These bitches are rolling in style, Natsu couldn’t help but think in awe as he was bodied into the backseat of a Lexus SUV. “What bank did you guys hit up, huh?” he had to ask. “And why didn’t I get a cut?”
“I suggest you stay silent,” Invel said as he slid into the passenger’s seat with Jacob behind the wheel. Larcade was the one positioned next to him, and honestly Natsu would have preferred Ajeel. They pulled out onto the street, driving off into the moonlit night.
“Or what, you’ll handcuff my mouth too? You’ve already beaten the shit outta me and busted a cap in my ass. Not to mention drugged me like a rampant elephant or something. What more can you do?”
“This can easily be done without the attitude, Uncle,” Larcade reprimanded gently.
“Oh, shove it up your ass.” He was swaying from side to side with the car’s movements, as he hadn’t the strength left to hold himself still, and his eyelids felt so incredibly heavy . . . Can’t pass out, he thought, crashing his head into the rest in front of him. Can’t pass out, can’t, can’t pass . . . can’t . . .
“Is the Salamander alright?” Invel asked, glancing in the rearview mirror to see Natsu heavily slumped. Larcade looked over at him curiously.
“He’s fine,” he decided after a moment. “Only dreaming . . .”
Screaming, the screaming should stop, it hurt . . .
Sleep, now that sounded nice . . .
“Natsu, stay awake!”
Zeref, was that Zeref? And screaming . . . Oh, no, he’d slept in again, didn’t he? Mom was going to murder him.
Alright, alright already, damn Zeref! If he had to get killed, he should at least be rested, so he could die knowing he had one last good nap.
“Ugh, you—are—heavy— Water, water, need water—”
Sleep, sleep, sleep and dream of even more sleep . . . an endless sleep that could never be interrupted . . . But wait, an endless sleep, wasn’t that—
“ZEREF WHAT IN THE BLOODY FUCK ARE YOU DOING I’M GOING TO DROWN ASDFGKG—”
A strong hand gripped Natsu’s own, stopping his wild thrashing and hauling him from the water in one easy move. He flopped onto his back and gulped air—sweet, dry air—until he was forced to roll over and throw up a certifiable bucketful of seawater. Through red, tearstained eyes, he could see Igneel chewing out Zeref, who looked more pensive than repentant. Natsu recognized that expression: it was the same one he wore when he was more concerned with why his fifth-grade volcano project bombed rather than the other student that was the victim of said bombing.
“D-Dad,” he choked out past his heaving. Igneel left Zeref alone to kneel at his side, rubbing soothing circles into Natsu’s back while Zeref kept making that look, although it was now directed right at Natsu, and the black eyes of the Dragneel family almost looked—
“—red, it was red, red all over.” Natsu could barely get the words out, he was shaking so badly, teeth chattering and all as he curled in on himself in the chair outside of the principal’s office. Zeref was standing directly in front of him, a calm look on his face as he crouched and took Natsu’s hands. “No, let go, you’ll get dirty!” Natsu shouted, trying to pull away, but Zeref’s grip was oddly strong for his frame.
“Deliora was a criminal,” he insisted in a low tone of voice. “He was the reason that your friend Gray’s parents are dead, isn’t he?”
“Yes! But Zeref—”
“And he would’ve done the same again on these schoolgrounds if you hadn’t interceded.” He gripped Natsu’s hands tighter, the ones that were red and raw from scrubbing with bleach, but he knew the blood that still lurked there in the creases of his palms, the undersides of his nails, between his fingers . . . “You saved him, Natsu,” he asserted, eyes glinting. “And more importantly, I see the power that is within you. You are amazing, my little brother.”
“Zeref, you’re—my hands—”
“And I won’t let how amazing you are go to waste,” he promised with an unusual fervor, with eyes that shone with a red hue in the old fluorescent school lights, “I promise, Natsu.”
“I promise I’ll keep my eye on you,” Igneel said with an encouraging hand on Natsu’s shoulders. He felt his muscles tense beneath his black tank top as he held the gun with both hands at the target across the grass. Igneel squeezed once as he gave soft directions—“feet shoulder-width apart, right index finger against the side, left hand steadying”—and after a moment, Igneel murmured his approval and loaded the gun. It wasn’t heavier by too much, but it still felt as if the world was weighing down Natsu’s hands. “Get ready for the recoil now . . . aim at the target, you see the target clearly?”
“See it,” Natsu muttered, closing one eye to get a clear picture of the human-shaped target board. He had said it was the same that they used at the station for target practice, and it sure looked used.
“Now, get ready for the kickback . . . aim again . . . shoot!”
The bang! felt deafening, as if the world around him had exploded. Natsu considered himself a strong guy, but it took a lot of effort not to drop the gun on instinct afterwards. The bullet embedded into the target’s heart. “Wow,” Igneel whistled, taking the gun and unloading it. Natsu rolled his shoulders with a grateful sigh, then a grin took over his face. “You may just be the best shooter in the tenth grade. Hell, you’re better than half the guys on the force! You must get that from your old man.”
“Damn right!” Natsu exclaimed. The sound of grass crunching to his side alerted him to another presence, and when he glanced over, he saw a head of black hair disappearing down the hill. All the tension jumped back into his body in a second. Zeref shouldn’t have been there, they had been separated, because . . . because . . .
“. . . because you’re my little brother,” Zeref murmured, a hand on Natsu’s face, “and I love you.”
“Killing is considered bad, Natsu, but only as society sees fit to label it as such. We have wars that are essentially massacres that the country avidly participates in, then it goes around and shuns them. People are hypocrites and liars. They will twist around your perceptions as they see fit. I, on the other hand, will give you the truth.”
“There are mistakes in the world, errors in the programming of the universe that exist for nothing else but to cause pain and suffering onto others. I couldn’t do anything about it even if I wanted, but you are strong—you could easily deal with them with the right guidance, and that guidance will be me.”
“Zeref, what are you talking about . . .?”
“I’m one of those errors. You’ll have to kill me as well, you know.”
“I couldn’t! No way! I can’t kill my brother!”
“You can, it’s just a matter of you not wanting it. No matter, you’ll want to soon enough, I’ll make sure of it. Now—”
“Salamander. You like dragons, do you?”
“Mm . . . ah . . .”
“Dad taught you to shoot, has he? That makes this easier. But at this point, I don’t think you’re much like the Natsu I know any more. There’s a word I’ve read about and I think it fits you perfectly: Etherious. Etherious Natsu Dragneel. E.N.D.”
. . . The memories end there.
Warm, it was so warm . . . Natsu wanted to just sleep forever in the warmth, it was so perfect . . .
Then again, he couldn’t stay asleep, could he? He still had his name to clear, and he still had to see Zeref, and there was an important one in there too, what was it . . .?
Oh, yes, if he slept, he would die.
The thought propelled him from unconsciousness and he sat bolt-upright. The pain hit him immediately afterwards, causing him to double over with a groan. A very familiar wooden projectile bonked him on the back of his head.
“Don’t do that, idiot.”
“I—what—oh, it’s you,” he said dully, blinking until the pink and red blur solidified into Porlyusica. She held a wooden mortar under one arm and its pestle in the other, marked with some whitish-green herbs and a suspicious stain like Natsu’s blood.
“Yes, it’s me, the one who’s saved your life yet again,” Porlyusica groused, setting them down on a nearby table and resting a hand against his forehead. His eyes roved her small apartment, still as cramped as he remembered with more strange plants and blue lights than a pothead’s. The place reeked of all their scents, spicy and sweet and pungent all at the same time, but after so many years it had become more homey than repulsive. “You’ve a slight fever,” she noted, pulling away and circling her garden, eyeing each plant. He struggled into a half-elevated position with his elbows bearing all his weight.
“What happened to the Spriggan guys?”
“I chased them out. I’ve already reached my limit with one human,” she declared crossly, clenching a fist. “They’re waiting downstairs for you and have been doing so since last night.”
“It’s morning now?”
“Didn’t I just say so?” she snapped.
“Oh.” Then he didn’t have too much time. He grabbed her heavy knitted cover and lifted it tentatively. His shirt had been removed, baring the bandages wrapped around his waist. It felt like she’d given him a bit of painkillers too, because he barely felt anything. “Thanks for saving my ass . . . again.”
“Natsu,” she said seriously, looking at him from the corner of her eye. “I’ve fixed you to the best of my ability, but my potions and remedies can’t fix your mind. What your brother has done to you—”
“You know what Zeref did to me?” he interrupted, eyes wide.
“I do now.” She took a handful of fuzzy white plant like wheat and dumped it into the mortar, followed by a clump of stringy green leaves. “It’s not something that can be easily fixed. That man is very good at manipulation.”
“Shit,” he muttered, resting his forehead on his palm. If there was anything that he realized over the last few days, it was that the “Salamander” persona appeared and disappeared over random stimuli. He couldn’t stand to be around his friends like that—but no. Things were fuzzy in that state, but he knew that he still had the same morals: he wouldn’t hurt those that he cared about. If that was the case, then his other morals also should have held up, such as “protecting the innocents.” Hence, Natsu should have been very unable to burn down any houses and endanger innocents’ lives.
“Drink this.” An old Japanese tea mug was held out under his nose, brimming with a light blue liquid that sloshed like milk. “It’ll make you a bit drowsy.”
Like hell I need that right now, he thought, but knew better than to say it to her face, especially when part of his brain was swelling into the growing knot on the back of his skull. He took one sip to satisfy her, and when she turned he tossed it through the open window. Someone’s cat was really mad about that. “How good am I right now?”
“Not good enough to do whatever inane and dangerous thing you’re thinking of,” she retorted. He beamed in response, swinging his legs over to stand.
“Then that means I’m operating on my usual standard.” Porlyusica sighed in response.
“I know you’re already beyond my influence, so I won’t bother trying to convince you otherwise. However, I do have some parting words,” she said as she handed him his jacket, laundered and with the bullet hole sewed up. “I’m not fond of humans—”
“Don’t I know it?” he muttered with a smirk, shrugging the jacket on and earning another swing he barely dodged.
“—so I don’t like seeing their faces too often. Don’t show up here again.”
He smiled, because he knew what she really meant: Don’t let yourself get hurt. “Thanks again, Porlyusica. I couldn’t be more indebted to you.”
“Just get out already!” she hissed. He held up a parting fist and headed towards the door. He stopped with his hand on the knob and turned to her.
“You still believe in me,” he realized. “Why?” She gave him a flat look.
“I’ve known you since you were born, Natsu. If there’s anything I’ve learned about you in all that time, it’s that you’re one of the few good humans around—you wouldn’t harm another without due reason. I simply believed in that fact.”
“Aww,” Natsu grinned. “I’d hug you, but I’m pretty sure you’d just stab me, so I’ll see you later.”
Invel was waiting outside of the car as Natsu came downstairs. He was tensed as if for a fight and Natsu shrugged it off. “Not fighting, remember? Let’s get to Alvarez already.”
“Lord Zeref isn’t in Alvarez.” The words stunned Natsu far better than any physical attack, and he was easily shoved into the backseat once more.
“What? He’s not?” Having Zeref on the move was like a tornado watch—danger was fast coming, and it would be brutal. “Then where is he?” Silence. They pulled back onto the avenue. “You guys, tell me! Doesn’t the fact that I’m Zeref’s prized little brother mean anything! —Wait, don’t tell me he’s at the department. Tell me!”
“You’ve just said not to tell you,” Larcade said. Natsu growled and made to leap at him before Larcade seized his wrists with enough strength to cut off his blood flow. “You’re done,” he said with finality.
“You’re not going to hurt my friends and get away with it! None of you assholes will!” he shouted.
“You’re not in any position to say or do otherwise.”
“Yes, I am, because Zeref needs me!”
“And what, you’re going to fight your way through us?” he asked with a cutting laugh. “You’ve seen how well that’s already worked for you.”
“I’m gonna—I’m gonna—”
“What?” he prompted with a malevolent glint that was quickly becoming the Dragneel special. What indeed, Natsu thought with gritted teeth. The Salamander had already lost to them, and although he was loathe to admit it, Natsu wouldn’t fare much better.
“Go to hell, all of you,” he snarled. Larcade was satisfied enough to released him, and Natsu moved as far from him as possible to watch their path outside the window. They pulled up in front of a small two-story house, and as soon as Jacob cut the engine Natsu was grabbed and pushed outside with the same gentleness he’d been handled with.
“Keep in mind that should you attack Lord Zeref, the consequences will be graver,” Invel alerted him at point-blank range, so close Natsu could see his expression in his glasses. He didn’t respond, letting himself be hustled into the building, past a nice lobby and up some stairs. As they reached the landing above, the door was wide open, exposing Zeref’s back to them. He turned, which was when Natsu saw the blood painting his coat and slicking his gun-wielding hand.
Oh, no . . .
“Natsu,” he beamed, dragging a hand through his ruffled hair. The blood slicked it back like gel to bare his eyes of the same color. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t come to you sooner, but business had me held up.”
“Zeref, what in the—” He choked off as his eyes locked on a sprawled body with blood gently propagating on the wood around him. Loki, he mouthed, unable to speak. Loki was still, eyes shut, hands clasped around his leg. He looked over to a smeared trail of the stuff, and found that the blood led to yet another: “Lucy!” he exclaimed. An innocent, she was innocent, she was only doing her job, and Zeref killed her. Oh, no, nonono—
“She was in the way,” he said impassively, pocketing the gun and locking his fingers together casually. “And now, Natsu, is time.”
“T . . . ime . . . for what?”
Zeref smiled, slow and cruel like a snake. “Time to complete my task.” Natsu’s stomach dropped and his fists clenched, shaking slightly from the force of his building emotion.
“I’m not going to,” he ground out. Zeref’s eyebrows furrowed. “I’m not going to do your dirty work, you bastard. I’m not—going to—do—what you—” His temper finally got the better of him, and Natsu rushed forward. It didn’t help that his bullet wound seized up on him, nor that Jacob and Ajeel tackled him from behind and into the ground. Gore smeared over his hand and cheek where he collided with the wood, and he damn near broke his neck on impact. Zeref walked towards him with an easy gait and crouched down, grasping Natsu’s chin with ice-cold, blood-slicked fingers.
“You have never had a choice in the matter,” he said in a cool and calculating voice. Natsu wound up to spit in Zeref’s eye, which made him recoil instinctively, and he kicked back to repel Ajeel, the smaller of the two. His elbow went out to uppercut Jacob, snapping his head backwards so violently that he caught whiplash. He was on his feet in a second, eyes wild and chest heaving from quick breaths, and dove after Zeref, seizing him by the collar.
“I make my choices!” he shouted. “You stole them from me! It’s because of you that I’m a criminal, that my friends think I’m a cold-blooded killer, that these two are dead now— I may have been taught to be a monster, but you were born one, Zeref.”
“And what will you do about that?” he asked in that same infuriatingly calm voice. Natsu’s free hand clenched into a fist that he raised, and he swung with all his strength. To break his nose? Break his neck? He didn’t know, but he was sure that he wanted that—that—that bastard to shut up for the rest of forever.
Invel. What about Invel?
The thought occurred to him a second too late as he heard a gun being cocked. He raised his head slowly to see Invel’s detached expression as he held the Glock, but it wasn’t aimed at Natsu—instead, it was aimed at Agent Heartfilia, who was half-up using her table as support and wielding her gun with both hands. Natsu couldn’t help but think of her as pretty badass with blood streaking across her face like war paint and her gun steady despite the bleeding wound on one of her hands.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” Zeref said blankly. Lucy cracked a half-smile.
“I’m supposed to be a lot of things,” she retorted. “Dead isn’t one of them.” Then, very suddenly, she raised her hands and shot out the main light of the living room, bathing them in darkness. A single gunshot went off and the bullet zipped past Natsu’s ear, but otherwise everyone was still.
“Come on,” Natsu heard Lucy whisper with his hypersensitive hearing, followed by a body being half-dragged across the room. He released Zeref and shoved him backwards in a rush, chasing after her. He kept a close ear on her movements as she went the circumference of her apartment, then he was walking on tiles in what he assumed to be her kitchen. An LED clock marked the time as half past three in the morning. He heard something heavy hit the ground, then a blast of warm air hit his face as their steps retreated even further. He moved forward and slammed into the wall. Quickly feeling along the surface, he found a crack that he could sidle through.
Never underestimate an agent, I guess, he thought, feeling along the wall as the heat increased. He loved the heat on a normal day, but at that moment it felt like he was being roasted alive. He had to close his eyes as the sweat starting stinging them, which was an unwise decision, as not a few seconds later he popped free, falling down on a carpet that reeked like dog pee. Fucking gross.
“Wonderful job, following me.” He looked up into the muzzle of an armed gun. “You’ve just made it easier to divide and conquer, Salamander. Or rather, E.N.D.”
“I’m neither! I’m Natsu,” he protested, clutching his aching stomach as he waved his other hand frantically. He looked to her side and noticed Loki crouched down next to a patchy couch, his leg stretched out before him. He stared into Natsu’s eyes long enough for it to be uncomfortable. “You still believe in me, don’t you?” he asked.
“Oi . . .”
“Long time ago, you said you were indebted to me. This is my payback here—just have some goddamn faith in me where no one else does!” Natsu didn’t know what it was—maybe it was the fire in his eyes, or the sincerity in his voice—but Loki blinked, and a slight smile crossed his lips.
“Lucy,” he said lowly, “put down the gun.”
“Loki!” she said, appalled. He shook his head and raised his hand.
“Put down the gun please.”
“Like I’m going to disarm in front of—” She stopped and looked back at Natsu, chewing her lower lip, then gave a furious growl and holstered the gun. “Fine, there. I know I’ll regret this, but I’m trusting your judgement here, Loki.”
“Great,” Natsu praised, getting to his knees. He looked around and saw that they were in another apartment, one that appeared abandoned for a while. “They’ll find us, and quick, but I know how to lose them. We’re gonna get back to the department, and this is how.”