When Zeke arrived at the foyer, he immediately noticed that a crowd had gathered. Evidently, word had gotten around that Leo was looking for him. Nobody seemed willing to miss the show.
With Margret and David behind him, Zeke descended the stairway. Upon noticing his arrival, the room went quiet. At his approach, the throng of people parted, revealing a shock of dirty blonde hair.
This was the first time Zeke had seen Leo in the past couple of weeks. His brother looked a lot better than last time. He had managed to shed his listless appearance and now looked even more ferocious than before. His eyes were sharp and determined. It was clear that Leo had not spent the past couple of weeks moping around. Whatever he had been up to, it had given him an edge to his presence, like an unsheathed blade.
After looking Leo up and down, Zeke approached, a smile still on his face. However, it faltered slightly when he saw the people surrounding Leo. He knew them well, many of them belonged to Maximilian’s oldest supporters. The problem was that they were now giving him defiant looks instead of bowing their heads.
Zeke wasn’t bothered when people didn’t bow, but their behavior right now was clearly meant as a challenge to his authority. His gaze hardened as he swept his gaze over the crowd, causing many to flinch or look away. His eyes only softened again when they fell on Leo.
He came to a halt only a step away from his brother. Leo had also noticed his arrival and was wordlessly staring at Zeke. The two remained in this position for a long, silent moment. Zeke was in no rush to break the confrontation. He was eager to find out what Leo wanted to do.
The silence lasted for a while, causing the tension to rise. People started to shift, many of them demonstratively taking positions behind either of the two to show their allegiance. It became immediately clear who had more support. With David, Margret, and Kerim on his side, there were not many that actually dared challenge Zeke.
However, none of that seemed to have any influence on Zeke or Leo. Both just remained in place, it was as if the rest of the crowd didn’t exist. Finally, Leo moved. He took one step toward Zeke, almost entirely closing the distance between them. With one swift motion, he grabbed something from his belt and held it out in front of him.
Curious, Zeke studied the hefty leather satchel in Leo’s hand. From the way he was holding it, it was clear that he wanted Zeke to take it. Without hesitation, Zeke grabbed the bag. He loosened the string that held it closed and peered inside.
Zeke had known what he would find. However, he couldn’t be sure as to the meaning of this gesture. He reached inside and retrieved one of the items. His hand emerged with a gold coin clutched between his fingers. This was one of around 50 gold coins and countless more silver and copper coins the bag held.
Zeke alternatively looked from the coin to Leo, slowly raising one brow. “Well?”
Leo squirmed instead of speaking right away. Whatever he wanted to say didn’t come easy. Finally, he managed to gather his resolve. “I’m sorry, Zeke.”
“What do you have to be sorry for?” Zeke asked.
Leo nodded toward the bag. “I heard about our money problems. But this is all I could get, and from what I hear, it’s not nearly enough.”
“That’s over 50 gold,” Zeke stated. “How did you earn it?”
“Fighting monsters… among other things,” Leo explained. “It’s all I know how to do.”
Zeke looked down at the satchel in his hand once more. A couple of coins were not a lot in the grand scheme of things. And they sure as well wouldn’t make a dent in their massive debt. However, for a True Mage like Leo, this was a fortune.
It was hard to imagine what perils Leo must have braved to earn this amount of money in four weeks. He must have pushed himself to the very brink every single day. Without averting his eyes, Zeke handed the bag to David. He closed the distance between them and wrapped his brother in a tight embrace.
“Fool,” Zeke said, though his tone was gentle. “What do you have to be sorry for? Can’t you leave that stuff to your big brother?”
Leo tensed. The two had never hugged before and thanks to his past, he wasn’t accustomed to any physical displays of affection. However, after the initial surprise, he slowly started to relax and even reciprocated the embrace. Despite that, he still shook his head at Zeke’s question. “I couldn’t just sit around anymore, I had to do something.”
Zeke nodded, still not letting go. “I could have used you here, you know?”
“I know and I’m sorry for that as well. But I couldn’t just sit around and strategize. The mere thought of it makes my teeth itch, even now. I was never great at that stuff.”
Zeke finally ended the embrace but still kept his hands on Leo’s shoulders, squeezing reassuringly. “Don’t sweat it. As long as I know that I can count on you, the rest doesn’t matter.” He paused for a moment before adding quietly, “For a moment, I was worried you would do something stupid.”
“Like what?” Leo asked with a raised brow.
“Like marching off in the direction of the empire,” Zeke responded with a sharp glint in his eyes. “And don’t even pretend the thought hasn’t crossed your mind.”
Leo averted his gaze. After a sigh, he answered the unasked question, “…You are right, I got close to it at one point.”
“What made you stay?”
“Used my brain for a change,” Leo said, causing Zeke to smirk.
“About damn time,” he said with a chuckle. “What conclusion did you arrive at?”
“I figured I wouldn’t make much of a difference as I am now. Thousands of stronger Mages have died trying to stop the empire over the centuries and none of them managed. My guts tell me that if I really want to make a difference, I would need to try something else.”
“Good,” Zeke praised. “So you finally remembered that you have a family, you rascal?”
Leo nodded unashamedly. “You are the smartest person I know, Zeke. If anybody has a plan, it would be you.”
Zeke observed Leo for a while, a crafty glint in his eyes. “I see,” he eventually said. “I do indeed have a plan. Does that mean you want in?”
“Yes,” Leo answered immediately.
“That’s fine with me, but there are conditions.”
“What are they?”
“First,” Zeke said, “no more disappearing. I need to know where you are and what you are doing.”
“Second. We will start our sparring again. I want to know how much you have improved.”
“Can’t wait!” Leo agreed energetically. If he had had a tail, it would be wagging.
“Third and last. You will take part in our strategy meetings whenever you are around.”
“…Urgh.” Leo deflated. His earlier excitement was extinguished in an instant. It was as if he had been slapped. “Do I really have to? Can’t you just tell me what I have to do?”
“No,” Zeke said sternly. “I want you to get used to the responsibility of your position. You can’t just rely on other people to tell you what to do.”
“Why not?” Leo interjected. “Can’t you just point at stuff for me to attack?”
Zeke tried to appear stern, but at this suggestion, a smile still managed to fight its way onto his face. It was good to have Leo back. “…You’ll have to at least come to the important ones, okay?”
“Fine…” Leo agreed reluctantly. He seemed to sense that Zeke would not compromise any further than that. “So, what do we do now? We still need to earn a lot of money, right? Do you have a plan for that as well?”
“I have a plan for everything,” Zeke said with a smile. He just now noticed how quiet the surrounding was. The gathered crowd was just staring at the two of them, mouth agape. Apparently, they had expected this meeting to go very differently.
Zeke loudly clapped his hands. “Do you guys need anything? I don’t pay you for loitering, you know? If you don’t have enough work, I’m sure Mom can find something for you to do…”
It was like a spell had been lifted, as the people sprang into action. Moments later, only the small group around Zeke remained in the room. Everybody else seemed to have suddenly remembered something important they had to do.
“All that excitement for nothing. That’s what happens when people listen to stupid rumors,” Margret muttered.
“What rumor?” Leo inquired.
“Apparently, people thought that you wanted to challenge me for leadership of the family.”
“Why would I do that?” Leo asked in bewilderment. “Maximilian clearly wanted you to be his successor, not me.”
“Well, people have done crazier things for the sake of power. Compared to me, your affinities and character are far more similar to Maximilian’s. There are those who would argue that you are a better fit,” Zeke said with a quick glance at David.
The man had not hesitated to support him, even though Zeke suspected that he would also have preferred someone like Leo to lead the family. There was no sign of discontent or disagreement on David’s face. Instead, he had a slight smile on his face.
“What nonsense!” Leo exclaimed. “It was you who helped me join the family in the first place. People actually expected me to betray you like that? What do they take me for?”
Zeke smiled warmly. Leo had a refreshing way to look at the world. He didn’t even seem to understand the concept of scheming. It was truly a blessing to have someone like that around.
“…Besides,” Leo added. “Didn’t people realize that I would be a terrible leader? I mean, I don’t have a plan for anything.”
“I don’t know about that,” Zeke said. “In my opinion, a leader doesn’t necessarily have to do all of that himself. The most important thing is to have the trust of your followers. Everything else can be delegated.”
“Why would people trust me though? I’m only good at fighting — and even in that, I lost to you.”
Zeke removed one of his hands from Leo’s shoulder and pointed it right at the other boy’s heart. “That’s not the only thing you have going for you, Leo. I, Ezekiel von Hohenheim, would trust you with my life without a second thought.”
Leo remained silent. Unflinching, he stared directly into Zeke’s eyes. Zeke, for his part, also didn’t avert his eyes, returning the stare with his own unwavering gaze. After a while, Leo looked away. “Thank you,” was all he said.
Zeke cleared his throat in order to get rid of the awkward atmosphere. “I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. Now, if you are willing, I would like to give you your first mission, Leo.”
Leo perked up right away. “Sure, just tell me what to do.”
“Margret is planning an infiltration and could really use some more people. Also, she’s in dire need of an Earth Mage. How does that sound?”
“No need to ask,” Leo responded. “You point, I attack. Just the way I like it.”
“How about you, Margret?” Zeke asked.
“Are you kidding me?” Margret said with a wide smile. “I was losing sleep trying to figure out a plan that would work without an Earth Mage. Having Leo will be a huge help!”
“Excellent,” Zeke said. “Now that we have that cleared up, I think we all have a lot to do — especially me. If you need me for anything, I’ll be in my workshop.”
With a round of nods, the group dispersed. Margret and Leo went to their base of operation, David to inform Mia of the new invitations, and Zeke to his work.
The next seven days passed in the blink of an eye. Zeke would spend a couple of hours working on the Enchantments for the remaining two Gondolas, followed by a visit to the workshop. There was a seemingly endless tide of small problems and adjustments that had to be made. It was one of the busiest weeks of Zeke’s life.
Finally, on the evening of the last day, Zeke and the entire crew of engineers found themselves standing in the workshop. The group was looking up at three finished ships. Looking at the fruit of their labor brought tears to many eyes. There was no doubt in Zeke’s mind about how the next day would turn out.
“Gentlemen!” Zeke proclaimed, gathering everyone’s attention. “Tomorrow, we are going to make history. And what's more… we are going to make a shitload of money! After that, I don’t want to see any of you sober or working for at least a week. Do I make myself clear?!”
To the deafening sound of applause, Zeke exited the air docks. He had barely slept in the past seven days as well and this was his last chance to relax before the big event. As the sailors celebrated, Zeke made his way to his room. Despite his nerves, he fell asleep the moment he lay down, a content smile on his face.