Natsu and Salamander

vi

Lucy wanted to help with the continued investigation, but as her so-called “friends” had her held up at her apartment to make sure she recovered to a hundred percent, she was extremely hindered.

“Loki, I said I’m fine,” she insisted, crossing her arms over her chest and hiding a grimace as she brushed the forming bruises. Loki just frowned at her, pulling up a chair from her dining table and sitting down.

“You’re not convincing me, Lucy—I hope you know that.” She groaned in response. “I’m not going to let you go out there and hurt yourself even more.”

“That’s my job though!” she pointed out.

“Well, yes, but even you have to agree that some weird shit’s going on right now. Having you run into the situation at less than a hundred percent won’t help the investigation and certainly won’t help you.” She pouted but didn’t refute his logic. “And besides, Erza promised to keep you tuned to any additional information, didn’t she? Your phone hasn’t so much as vibrated once all night. So even if you had the chance to jump back into the fray, it would be like diving into the ocean with your hands tied.”

“But nothing’s stopping me from trying to Google information, is there?” she challenged. “Give me my laptop.” He snickered a little as he handed it over. She started it up and immediately searched for Spriggan 12, which gleaned about as much results as she was expecting: zero. So, she changed paradigms: Zeref Dragneel. “That’s more like it,” she murmured, finding several pages of information on his achievements in the fields of science, mathematics, and technology. Finding his biography didn’t help much, as there wasn’t anything that she hadn’t already known, but following a hunch on an accolade in HOSA received in his collegiate years, she found that he excelled in Psychology. “Hmm.”

Hmm what?” Loki asked curiously, leaning over her shoulder. He was self-employed as far as she knew, but only because he was a catch-all type of man, a contemporary jack of all trades. That is to say, his intelligence was no joke, so Lucy wasn’t as inclined to hide the fine details from him.

“Zeref is adept in Psychology and his brother is a psycho. Irony?” He winced a little at psycho. “And he also mentioned Natsu having attempted to kill him once before.” Could the situations be related? “Then there’s what God Serena mentioned about him being ‘Etherious’ Natsu Dragneel as well as being the project of the ‘Spriggan 12.’” All those terms bounced around in her skull like the pieces of a puzzle she was too blind to see.

“Sounds like a load to me,” admitted Loki.

“You’re not alone there,” she sighed, “but there’s a correlation between it all, I’m sure. This would be a lot better with the whole PD to help bounce ideas around . . .”

“Well for now, I’d think this lowly servant’s brain is enough, my princess,” he smirked. There goes the Loki I know and despise, she thought with an eye-roll.

“There’s another part to the story that we’re not getting . . . I’ll have to find any other people that have known him a while.” She dialed Lieutenant Scarlet’s number and waited as it rang.

“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck there,” Loki said. “For how outgoing Natsu is, he doesn’t talk about himself much at all. I don’t think I know more than two sentences about him that don’t involve food or fighting.”

“Gee, wonder why.”

“Honestly, Lucy, I still don’t believe he’s a bad guy at heart, and I don’t think you should either. You were never one to take things at face value.”

“I’m trying not to, honest, but facts are facts here.”

“A fact is something verifiable by observation. So far, all you’ve actually observed is a cluster of riddles and half-baked answers and riding him for a confession. I thought you got this job because you liked hearing stories, not just slapping cuffs on someone tagged guilty?” His words made her think—that is, until the phone went to voicemail.

“That’s odd . . . She should be picking up.” She hung up with a frown. “Could it be that—”

A slam in the door downstairs put both on-edge. Loki was a weapon in himself, but Lucy had to grab her gun from her utility belt slung over the dining table, and by the time she returned to the main room, the intruder was already up. What is that landlady doing with herself? she thought in exasperation, flicking off the safety. She whirled around the corner with jaw tensed. “I hope you have balls of steel, man—”

“I do not,” said Zeref coolly, giving her an easy smile. “But I do have something else you want.”

“What is that, exactly?” she asked, although she knew the answer already. His smile widened, though it contained no warmth or humor.

“My brother.” He spread his hands before clasping them behind his back. “In exchange, well . . .”

——————

Larcade, being the easygoing asshole that he was, hung back while Ajeel, Invel, and Jacob advanced. Well, this is going to be a challenge without my gun, he thought, cracking his knuckles, but I’m nothing if not open to a challenge!

Ajeel was first, kicking up a cloud of dust that dropped Natsu’s visibility to zero. But it wasn’t like he needed to see to know that the bastard was coming up from behind, and Natsu lashed out with a foot, connecting with something that gave him a satisfying crack in response. While Ajeel sat back to lick his wounds, Invel stepped up—he could tell from his ice-cold temperature that even rivaled Gray’s. Natsu swung instinctively as he drew close, and he took the opportunity to dodge and bring his knee up into his stomach. Natsu gasped, feeling winded, and Invel elbowed him in the neck. A new set of stars blinded him as he stumbled backwards and crashed into something tall and strong that quickly had his arms.

“You may be Father’s pride and joy,” Larcade murmured, “but even you can’t handle three at once.”

“That’s called cheating, dear nephew,” Natsu smirked, spitting a wad of blood to the grass before he brought his legs up and back into Jacob’s stomach. He staggered from the impact, releasing Natsu, and as soon as he hit the ground his foot was shoved into Invel’s mouth. The kick had him flat on his back, glasses thrown a few feet off from the fall. “Lucky for me, I’m a game-breaker,” he said as he hit the ground, dodging as Ajeel attempted to toss sand in his eye and shoving his head into the dirt like the ostrich he was.

“Interesting,” said Larcade passively as Jacob pulled another vanishing act, his special skill. Natsu halted, waiting for the air behind him to shift before spinning around and intercepting his hand, which was clasped around a Glock. He bared his teeth at the sight and dug his heels into the ground, attempting to ground Jacob, but he forgot he was wearing sandals and his feet came free, causing him to slip. He changed directions at the last second as Jacob pulled the trigger, and Natsu let out a hiss of pain as the bullet buried itself in his abdomen.

“You think this is gonna be enough to stop me?” he growled, eyes flashing like hazard lights. “You guys are fooling yourselves.” He caught himself with a hand and prepared to propel himself forward once more before something pricked into the side of his neck.

“We’re not trying to kill you, remember?” said Invel coolly. “Our only duty is to bring you to Zeref.”

“Shit.” Waves of lethargy ran through him, and his attempt to jump to his feet ended up with him flat on his belly like a netted beast. He could barely put up a fight as Jacob slung him over his shoulder like a trash bundle. “The hell does . . . he want with me anyway? He ain’t give two shits before today.”

“Is it wrong for one to want to see their brother?”

“With Zeref . . . With Zeref, nothing is as simple as that. Not since we were kids—not ever.” He tried to grab Jacob’s shoulders but he could barely get his arms to work as he wanted. Besides that, he was feeling doubly woozy from blood loss. “Oi, oi you guys, do you want me to die before we get to Alvarez? Come on, you’re all too smart for that.”

“Hospital?” Jacob asked Larcade. He hummed thoughtfully.

“He wouldn’t be too welcome, nor do we personally know any healers.”

“I know someone that could help,” Natsu said. “You just have to let me go. She doesn’t like strangers all that much.”

“Natsu,” Invel said warningly.

“I’m not trying to pull a fast one. I want to see Zeref anyway, so why would I? Scout’s honor,” he grinned, crossing his heart. They all exchanged looks and a few words.

“To where?” Invel finally sighed. Natsu saw his chance to formulate a plan and grabbed it, but first he needed to buy himself more time.

“She lives just outside of Magnolia . . .”

“I want it to stop. And . . . I think I know how.”

“Natsu?”

“I’m going to find the bastards that did it, every last one of them, and let them know how it feels to watch everything and everyone they love burn to a crisp. I’ll let them know and I’ll make sure they don’t forget.”

“Natsu, that’s not like you,” Porlyusica said worriedly. “You should come over and—”

“You’re right,” he interrupted. “This isn’t like me. So I shouldn’t be me in this. Maybe ‘Salamander?’ I’ve always liked that name . . . Well, details, details. But thanks for this talk, I needed to sort some things out.”

——————

Lucy knew it wouldn’t be smart to feed into Zeref’s demands, but she was backed into a metaphorical corner there: He had broken into her house and she was injured, not to mention the fact that she was temporarily disconnected from the station. Then again, she had a secret weapon he had no idea of: Loki. She trusted him with her life on more than one occasion and was sure she could still do it today.

“So earlier, you were lying to me?” she demanded through her tensed jaw. “At the morgue?”

“Not at all,” he replied glibly, though his eyes were flat and blank like a fish’s. “What I said was that nothing I know would help with the investigation, which is a truth. My information benefits only myself.”

“Lucky me that you’ve gone out of your way to make the distinction.” Zeref ignored that, or maybe he just didn’t notice her speaking, his eyes roaming over her gun.

“That won’t kill me,” he said matter-of-factly. Lucy’s lip curled.

“I know a small number of things that a gun can’t stop.”

“I see. As I was saying, all I request is my brother, then I will retreat. I’m attempting a peaceful consensus now.”

“Peaceful . . . So that man, God Serena, was indeed yours?” He nodded once, never breaking eye contact. It made Lucy wonder: if Zeref could employ skilled persons like that, how strong was he? He appeared small and frail, but if there was anything that the game had taught her after nearly a decade, it was that looks could be highly deceiving. She had to take him as a trained killer and kept her instincts focused on him as a result. “You had all the chances in the world to regain Natsu Dragneel before. Why now?”

“The situation has changed now,” he clarified. “Now, Natsu is going out to most likely do something very stupid, and I must stop him.”

“A brother’s love. Is that what you’re trying to justify this as?”

“A twisted sort of love,” he amended with a wry smile, “but love nonetheless. The same way you’d love a piece of pottery forged by your own hands.”

“That’s no good. Natsu is flesh and blood, not a transferrable piece of property.”

“Now that, that is where you are wrong, Agent Heartfilia.” He was actually amused now, a sparkle in his eyes that brought out a bit of color in his irises. Scarlet? No, that was a trick of the light. Still, it appeared as if blood had painted his eyes as he beamed. “I’ve had plans for him since he was born, and through careful cultivation and psychological techniques, I’ve made him into the man he is today: a man suitable for reaching my ends.”

“You’re a twisted bastard, aren’t you?” she hissed, arms shaking. “That’s your own brother you’re talking about! Family is more than just using one another for your own ends . . .” A little too much emotion ran into her statement, but she reeled herself in and regained her bearings, steadying her grip.

“Curious,” he said. “You speak from experience. Why is that?”

“None of your damn business! Now, I suggest you get on your knees and put your face and hands on the ground before I do something you’ll regret.”

“I’ve told you already, that gun won’t . . . No matter. Then I take it you won’t be giving me Natsu.” Lucy was just about to give him his last warning when a bang rang through the air. It took her a few seconds to realize that it wasn’t her gun that went off. She looked over in time to catch Loki hitting the ground, a dark red stain blooming across his jeans. “He was preparing to attack me and I reacted accordingly.” Zeref’s voice brought her attention back to him. Her head whipped back and caught sight of a silver object returning to the folds of his baroque black jacket.

“You— Loki, are you alright?”

“He got my thigh,” he hissed through his teeth, his leg pulled in towards his arched torso. “—Femoral artery.” That’s major, she thought, aided by the quick spread of blood that began to stain her floor. He’ll need a hospital, but before we can get there . . .

She fired, and whether intending to dodge or not, Zeref took it somewhere in his intestinal region rather than in the lung as she intended. Still, even as blood visibly stained his clothing, he appeared entirely unperturbed. “I told you,” he sighed before returning his arm to the air. A bang! had Lucy’s gun flying from her bleeding hand—a side-eyed glance told her that she was scratched, not pierced—then a second bullet embedded itself into her firing arm. She cursed as she gripped the wound, feeling blood bubble up warm and thick from the injury and stain her loose white tee.

“I actually hate doing things the hard way,” confessed Zeref as he lifted his bangs from his forehead, revealing eyes that were indeed the shade of the blood draining from her body. He was shaking slightly, lips quirked—was he drawing excitement from the confrontation? “But you’ve forced my hand. I believe my plans will continue a lot easier with one less Agent Lucy Heartfilia.”

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