His chest ached like never before. It was as if he’d taken one of Elfman’s punches right in his ribcage, it all ached so badly. The ache persisted and exacerbated as he ran so fast he could barely breathe, running down that old street . . .
“So, you’re Natsu, are you?” said the strange man. Natsu couldn’t see him too well since the lights were off, but he could smell him: rot and some chemical . . . sulfur maybe? But mostly his nose was filled with the scent of blood. He recoiled, covering it as the strong odor brought tears to his eyes. “Igneel kept talking about you until the light left his eyes.”
“Igneel . . .” He looked around his father’s bedroom, but still things were too dark. He wanted to go turn on the lights, but some primal instinct was making the stray hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “Who are you? Where is Igneel?”
“Your father is right there,” he said, unperturbed. “Sleeping the sleep of the dead.” He pointed something small and silver at the bed. A gun, he had a gun. And the smell of blood . . .
“You BASTARD!” Natsu roared, rushing forward despite the threat of taking a bullet to the brain. The man sidestepped him, not even wasting a bullet on his frenzied state. Natsu slammed into the wall from his momentum but wasn’t even fazed, spinning on his head and heading right back. His fist connected with the man’s face, and Natsu instantly reared back gripping his wrist.
“Grandine and Metallicana have already met their demise. Igneel was just another tick down the list,” he continued. Wendy and Gajeel’s folks, he thought, alarmed.
“It . . . It was a car accident that killed them . . .”
“It’s far too easily to alter public information. Like here, for instance. Instead of death by firing, Igneel will have died by what he holds most dear . . .” He held something up, something Natsu could barely see in the darkness but recognized nonetheless.
“Our sparkler . . .”
He drew something smaller in his other hand, and with a flick of his finger a small flame lit the space between them. His dark skin was stained slightly with blood, a trail that went from his bare feet to the bed— Natsu didn’t even want to torture himself with a look. Instead, he kept his eyes forward as the flame met the sparkler’s tip, and it exploded in a shower of golden sparks.
“How ironic for the pyromaniac to be burned, is it not?”
He dropped the sparkler onto the sheets, and they instantly burst into flames.
Natsu swallowed heavily as he caught the blue and red glow of a cop car and ducked into an alley. The cruiser eased on by slowly—they must’ve been heading to Igneel’s old home just as he was. He wanted to change paradigms, but he didn’t want to risk Gajeel or Wendy’s lives by going to their places—that house was his last refuge, somewhere to stop and think things through, find his next step. But as it seemed, that next step was going to be into an isolated jail cell.
I didn’t mean to hurt anyone—I know it, he thought, gritting his teeth. But there are all these fuzzy spaces in my memory lately . . . There’s some truth in what Agent Heartfilia is saying, but how much?
He decided that the stop was too risky and instead hit a turn back towards Magnolia’s outer edges. He had a new destination in mind, one that was more likely than not unguarded, because that old fart could more than take care of himself.
“What the hell am I even doing?” he wondered aloud, slowing to a walk as he reached the outskirts. Dirt pathways and trees replaced the houses and sidewalks, and his shoes skidded across the rocks as he began dragging his feet. I was locked up for a good reason. I know I messed up Gray, and Erza too, and everyone there, but I’m still out here runnin’, trying to find something to prove my case. . . Don’t I deserve to be back there? That’s what everyone believes, anyway.
Still, he found himself in front of that old forest hobble, his hand already banging on the door. He stood there awkwardly, hands clasping and unclasping at his sides as he waited—for what, he wasn’t sure, but he hoped that it wasn’t a fist to the face. The door cracked open, and the first thing that hit him was the smell of booze. Okay, that was okay: the situation could go either way from there.
“Who’s it?” he slurred, looking through the opening. He met eyes with Natsu, who gave a little wave, and clicked his tongue. “I thought you’d be coming by sooner or later.” He opened the door wider and Natsu heaved a sigh of relief, stepping inside.
“You’re not mad at me or anything?” he asked.
“My child, I already wore out my capacity for you a long time ago,” Makarov sighed. “I’d like to know the details of the situation.”
“You and me both,” said Natsu dryly. Still, he tried his best to explain his odd situation to Makarov.
“Interesting, to say the least,” he said when Natsu had finished. He took his drink from a small table and poured himself a glass, then handed another to Natsu. “And this Salamander character appears with no warning whatsoever?”
“That’s what they say,” he muttered, taking a gulp. He never though a burn would’ve felt as pleasant as it did in that moment. “And I have all these blank spots in my memory too, so there’s truth in what they’re spouting.”
“Hmm, that’s curious,” he mused. “Natsu, did they by any chance tell you which houses you burned down?”
“Huh? Well . . . no, they didn’t.”
“Interesting,” was all he said. Natsu slumped into one of his armchairs as the alcohol took effect, taking a little of the edge from his buzzing nerves.
“This has something to do with my dad.”
“Igneel? How do you know?” Natsu swished the liquor around his mouth before swallowing with a weary sigh.
“I just . . . do, okay? I wish I had some information to go on here—this whole situation’s making me feel like I’ve gone bat-shit insane, and—well, maybe I have, but I’d like to know why at least. But all Igneel’s stuff was burned down with him and—and I haven’t found that bastard either,” he growled, fists clenching in memory of Igneel’s killer.
“Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie with Igneel,” suggested Makarov, bringing Natsu’s surprised eyes up to his calm ones. “You’ve always been focused on one thing at a time—you should try broadening your view.”
“I don’t know if that’s going to help . . . I don’t know if anything can help me at this point.” He shook his head pitifully. “I betrayed my friends, lost my home . . . I’m the last of the Dragneel name and look at how much I fucked that up! I’m just a big mess-up, a damn failure.”
“My child . . .” Makarov waited patiently as Natsu scrubbed his eyes—when did he start crying?—and stared off resolutely out the window. “I don’t think you are bad. Misguided, perhaps. There is something affecting you, making you do things you normally would not have—that, I am sure of.”
“Then how do I stop it?” he demanded, though he was too tired to actually be irate.
“Start from zero,” he said. “Go to the root of the problem.”
“But I—I already said I can’t get back to Igneel’s.”
“Are you sure that that’s where everything started?” Well, no. He was adopted by Igneel, but that was so long ago, he didn’t even remember the orphan—
“But Zeref does,” he whispered, clenching his fists in his lap. Zeref, old egghead Zeref, remembered everything. Surely he would know. He jumped to his feet so quickly he almost got vertigo but walked his way through it. “Thanks Gramps, I owe ya again!”
“Just don’t get yourself killed out there, Natsu,” he said, waving after him. “That’s the only gift you can give me.”
Lucy chose to remain inside of Igneel Dragneel’s old home in case Natsu returned. If anything, he was unpredictable, and although the house surely held no purpose for him, there was a good chance of his return. At least, she believed that until she actually went inside.
She heard Scarlet’s story of the house being burned, and saw the arson report on it as well, but she hadn’t heard it had been rebuilt. The walls were repainted, the flooring and furniture were replaced, and everything just looked . . . new. In that case, it made it even less likely that Natsu would return, as even his horrid memories didn’t remain in that place. Still, they wanted to have every base covered, so she waited by the side door with one hand on her gun, watching through the window that spanned the entire backyard and part of the street. She took in the kitchen from the corner of her eye and mentally compared it to the Before photo she had seen. It was pretty much the same, albeit different furniture.
Did Natsu sit and eat here with Igneel and Zeref like a normal person, once upon a time? she wondered. She imagined a little pink-haired boy and his black-haired brother smearing breakfast over their faces as an older man laughed lovingly in the background. It somewhat irked her to know that Natsu, an arsonist, had had a less fretful childhood than herself.
She drew from her musings as she watched a small silver car pull up on the neighbor’s grass. It wasn’t a huge deal until the driver, a guy with spiky orange hair in two ponytails, stepped out and met her eyes. Something about his whole demeanor unsettled her even from dozens of feet away. Her palms sweated a little as the man continued staring long enough for her to discern a straight scar across his nose, then he covered part of his face and tossed his head as if he was preparing for a photoshoot. She pressed her lips together and rolled her eyes. Just another idiot.
At least, until he raised his own gun and fired.
The window exploded in a shower of glass and Lucy had to duck to avoid getting shredded, but a few pieces cut open a long slice on her right arm. “Heartfilia, are you okay?” Gray’s voice buzzed over walkie-talkie. “Oi, answer.”
“Fine,” she managed through gritted teeth. “Did you see the perp? Is he still on the grounds?”
“Yes, we see him—he’s making a point of being seen. And—” Gray was cut off as bullets rang out both over the speaker and on the other side of the house. She burst through the door and immediately had to duck behind the toppled trashcan as bullets rained on them from the singular man. “He’s using an MK,” he informed her. “Military grade I think.”
“He might be a renegade soldier then.”
“Maybe. Did you get a good look at him?” A few bullets fired from their sides, but from the sound fire being returned, they obviously didn’t connect too well. One stray streaked between them, slicing a thin scratch on Lucy’s forehead and cutting a few bangs short. She cursed softly as she swiped her hand across the small trickle of blood.
“Tall, twentyish, orange hair, scar across the nose. Sounds familiar?”
“He’s not on our list,” Gray said, then began to speak again before their assaulter cut him off.
“What a police force you are, hiding away like bunnies from foxes,” he chided with an exaggerated tone. He sounded like an actor in the middle of a stage play. “Fine then, I have no problem with smoking you out.”
“What—” There was a click, then something small went flying just next to them. Lucy didn’t have time to turn before it exploded in a cloud of smoke that quickly overtook the area. A few bullets went flying before everything shifted into a panicked silence.
“Now that I have your attention,” he started, “I’d like to know the location of our property.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Colonel Dreyar growled. His replying laugh echoed through the blank scape.
“Our project, E.N.D. Didn’t he tell you all? Well, I guess not, which makes this denouement even better. On behalf of the Spriggan 12, I’m looking for ‘Etherious’ Natsu Dragneel.”