A/N: I should be writing for Jerza Week - I seriously should. But then yesterday's chapters came and messed me up. And this was my therapy.
Apologies in advance for the quality of this. It was written in like six hours. And Zeref is hard to write. Like, really hard - his mind is just all sorts of weird (values human life/wants to kill everyone/and so on) and I hope I didn't write him too out of character. This takes place after the series and I am hoping by then he will have turned over a new leaf, anyway.
With that in mind, enjoy the read!
The late Black Wizard Zeref was really just minding his own business.
When Mavis had informed him that Fairy Tail would be coming to Tenrou Island for their S-Class trials once more, he had made a mental vow to stay out of their way. She had insisted he come by and say hello, but he been inflexible in his refusal, despite her most desperate attempts at pouting. He had caused her guild too much grief in life already… really, the least he could was to spare them from having to put up with him in death – if not for anything else, in thanks for their kindness they had displayed in having allowed him to be put to rest in their sacred island and spend his afterlife with Mavis.
So, for that purpose, he had made a point of staying out of their way. He looked for a peaceful clearing not located in the vicinity of the stretch of land where Mavis had said the trials were supposed to happen and stayed there, taking turns between napping and watching the clouds far out of their hair.
He should have suspected he had been set up the moment Mavis stopped insisting he be more social.
"Natsu!" he heard being called at a distance by a feminine voice.
His eyed snapped open and he frowned.
"Natsu, where are you?" the voice called again, that time sounding slightly closer.
He sighed and considered his chances of escaping unnoticed from clearly coming his way. They weren't very bad when it came to the girl shouting Natsu's name, but then again she wouldn't be shouting if he was with her. And if she was shouting near that area, that must mean he was nearby as well, bringing up the risk of stumbling right into him, which he really did not want. He wished he could just make himself invisible… or outright leave the island for the time being. Unfortunately, though, one year being dead was a surprisingly short time to learn all things ghostly – it would be a few decades before he reached Mavis' level, he considered, closing his eyes again.
"Natsu, come on! Answer me! I am definitely not going to kill you for burning off my clothes again while I was being chased by a huge beast and then running on the opposite direction."
Zeref couldn't help but feel like the girl meant just the opposite. She was sounding very close by too. He could almost hear her steps… no, he could definitely hear them.
"Fine! See if I care! But you had better have my keys too when I find you since you did burn off he belt they were hanging from! Because if you don't, then I will kill you!"
He felt like rolling his eyes at the clearly empty threats – really, what hope did a feeble human girl have of possibly injuring a mage of Natsu's caliber?
It was when he heard her sigh that he knew she had entered the clearing. "What the hell, Natsu…" he heard her mumbling under her breath, his eyes still closed. And then, a second later. "Kyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Don't look!"
He winced at the noise and cracked one eye open, half-expecting to see her getting mauled by some sort of beast. But that wasn't the case. The reason for the shout seemed to have been utterly pointless as the blonde girl was standing with her back turned to him, covering herself with her arms. Her clothes were utter rags and her top was barely holding itself together, he vaguely noted. Her lower half wasn't that much covered. And for whatever reason, she seemed to be under the impression that he really cared. "I wasn't looking," he responded in a tone of disinterest, closing his eyes again, hoping to go back to his nap.
He wasn't sure how it was possible but it seemed that, judging by the tone she used next, she hadn't realized it was him rather than some other random male person until then. "Oh… it… it's you," she mumbled.
He didn't respond.
"I'm sorry, I just didn't expect to find you here. I… I don't think we were properly introduced last time," the blonde stated.
Last time being the final showdown between himself and Natsu, Zeref couldn't help but pointing out in his head, while she made it sound like they had casually bumped into each other in a tea party.
"I'm Lucy. Lucy Heartfilia. I'm Natsu's teammate and his partner for the S-Class trials," she introduced herself.
The Black Wizard sighed. "There is no need for you to force yourself," he told her. "I haven't seen Natsu around here, so feel free to just ignore me and go on your way."
With his eyes closed, he was unable to see her frowning.
"I can't do that," Lucy told him.
"Why not? It's quite easy. Just keep walking and pretend I am a rock or some other inanimate object of your choice."
"You're not a rock – you're Natsu's brother!" she spat. "I can't just ignore you – that would be rude! And being rude to your best friend's family is just awful."
That caught Zeref by surprise. He opened his eyes and leaned up a little, supporting himself on his elbows as he gave the girl a long look. Maybe she wasn't as mundane as he would have thought. "I doubt Natsu would give much value to our blood ties after everything that I have done. Fairy Tail is his family far more than I will ever be."
Lucy frowned. "One thing doesn't undo the other. And you clearly don't know Natsu at all if you think he's just written you off over what happened – his heart is bigger than anything else. And he's possessive – of people, not things. As long as he sees a speck of good in you, he will hoard you like a dragon hoards its treasure. And since you did apologize in the end… don't expect him to just be done with you now."
He took a breath and smiled a little. "You Fairy Tail people really are something else."
"We've been told. Repeatedly," she responded, clearing her throat. "You know, Natsu wanted to see you. He was upset when you weren't with the First when we arrived."
"I didn't expect that he would," Zeref admitted.
"Don't underestimate him," Lucy told him. "He wants to talk to you. Properly."
Lucy sighed at the rather ambivalent response. "Just think about it. Knowing him, he probably won't leave until he finds you, even if he misses the ride back and has to swim the whole way to Hargeon. Anyway, since the introductions are out of the way, this is the part when I have to ask you if you don't happen to have some extra clothes on hand. There was an… incident, as you can see."
"Yes, I believe the entire forest as heard of the unfortunate demise of your clothing to Natsu's flames," he said dryly. "I would offer my toga, but my current situation makes my clothes about as intangible as I am. The best I can do is point you in the direction of the old town's ruins. They are about half a mile that way," he informed her, pointing towards a barely noticeable path leading deeper into the forest. "If you are lucky, you might find something in there to cover yourself with."
"Thank you," she said, full of relief. "I think I'll give it a try. So… er, it was nice to meet you. You're not utterly unpleasant when we're not on opposite sides of the battlefield." She paused for a moment. "For the record, that was supposed to be a compliment, not an insult."
"I understand. And likewise," he replied. And, surprisingly, he meant it. It was not every day that a common mortal human impressed him, but that girl certainly had. Maybe he shouldn't have been surprised – Natsu might be very liberal with the company he kept, but as far as he knew, that girl was his partner in all things, far above the rest. Clearly, he must have seen something in her to impress him. Vaguely, he wondered if she was his Mavis…
"Well… I'll take my leave now," she announced. "Bye."
He didn't respond, just silently watching her retreat into the tree line and disappearing behind it. After he was left alone, he just leaned back and looked at the sky.
He remained like that for several minutes… until another voice reached his ears. That one very familiar.
"Lucy!" Pause. And then, closer. "Oi, Lucy! What'cha doing running around half-naked, you huge pervert?!" Zeref covered his face with his hands. Did he not realize that he was to blame for her nakedness. Sometimes, he really had to wonder if he had somehow damaged his brother's intellect in his attempts to return him to the world of the living. Then, another moment passed, and his voice was even closer. "I've got your keys, you know? You can call Virgo and have her bringing you some new clothes."
And finally, there he was, hurried steps on the ground entering the clearing
"Damn it, Lucy. Couldn't you stay p… you!" he shouted, likely when he spotted him.
Zeref just huffed, that time mostly resigned that there was no putting off his confrontation with Natsu. He sat up, legs crossed, and faced the pink-haired Dragon Slayer. "She went that way," he informed his brother, pointing in the direction he had sent the blonde.
"I know. I can smell it. But it's you I'm talking to now! So, this is where you've been holed up all this time, you bastard! All that trouble to bring me back, basically selling your soul to the devil and stuff and yet you couldn't even drop by to say 'hi' when I come by… the hell, man? Was killing you all you wanted me for?"
He made it all sound so trivial… it was almost disturbing. They might as well be talking about the weather. "Of course not. I wasn't… certain that you would welcome my presence. And I didn't want to be a distraction."
"Distraction? I was more distracted by the fact that you couldn't be bothered to show up!"
"I apologize, then," he said, looking down.
There was a moment of silence after that.
"Fine, I guess I can forgive you this one time. So, how's life around here? Wait, no, I don't mean life I mean de… crap, that sounds even worse. Just… you know what I mean," Natsu stumbled through the words.
Zeref was mildly amused. "Peaceful," he provided.
Natsu frowned. "You mean boring, right? There's no one around here to fight but the First – she's strong and all but I bet it gets old after a while. I'd be bored to death… er, I mean… sheesh, I keep walking into that one. Sorry. "
"Don't be. I am at peace with my death," Zeref stated. "And you would be surprised by how… liberating this peace can be."
"Meh… if you say so. So, who's ahead, anyway? You or the First? On the scoreboard, I mean."
"Mavis." They didn't really fight in the first place, but she did manage to get her way in most things, so he supposed that put her ahead. "How is Fairy Tail?"
Natsu shrugged. "Same old. We've got a bunch of new members. Most of them worshiped you at one point or another but they're over that now. Don't get me wrong, but I'm kind of glad they are. We're having the S-Class test, but you probably already know that much. Happy couldn't be my partner because the Master made the exceeds do air patrol, so Lucy is helping me out instead. She's helpful and all, but her clothes burn down a lot. I don't know what the big deal is, but she gets all loud and starts hitting me, so it's a pain."
Zeref raised an eyebrow. "I hear that is mostly your fault."
"It's not like I tell her to go out and buy cheap clothes that catch fire super quickly!" Actually, it was, since he frequently cut down her reward money through property destruction and emptied her fridge on a regular basis, keeping her from being able to afford better-quality clothing. Of course, that never quite sunk in inside his mind. "Anyway, I should probably catch up with her before people see her and think she's as bad as the Ice Stripper."
His brother nodded. "If you hurry, you might still find your friend in the ruins of the old town. They are about half a mile away. I should probably warn you that there was a thinly-veined threat of death towards you in her words when she stumbled into me. I doubt it is anything to worry about, but I can see how you wouldn't want to get into trouble with your partner in this particular occasion. "
"Yeah…" Natsu mumbled. "So half a mile, you say?" Zeref simply nodded. "Yeah, I can do that quickly. So, thanks. And I'll see you later, I guess. Don't brood too much or anything."
"I will keep that in mind," Zeref vowed.
Natsu nodded and with that, stepped out of the clearing… only to return mere seconds later. "Hey, wait a second! You lived in this island for ages while you were alive. You must know this place pretty well, right?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"Because if you do, then you must know where the Tenrou Jade used to be!"
Zeref raised an eyebrow at him. "Is that part of your task?" he asked. He didn't even need to wait for the answer to be sure that it was. The Tenrou Jade was not more than a quarter of a mile away from that specific clearing, so of course sneaky little Mavis would omit it when telling him about the plans for the trials and oh-so-helpfully point him in the direction of that clearing that was so out of the contenders' way. He really should have seen it coming.
"Lucy thinks that's where the hints Master gave are telling us to go. So, you'll tell me where it is, right? Because I'm your brother and you want me to succeed in becoming S-Class."
Natsu gaped. "The hell?! You don't want me to be S-Class?! That sucks!"
"I do want you to be S-Class, but certainly not by cheating your way through the trials. That would be beneath you."
"Pfft, don't be silly. Since when is it cheating to ask for directions? Just point me in the right direction! What is it? North? South?"
He leaned back down, crossing his arms behind his head. "Don't bother."
"Come on! I'll make it worth your while! If you tell me, I'll do something brotherly with you! Like… I dunno. Play catch or something."
Zeref sighed. "I am dead, Natsu," he reminded the younger boy.
"So what? Does being dead make you suck at sports?"
"No, Natsu. But it certainly does make solid objects go right through me. Such as the ones that are used to play catch with."
"Oh… yeah, that wouldn't work out," he mumbled. "But still, tell me how to get there!"
"Of course. My suggestion is that you get a move on and join up with your partner. She seems intelligent enough to figure out the way," he informed him.
Natsu was plainly disgusted by the suggestion. "You're really not gonna tell me, you bastard! Some brother you are!"
Zeref just sighed at the accusation. For a moment, he wondered if the brotherly thing to do would have been to give in and throw a little hint the boy's way. He wasn't used to that – brotherhood. In life, most of his brotherly interaction with Natsu had been about bringing him back to life… and then turning him against himself to fulfil the role of a live weapon. He really had been a terrible brother thus far. So now that he was aware of that, he wasn't sure how to act around Natsu, what was right, what was wrong… despite the blood ties between them, they were little more than casual acquaintances. And as he sat back up and saw Natsu starting to walk away, he couldn't help but wonder if he had just done something to alienate him further. But then…
"Oi, Bastard Brother," he heard Natsu calling back, turning around. "You had better show your face at the party we'll throw when I make S-Class. Or else I'm coming after you and dragging your ghostly butt all the way there."
And, just like that, all was well. Mostly well, at least. Natsu really was beyond anything he could have imagined…
"Somehow, I doubt you would be able to find anything to grab onto on my incorporeal person," Zeref responded.
"You'd better believe I'll find a way, so just be there if you know what's good for you! And I mean even if I don't win. There's a lot we still have to talk about. This brother stuff is just getting started, you know? I've given you enough time to get used to being dead – you'd better expect me to start visiting more now… and to start planning on coming along with the First sometimes when she visits the guild."
Zeref blinked for a moment, surprised to see Natsu that eager about cultivating their relationship. It was almost painful to disappoint him faced with that, but he couldn't let him hope without a warning. "I am not quite up to that level in my ghostliness. The Tenrou Tree's power is what keeps us connected to this world, so being away from it is not easy. It might take years for me to learn how to move around the way Mavis does."
Natsu rolled his eyes. "Aren't you supposed to be a genius? Just stop making excuses and hurry it up. I've got stuff I want to show you, you know? I wanna take you to where Igneel and I lived and I sure as hell don't wanna do all that climbing when I'm old and wobbly. I'd probably just slip and fall to my death and all that trouble you had to fix me up would be for nothing."
Again, Zeref was shocked by just how easily Natsu was taking… everything. Sure, he had had over a year to digest things, but it was just bizarre… or, as people who knew Natsu Dragneel would say, pretty much typical of him. "I'll see what I can do," he offered. And then, he let out a sigh and gave in. Just a little. He got a feeling that yes, that was the brotherly thing to do. "About the Tenrou Jade… it is not very far away. Do not extend your search radius very much past the distance between here and the old town's ruins."
Natsu's whole face lit up. "Really?! We're onto it? So is it further into the island or closer to the sea? Is it in the town itself?"
"You are not getting another word out of me on this matter."
The pink-haired boy rolled his eyes. "Fine. Be that way. I guess that's better than nothing… but at least wish me luck if you can't even tell me where to go."
He leaned back, preparing himself to return to his nap. "Hmm… I have always been a bit of a bad omen. You will likely be better off if I don't."
"Sheesh… tone it down a bit. You sound even worse than Jellal in his worst days," Natsu mumbled, sounding mildly concerned for his mental health. "I'll see you around, them. Better not keep Lucy alone too long without her keys."
Later, as he lay down alone looking up at the clouds, Zeref's mind wondered back to his first meeting with Natsu in that island all those years before – that fatidical day in which he'd wept tears of joy at the sight he had longed for so many years while his brother had looked at him like he was a complete stranger. How different things had become, no thanks to his actions in between. Natsu acknowledged him now, not just as a person but as a brother, even if one he was just getting to know. He owed his chance to form a relationship with his brother, even if in death, to Natsu's forgiving heart, Mavis' plotting mind and Fairy Tail's flare for giving people second chances, even him, the Dark Wizard himself.
That only served to make the unquestionable fact that he'd been wrong – so wrong – all along even more apparent. That humanity not only deserved a chance to live but also was worth everything – absolutely everything –, if Fairy Tail was anything to go by.
Of course, he could have lived (died?) with the cost for that enlightenment not being an eternity of Mavis gloating and saying 'I told you so'.
Oh, well… he supposed he had it coming. And at the end of it all, there were much worse prices to pay.