Natsu and Salamander

iii

Three days passed with no change in Natsu Dragneel’s demeanor. Lucy had sworn to his friends to wear him down, but he was turning out to be as resilient as a boulder in a hurricane. Most days, he sat through the same spiel, rebutting each of her statements until it appeared physically painful for him to do so, which was when she was forced to relent. Lucy was not an easy woman, but something about Natsu was . . . different compared to other criminals. Not in that he wildly defended himself or his flip psychosomatic statuses, but something she wasn’t quite assured about.

Nevertheless, Friday morning she dressed in a crisp white blouse and pencil skirt for what she hoped would be the Big Confession. They had all the material indispensable for to book him for ten to fifteen, yes, but Lieutenant Scarlet and the others wanted more: they wanted the why. Natsu, conversely, was stingy with that one morsel of information for whatever reason. As she walked into the Magnolia Police Department, she was met with the usual muted sobriety that had befallen the previously colorful building. She nodded at Gray, who was staring into a cup of Starbucks as if it held all the answers, before winding the usual path to Interrogation Room #4.

“So, Dragneel,” she said, sitting opposite to him, “are you ready now?”

His hair was mussed into crazier spikes than usual and his sharp jawline was coated with matching pink fuzz, and with his purple-bruised eyes he looked like a street alcoholic rather than one of Magnolia’s finest. When she first met him, his uniform was pressed and cleaned despite his outlandish appearance; it had long since become rumpled and bunched, and his previous awards and ranks were revoked. His eyes were like daggers as he narrowed them to slits that could cut a throat. “For what?” he challenged.

“I’m not here to waste time—you’ve already wasted more than enough these last few days. Your friends—you do remember what friends are, don’t you?—want the truth, and you’re the only one that can give it to them.” He raised a shoulder, then let it drop.

“Will the truth save me from a cell or the chair? I don’t think so, Princess.”

“You told me that you do care about your friends. Don’t you care for them enough to take them from the dark? They’re worried for you, you know,” she tried, taking a different approach. He rolled his eyes and let his head loll to the side.

“They aren’t worried for an arsonist, sweetheart, no matter what they tell you,” he said flatly and with full conviction. Therein lied one problem out of ninety-nine.

“You don’t think they still care?” she pressed. “Why do you think you’re here, in interrogation, rather than already spending your days in orange?”

“You’ve got a crush on me? I bite.” He committed the energy to watching her give a tight-lipped smile.

“You know, your sense of humor is more grating than entertaining.”

“I’ve heard.” She was getting nowhere again. She sighed and flicked a lock of hair from her face before resting her elbows on the table.

“Tell me what you want,” she said softly.

“To burn your house down.”

“That’s short-term, Dragneel. I want your reason for burning these houses down and I want the truth.”

“Have you ever feared the monster in your closet?” he asked out of the blue. She would’ve taken him for a joke had his eyes not been so grave. “You stare at that door every night expecting something to jump out . . . Then you decide to go in, all or nothing.”

“What does shit have to do with shit?”

“I expected you to be a little more than a dumb blonde, you know,” he said dully. “Oh well, we can’t always get what we want. Same goes for you: you want my confession, which you won’t get. I’m more than just a two-dimensional bastard that you’ll psychoanalyze with a few words. I’m sorry, but you’ll need to work that pretty head of yours on me, Agent Heartfilia.” She blinked, momentarily taken aback: it was the first time he’d ever used her proper title and not a nickname.

“That’s what I was hired for.”

“Money well spent, eh? You’re wasting your time and my time here, which we’re both aware of.”

“My real question is, if you claim to care about your friends just as much as they care about you, why turn on them without a reason? That’s the one question I came to ask and you’ve already spent . . . look here . . .” She checked her watch. “Fourteen . . . Fifteen minutes dodging it.”

“Because. You’re just not worth it.”

“I may not be, but aren’t your friends?” He stopped there, staring at her so intensely it felt as if she would burst into flames any second. “Natsu,” she said after a moment. His name seemed to bring him from a fugue, blinking heavily and shaking his head slowly.

“Before they were hurt . . .” he murmured. “Before they were hurt, I had to . . . The gun . . . Zzzzz . . .”

“What?” she asked, but not a second later his head hit the table. She shook her head and pushed away from the table. Even if he woke up again, chances were that he was going to be as disagreeable as ever. She picked up her notebook and scanned what she had already confirmed: Natsu had caused three fires, all of which endangered four lives but caused no casualties, and under the moniker “Salamander” / he had no memory of doing so; he genuinely cared about his friends; no regrets . . .

“Agent Heartfilia,” said Lieutenant Scarlet, startling her a bit as she shut the door behind her. Lucy rose to shake her hand, but the buxom redhead instead took the now vacated seat, locking her fingers together atop the table and staring at Natsu with a look that could shatter steel. “I heard the whole thing.”

“He’s a tough one,” Lucy commented, crossing her arms. Scarlet sighed, her shoulders slumping.

“More than anyone, we know that much . . .”

“If you don’t mind my asking . . . how long have you known him?”

“Fifteen years now—we’ve been together since grade school. He was always a . . . unique child, bringing his odd ideals and methods to the classroom. He only changed when Igneel . . .” She didn’t finish, but Lucy could connect the dots well enough on her own.

“Maybe therein lies the problem?” she suggested. Scarlet sighed in response.

“Natsu and Igneel had a near picture perfect relationship. They were more best friends than father and son. Igneel himself was a Natsu clone, albeit older, and he never displayed any evil intent, so I can’t imagine this coming from him.”

“He said before he hates fire—what about that?”

“Igneel was killed by a house fire,” she told Lucy. “It happened while he was asleep and Natsu was at the academy. The source was never discovered, but it was eventually deemed accidental.”

“Accidental,” she repeated softly, pacing the small cubical room. “That makes it all the more odd that he would choose arson.” She had scoured every corner of his record in their half-week of interrogation, from his conception all the way to his haphazard dismissal from the line of duty, and other than several childish scuffles with Gray, she could find no felonies under his name. In that case, what was it that caused him to start that first fire six weeks ago?

“But you do see the same issue as I, don’t you?” Scarlet continued. “He flips between one state of mind and another. In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never seen such a thing happen before.”

“Then it can’t be a mental disorder . . . He could be faking.”

“This is a far cry from his usual ruses.”

“Which consist of . . .?”

“Switching shaving cream with whipped cream. Hand in warm water.”

“Of course,” she sighed. Then, after a moment of thought, “I remember reading that he had a brother?”

“Yes, Zeref Dragneel. He works a few towns over in a morgue.”

“Can I get the name of the morgue?”

“You don’t need the name—it’s the only morgue in Alvarez.” Alvarez, she’d heard of that city: although it had excellent education and health, the people were a little . . . weird.

“I’ll check it out. You’ll keep him company?”

“No one else will.”

“Really?”

“Not many men are willing to see this descent of Natsu’s, especially his friends.” She grasped her fist so tightly her knuckles were bleached of color. “It’s . . . jarring. Borderline painful.”

——————

Due to Lucy’s car being in the shop the last two days (she’d been taking the city bus to the station, which was impressive all on its own) she was forced to ask her high school mate Loki for a ride. Not that he was unhappy to spare her the time—far from it—but there was a reason she tended to avoid enclosed spaces with him.

“As beautiful as ever, Lucy,” he smiled, the sunlight glinting off his azure shades. She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, facing away from him.

“You know, the flirting got old five years ago.”

“Not to me. Your beauty still astounds me and shocks me breathless to day.”

“Oh, I wish it would shock you breathless.”

“Anyhow, my lovely Princess, why the urge for Alvarez? Something there piqued your interest?” questioned Loki genially. He wasn’t known for platonic geniality, but even he could have a human side.

“In a way.”

“So, work?”

“Yup. A very interesting case this time.”

“Yeah, I saw it on the news.”

“Really, you check the news?” she asked.

“Well, no, but an ex did.” Go figure. “The thing with Natsu, that’s real?” He and Natsu weren’t best friends, but if memory served, Natsu saved Loki once from a life-or-death situation in college. Considering that “life-or-death” had a different meaning to those two, she wasn’t sure how legit it was, but their friendship was viable.

“As a heart attack.”

“Damn,” he said, shaking his head. “If he can fall from grace, anyone can.”

“You know, everyone has nothing but nice to say about the guy,” noted Lucy. “Like he was a saint or something.”

“A saint? I wouldn’t say that, but he was a kind of local hero. Like, no matter how bad of a day you have, Natsu could make it fun in a second. To think of him as a felon, and an arsonist on top of that? Just unbelievable.” He pulled off the highway and into the outer districts of Alvarez. “Where in particular?”

“Lieutenant Scarlet said it’s the only morgue in the city.”

“The city has one morgue?” She shrugged and checked her Maps app. After a moment, her search results came. “Wow, there really is just one morgue. It says . . . Ankhseram Avenue, Sun Street. Just make a right at the next intersection and follow the main road until you see the turn.”

“Your wish is my command, my lady.”

“The flirting, Loki. Why do you always flirt with me anyway?”

“I flirt with everyone,” he said unabashedly.

“Okay, but me especially. Even after that highly uncomfortable going steady stint.” It wasn’t something they liked revisiting, it was so awkward. She didn’t know how she put up with six months of it.

“Good question,” was all he said in response. He made an abrupt left, bringing her from her reverie as a large building like a castle came into view, standing out from the larger old-styled buildings around the district. The sign out front read TARTAROS MORGUE. “Want me to wait?” he asked as Lucy stepped out.

“Do you really have the time? It might take a while.”

“On second thought, I have a date in fifteen minutes.”

“It’s a forty-minute drive back to Magnolia though?”

“I didn’t say she’s in Magnolia. But if you’re really jammed, just call me and I’ll take you back.” He winked as he threw the car in reverse. “And one more thing?”

“No, I don’t have any single girlfriends.”

“Ah . . . no, that’s not it. I want you to be careful,” he said lowly, pushing his glasses up to his lion’s mane of dark hair and giving her a look full of intent. “You can get a little crazy on the job and I don’t want you to get hurt or—I can’t imagine anything worse happening.”

“Noted. Thank you, Loki.” He gave her a genuine, nonsexual smile before he pulled away. She took a deep breath as she pushed through the large oaken double doors and into a crisp lobby that belonged more to a large corporation than a morgue, but considering how elegant the outside was, it wasn’t hard to believe.

“Excuse me,” she said to the receptionist, a woman wearing an odd helmet consisting of a pointed chin and wing-like appendages on the sides. “I’m Special Agent Lucy Heartfilia, currently working with the Magnolia PD, and I’d like to speak with Zeref Dragneel.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, despite giving Lucy a severely odd look as she stood. “I’ll show you his office.”

“Thank you, err . . .”

“Kyôka,” she supplied.

“Thank you, Kyôka.” She led Lucy down a long hall and past a lounge area that curiously housed a purple-haired man reading a thick book with a one-eyed mushroom on his shoulder, but before she could go investigate, Kyôka pointed out Zeref’s office. “Oh,” Lucy said, taking note of the dual voices inside. She turned to ask Kyôka if it was okay to enter but the woman had already gone—in record time, actually. Weird. She knocked twice and the voices hushed, which she took as her cue to go in.

Zeref looked kind of like Natsu, if she was to be generous. He had the same facial features and build, but the similarities ended there. He was sitting at a dark wood desk, and although there were two client chairs ahead of him, every square inch of space in the office was taken up by paper notes. They were scrawled either in atrocious handwriting or another language altogether, although she could make out several different formulas that ranged from trigonometric to imaginary. Next to him was a smaller woman with pale blond hair that swept to her bare feet and the calculating expression of the goddess Athena.

“Pardon me for interrupting, but I’m—”

“You’re here about my brother,” he interrupted immediately, dark eyes serenely blank, “aren’t you?”

“So, you’ve heard the shocking news already.”

“It would’ve been hard not to. Sit, and we’ll talk.” Lucy almost protested before the woman took up a handful of sheets from one chair, giving her an apologetic smile.

“He won’t clean up no matter how often I tell him it’s bad for business,” she said. “Please excuse him.”

“Ah, it’s no big deal, uh . . .”

“Mavis Vermillion.”

“She’s staying, if that’s alright,” said Zeref.

“I suppose.” Lucy sat in front and cleared a bit of space on his desk for her notebook. “I’ve read that you and Natsu were adopted by Igneel?”

“Yes, that’s correct. We were both very young at the time.”

“And what happened to your parents, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I mind,” he said, still with that odd serene expression. Mavis gave him a reproachful look which he ignored.

“Alright. Have you ever noticed anything odd about him as a child?”

“Natsu is odd in his own right, but if you mean anything particularly unique, then no. Certainly nothing that’d make me peg him as an arsonist.”

“Do you two have a good relationship?”

“In a way,” Zeref supposed as Mavis deadpanned, “They once tried to kill each other,” halting Lucy’s pen mid-word.

“Wait what? You tried to kill each other?”

“It was a long time ago. Social services separated us then, and our relationship has been touch and go since.”

“Yes well, um, I’d like more detail on that.”

“It was a huge misunderstanding that I can’t properly explain, or at least not in a reasonable amount of time,” said Zeref with a dismissive wave. “And on that note, I don’t believe any information I have will help you with the investigation.”

“I’m one to decide that. And from what I see, you don’t seem much concerned with his wellbeing.”

“I don’t . . . I can’t express myself the same way as you. Trust me when I say that even though we tried to kill each other, Natsu is one of the most important things in my life, even if he doesn’t quite share the sentiment.”

“Mm,” she noted. Then, “What about his hatred of fire?” She did get the story from Scarlet, but maybe Zeref had more information.

“Hatred of fire,” he repeated, looking a bit dazed. Mavis snapped her fingers in front of his face after a moment, causing him to jump. “Oh. Sorry. I don’t recall Natsu hating fire—in fact, he and Igneel used to love it. They often had campfires out in the woods and played with the, ah . . . What are those striped sticks that you light on fire the fourth of July?”

“Sparklers.”

“Yes, they had a ball with those. They never did anything dangerous though.” Lucy tapped her notes with a disappointed hum. Scarlet and Zeref’s words weren’t adding up, but as Zeref himself said, he and Natsu had a strained relationship: maybe he didn’t know of Natsu’s problem with fire as it happened after the separation.

“When you were separated, did it happen before or after Igneel’s death?” He zoned out again, so Mavis answered:

“It was before, Miss Heartfilia, in their junior year of high school.”

“Okay . . . Okay.” She had run down her whole list, and that left just one last question. “Has he ever mentioned this nickname to you: the—” Suddenly her phone buzzed against her hip, and when she checked the I.D. Gray’s name came up. Oh no. “I’m sorry, please excuse me,” she said, rising with her things. “Gray, what’s wrong?”

“Natsu,” he said, the sound of sirens ringing in the background. “Erza left to use the bathroom, and when she came back both the handcuffs’ chain and the lock on the door were broken. He’s out there somewhere, and he’s out for real blood.”

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