were laid out on it.

"Not that- No, left- Small- That one. Yes, thank you. Open it, please?"

Natsu uncaps the jar. All three young men collectively cringe at the sudden strong smell that spread around the room. Natsu shoves the jar into Sting's hand, who, perhaps out of sheer love and concern for Rogue, dutifully keeps his grip and holds it out towards Wendy. The healer does not react at all, save for reaching out to dip two fingers in the dark, viscous substance inside the jar before carefully applying it to Rogue's wound.

"You wouldn't believe some of the things we hear about in here, when we ask how some wounds and… other injuries... happened." Wendy continues, fingers glowing slightly with soothing magic. Rogue relaxes considerably as the poultice and the magic start to work their effects on his wound.

"I can… believe that…" Natsu says, voice tinny and nasal because he had pinched his nose. "Spare us the details, though, please."

"Thank doctor-patient confidentiality then, Your Highness." Wendy says, sounding amused. Natsu longs for the days when she was a wee girl, and was yet to learn sass and sarcasm from Erza and Grandine.

"Is this thing supposed to heal Rogue?" Sting asks in a small voice, muffled by his free hand. "Because… no offense, but... it smells like murder, Wendy."

Wendy only sighs, before lazily waving a hand in a gesture they all recognized. A gentle breeze sweeps around the room, fluttering sheets and curtains and rattling some jars but not damaging anything. The pungent smell from the poultice is considerably gentler when the breeze dies down.

She remembers something then, and looks up at Natsu and Sting.

"I need to stir my potion and put some ingredients in."

The two stand at attention and look around the rest of the apothecary, gazes landing on the several cauldrons on the table, all containing different potions and concoctions, some of which were brewing over a fire.

"Which one is that?" Natsu asks, ready to help. He's far from an expert like Grandine and the rest of the Sky Dragon's healers, but many Alvarez royals had been taught how to brew a choice few potions as part of their basic education. Natsu at least knows how to stir.

"No, please - it's a very complicated brew. Can one of you take over here, though? This poultice sets best if kept cold. Just a simple temperature spell will do, for at least ten more minutes." Wendy asks, looking between the two.

"I'll do it." Sting is quick to volunteer, already flexing his fingers. With that, Wendy withdraws, and Sting sidles up to sit beside Rogue on the cot, letting the other man lean against him before hovering his already glowing hand above the poultice-covered wound. Rogue quietly tucks his head on his lover's shoulder, content and comfortable despite the awkward angle of their limbs.

"I'll come back in a bit to wrap it." Wendy says before she heads off to the opposite side of the room to attend to her potion.

Natsu occupies the chair she left, propping his arms on the bed. He nudges Rogue's leg with his elbow. "Feeling better? It's not like you to get in trouble on the job."

"It was a tricky one, but worth all the effort. And I am feeling much better, thank you for your concern." Rogue says with a quiet smile, which turns into a slight grimace. "You said Skiadrum sent you here?"

Natsu shrugs. "Well, I was looking for you, so he pointed me to Sting, so I went to Weisslogia, and he pointed me here. Old Ski says to tell you that you've got a report to turn in."

"Of course." Rogue sighs. "Leave it to him to use the Prince as a messenger. I am sorry for the trouble."

"Eh, you know I like trouble." Natsu quips with a cheeky beam, then waves it off. "No really, I don't mind. Led me to you guys, so it worked out."

"I'll turn that report in as soon as I can. Anyway, he knows the most important parts."

Sting clicks his tongue, tilting his head to nuzzle Rogue's cheek. "You should rest a bit more."

"I'll rest after the report." Rogue assures him, meeting his eyes, fond, before he turns to ask Natsu, "You were looking for us, Your Highness?"

"Ah, yes." Natsu says, nodding. He purses his lips first, realizing he never really thought about how to tell them. Then he decides to just go for it, no use mincing words and try for formalities in the presence of two friends he'd known since childhood and saw more as brothers.

"So… I volunteered to be the Royal Ambassador for the trade channel we're opening in Ishgar, and Zeref let me take the job. I want you - both of you - as my representatives from the Light and Shadow offices."

He is met with twin stares. Some things never change.

He sighs. "It's just… you both know I'm not really good at the whole business, art and culture stuff, as well as the spying and intelligence side. I'm gonna work on it, but I need help. I need experts. I need people who know how to do the job well, but I also want to be able to trust them."

"Natsu," Sting starts, shifting just slightly to sit straighter, still holding Rogue snug to his side. "We serve the throne, of course we'll be honored to work with you, but…"

Natsu had expected that, the hesitation. He nods, expression open. "Yeah?"

"That means leaving, doesn't it?" Rogue asks, voice soft and quiet. He glances around as if afraid to be heard. Wendy is humming as she works, and the steady sound of her knife against the chopping block echoes loud in the apothecary in contrast to their hushed conversation. If she could hear them, she must have decided to keep to herself. "We'll have to go with you to Fiore?"

The Prince nods. "Around a year, at most two, of preparation, for both the goods and our folks. Zeref has already drafted a missive for the Fiore government offering a trade relationship. It'll be there in a few weeks. For our part, I was thinking two trips, one to start initial negotiations, spread the word and prepare lodging, maybe secure a compound or a place to serve as an embassy. Then, a second for the ambassador and the goods. Not that different from when we send overseers to stay in a territory."

"A territory we hold. That's governing. Politics." Rogue says. "This one's a trading relationship with a kingdom independent of us. Business."

"I said not that different. I know they're still different." Natsu replies. "So… yes. I'd most likely ask you to accompany me to Fiore."

"That's… That's quite a long way from home." Sting says, wary. "You… Man, I've got… I'm father's- I'm Weisslogia's second. I have… a lot... on me. Right here, at home. I don't think it'll be so easy to leave all that..."

Rogue nods. "We're happy for you and you know we always have your back, Natsu. I am not just saying this because Sting feels hesitant... I know that Skiadrum relies on me. And… jobs for us Shadows, it's not as simple to pass them along for someone else to do."

"I knew you might say that, I know this is a big thing to ask." Natsu says, looking down. "I don't want to order you to leave behind everything you know. But… I still know I need you guys."

Sting sighs. "Natsu… you know if you issued an order, we'd follow it."

"Exactly. But you're my friends, and…" he shakes his head. "You're my friends." he repeats, more firmly. "I've learned something from Mavis these past few days, something really important. I care more about you two than whatever title I have, so… I won't issue an order. I'm going to ask you to choose.

"So here's the deal - I won't ask you to sail with me to Fiore now. But while I'm getting started on this thing, while I'm still learning whatever it is I need to know, I want you both by my side. While I'm here in Alvarez, I want Sting to handle affairs with the Light Dragon's office and I want Rogue to be the Ambassador's Shadow. After a year, after everything's ready... when it's time to sail for Fiore, that's when I'll ask if you want to go sail with me or not. Then, you can give me your answer. I won't hold it against you if you say no, but I'll ask you to present me with someone from your office who you can trust to go with me."

His friends both stay silent as take hold a moment to let his words sink in.

"You really would let us do that?" Sting asks.

Natsu shrugs. "Yes. You know how bad I am at these stuff and I think you're my best bet to really help me get started with what I gotta learn, I guess?"

"You'll let us help you with all the preparations, but not go with you, and instead entrust the job to someone else?"

"You get choose who that someone is." he says, grinning knowingly. "You're Weisslogia's second, and Rogue is Old Ski's best Shadow, you gotta learn how to delegate someday, anyway. I just have to trust that you won't choose someone who would compromise what you worked for."

He sees Rogue put his hand on Sting's shoulder and give it a comforting squeeze. "It's a good deal." he says, and then looks at Natsu in the eye. "It would be my honor to work with you, Your Highness."

"What he said." Sting adds with a grin.

"Glad to hear that. I promise this job won't be boring." Natsu grins back.

"With you at the helm, I can't imagine it being so." Rogue says with a chuckle.

Natsu rolls his eyes, but reaches out to pat Rogue's knee. "Good to have you back around, Rogue. Sting's been unbearable."

Sting gapes, color rising to his cheeks. "Hey!"

"He made me work those dreadful numbers with him while he was pining over you."

"Did he?" Rogue asks, amused. "He told me he's been good, though."

"Oh, no, he's been the absolute worst ."

The good-natured bickering comes to a halt when someone walks- no, barges inside the apothecary. The girl looks to be no more than thirteen, wearing the sky blue robes that marked her as a novice apprentice of the Sky Dragon's healers.

"Miss Wendy!" she calls, voice frantic, making Wendy turn from her work. "We- We need-" The girl looks around frantically, eyes widening when she catches sight of Natsu on the room. "Oh! I- Um, I am ever so sorry for barging in, My Prince-"

Natsu straightens up almost involuntarily. "Oh, don't mind me- I mean, uh- At ease? Carry on?"

Sting lets out a snort at the very military phrasing, earning him a hopeless look from Natsu.

But that was good enough for the girl, it seems, as she turns towards Wendy again. "Miss Wendy, I am so sorry to interrupt-"

Wendy shakes her head as she stops stirring the potion in the cauldron and heads towards the girl, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Easy breaths, Illi - what seems to be the trouble?"

Wendy is only four years older than the girl at most, but her deep blue robes that indicated her high rank among the healers and her gentle voice seem to instantly calm the girl down, the same way a child calms once an adult reassures them that whatever was wrong can be easily fixed.

"The… the man, the soldier, from before? He's looking for Miss Jaina again."

Even across the room, Natsu, Sting and Rogue could note Wendy's expression darken.

"We told him she's not here today, but he demands that he see her. He looks drunk. He's making passes at me and Aisha- Sir Dimi's trying to make him leave, but he's very insistent, and then he shoved poor Sir Dimi-"

"Illi," Wendy starts, rubbing the girl's back comfortingly. The girl stops talking. Wendy then proceeds to untie her apron as she steps away. "I need you to keep stirring that potion over there, just slow and steady. Can you do that for me?"

Illi looks up at her, wide-eyed but obedient as she nods. "I-... yes, miss."

"Thank you, I'll be back shortly." Wendy says, shrugging off her apron and draping it on the nearby chair before she walks out the room. They could swear a faint breeze chilled the room for a few seconds in her wake.

Illi starts stirring the potion as instructed, and when she sees the looks from the Prince and his friends, she gives them an awkward nod and a small nervous wave.

Before they can wave back, they hear noises from outside the room. A man shouting, people scrambling, muffled voices and general commotion. Illi flinches when they hear a crash.

"Natsu." Sting whispers, and when Natsu looks to him, Sting's brows only shoot up, imploring. He mouths, 'Go.'

Natsu goes, running for the door, but comes to a halt just in time, narrowly missing crashing against the man who comes flying through the doorway, as if thrown inside. Said man is wearing regulation soldier armor that clangs noisily when he lands on a heap on the floor.

"What the fuck , lady!" the soldier says as he scrambles to get back up.

Wendy re-enters the room, and blinks when she sees Natsu so near. "Oh! I'm sorry, Your Highness, I didn't mean to bring him here, he just wouldn't stop running around, and my aim's not the best-"

"Your Highness!" the soldier exclaims in wonder. "Please tell this bitch to stay in her place-"

"Oh, I think she's very much in her place, soldier. It's pretty clear that you're not , though." Natsu says, voice cold as he crosses his arms across his chest, making it evident that he's not interested in helping the man in any way.

Wendy steps forward, and the soldier scrambles backwards, trying to keep distance. He is glaring as her, and she does not glare back so much as she narrows her eyes and frowns.

Her voice is gentle as she speaks, but it might as well be laced with venom. "My friend Jaina has told you, multiple times, that she is not interested in your advances. She is not here today, and even if she were, I doubt that she would want to see you. You've made our apprentices uncomfortable in their place of work, and injured one of our recovering patients. Sir Dimi's going to need his arm back in a cast because of what you did-"

"He was in my way!"

Wendy steps forward once more, and the man finds himself backed into the apothecary's stone counter. "I advice that you leave the premises this instant, otherwise I can't promise you that I wouldn't do anything that would make you require medical assistance, which we are really not willing to provide to you at the moment."

The man, in a very foolish effort in bravado, scoffs. "Oh, please, what can you do? You're just a-"

He freezes, because there's a glint of something, a silver streak, and when he looks down, there is a dagger, embedded on the floor in front of him, bracketed by his thighs, just a few precarious inches away from his crotch.

He looks back up in terror.

Wendy raises a hand, and her long hair flutters slightly behind her, a small breeze settling around her body. "Don't make me throw you back out myself, sir."

The soldier doesn't say anything as he scrambles back on his feet, and then breaks into a run from the room.

Wendy sighs, picking her dagger back up and sheathing it before returning it to her sleeve. She lets out a pleasant smile as she looks at her companions - Illi, stirring a potion, looking in unadulterated awe, and Natsu, Sting and Rogue, all looking at her in shock.

She blinks, then finally comes to a realization and clasps her hands together before heading for the cots. "Oh! That poultice will have set well enough, let me wrap it up now."

Natsu leaves her to work with Sting and Rogue as he sidles up to stand beside Illi.

"She's amazing." the girl whispers.

"Yeah, she is." Natsu says with a grin. "Don't worry, you'll start learning that too by the time you're wearing green."

The girl looks up at him in wonder and he only nods to tell her he's serious. He knows that the apprentices start learning about self-defense by the time they join the ranks of assistant healers. What Wendy just did is far more advanced, though.

"When you're done with your training today, come see me and I'll take you to the Iron Dragon's office. I'd like you to tell Metallicana all about that trouble-making soldier of ours. I'm sure he'd be willing to come to a proper punishment for the bastard."

"As you wish!" Illi nods, eager and grateful. "Thank you, My Prince!"

"Eh, it's nothing. We don't need people like that in our army." Natsu says, and gives the girl a pat on the back before he walks back to the other side of the room, where Wendy is wrapping bandages around Rogue's torso.

"Say, Wendy?"

She doesn't look up, as always focused on her work. "Yes, Your Highness?"

"How would you like to go on a trip to a foreign land?"

.


.

There used to be a time when Natsu only had to walk down a hallway, into a guest bedroom, and find Erza. That was back when she was Princess Erza of Belserion, on a visit to the Imperial Palace with her Queen mother, negotiating trade and politics with Natsu's Emperor father.

These days, Natsu has to walk to the Iron Dragon's camp, past the soldier's barracks and into one of the many apartments that the Empire provides for officers with the rank of general or higher. These days, he would call for Erza Scarlet, a general and a good friend.

The young lady who welcomes him when he arrives is surprised to see him, but he knew it was not because of his status.

"Prince Natsu... I-… did not expect you to visit… so early..." she says, quickly stepping aside to let him in. "Oh, what's gotten into me? Good morning, Your Highness!"

"Good morning, Millianna. Don't mind the early call, I was just on my morning run and decided to drop by." he says - which isn't a total lie. He wason his morning run, he simply took another route for the day. He steps inside, having visited enough that he is quite familiar with the place. "Is Erza around?"

The girl nods. "She is doing her usual sword drills in the backyard. She should be finishing soon, I think. I'm about to bring up morning tea in her reading room."

"Thanks. I think I'll come find her there." he says. Millianna bows as he leaves the room and navigates the familiar halls of the apartment towards the backyard, where he knew Erza liked to train in the mornings, enjoying the cool breeze and the gentle morning sun.

He doesn't quite reach his destination, as he rounds a corner and comes face to face with his friend. Erza is pressing a towel to the back of her neck, her training robe sweat-soaked enough to cling to her skin, loose at the top and exposing a generous amount of cleavage. A wooden sword is tucked to the cloth tied around her waist. Another man might have buckled at the sight, and Natsu is reminded of why she had stopped doing drills with the other soldiers and kept to herself most of the time for training.

"Natsu." she blinks, letting her towel drape on her shoulders before running a hand through her long, messy red hair to keep the strands away from her face. "What are you doing here?"

"I said I'll come have breakfast with you one of these days, right?" he asks, smiling easily.

She raises an eyebrow. "I eat breakfast with the squad. It's just tea for me, this early."

He shrugs. "Tea, then. Millianna told me she's about to bring it up."

"Very well, then." she concedes, all too used to his willfulness. She walks past him and he turns to follow her. "I heard about your new title, by the way. Congratulations, Royal Ambassador."

"Huh. Thanks. I'm still tryin' to get used to it."

"I think you'll do great at it, once you get it all worked out." she says with a smile. "It's nice that you wouldn't have to leave so soon, too. You'll get time to spent with your family before sailing, right?"

"Right. Not as much time, I think. There's lots of work to do so things will still be busy. But yeah, I guess… I guess a year's good."

They reach Erza's reading room, which is simply a lounge connected to her sleeping quarters. A tea set is already on the low table in the center of the room, and the two easily make themselves comfortable sitting across each other in the pillows and rugs on the floor. Millianna had been thoughtful enough to include an extra cup for Natsu in the set. Erza pours them both a cup right away, and lean sideways to rest an elbow against the armrest beside her on the floor before she takes a sip of her tea. Natsu does the same, but he leans forward, elbows resting on the table.

He never really liked tea much, so when he notices the cup of honey on the table, he breathes a sigh of relief and begins adding some to his cup. The added sweetness is enough to appease him. Typically, he preferred chocolate, but this is on him for not asking Millianna to serve that as well. In speaking of the girl-

"I saw the training swords in your receiving room." he says. "Is Millianna enlisting on the next call for recruits?"

"She is." Erza says with a smile. "She's finally of age for it. From what she tells me, her family doesn't sound very enthusiastic about it, they seem to prefer her keeping her job as a house servant."

Natsu hums, absently stirring his tea. "Do you still need her around?"

"For house chores? Land, no. I can manage that." Erza laughs lightly. "I took her in the first place because no one would, all complaining that she was too scrappy and feisty when she's only a girl who doesn't like taking their shit."

Natsu rolls his eyes. "Now that the wars are over, can we just get rid of the bastard officers? A lot of 'em only stayed on because we needed as many hands on deck as possible."

"Oh, Metallicana already dismissed several, last time I checked. The ones who only got promoted because of their family titles." Erza says, her smile satisfied. "But really… I liked having Millianna around for company, and it's been nice to teach her some basics of sword-handling, but she'll do better honing her skills with the squads. The old training swords are sort of my parting and good-luck gift to her. Might also serve as a note to her family that their daughter is talented enough to impress someone like... me."

Natsu raises an eyebrow, grinning. "Using your influence, Titania? First time I've heard of it."

"It's for a cause!" Erza argues, though her cheeks color slightly. She never really revelled on her reputation. She knew her worth, and that was that. "If… If it helps a hopeful girl with lots of potential, I'd gladly assert my… influence... more often."

He hums thoughtfully, then finally nods, letting it slide. He couldn't say otherwise for himself, anyway, as just the other day, he himself had gotten a soldier booted for the trouble he did in the Sky Dragon's premises.

They sit in silence for a moment, both to sip their drinks, and then Natsu finally takes a deep breath and says, "I came to talk to you about… about what you said earlier. The Ambassador thing."

Erza nods, studying her friend's face closely. He looks tentative, so she reaches out to lay her hand on his arm. "I have to say, I was surprised, but I do think it fits you. It's bound to be an adventure, and this time it won't be a war."

He snorts. "Might still be, you know, with my diplomacy skills."

The woman rolls her eyes, exasperated. "Natsu, for the last time, I know no one would say it because that's how aristocracy works, but everyone is absolutely happy that you punched that man."

That gets him to laugh. "You all validate me too much."

"He deserved it." she says, voice low as she shudders at the memory. Under her breath, she starts muttering. "The way he looked at Empress Mavis… Land, I could have chopped him to pieces…"

"Okay, I'll interrupt your early morning murder thoughts now." Natsu chimes in, though he chuckles one more time before he finally says, "I want you as the Royal Ambassador's protector."

That seems to sober Erza up, and she looks at her friend, her Prince, in surprise yet again. "Your… protector? You want me to sail with you to Ishgar, to be your… how do they say it there? Your..." she stops to think, then in a language that Natsu recognizes from the few times he had heard Mavis, Gajeel and Anna speak it, she says, " Swordsman? "

"You know their language?"

"Only a few choice words." she says. "Mostly unsavory ones, really. Partnered up with Gajeel in the trenches for a while, you learn some words in his native tongue. That's what he called people who swear their swords to protect a specific person, or a noble house."

Natsu nods, taking in the information. "Well, that's what I want to call you when we get there."

Erza smiles wistfully. "You know I've already sworn my sword to you and yours, Prince Natsu Dragonil."

"Then I want you to go with me when I sail to Fiore..." he starts, looking into her eyes, warm brown, almost gold in the morning light. "...and continue doing what you've always done."

She thinks about this for a while. When she speaks again, she asks, "Who else?"

"Who else what?"

"Who else have you asked?"

"Only you." he says. "Well, I'm already working with Sting and Rogue, but only for the preparations being done here. They've yet to decide if they would sail with me."

She accepts this easily. "They can work with you here, but they're too important to leave."

"I told Wendy we're in need of a healer in our crew, because I think she might like to see new places. She's hesitant, but I said if she finds herself interested, we'd be happy to have her."

"She's so young, but she's already qualified. A senior healer at her age." Erza nods, understanding. "She really ought to see more of life outside those halls, but she did work very hard for what she has now. It's right to give her time."

"...and finally, you." he continues. "I'm asking outright, because I grew up with magic… well, everywhere - in my veins, in the air that I breathe, and now I'm going to this new land without that and... frankly? I am scared out of my mind."

Erza's eyes soften. "You've never been without it."

"Never." he shakes his head. "I don't know how it would feel to not sense the Land's magic on my feet. Even in our farthest territories, it might be scarce, but it's still there."

"You need someone who can fight well without using magic."

"You're at your strongest without it." he confirms. "I can't see anyone else who could protect me better than you can."

"So I'm your best candidate?"

"That, but also, you're my friend, and… well… wouldn't it be a fun trip to be on together?"

Erza laughs, nodding her head in agreement. "It does sound like an exciting plan."

Natsu grins back. "So… you'll go then?"

She almost nods, but at the first tilt of her head, she seems to remember herself. Natsu watches his friend's expression morph from amusement to hesitation. "Natsu, I'd love to, but… There are things…" she sighs, and it pulls at Natsu that she looks pained as she asks, "Can you give me time, too?"

"Erza." he starts, and is at a loss of what to say for a while. When she only looks down, he reaches out to hold her hand. "Is something wrong?"

"Oh, it's- Natsu, it's nothing, really, I just-"

They are interrupted when they hear a startled squeak from the side, and both whip their heads to see the young woman standing by the bedroom doorway. Natsu expected Millianna, perhaps, but instead he gapes as he takes in the sight of the stranger - he doesn't know this girl, but he recognizes the clothing - what little of it - that she wears: jeweled and flimsy, barely covering any skin in her well-endowed body.

"Adah!" Erza exclaims, withdrawing her hand from Natsu's and climbing to her feet, walking towards the girl. "Did we wake you up?"

The girl blushes, taking in Erza's post-training appearance, painfully shy as she wraps her arms around herself. When she speaks, Natsu notes the distantly familiar accent. "N-No, milady- I just... I... woke up by myself..."

She must be one of the dancers who provided entertainment during the previous night's gathering. Natsu was in attendance, a bonfire and a feast in the soldiers' camp to celebrate someone's birthday or something. He had retired early, but he did catch the lively performance by the caravan girls. Besides that, he didn't know much about how the night went-

Except now, he also had knowledge of the fact that one of the girls seemed to have spent the night at Erza's.

"You were sleeping so peacefully, I didn't want to wake you." Erza says, smiling softly as she tucks strands of the girl's - Adah's - disheveled, wild red-gold hair behind her ear.

Scratch that, Natsu thought, spotting some marks on the girl's exposed neck and hips. She definitely spent the night at Erza's.

"I-I'm… I'm very sorry, I didn't know- You have a guest..." Adah trails off, pressing up against Erza as if to hide. Natsu realizes that she probably feels uncomfortable with him looking, so he averts his gaze and pointedly stares at his cup of tea instead.

"Oh, it's no trouble. He's a good friend. Natsu-" Erza starts, and this time when Natsu looks up, he makes sure to look at the woman's face only. Though he also notes that Erza's hand laid comfortingly, reassuring, on her waist. "This is Adah, she was one of the performers last night. Adah, this is my friend, Natsu. I think he saw your performance too. Didn't you, Natsu?"

"I did. It's nice to meet you, Adah." he says, with a sincere smile.

"Oh, Land- You're Prince Dragonil!" Adah squeaks, and this time she does cling to Erza, blushing furiously. "It's my honor to meet you, Your Highness! Please excuse my-... my appearance, I- Oh, I look like a mess-"

"It's fine! It's fine, I promise." Natsu says, trying to appease. "You and your friends did great last night. It was quite a performance."

"Thank you! Oh, the girls would be so happy you thought so!" she says, earnest, then she looks at Erza. "I regret I must go back now, though, milady."

"Now?" Erza's brows furrow. "You haven't had anything yet. Would you like some tea before you go? I can have breakfast prepared for you-"

Adah shakes her head. "It's alright, milady. There would be plenty to eat when I get back. Our caravan leaves at noon. They must be looking for me. I must return before they grow worried."

Erza looks conflicted, but she nods anyway. "Alright, but you can't walk around camp like this, let me give you one of my robes. I'll also have Millianna accompany you-"

Adah's eyes widen in shock as Erza pulls her back to the bedroom. "Oh, milady, I can't possibly-"

"Please." Erza says, voice firm as she cups the young woman's cheek. "For my peace of mind, sweet one ?"

Natsu's brows shoot up, recognizing the foreign word - it's from a distant local dialect, one he knows Erza knew fluently because it is spoken in territories situated in the border of the Dragnov Kingdom, of Belserion, her homeland.

It's hardly audible, but Natsu catches Adah's whispered reply, spoken in the same dialect. " For you, Princess. "

Well, now. This is something .

He waits patiently as the women move around in the bedroom, and when they re-emerge, Adah is wearing one of Erza's simpler robes, her hair now pulled back in a bun on top of her head. Erza tells Natsu that she'll show Adah to the door, and Natsu could only nod quietly and wave an awkward goodbye to Adah as she bows respectfully to him.

He waits, patient, for Erza to come back.

Well, maybe he isn't so patient, because he downs a cup of tea bottoms up and pours himself another in an effort to clear his head. That… explains some things.

As soon as Erza comes back, he says, "Okay, if you were worried about sailing away because you have a girlfriend, you should have just told me. We can take her with us on the voyage."

Erza rolls her eyes in exasperation as she takes her seat across him again. "It's not what you think it is, Natsu."

"Of course it isn't." he deadpans. "Just like it's not like you at all to take a pretty girl home because you saw her dance once, and to call her darling and to let her call you princess."

She looks surprised. "You understood that?"

He shrugs. "We went to fight in those borders once. Had to know a bit of the dialect."

Erza doesn't ask him to explain further, and instead she sighs as she pours more tea in her cup. "After the dancing, the caravan girls went to mingle with some of the crowd. Adah sat with the men in the table next to where I was, and… I guess someone had asked her to sing, so she did, and I recognized the song, she was singing in Old Belseri. Um… a dead language, from ancient Belserion. Princess lessons would teach you dead languages, I guess.

"When she was done, I called her to me. You'd already left, and Gajeel had disappeared somewhere. No one dared question it. I asked her where she learned the song, she said she came from this little town on the outskirts of Dragnov. I recognized the name, we talked in dialect. It's been so long since I did that, I had almost forgotten that I could speak it. I asked her to keep me company, tell me stories from home until it was time for them to leave, and she did, and she stayed even when her friends have retired to their caravan.

"I took her home, away from the cold. I asked about Belserion. She told me about what little news she knows. The Mad Queen's madder and angrier every day, many people still flee from the capital, the Great Library's still locked under her spell. But that's all she could tell me, so I asked her to just tell me old stories again. I know many of them already of course… I just-... I just wanted to hear them told with words that sound like home, you know?"

She takes a sip of her tea, and Natsu stares at his. After a while, he whispers. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, it's all fine." she says with a reassuring smile. "It was a good night."

He snorts, finding it funny how simple she tried to make it all sound. "Looked like it, too."

"I simply made it worth her while." she says, this time with a light blush and an indignant smile. "Shut up, Natsu."

"I'm not saying anything!" He laughs, lighthearted again. "So I guess between all that, you let it slip that you were a princess? No, better - you werethe princess."

"Actually, she recognized me." she answers with a hint of amusement. "She's a smart girl, knew my accent wasn't as provincial as I tried to make it sound. Also said something about how only pure-blooded Belserion royals have hair this color. I do admit, it is a dead giveaway."

"And you put it in your name?" he grins.

"And I put it in my name." she repeats in agreement, because Erza Scarlet might have shed her royal status and her title, but she always owned who she is.

"So… if it's not your beautiful dancing, singing, story-telling friend Adah..." he ventures again, more careful now. "Are you unsure about sailing away because you want to keep an eye on Belserion from here? You're worried something may happen to your mother and we would be across the sea on the different continent?"

She looks him in his eyes, and then shakes her head. "You missed a little. I'm not worried for my mother. I'm worried for my Empress and my Emperor. I'm scared that Queen Eileen would try to hurt my new family... and I wouldn't be here to protect them like I promised."

"I understand." he says, pulling up his best, reassuring smile. He meant what he said. He understands, but it still left him feeling a bit shaken. He had thought he would surely have Erza if he only asked - he should have know she has ties in the Empire even heavier than the others had. "Let me know when you decide?"

Erza smiles. "I will."

.


.

Natsu leaves Erza's house only to stop by another, just a few blocks away, down the same street. He does a quick check, sensing magic inside the house. He knocks on the door first, and because he knows that Gajeel had and will never employ help, he calls out, "It's Natsu! Open up, Iron-bastard !"

He doesn't mean the bastard part, not really - but he knows that Gajeel knows that already.

In Vistarion's tongue, to someone who doesn't know better, the nickname sounds cruel - it used to be a slur that the other soldiers had taken to calling Gajeel when he was still starting his service, filled with all the callous anger of a jaded man and the bad manners of a foreigner who doesn't bow to royalty, on top of all his untapped potential. Over the years and as he climbed the ranks, the man had gone to own the name for himself, and nowadays when it's addressed to him, it is more likely out of respect, adoration, or even endearment. It's just as well as calling Erza 'Titania' .

Just with considerably less grace.

The door slides open to Gajeel Redfox himself, noticeably halfway into getting into his training gear.

Before Natsu could go into the minimal amount of pleasantries that he knew the man could tolerate ('Good morning, Gajeel, I see you're heading to the training grounds? Mind if I walk with you?') , Gajeel huffs and beats him to it.

"No." the man snaps. Natsu isn't even aware there was something to be snapping about.

Natsu stops. "...Uh, pardon- I mean, what ?"

A scoff. "I said 'no', Your Imperial Royal Prince Highness Ambassador… or whatever way you're supposed to be called now."

Gajeel is always rude, but not always this rude. And sarcastic! Is he in a bad mood? Natsu tilts his head, too much at a loss to be bothered by the utter lack of respect he's being met with. "Wait. Wait- Please. I'm confused - I'm honestly confused-"

Gajeel rolls his eyes.

"What are you saying 'no' to, exactly?"

"I heard from the others- well. From Metallicana, then from Rogue. You're Ambassador or some shit and you're going to Fiore to open trade and you're gathering folks to come with you. You need a local guide? Well, find someone else . Not me, you're not dragging me back to that continent,My Prince ."

"Oh." is all Natsu is able to say, nodding. "Alright, then."

"Right. Are we done now?"

"That… is actually not why I came to you, though?"

"What?"

" What? "

Gajeel looks exasperated now as he growls. "What else did you come to me for?!"

"Hey, you don't get to do that!" Natsu growls back, more petulant than angry. "You're the one who snapped at me first thing before I could even tell you 'good morning', and assuming the wrong things- I did not consider asking you to be a… local guide…? What even is that- Never even crossed my mind to- I wasn't about to ask you to sail with me or something! I know you'd rather die before you go back to Ishgar, I've only listened to you cursing that land so many times while you were drunk and we were stuck together in a camp!"

Well. Gajeel at least had the sense to look ashamed. "...Oh."

Natsu sighs, scratching his head. "Let's just… forget 'bout all that. You were defensive, I get it. Just stop… snapping at me, man. I'm a little shit, but I don't deserve that."

Gajeel nods, looking considerably more agreeable this time. "Fine. Sorry for snapping at you. I haven't had breakfast yet and the first face I see today is your mug."

A pout. "But I have a nice mug."

"Yeah, keep tellin' yourself that."

"I'm a handsome prince."

"Of course you are."

"Grandine said so!"

"Grandine's half-blind."

"Still ought to make me half-handsome."

"That doesn't make sense and you know it." Gajeel shakes his head in resignation, but he's calmer now, and a smile is starting to tug at his lips. "So. Prince Dragonil. How may I serve you today?"

Natsu brushes off the obvious sarcasm and answers him, straightforward. "You were right that it's something to do with the Ambassador job. I won't ask you to come sail with me. But I also know Fiore is your homeland. I need to learn a lot of thing before I go, so I was thinking, maybe you can teach me a bit of the language?"

Gajeel looks surprised, but not particularly dismayed by the idea. "You want me… to teach you the language?"

"Yeah! You're one of four people here who know how to speak it. I don't want to bother Mavis any more than I already had, Zera's busy at the temples, and Lady Anna's still in her sabbatical. I figured I'd ask you."

"Well… That's… fine, I guess." Gajeel says, looking like he's still not quite sure to what he agreed to, but he shrugs it off. "I do have some free time in the afternoons since Metallicana's started to have others besides me oversee the soldiers' training..."

Natsu beams. "It's just until Lady Anna's back, I swear. I think we expect her back in two months, but you never know with her, so it may be a bit longer. But when she gets back, I'll sit in with her instead."

"Yeah. Yeah, whatever. I don't… mind."

"I mean, if you're my only teacher, I'll probably sound like a barbarian when I get there. We can't have that, right?"

Gajeel sneers. "Shut up before I change my mind."

"So... you gettin' breakfast?" Natsu asks, now bouncing on his toes, all too used to the other man's grumpiness. "Can I come with?"

Gajeel scoffs as he finishes with his training outfit and steps out of his house, securing the door behind him. "You sure you don't prefer breakfast in your royal bedchambers?"

"Aw, no!" As they start walking down the street, Natsu slings an arm around his friend and fellow general's shoulders. Gajeel is taller, so he ends up halfway between pulling the man down and hanging off him. "I'm a prince of my people!"

"Of course you are- You're heavy, get off -"

"Me? Heavy? One of the Iron Dragon's best generals can't even lift his prince?"

He's answered with a low growl. "Oh, you asked for it, Your Highness."

Natsu cackles as Gajeel picks him up and then easily throws him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

.


.

"So… how goes the scouting?" Mavis asks as she sits with Natsu on the palace balcony, the one with a good view of the brilliant, glowing colors of the Vistarion marketplace.

Natsu hums first before replying. "How does Zeref do it?"

"How do I do what?" a deep voice says in answer, and they both turn to see Zeref himself walking towards them. He looks tired, as usual, but he had a fond smile on his face as he eyes two of his favorite people together, enjoying a peaceful afternoon.

"How do you just… order people you care about around? Tell them to just… do this and that? Because I tried, and I couldn't do it. I just end up asking 'em nicely."

Zeref's smile bares a hint of melancholy as he props his elbows on the railings beside where the other two are sitting - a rare moment of relaxation for the Emperor. "Do you resent me for that?" he asks his brother.

Natsu's answer is a snort that comes from holding laughter back. "No! Of course not, it's your job!"

"Stop asking ridiculous questions, my love." Mavis says with a bemused smile of her own. "Also, won't you come join us? You're missing the wonderful view of the marketplace."

He blinks. "I am joining you now, aren't I?"

"No, you're not." Natsu says. "This here is the best position for viewing."

Zeref realizes what they're saying and chuckles. "I can see the marketplace well enough, thank you."

Mavis pouts. "Zeref. Just… suck it up and come up here ."

"But-"

His wife raises an eyebrow now, tilting her head for full effect. "Is the Emperor too good for sitting in the railings?"

"Ooooohhhh…" Natsu jeers, because of course he would always take Mavis's side.

Zeref sighs and finally concedes. "Fine. I could win wars but I could never win against you both."

It's uncomfortable at best, in his heavy robes, but he manages to climb up and settle beside the other two. It must look so unbecoming for His Great Imperial Majesty, sitting on the balcony railings, his legs dangling from the edge. But he had to admit, it indeed provided a better view of the marketplace.

Mavis scoots over to tuck herself to his side, snuggling until she's comfortable. He wraps an arm around her tightly as she whispers, "Now, watch."

It's always a sight to behold, the marketplace at sunset. As the sun sets behind the distant mountains and the sky darkens, the people start lighting up their lanterns and fires, and the simultaneous use of magic adds to the usual colors they are used to seeing. The marketplace lights up, brighter than during any other time in the day, like a jewel shimmering in a sun's ray. Then slowly, as the people settle back, the lights and colors dim to its usual, though still brilliant, shine.

"I'll never get tired of seeing that." Natsu says from Zeref's other side. He meets his brother's eye and grins.

"Will you miss it when you leave?" Zeref asks.

Natsu's nose scrunches up. "Have you eaten anything today? You've been askin' a lot of ridiculous questions."

Mavis giggles, and Zeref looks at her, betrayed.

"I'll miss it." Natsu answers, finally. "But I have a year to watch it, everyday."

Zeref nods, and reaches out to ruffle Natsu's hair. "We'll simply make the most of that year then, little brother."

Natsu beams. "You bet we will, big brother."

.

.

.

IV.

.

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 beenpractical , 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?"

"Mavis?"

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." Rogue 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."

"Mavis?"

"Second smartest."

"My dad."

"Third-"

" 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-

Oh.

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."

"Oh."

" 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."

"What?"

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.

"You asked?"

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?"

"Also no."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"Yes."

"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?"

"Nothing."

"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."

"And?"

"That's all."

"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 ."

"What?"

.


.

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.

Sting preens.

.


.

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?"

Rogue smiles.

"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!"

Rogue preens.

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?"

"...Yes?"

"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.

"Hey, Erza?"

"Yes?"

"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."

"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."

"Fairies?"

"You were going off to war then. Those flowers were blessings. Protection."

"Huh."

"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?"

"Mm?"

"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."

"Huh. Interesting..."

"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 youto go rogue. I only wish that you be safe."

"Huh."

"But you're not going to do it, anyway, so it doesn't matter."

"I am, though."

"No, you are not."

"I am."

"Not."

"I am!"

"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?"

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A/N: Writing about Team Alvarez and world-building both the Empire and Ishgar/Fiore is one of the most nerve-wracking but fun times I had writing this series. Thanks for sticking this out with me. :')

I hope you enjoyed this little romp through the Empire, and do leave a comment to let me know what you think!

P.S. This fic has been cross-posted in my Ao3 account: artsy-alice