“Etherious Natsu Dragneel,” Lucy repeated in confusion. The surprise of the statement threw her off as a shadow passed through the gloom, and it was Gray’s quick movement that prevented her from sustaining too much damage, but nevertheless a blunt steel object collided with her side, fracturing a rib. She fell back against Gray for a moment as her breath halted from the pain, and he grabbed a shoulder to still her before taking aim and firing, only to find him dodging quickly to the side.
“Who are you?” he growled as he fired again. He pushed Lucy back to her feet and dived forward as he came from behind, swinging again as the smoke started to dissipate.
“I am god,” he said in an even grander tone of voice. “Well, God Serena. And as it seems Natsu isn’t here, I’ll be making my grand exit.” By the time the smoke cleared, his car was already peeling down the street.
“Did someone get the plate?” Scarlet asked, lowering her gun with a frustrated sigh.
“Juvia did,” said Officer Lockser, holding up her notepad. “But she doesn’t think this God Serena will hold the same number for very long.”
“It’s some sort of lead, at least.” She looked around at the handful of officers that had taken fire, then at Lucy, and shook her head slowly. “I’ll call an ambulance for you all. Those who are able-bodied, return to the station—we have some investigating to do.”
“Hey, Porlyusica, do ya mind wasting a little time on me?”
“Under normal circumstances, I would’ve ignored your call altogether,” replied the family friend, “but as you’ve just lost your father, I’ll listen.”
“Okay, uh . . .” He looked around his apartment even though he knew he was alone and took a deep breath. “I’ve been having, uh, sleeping problems the last few months.”
“It’s expected considering the trauma you’ve went through. Have you tried seeing a therapist?”
“I did, one time, but things didn’t really . . . work out. He tried making me more comfortable about talking by starting with easy subjects, which I guess helped, but as soon as he brought up the f-fire, everything changed.” He shook his head vehemently with a broken sigh. “I had this, this h-headache, and the walls started closing in—okay, I had a panic attack. And after that I ran off. I’m not proud to say it, but I did.”
“Then what’s the difference with speaking to me about it?”
“I don’t know! You don’t even like people, but I chose you over some degree-toting bald fart.”
“. . . You said you were having sleeping problems?”
“Yeah. Night terrors, I guess they’re called? I wake up every few hours shouting because I flash back to the fire, and—and sometimes it’s not even the fire, sometimes it’s stuff that happened years before, like my eighth birthday with that firecracker cake and that time I was four when Dad took me and Zeref to ride on a firetruck . . .”
“I’m not a psychology expert, but it sounds like your brain is having trouble associating the good memories you’ve had surrounding fire to the impact that it’s recently had. Inner turmoil.”
“It’s inner annoying.”
“This is why therapists exist, Natsu, so you can talk out what you feel. Otherwise, they’ll keep building within you, and that’s neither healthy nor safe.”
“I want it to stop. And . . . I think I know how.”
Natsu blinked groggily before sitting up in alarm. When did that happen? he wondered, rubbing his head. It seemed to fit into one of the missing parts of his mind, like finding the right puzzle piece, but the rest of the picture was still dark. Maybe . . . Maybe I just started blocking things out, after Dad died, he thought dismally. If so, he couldn’t see why he was remembering them now and not in the last few years.
He kicked away his temporary shelter of ripped insulation and old boxes before drawing himself from the shadows of the alley. It was sunset, nearing nighttime—he wasn’t going to get anywhere on foot like that. And he couldn’t get anywhere period as Natsu Dragneel. If anything, he needed a change of clothes. It wouldn’t help his signature pink hair or facial features, but it would at least be less cause for second glances.
He cut through the service entrance of a small secondhand shop and made his way to the main area, ducking behind a clearance pile. When he was sure that the few customers weren’t looking in his direction, he snatched some random clothes and ducked into the dressing booth. Quickly stripping away his worn and dirtied clothes, Natsu donned the gold and black jacket, white canvas pants, and sandals. He stared at himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like a Middle Earth character, but at least Middle Earth was some sort of disguise. He could pretend to be LARPing or something.
“Yo, is someone in there? We’re about to close,” came a male voice from the other side of the door. He panicked and peeked through the crack between the door and wall: a couple of workers were cleaning up, and there was maybe one other customer in the store. Certainly not enough cover for him to sneak out unseen, not unless he was a wizard or something. But maybe, if he diverted their attention, he would have more room to escape the same way he came in.
The first thing he went for was his gun, then he remembered that all his possessions were confiscated before he was put into custody. Swearing to himself, he checked the pockets of his borrowed clothes and came up with a bag of novelty spark balls. He shook his head in dismay at first, but then decided them to be useful—that is, if he still had his sharpshooting skills with his mind being as it was.
He looked up and found a smoke detector just above the dressing room stall, but to hit it he had to stand on the small bench, making him visible to anyone looking his direction. Steeling himself, he hopped onto the bench and tossed the spark balls as quickly as he could while also attempting to be accurate. They pelted the smoke detector’s surface, scorching it slightly, but it was the ensuing sparks that set it off.
“Hey—what? Fire?” Natsu didn’t have a change to look and instead threw all his bets to fate as he burst through the dressing room’s door and sprinted through the door. He caught sight of a man about the same age and build with blond hair and a scar, but thankfully he was too surprised to give chase, although Natsu was fairly certain that man caught his face. He ducked through the staff exit before he could be stopped, heading onto an adjacent street and into the night crowds of Magnolia.
Plan, I need a plan, he thought, creeping along with them as to stay hidden. He noticed a commotion building towards the northwestern end of town with some firefighters and police heading over—the same direction as Igneel’s house, coincidentally. His heart clenched, and although every fiber of his being screamed for him to be there, he knew that he’d be dog meat if he tried to get within twenty feet of the place. So even as his body cried out in protest, he pressed on, away from Igneel’s house, as far as possible from Igneel’s house.
Maybe I could take a bus to Alvarez, he wondered. No, wait—me and a bunch of other people in a closed space won’t end well. Then maybe a taxi? Ah, I’m still broke. Not that many options for an escaped convict . . . A sudden headache took hold and Natsu stumbled, a hand against his temple as he had to lean against a light post. The pain started off as a dull ache but quickly escalated into a stabbing agony that brought white stars whenever he closed his eyes. His jaw clenched so tightly it could crush steel as he tried to wait out the pain that never ebbed.
“I’m the Salamander, baby—it refers to a fire dragon,” he said in a lower tone, his features relaxing. “There was a fire in my belly that I just had to get out.”
Natsu felt it—it was like a hand reached from the recesses of his psyche and seized his consciousness, dragging it down to the pits of his mind. He could actually feel himself falling, falling, even as he stood there on the street, and after a moment he couldn’t even feel that. He couldn’t feel anything.
“Well, well, well,” he hummed with a leer, smoothing down his jacket before slipping his hands into his pockets. He slipped back among the ranks of the everyday citizens, and after no more than a few moments he had two wallets stuffed with cash. “Looks like I’m taking the express train to downtown.” His eyes wandered to the horizon where the south end of Magnolia extended, and his leer dissolved into fury. “Those damn Spriggans are going to learn their place in the face of the Salamander.”
The easiest of Zeref’s lackeys to find was kneeling in prayer at one of Natsu’s previous marks. The blackened foundation appeared to push from the ground like the undead, reaching towards the moon and starlit sky in yearning for something better. Natsu knew something better: the face of the crime group Eisenwald as he burned their base of operations to the ground.
“May their souls rest in peace,” murmured Larcade, resting his hands on his knees. Natsu waited for him to finish and look up, his usual calm expression on his face. “Uncle,” he greeted. “What brings you here?”
“Are you joking?” he snorted. “It’s because of you. I don’t get as much pleasure basking in our enemies’ defeat as you all do.”
“Oh?” he hummed curiously. Natsu snorted again.
“I don’t and you Spriggan bastards know it. I’m not as much like my brother as you think. I did this because I had to, or else I could go insane, again like my brother.”
“You’re testing my temper, talking about Father in that way,” Larcade warned. Natsu rolled his eyes but relented—the last thing he needed was Larcade riding his ass and especially when Natsu was the one looking for favors.
“I’m actually looking for Zeref right now.”
“Funny,” he said, instantly back to his easygoing manner. “He’s looking for you, too.”
“What?” Now that was a surprise. If Zeref wanted him, he would’ve already been found long time ago, especially since his face was plastered on every news channel in Magnolia.
“We expected you to be at Igneel’s home, but instead we found a horde of police. They were easily scared off, like insects.” His thoughts briefly wandered to Agent Heartfilia and he frowned.
“Is that so?” He folded his arms across his chest and turned away. “I would never have expected Gray to fold in, or least of all Erza.”
“Human nature always shines through in the end. When faced with a threat of unknown strength, they will inevitably fall back.”
“Look, I’d rather get going immediately rather than hear your misogynistic spiel, Larcade. Just call the rest of the Spriggan gang and let them string me up or whatever it is they want to do.” Larcade smiled a little too sweetly.
“Father expected you to come kicking and screaming,” he held, rising to his feet. His Alvarez attire billowed around him as he pressed his hands together in prayer. “And I hate to disappoint him.” Around him, three patches of darkness slowly formed into three more advancing bodies. Natsu let out a loud shriek of a laugh, cracking his neck.
“Oh, I believe that. I believe that strongly,” he rumbled, eyes narrowed. “Even as his flesh and blood, neither of us are treated all that well, eh?” Larcade’s brow twitched as he gritted his teeth.
“Father loves you,” he objected.
“And not you, am I right? But don’t be sore—I don’t think Zeref loves much more than Mavis, and even then, it’s a twisted sort of love. He’s the prime example that us Dragneels just aren’t capable of sane existences.” Natsu was too, evident by his mental state, but at least that wasn’t his personal fault. At least he didn’t go and take it out on countless innocents like Zeref did. “Well, no use beating a dead horse. Looks like I’m going to stretch some muscles tonight.”