He meets her for the first time outside the gates of Piltover, on a wide marsh field overlooking the Guardian's Sea.

She's dressed in the rich colors of her home, the dark blue, silver and gold hues shimmering in the late afternoon sun, and she glows with them, her light armor emanating a quiet power that reminds him of Janna. She's foreign here, her light ethereal and soft unlike the hard lasting radiance given off by the Piltoveran hextech star rods, but he finds himself comforted by it, his breathing slowing at an entity that smells of mystery and old magic instead of machinery and precision. (He seeks them for a living, but they are near impossible to find at home.)

She scouts around, her rod giving off sparkles in the air; he discreetly sits down on a dry spot, putting aside the coins to look at her.

Few things about her remind him of Garen. He had met Garen several years before, at a celebration banquet about his maps that he eventually ran away from three hours before schedule, and back then – if what he has seen of Garen on the Fields, even now – Garen had been a colossal pillar of muscle and sword that looms tall, stands firm, and never offers any ideological surprises. Garen is the perfect Demacian, all honor and battle cries, and he has never gotten the feeling that Garen knows anything about Valoran other than patriotic loyalty and his own instincts. Garen doesn't keep secrets; even his infatuation with Katarina is a joke all the way North in Piltover, but Garen doesn't care. Garen just spins and goes.

She's different. He senses secrets in her, layers upon layers of secrets that she hides and lives with in easy conscience. She knows how to use her rod to dance with the sun; she's like an old Shurima goddess, warping nature around her, her long, slender fingers gently wrapping around light rays to lock them into place. The excess light from her spell bends over to form dazzling rainbows over the water; although he knows the approximate mechanics of her working and the extent of her human power, the entire scene almost resembles a religious ritual, and she's at the center of it, as beautiful as any divine being on his artifacts.

He swallows.

She makes her observations and her recordings; he knows what she's doing (it's spying, it's her being in places she shouldn't be and trying to get more information about the defences of Piltover, but he can't fault her, just like he can't fault himself for disturbing the resting places of those dead millennia ago: he does it to make the world today understand the world years ago, he tells himself, and what she thinks are defense mechanisms are really just new energy generators anyway) but he doesn't interrupt it, keeping his silence. She works until the sky turns dark orange and the water is the color of blood; he watches, breaking into a smile when she finally turns around, the triumphant smile freezing on her face as she sees him.

"Why hello, Miss Crownguard. It's Ezreal, the Grandmaster Explorer of Piltover."

He has made this introduction a thousand times; to friendly human champions, gnarling Icathian monsters, drunken sailors in caverns of Bilgewater and curious crowds in the city halls of Bandle City. In response, he has heard many things: muffled acknowledgements, incoherent fangirl screams, perfectly polite greetings and disdainful mock salutations.

He thinks he would be prepared.

She surprises him once again. Quickly breaking into a smile once more, she surveys him, examining him as if he's a student and she's the Head of the Piltover Academy. "Good day, Explorer Ezreal. I was told not to wander outside Piltover on my visit, but I was just so curious about your city. I wanted to take a look at these amazing technological things, and being you, I'm sure you understand. Do me a favor, okay? Don't report me and I'll help you out next time you need something from Demacia. Anything from the libraries, archaeological sites, noble houses – just ask me. Deal?"

It's a golden opportunity for his career, but he realizes he doesn't want to just take it. He wants more from her. (Artifacts, treasures, everything of great value – no one ever lets go of them before finding out everything about them.) "That and dinner with me?"

This time, per his predictions, she looks startled. "Are you asking me out on a date?"

"If you wish," he replies casually, making sure to put the extra dose of flirtiness in it before starting to walk away. He allows himself a smile as she hurries over; the expedition, with the invisibility belt find, was already a great success, but he loves surprises. "You said you wanted to see more Piltover science – the best place in town floats above the city and is only open seven hours a day. Come on."

Piltover never sleeps; the lights and commotion sharply reminded him of this fact as he steps out of the portal station, dressed in a suit and tie, fresh and crisp for the first time in months. The system has left the two of them right outside the center city skyscrapers, and he finds himself amazed again by how much the city always manages to transform and grow while he was away. The skylab lights did not glow like the summer fireflies of Kumungu the last time he stood here, eating a bun and waiting for the Grand Library to open, and the waters of the fountains flowed like rivers then, too, instead of shimmering like fine silk. Everything is new, brilliant and futuristic; it is almost as if he has aged twenty years in his five-month absence, and for once, he doesn't mind it. Although the city doesn't taste like him when he inhales deeply, he still knows thatit is Piltover, and yes, it is home.

"Wow, that statue of Dr. Heimerdinger is gorgeous!"

He smiles, turning back to Lux; she's stunning in a semi-formal blue dress, her hair shining like moonlight under the flattering Piltoverian lights, her eyes large with wonder. "Him and the yordles did a lot for my city. The street lights, the repair bots, the energy turbines – the guy's a genius. I wish I can understand him better, though; every time Jayce drags me to visit, they just go on and on about fluid mechanics and aerodynamics, and I usually end up watching Ziggs play with bombs."

That got a laugh out of Lux. "But that sounds fun."

"It's only fun when you're not in the blast radius. If he hits you once, he'll get so gleeful that he'll want to do it another ten times. Now, Miss Crownguard, we are still League champions, so if you don't want to just stand here and attract attention, shall we get food?"

She looks distinctively amused as she follows you through the revolving doors. "Explorer – "

"Just call me Ezreal."

"– Ezreal, I never thought you're such a… straightforward Piltoverian. I always thought you were something different… thought you had more of an affinity for museums and old artifacts, not all these technological wonders and shining skylines. When I bumped into you, I thought if anything, you'd take me to the archaeology museums."

Indeed. He presses the button to go to the 47th floor, patiently looking outside the transparent elevator as the machine takes them above the clamor of the streets. "Well, I definitely prefer nearly starving to death in Freljord and making maps of huge swamps, but this is still my home, after all. I don't know or care about gear systems or differential equations, but I still think people do amazing things with science. The lights, the portal systems, the clean energy… you don't need to be a scientist to appreciate those. Heimerdinger's compasses and self-cleaning leather have been my lifesavers for years."

The door opens; Lux gasps.

"Plus, you asked, and frankly, I'm not sure why the diplomats haven't taken you here yet."

The restaurant flies above the city in a massive hot air balloon; it spills a splendid ray of light down upon the city, lighting up a neighborhood and drawing excited exclaims. The edges of the balloon make it appear like an island or a cradle; a woman is standing in the center of the balloon, singing a slow folk song, and her voice seems to carry over, making the entire city drown in a mist of relaxed blissfulness.

"Come on. We've got a portal to go through."

"I guess I can kind of see why you don't care much for the League, if you get to do what you love most of the time and this is just fallback," Lux says, and he thinks he can sense a trace of something in her voice – disdainfulness, wistfulness, maybe both. "Of course, there are more magnificent things in Demacia, but this is still pretty great."

"Oh?" He teases. (He's not sure what he's doing, if he's trying to impress her or if he's showing off Piltover in order to gain a sense of city-state superiority. Either way, he's enjoying this, and he thinks she is, too, although for a different reason. The air is still tense between them, but they're both okay with it; he has secrets, too, after all.) "I guess I know what I'm going to do with your Demacian offer."

She chuckles. "Well, you can only choose one of those things, so don't mess up!"

He steps down the stairs, sends the obviously awed waitress away ("Just come by when Miss Crownguard asks, please"), and finds himself a seat near the singer, deliberately ignoring Lux's words. He's going to keep that choice for later; he'll only use it when he better understands the living paradox in front of him, a cocoon of cheerfulness and sobriety that doesn't make any sense. "Want anything to drink?"

"Spirits affect my ability to shoot lasers, so no, just water's fine." She opens the menu, grinning; he smiles back, remembering the way her specialty ripped out soil and flesh on the Fields. "Bet you wouldn't want me to miss one on the Field, since we're generally on the same side."

"No, no. I hate Noxians too, you know." He, too, pours himself a glass of water, watching the clear liquid collide with ice cubes in a bit of dazed fascination. (It's hard to go back to wines and sweet drinks after one had once spent days wandering just trying to find an oasis; it was his first time in Shurima and he had underestimated the sands, forgone Nasus' grave advice in a moment of childish pride. He nearly paid for the mistake with his life, and after that, he started packing waterkilns before emeralds.)

"Ever been to Noxus?" She asks casually, her eyes following the motions of his hands as she delicately sticks a fork into her spiced rice.

His heart skips a beat at the question. (She's spying again, listening to him just to get some useful information out of him, and he's nothing but a book to her, a cryptic encyclopedia that doesn't have feelings, but somehow it only fires him up, making him hope and making him desire more than anything to prove his worth and find the real Lux. There's a tendril there, somewhere, and maybe he's seeing things, but he feels like beneath Lux's thick veil of secrecy, there's a real glimmer of raw curiosity, and he trusts his instincts. He thinks of the Howling Marshes, of the mighty Sablestone Mountains that isolate Bandle City from the rest of Valoran, of the Solari's Temple gleaming under the dawn; he can take her to so many places to make the glimmer matter, to turn that spark into a flame that will burn until it consumes everything, but he's in a suit and he's in Piltover and as much as he likes being here god fucking dammit he can't do shit.) "Two or three times, yeah. A couple times around the border, you know how it's like, especially since the current borders are slightly undefined."

"How did you get in?"

He glances around. It's just the two of them; the singer has finished and is packing up her belongings, seemingly ready to go home after a magnificent performance. "Good camouflage and a couple of shady deals here and there. A lady from a rich family is particularly fond of me, although I doubt that'd work for you, since she's not a lesbian."

That gets another laugh from Lux. "You never know."

"I guess. Maybe she has a thing for all blondes. But really, she lets me in because she thinks I give her everything that I end up finding. I do give her stuff; I've given her a dozen replicas. Another friend who manages the Noxus High Museum takes in everything I actually discover."


"In my defense, they are nice replicas. The Gauntlet can do things you wouldn't believe."

She giggles. "Yeah, I'm sure, Ezreal. I'm only the best illusionist in the world."

He puts a piece of fruit in his mouth thoughtfully. "And LeBlanc…?"

"Got nothing on me, trust me. I've never lost to a Noxian on matters of magic."

That's what Garen and Xin Zhao says about their jobs, too, and if that's actually true, Demacia should have conquered Noxus long ago. "Then teach me, Miss Crownguard. In these troubled times, an explorer can always use good replicas." His memory flashes back to the cave in Kalamanda. "Illusion-dispelling spells would be great, too."

"And what's in this for me? More useless replicas?" She crosses her arms, her eyes dancing mischievously, and he can't help but grin.

"Oh, you get to become the heroine in one of Ezreal's romanticized stories."

"Shut it."

"Schedule-free visits to all seven of Ezreal's Hidden Wonders of Valoran."

"Better, but still no."

"Access to this restaurant for a year… for free?"

"You're bullshitting me and you know it."

They are both shaking with mirth; Lux has thrown herself on the table and he's gripping the wooden rails, laughing until he's out of breath. "Alright, alright. I've recently found a tomb in Shurima that apparently has quite the collection of elemental spells – light, air, water, fire, you name it. I can read Shuriman script, but I never graduated from Piltover's Academy, so I don't understand a thing about the spells. The Academy has already talked to Janna, and I can put in a nice word for you if you'd like. Deal?"

She's quiet. And then:

"You sure are something, Ezreal."

He takes it as a yes, as she orders an ice cream and they banter for the rest of the night.