Natsu and Salamander

viii

The last thing Lucy wanted to do was work with that shady man, but as Loki was inches from bleeding to death and she still felt groggy from . . . whatever it was that Zeref did, she didn’t have a real choice in the matter.

“You want to leave Loki here? You’re crazy,” she said.

“Look, I’m not sayin’ to leave him and don’t come back. Loki’s my friend too, you know.”

“And look how well you’ve treated your friends hitherto,” she pointed out acerbically. He alternatively grimaced and snarled.

“It wasn’t my fault! It was Zeref’s stupid brainwashing shit or—look, it doesn’t matter,” he decided, shaking his head vehemently. “The point is that if either of us go out there alone, especially with Loki as deadweight, we’ll be shot dead. We’ve gotta work together to get back, and we will be getting back.”

“Then what’s the plan already, hotshot?”

“Zeref, amazingly, is the least destructive of them. His strength comes from how freaking hard he is to kill, but otherwise, he’s harmless. He’s good at thinking on his feet, on the other hand, so watch out for that. Larcade, the blond with the orange eyes, he’s the most dangerous and the most devoted follower, since Zeref is his dad.” Lucy’s eyes widened but she didn’t interrupt him. “Invel’s more of a tactician, but he can box. Jacob’s good at sneakin’ around and Ajeel’s really just a hard hitter with no brains to himself. That’s really his roster right now.”

“Right now. Meaning he has more?”

“Well, they’re the Spriggan 12,” he pointed out. “But it’s really rare that Zeref ever moves them all out at once—this group of four is more than likely all he’s got right now. Even so, they ain’t pushovers.” He turned away for a moment, jaw tensed, then looked back at her with a scorching look. She could see that his eyes weren’t black, but a dark shade of green like jade. “But I’m not gonna be afraid of them, not anymore. Can you still shoot?”

“Well enough.”

Well enough is good. I’ll take Loki.” He crouched down at Loki’s side and grabbed him around the waist, forcing him to his feet. Almost immediately, Loki fainted against him. “Shit, he’s lost too much blood,” Natsu swore, stumbling a little under the weight. “You’re gonna hafta take down Invel—he’s the only armed one, and while Jacob and Ajeel aren’t easy pickings, it’ll be a lot easier with a gun out of the equation. Besides, I need one. C’mon, we’re heading downstairs.”

Lucy covered his back as he shifted through the kitchen, mindful of Loki’s body. It wasn’t the first time she noticed it, but he hadn’t the demeanor of a criminal at all—at least, in a normal state. His eyes were predatory, but there was nothing malevolent about them. “Why are you fighting against Zeref at all?” she questioned quietly as they headed to the rear balcony. “You’ve been doing his dirty work for how long now?”

“Not willingly!” he growled, flashing her an irate look. “I had no idea he’d been screwing with my mind. That’s his thing: he’s a damn good manipulator. Hell, I probably found him out before and he just . . . hypnotized me or whatever into forgetting it. He would’ve kept doing so too, if you hadn’t come along.” His look softened fractionally, and he gave a grin that could melt even the coldest heart. “Thanks for kicking my ass, Agent Heartfilia.”

“Ha. That’s something you don’t even need to ask for.” He let out a quick but hearty laugh, and she chuckled a little in response—hey, she wasn’t stone. She was finally starting to understand the endearment her coworkers felt towards the pink-headed man.

“Lucky break!” he said as he pushed past the glass doors, peering over the railing. “There’s a Dumpster down there, within jumping distance. And—” He tensed as the sound of a revving engine echoed through the air. “The Spriggans are rolling out—they’re gonna search the block for us. We gotta make this quick. Here, you get Loki.”

“Why?”

“I’ll go down first so I can catch him, since he’s not exactly in jumping condition. Okay?” He was already shoving Loki over before he even finished the sentence. Loki was heavy, but she could manage for a moment—a moment was all it took for him to vault over the railing and land in the Dumpster with the loud sound of ripping plastic. “Rank!” he exclaimed with disgust, then clapped his hands over his mouth in fright. Lucy clapped a hand over her forehead with a groan.

Now I recall why he’s an idiot!

The SUV pulled to a stop at the corner, reversed, then doubled back towards the apartment’s parking lot. Natsu was out of the Dumpster and running across the asphalt in a second, and although he was fast, he wasn’t faster than a speeding car. Gunshots soon followed, which he avoided more out of panic than instinct. She watched a streetlamp’s bulb get shattered, then someone’s window, followed by an angry dog’s barking. She needed to get down and help, but she very well couldn’t toss Loki like garbage . . . into the garbage.

“Loki, wake up. Wake up.” He snorted.

“No, Lucy, the see-through nightgown . . .” he muttered nearly incoherently before passing out again. Well, if he was capable of fantasizing, he wasn’t in too bad condition. Shifting her weight around, she managed to push him over the railing, and he tumbled over and into the garbage. He yelped in shock and she jumped after him, hitting the ground in a roll. She was momentarily blindsided by pain as she used her injured hand to brace against the impact, and her knee didn’t fare too well either, and when she recovered she saw Natsu running back towards her, the Spriggans and their gun hot on his heels. She hadn’t the time to even open her mouth before he streaked past, grabbing her and tossing her over his shoulder easily in one motion.

“Drop me right now!” she shouted instinctively.

“Don’t scream in my ear!” he said instead, forcing her to relax her grip on the gun and snatching it from her hand. As the SUV drew closer, Natsu took aim and fired at the windshield, then the front tire. Invel’s next shots went wide as the car careened off the road. Not off of a cliff, as she dearly wished, but the brakes were slammed on with a screech, and before it even came to a complete stop, the occupants were on foot.

“I can run,” Lucy growled, even as her knee throbbed terribly. It wasn’t broken, that she was sure of, but she most likely couldn’t run at the moment.

“Dude, I felt you bust your knee,” he said with an eye-roll. “Sure you can run.” She was beginning to find Natsu more irritating than the Salamander as he ducked and rolled behind a bus stop’s bench, rolling a trash can there for extra cover. Setting Lucy down on the ground, he looked over the curved back and took aim.

“What about Loki?”

“I found a payphone and some change in these pants. Also, there’ll be emergency services coming by here soon,” he said. “Especially since half the block saw me runnin’ up and down the sidewalk.”

“But isn’t the department swamped?” she insisted. He sent her a half-grin, but it wasn’t any less crazy.

“You don’t live in Magnolia, so you wouldn’t know, but we’ve got a lot of ass-kickers hanging around. Me, I wanted to do it legally, but there are plenty of crazy bastards that are vigilantes. If they show up on time, we’ll have enough cover to head to the station.”

“And if not?” she demanded. He shrugged a shoulder and ducked as a bullet whizzed over his head, shearing some pink strands.

“Let’s just say . . . I didn’t think that far ahead.” He gave her another smile, a mix of sheepish and breathless, before diving forward and ramming into another body with a loud thud. Lucy raised her head to see him grappling with the stoutest one. She was momentarily surprised she hadn’t heard him coming, then figured he must be Jacob, the sneaky one. Natsu braced his foot against the curb before dropping his arms to his stocky waist, and gave a loud roar as he hauled him backwards and suplexed him into the sidewalk. His head made a nasty cracking noise as it collided with the cement, and his body fell limp.

“Augh! Shit,” Natsu swore as he clenched his stomach, where patches of red seeped through the fabric of his jacket. “Must’ve reopened it . . .” He yelped and dove away as Invel rounded on him again, walking and shooting at the same time. He stumbled and hissed in pain as his injury protested the movement, but ran up to him nonetheless. Lucy thought he was going to attack him up close, then she saw her gun had been returned, left on the ground within her reach. So he was rushing an armed opponent while he himself was unarmed.

She gnashed her teeth. He feared them, yet he was doing it in other to buy them—her and Loki—some time. “This pink-haired, stupid, overconfident mother—”

“There!” Natsu pinned Invel’s shooting arm to his chest and growled defiantly as he rammed their foreheads together, smashing his glasses and his nose. He stumbled, the blue of his coat stained with the streams of red from his face, and his eyes narrowed with anger. Natsu smirked in response, wiping a bit of blood from his cheek.

“I hate to disobey Zeref, but you’d be better off as a bloody—” He fell short as his gun clicked emptily, then Natsu held up the magazine.

“I’m no gun expert, but I don’t think it’ll work without this.” He tossed it over his shoulder and narrowly avoided a punch thrown by Invel, but his subsequent kick landed right on mark in his gut. He grunted in pain as his knees buckled, and Invel smashed his knee into his face, breaking his nose and splitting his lip in turn, then brings his elbow down on the back of Natsu’s skull hard. He hits the ground, and Lucy isn’t sure if he’s shocked or unconscious. She grabbed the gun with her good hand and made a hasty shot, which went wide of Invel’s head. She did succeed in getting his attention.

“Not many people survive Zeref—for that, you’re impressive, Miss Heartfilia.” He rose to his feet and wiped his leaking nose on his sleeve before rushing towards Lucy. She pushed herself to her feet, which were just a bit unsteady, and turned to run—just to smash into a larger body. Jacob’s strong arms clasped around her, stilling her movements, although his bloodstained face was blushing in embarrassment. She pulled her knees up against her chest before kicking out into his stomach, forcing his grip to relax, and her next attack went right between his legs. If a concussion couldn’t keep him down, that surely would.

Invel was on her in the next moment. She shoved the gun into her waistband for the moment, as he was too close to land a decent shot on in her condition, and attempted a roundhouse kick, her best move when it came to hand-to-hand. He ducked forward slightly and caught her leg with his left hand, moved even closer, and twisted to slam his right elbow into her forehead. The blow left her disoriented and open for two normal jabs in the same spot, then an uppercut. She dizzily raised her leg for another kick, and he grabbed her ankle, using his foot to knock out the back of her standing knee. She fell hard on her back and saw him reaching down towards her—

“Hey!” Suddenly the tail end of a stop sign collided with Invel’s temple. It was so unexpected that he fell to the side, landing on the bus bench. The wielder of said stop sign, a man slightly older than her with unruly dark hair and a whole lot of piercings, offered her a hand up, which she took with no protest. “Only I get to beat the shit outta that moron,” he continued, jabbing his thumb in Natsu’s direction. She noticed a young blue-haired girl in a school dress tending to him before Invel rose again, face dark with anger.

“Gajeel Redfox,” he said lowly. “The son of Igneel’s brother, Metallicana.”

“And I don’t know ya are or who ya think ya are to be bashin’ on Natsu, and I don’t care to find out.” Lucy had no idea how he managed to wield a stop sign like a twig, or how he pulled it from the ground at all, but she wasn’t about to protest as he kept Invel occupied. She went over to Natsu, who was sitting up now with the girl rebandaging his waist, bared by the jacket that was pulled open and pushed down around his waist. Her traitorous eyes scanned his built torso for a moment before joining his.

“This is Wendy,” he said as she approached. “My niece. She should also be able to patch up Loki in the meantime.”

“Are you the one that locked Uncle Natsu up?” she asked Lucy, turning her large brown eyes over. She looked small and frail, but there was an underlying strength in her, similar to Natsu.

“Yes, I am,” she admitted.

“Then you’re strong,” she decided. “And you can help our friends.” Then she gave a smile and Lucy felt a strong urge to hug her and ruffle her hair.

“Alright, Wendy,” he said as he stood, cracking his neck. Lucy looked over and saw that Loki had hauled himself from the Dumpster and was sitting up against it, clutching at his leg weakly. Wendy grabbed her backpack and rushed over to him while Natsu nodded at Lucy. “Zeref, Larcade, and God Serena didn’t come down with the others, so chances are they’re at the department.”

“Serena.” An angry growl resounded in her throat. “That one, I know.”

“Then you know how dangerous he is. Let’s not waste time.” He grabbed her by the forearm and pulled her into a back alley just as an ambulance’s klaxon rang from down the block. They rested for a moment around the corner, watching the truck pass by, followed by two cruisers from the station across town, then they continued towards the department. Suddenly, it occurred to Lucy that she was dealing with the Salamander again. She wasn’t sure what it was exactly, considering he wasn’t speaking more than necessary, but she supposed that after dealing with him a few days and learning his game, she could recognize the signs.

“You’re still trying to help your friends,” she said to him. He was a little faster than her, probably due to his longer legs, but she kept the pace. “Why’s that? You’re a criminal.”

“I told you before, I care about them,” he retorted with a touch of anger. “Fullbuster, Scarlet, all of them. More than that, I care about everyone in the city—the good ones, anyway. Zeref could screw my profile around all he wanted, but he couldn’t wash out my morals. Those were ingrained in my heart by Igneel, and nothing short of my death could make me anything like that warped bastard.”

“But you burned down three separate dwellings,” she protested. He let out a sharp ring of laughter and glanced at her from the corner of his eye.

“The first place was the house of a drug biz, Eisenwald. They gave my old man some problems back in the day, and I thought they were the culprits in his death. Then I found out I was faked out, and the next place was even worse: Tartaros, a sect of even more poor souls brainwashed by my brother. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve tried talking them out of their craziness, tried to get them seeing things my way, but they were too far gone. And, lastly, was the actual killer, a bastard whose insanity damn near rivaled Zeref’s: this guy, Acnologia.”

“Acnologia . . . There was a huge case about him a few years ago, that he was an accessory in the deaths of Grandine Marvell and Metallicana . . . Redfox.” His face was grim as realization dawned on her.

“And my dad was the last mark. Dunno if I killed him or not, even to this day, but the place he called home is just a bunch of cinders on the ground now. That, at least, was pleasing to see.”

“So you never did hurt innocents,” she said.

“Well, duh! I would never. But you wouldn’t have believed me then, and I can tell you barely do now,” he lamented. At that moment, he didn’t look too much like Salamander, or even like Natsu: he looked like himself . . . if that even made sense. “Doesn’t matter. When Zeref is through—”

Natsu pulled up short, causing Lucy to crash into his back. She moved past him to the mouth of the alley where the department laid in a cul-de-sac. The windows were shattered, but otherwise it looked fine. Outside, stationed lazily against the sign, was God Serena. “You two sure took your time,” he said in his typical dramatic tone, flipping his hair. “I was almost tempted to let them all burn despite what Zeref said.”

“Let them burn?” she repeated, noticing Natsu’s sudden silence.

“He left it to me to incapacitate them and hold them over your head. I decided to set them up for an inferno, your preferred method of death.” He held up a box remote with a smirk. “There are explosives inside. When I press this button, your friends will have their big denouement.”

“And let me guess,” he said in a tone that was deathly quiet. “If I come quietly, Zeref’s going to let them go.”

“Not that simple,” he sang as if he was in an opera. He spun with arms extended before coming to a stop, his empty hand pointed at Lucy. “She has to be in there too, and the department blows either way.”

“Of course it does,” he worked through gnashed teeth. His eyes flashed with their intensity as his fists shook. “Of course, he’d want to teach me a lesson. He wants to explode my friends, and wants me to come crawling with my tail between my legs afterward.”

“That’s the plan,” Serena said impassively.

“And if I try anything funny, the department blows either way . . . am I right?”

“Still correct.” Lucy glanced at Natsu and was surprised to find that his face had smoothed out.

“Where is Zeref now?”

“He and Larcade are waiting for you across town.”

“Why is that?”

“Are you coming or not?” he said instead, frowning with impatience. “He said not to rush you, but I’d rather not stand here all day.”

“Can’t I just shoot him?” Lucy said quietly.

“I wouldn’t place my luck on that,” Natsu and Serena said simultaneously. Serena continued with a smirk, “You should know, we both have excellent hearing, not to mention reflexes.”

“If they’re dying either way, what happens if I don’t walk in there with them?”

“Then you deal with me out here,” he said simply. “Personally, I’m all for it—it makes for a much better action sequence.” She gritted her teeth, recalling how proficient of a fighter he was. She and Natsu were caught between a rock and one hell of a hard place.

“Natsu,” she said, “what happens now?”

Natsu raised a shoulder before stepping forward. “We don’t really have a choice, do we?” he said to her. “Do it, push the button.”

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