Natsu and Salamander

ix

Natsu knew that his brother wasn’t completely on the up-and-up, that he’d done some terribly things during their lives, but that . . . that was some next-level fucked up right there. And Zeref knew what he was doing, and he knew he could get away with it. No one, not law enforcement or karma or morality or even his goddamn brother, could stop him.

But not anymore. Natsu wouldn’t stand for it anymore, even if he died in the process. After all, he’d much rather die than know his friends died on his behalf for stupid reasons to begin with. He’d much rather die than have Zeref put him on a brainwashing-induced killing spree in the name of . . . whatever the hell Zeref stood for, Natsu didn’t have a frigging clue anymore. But Natsu understood Zeref, not that he was proud to say it, but he did, and he loved playing mind games.

“Push it,” Natsu insisted, pointing at the control box. “Because I know that there ain’t no damn explosives in there. As many toys as you get, you don’t have a shitload of C-4 on hand, and even Zeref can’t easily get so much in so little time, nor could he have foreseen all of this happening. He’s doing this just to screw with me.”

“Are you serious?” Lucy asked, looking between them.

“Well, he’s right,” God Serena said. “I don’t have a shitload of C-4. On the other hand, there’s a gas stove in the kitchenette, and a smaller explosive inside of it . . .”

And shit hits the fan, Natsu thought, digging his fingers into his scalp.

“Were you just trying to sound cool?”

“Not really, but . . . did it sound cool?” She punched his shoulder hard enough to make him wince. “Oi, you have any bright ideas?”

“Mph,” she huffed, grabbing him by the back of his shirt. He thought she was going to fling him forward, then he noticed she was tracing patterns into his back. Wait, not patterns, letters. H-E L-I-K-E-S D-R-A-M-A-T-I-C-S. U-S-E T-H-A-T. She yanked her hand back not a second later, crossing them over her chest. He was about to snap that no, Serena wouldn’t buy that, then he noticed movement coming from inside, through one of the smashed windows. Serena was facing them, so he couldn’t see as Jellal, Meredy, and Ultear—three people that walked the edge of the law just as much as Gajeel did—passed by, aiding Gray and Erza out. Okay, I just need to buy them some time, he thought. Appeal, appeal to his acting nature . . .

“You want an action sequence, don’t you?” Natsu said to God Serena. “You can have that right now. Hell, I know I don’t have any qualms about kicking your ass.”

“I could fight you, but I wouldn’t want to kill you—Zeref wouldn’t like that.”

“Kill me? You’re joking.”

“Well, I know over twenty combat styles and am proficient in over thirty weapons,” he continued. “And you?”

“I, uh . . . I won a hotdog eating contest one time,” he tried. “Okay, so I’m not as good of a fighter as you, but I have . . . strengths of my own.”

“Is it the power of friendship?”

“What? No. What kind of stupidity is that? No, no.” Think, think . . . He wasn’t a thinker, but he needed to continue the distraction. From the corner of his eye, he could see that Jellal and the others were still working. “But this is usually the part where the hero starts giving their monologue about the villain’s big mistake and their weakness and all that.” Natsu’s words brightened God Serena’s face and easily caught his interest. “So, err . . .”

“You think you have him, but you don’t,” Lucy said while Natsu remained braindead. Big speeches were never his thing. “Because while I don’t know him personally, I’ve heard enough stories from his friends to believe he wouldn’t give up, not even in a situation as hopeless as this. His brain is too small to understand when he’s lost anyway.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“He’s also reputed as being overly selfless to the point of risking what little brain cells he has left for something trivial,” she continued. He was getting a nagging feeling that her information came from Gray. “He never quite learned normal human lessons like think before you act, restraint, common sense . . . But,” she said, and he almost took it to be an afterthought before he noticed the very intentional smile on her face, “being this way, Natsu has saved a lot of people, and I see that whatever side he’s on must be the right side. Consequently, whatever side Zeref on, which includes his affiliates, deserves less than even instant death.”

“. . . I see,” God Serena said eventually, pointing at Lucy. “She’s your leading lady, huh?” Lucy turned red with indignation while Natsu cocked his head to one side. “That wasn’t part of Zeref’s plan.” Something about his tone made shivers run up Natsu’s spine.

“What are you—”

Something long and black flicked out from his side and latched onto Lucy’s wrist, yanking her forward hard. She crashed into God Serena’s side and he untangled the weapon—a whip, it was, he untangled the whip from her, just to replace it with a knife to her throat. Fortunately, it was the flat end, but he was pressing it hard to her skin, his other hand holding her neck still. Her lips took on a bluish hue as she fought to catch her breath, punching and slapping at his chest.

“Lucy!” he growled, stepping forward, but Serena brandished the button again. His eyes went to the building—he couldn’t see movement anymore, but certainly Jellal would’ve given him a sign if things were all clear. He looked back at Lucy to see her tugging at the handle of the whip. Seeing him distracted, Natsu decided to help her cause by launching a nearby rock at his head. He moved out of the way, of freaking course, but his grip loosened enough for her to snatch the whip and jump backwards. Her next move had the box flying as the forked tip snapped at his hand.

“I’m also good with whips,” she smirked. Serena attempted to dive towards the box, but Natsu was already on it, rolling on the ground to grab it. At the same time, Lucy pinned his arms to his waist with the whip. He growled in anger and pulled free, snapping out dual wooden nunchaku. Her new weapon wasn’t close ranged enough to deal with them, and she was reduced to dodging his quick swipes, but more than once the impacts left large blossoms of bruises on her skin. Natsu came up from behind and managed to pull one away, but the next came across his face with all the power of a solid steel whip. He saw stars, he saw the whole freaking constellations. His arms came up instinctively as Serena swung again, and he used the handles of the stolen nunchaku to block.

Lucy snapped the whip out again, and this time it wrapped around God Serena’s neck. His next strike came up short of Natsu’s skull as he was yanked backwards and into Lucy’s hand, which latched onto his face and slammed him to the ground. He grabbed Lucy’s ankle and tugged her down as well, and in that move the gun came loose from her waistband and fell to the ground. Natsu flung the nunchaku out as Serena reached for it, and Lucy kicked his hand away, giving Natsu time to grab it. The two were back on their feet in a second, but this time Serena had Lucy’s wrists tangled with the whip, and his arm was clinched tightly around her neck.

“Shoot me, but you’ll have to bet on missing her,” he advised, holding Lucy’s head still. She gritted her teeth and gave him a certain look through narrowed eyes, but . . . he wouldn’t risk shooting her. Not as a stranger, and not as someone who he was beginning to consider a friend.

“Ah, who am I kidding,” he muttered, shaking his head. “She’s already a friend in my book.” He put his hands up. “Nope, not gonna shoot.”

“Frigging moron!” she said to him. Well, at least he was used to it.

“I’m not going to shoot. Zeref wants me to kill her and everyone else so I’ll be all submissive and tame and come crawling back to him—why in hell would I do what he wants? I’m going to Zeref,” he said with certainty, “but it will be on my terms, and none of my friends are gonna get hurt. You Spriggans, on the other hand, are finished.

Bang!

A bloody trail followed Serena to the ground that he collided into with a heavy thud, and fell still. Lucy staggered forward in surprise and Natsu caught her arm, steadying her. Looking off to the side, he saw that the shooter had been Gray. Bruises littered his arm and neck, with an especially large one on his forehead, but his usually icy face was hot with fury. “That’s what you get, motherfucker,” he growled. Then his eyes landed on Natsu, who put his hands up in surrender.

“I hope you’re not using that on me next.” To his surprise, Gray smirked, holstering the gun.

“And kill your last three brain cells?” Natsu was so relieved he could cry.

“Gray, leave him alone, would you?” Ultear came up and rested a hand on his shoulder. Then she nodded at Natsu. “You made some dangerous friends, Natsu Dragneel.”

“Trust me, they’re not friends. —Wait, Gray, why aren’t you shooting me? Not that I wanna be Swiss cheese, but I thought you hate my guts now?”

“I do,” he said almost earnestly. “But that God Serena character basically monologued your whole life story and Zeref’s work to us, so we know it’s not your fault.” He appeared a little bashful as he turned away. “But, as your best friend, I should’ve believed something was up from the start. I’m . . . sorry.”

“Aww, don’t tell me you’re melting all soft, Fullbuster.”

“The hell did you say, Dragneel?” Gray snapped. Natsu grinned—that was more normal.

“Where’s Erza and the others?”

“Jellal and Meredy got them away, in case the department detonated,” Ultear explained. “Gray fought to stay.”

“Then everyone is safe.” She nodded and Natsu sighed. “Good, cuz now, I’m heading out to kick Zeref’s ass. You got your cruiser’s keys?” Gray dropped them in Natsu’s waiting hand, which he clenched right after.

“Don’t get killed,” he warned. “You still have to prove to the town that you’re not a criminal, and you can’t do it if you’re dead.”

“’course,” he responded blithely. “Also, if any other of Zeref’s dumb cronies show their faces around here in the meantime—”

“We’ll handle them,” he assured Natsu. “They may have gotten the jump on us now, but nobody hurts Magnolia and gets away with it.” Natsu nodded and took a step back.

“I’m holding you to that, Ice Princess.”

“Just do your shit and come back, ash-for-brains,” Gray retorted as Natsu headed to the parking lot. Lucy followed behind him with a curious expression.

“What’s with the name calling?” she asked.

“It’s just something we do. I wouldn’t say it to his face, but it’s how I show I care about him, and I guess it’s the same on his end.” She didn’t appear to understand but he left it there. As he unlocked the door, he noticed her favoring her injured arm, not that her gouged hand was any better. “It’s still bleeding?”

“No, but it hurts like hell.”

“C’m’ere.” He tore some of his sleeve away and tied it around her palm. He gripped her arm hard to pry out the bullet’s shell, then wrapped it as well. “At least this’ll keep air from getting in it.”

“. . . Thanks,” she said eventually, staring even harder at him. He gave her a inquisitive look that she shook off and climbed into the passenger’s seat. He slid into the driver’s seat and fired up the engine. “Do you know where Zeref is?”

“I’ve got a sneaking suspicion,” he replied. “Put on the seatbelt.” She frowned.

“This isn’t the time to worry about driver’s safety—” Her words left her as Natsu floored it, the brakes screeching in protest as he swerved from the parking lot and onto the road. Her eyes locked on the speedometer, which was inching towards ninety in ten seconds. “Are you really so crazy as to speed through the center of Magnolia, with all the streets and buildings and people around?” she hissed through her clenched teeth.

“I’m good at this kind of thing, don’t worry,” he said offhandedly. “Besides, time is the last thing I want to waste right now.”

As they came to an emptier neighborhood street, he slammed the brakes hard, and the sound felt like it echoed across Magnolia before the cruiser finally came to a stop. “You should get off here,” he told her. “Dealing with Zeref . . . That’s something I should do alone.”

“Are you kidding?” she said, spinning on the seat to face him with an incredulous expression. She pointed a finger right in his face and continued, “I’ve saved your ass quite a few times already. I don’t think you’d even make it to Zeref without falling on your face, you need so much help.”

“Excuse me?” he retorted.

“And you’re apparently going deaf too. It’s official: you’re hopeless.”

Excuse me?” She sunk back into the chair and threw her hands up with a long-suffering sigh. Natsu was trying to find a snappy comeback when she glanced back at him from the corners of her eyes and frowned.

“Did you already forget that you’re not alone in this? Are you really that senile now?”

“I know I’m not alone . . . that’s what scares me,” he admitted, gripping the wheel so tightly his knuckles turned what. “Cuz you all can get hurt—you all did get hurt, all because of Zeref’s psycho plan and me. I’m not trying to cause more damage than I already have.”

“Natsu, I’m in this field of work because I’m prepared for shit to hit the fan in the most violent and gruesome of ways,” Lucy countered. “And so, I assume, are Fullbuster, Scarlet, et cetera. Gray, who you regard as closest to you, doesn’t think any less of you for all this, and if I, as a stranger, don’t either, then I think you’re fine.”

His voice was strained now. “Lucy—”

“Also, when I took this job, it was with the intent of stopping any injustice. Whether it was my own father, embezzling funds from father-and-son storefronts and cheating his workers out of fair pay and fair treatment, or ending the largest crime ring of this turn of the decade . . . at the cost of my best friend’s life,” she said softly, her voice cracking a little. Her eyes shone for a moment before she blinked and composed herself, pushing a sweaty and dirty lock of hair behind her ear.

“Sorry ’bout that,” he said eventually.

“My father had it coming, and Aquarius . . . wanted it that way. But that’s beside the point: I’m just giving you examples. I think you get it now.”

“Yes, I get it,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair. “And I don’t like it, but . . . thanks.”

“You’re not bad at all, Salamander,” she remarked with a smile.

“I’m getting sick of that name though . . .” He started the car forward again, but at a more normal speed limit. He watched familiar buildings go by and took a deep breath. This is it, this is gonna end everything, one way or another . . .

“Where are we?” she asked. He didn’t answer right away, looking at the old stores and restaurants around them. Most of them had closed after so long, but the nostalgia remained. Finally, he came to a stop behind a boarded-up glass shop, turning the car off.

“We’re close enough to walk,” he said quietly. Lucy gave him an odd look and reached for the door before he stopped her. He popped open the glove compartment and pulled a gun out, handing it to her. “Just in case. We don’t know what’s inside.”

“Inside where, the glass store?”

“No.” He stepped outside and waited for her before turning onto the road. The dirt ended in a cul-de-sac, and he pointed to the large stone edifice at the end. “There . . . inside Fairy Tail.”

“Fairy Tail?” she echoed, looking over the castle-esque structure.

“It was like . . . a foster home, I guess? When I was younger and Igneel was working, I was here. It’s where I met Gray and Erza, who didn’t have the luxury of dropping in whenever—they didn’t have remaining family at all. Not to mention a lot of others . . . We were here under this nice old fart, Makarov, and most’ve us called him ‘Gramps,’ cuz he was just so much like family to us. We became a family of our own after a while. He owned the place, but the one who had it designed and all was this girl, Mavis, who—”

“I know her,” Lucy interrupted. “She was with Zeref when I first met him.”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Zeref really likes her . . . about as much as he’s capable of liking another living being, anyway. But she’s more content to let him do what he wants. Twisted love, I guess.” But he was stalling. “If I know my brother at all, he’s in there waiting.”

“Why there specifically?”

“It’s another part of his stupid mind games: sullying my good memories of this place with his stupid fucking miserable—” He shook his head, cutting himself off, and took a deep breath.

“You ready to face your demons?” she asked, glancing up at him.

“I asked myself that a few times already, and my answer’s solid: no way in hell. But I don’t really have a choice, do I?” he grimaced. “For the town, and for my friends, I want to beat that demon down.” He moved forward, and with heavy hands, Natsu pushed the doors of Fairy Tail open.

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