He looked so small and vulnerable, curled up in the back corner of the cell.
From this distance it was hard to make out much more than a dark shape. Lucy had a flashlight with her, but honestly, she didn't want to see in detail. She was afraid of what she'd find. The spirit mage had berated herself many times because of it, but in the end, she couldn't even flick one switch.
Lucy swallowed many times, but the lump in her throat didn't go away. She approached him cautiously, afraid of what she'd inevitably find.
Was he dead?
Were they too late?
The harsh stank and cold drafts were making it hard to concentrate. It smelled atrocious in here. Blood, urine, feces, and infection all mixed their distinctive, meaty scents into one pungent odor; although it was nothing compared to the evil emanating from every corner. This guild reeked of dark magic and unspoken horrors, all of which were caressing Lucy's spine with skeletal fingers. She'd already thrown up once from the sheer feeling of disgust this place gave her. Lucy had always had something of a sixth sense, or so she believed, and right now, it was telling her to get the &%# out of here. The deeper she went into this hellhole, the stronger the feeling became, adding layers to the clot in her throat. Her heart picked up speed at every small noise and the sound became a metronome; telling her over and over to just run away.
Leave him and save yourself.
It was always so tempting to run, to be a coward. But she had a job to do, and like the rest of the Fairy Tail members fighting upstairs, she would never give up until it was done. Her friend was in danger and she would not leave him.
They were loyal to fault.
Lucy swallowed back that annoying lump of fear and examined the cell before moving in. She flicked the switch. The flashlight illuminated intricate seals lining every scratch-able surface. She didn't know much about this type of magic, but she knew enough from reading Levy's books that this was designed to block and drain magic power. But the strangest thing, she noted, was the lack of a lock or chain on the barred door.
A faint whimper cut through her thoughts. It was coming from the shape.
She tried not think that it sounded like him.
As the shriek of battle grew louder overhead, Lucy abandoned caution and moved completely into the cell.
What she saw would be forever burned into her nightmares.
His body was in shambles, the sheer force of the carnage bringing Lucy to her knees. All his wounds and bruises were on display, for his meager clothing consisted only of a moth-eaten pair of pants; but even they were torn almost to his hips, revealing thighs slick with blood.
Lucy dragged her gaze away to look at the ravages on the rest of his body. It was like driving by a massive car accident, it made you sick to watch but you couldn't turn away.
Gashes littered his thin frame and every one of them was horribly infected. Yellowy pus was oozing from the cracks in the badly formed scabs. There were bruises all over his stomach and ribs; they ranged in color from black to yellow to deep purple.
Igneel's scarf was fisted tightly in his hands and clutched to his chest. The cloth was dirty, something of a shock to Lucy. He always took utmost care and pride in this scarf, to see it muddy and wrinkled saddened her greatly.
While staring at his broken form, Lucy realized with a start that he was awake.
And staring at her.
His big, lively black eyes were dull and bloodshot now. Red bruise-like marks stained his eyelids and the corners of his chewed up lips. That pretty rose hair was gummed with dirt and feces and dried blood.
He looked truly frightening.
Lucy moved closer despite the fear, wanting desperately to comfort her friend. He sat up at her movement, fear igniting those dark eyes to life. His shoulders hunched and he moved back against the wall, trembling. Lucy paused, confused by his reaction. He should have been excited to see her.
Didn't he know she was taking him home?
Her mind was raging against itself. Split into factions that fought for control of her body. Parts of her wanted to run and hide, some preferred screaming and vomiting. Another loudly declared that this could not be him. The boy she knew was wild and untamed, with a spirit that could not be broken. But this creature before her was exactly the opposite.
One look in his eyes and it was obvious; he wasn't just broken, but shattered.
Lucy fought these emotions and became blind to everything but her need to help him. Her hand extended tentatively, wanting to brush his bruised cheek.
But he growled at her, low and deep.
It was a primal sound-not something a human should make.
Lucy unconsciously moved back.
She stared at him, at his bared teeth and predatory posture. He looked like a cornered, wild animal. Like some exotic creature being kept for sport and amusement; even more so now that Lucy could see the barbed wire collar. It was twined crudely around his neck, parts of it digging viciously into his soft throat and glimmering between streams of caked blood and exposed muscle. His body had tried to heal and skin was growing over the collar in some sections, embedding the wire even further. Lucy couldn't even begin to comprehend how infected and painful that must be. The fiery mage stopped growling and sat back against the wall. His raspy breathing was the only sound down here, and it was not a pleasant one. He kept a close eye on Lucy, daring her to come closer yet afraid of her at the same time.
The battle was quieting to a hum upstairs, so it wouldn't be long before someone came down here. Lucy hoped it would be a member from Fairy Tail.
And if not. . .
She shuddered to think of what might happen.
But beside her fear was determination, she had come this far already, and she was not about to give up now. Natsu had never given up on her before, or any of his friends for that matter.
It was time to return the favor.
A new burst of courage lit inside her. She reached for him again, but this time he jerked away. He stared at her with wide eyes. They shone with a fear so primal it invaded her body and settled into a pit in her stomach. That burst of courage disappeared. In an instant she realized that this recovery was not going to be as she expected. The truth of it all had been lingering in her mind for quite some time now, since before they'd stormed this guild, but she'd refused to acknowledge it. She'd wanted to break in and bring the mage home, then everything would go back to normal. She wanted to depend on him once more.
He would overwhelm the enemy and everyone would go back to Fairy Tail with a triumphant smile on their faces.
But how could this be if he didn't even recognize her?
She was being too naive. Tears came to her eyes and she murmured his name, "Natsu. . ."
There was a faint recognition in his eyes that did not go unnoticed by Lucy. That tiny spark returned, if just a little. She repeated his name, a glimmer of hope in her voice. He seemed to taste it, rolling it over in his broken mind.
"Natsu, it's me, Lucy. Do you remember me?"
His head swung back and forth a little, as if he were dizzy. It pained Lucy to watch him struggle with something so simple as his own name.
He stopped suddenly and spoke,"Lucy. . ." His voice was soft and hoarse. He grappled with this word as well.
Natsu repeated her name softly to himself. "Lucy. . ?"
She smiled a bit and extended her hand again, palm up and non-threatening. The fire mage blinked and leaned forward hesitantly. Lucy kept as still as she could as he sniffed her hand. The cold tip of his nose brushed across her fingers and Lucy hoped desperately that his strong sense of smell would come through. Her prayer was answered as Natsu said her name again. Strongly this time.
He looked up at her with some of the same spirit he'd had before.
Lucy let herself cry with relief.
The battle upstairs was drawing to a close and Gray couldn't be more thankful. He didn't want to spend another minute in this foreign guild. Gray was sure he wasn't the only one who could feel the demented aura emanating from every board and nail. It made him nauseas.
It made him want to stomp this place into the ground and forget about it forever. It made him sick to think that Natsu had been here, of all places, for five months. He had to admit, he'd missed having the little prick around. There was no one to pick a fight with in quite the same way as him.
Gray shook his head to clear this odd thought, when a woman's scream echoed through the guild. He spun to see Lucy emerging from a staircase that lead underground. She was holding something, or rather, someone. Gray instantly knew who it was.
"Speak of the devil and the devil will appear," he thought smugly.
But why was Mirajane screaming? Why weren't the other guild members cheering?
Gray pushed through the gathering crowd to reach the front, his heart thumping with dread.
What he saw made him wish he'd stayed away. Lucy was in fact carrying Natsu. But he just looked. . . wrong. Was this really him? Gray found himself wanting to believe that this was just an impostor, that they'd made a mistake and rescued the wrong mage.
The crowd shifted uncomfortably around him, they weren't sure how to react either. They just stared at the mutilated body of their friend. It was a violent shock to their system that produced a collective thought,
"This can't be happening."
Like Gray, everyone had always thought Natsu to be some untouchable little fire god. He was the guild's golden boy, the one they could always count on for the victory against impossible odds. But seeing him like this - thin and trembling, covered in the most ugly wounds they'd ever seen - was too much.
For the first time in years, Gray felt cold inside.
How could this have happened?
"This isn't how it's supposed to be!" Was he so naive to think that? The crowd's collective gasp shook Gray out of his thoughts. Natsu was waking up. His bruised eyelids lifted sluggishly and he tried to make sense of what was going on.
He took one look at them and let out the most bloodcurdling scream they could imagine.
The fire mage struggled violently in Lucy's arms, his eyes wide with a fear Gray didn't know he was capable of. He had never seen Natsu afraid of anything.
Lucy was crying and fighting to hang on to the boy, begging him to stop. The crowd shrank away in shock, but Gray and a few other members rushed to Lucy's aid, only causing Natsu's panic to intensify.
The fire mage looked directly at him, "Don't touch me! Don't touch me! Get away!" Gray flinched back as the boy's hand swung out at him. Droplets of blood landed on the bare skin of his arm, but the ice mage's shock went deeper.
Natsu was afraid of him.
They had never been on the best of terms really, always fighting and arguing, but Gray considered Natsu a friend at the same time. To hear those words, to see the horror and tears directed at him—it hurt.
Master Makarov suddenly appeared at the head of the crowd. Grief made his face look even older, and his eyes shone with unshed tears. He looked pained as he reached out and touched Natsu's forehead; he had never wanted to use magic on one of his own children. Light glowed at the Master's fingertips and the brief, insane struggle ended. He was limp once again in Lucy's arms, but his face didn't fully relax. There were remnants of the fear and distress in his knitted brow and grimacing, chewed up lips.
Someone shuffled forward to try and comfort Lucy, who couldn't seem to stop crying. It was Mirajane, looking just as lost and broken as the stellar spirit mage.
Her pale hand reached out to stroke Natsu's dirty hair, and Gray nearly threw up as lice eggs sprinkled the floor.
He needed to distract himself, so the ice mage looked down at his feet and caught sight of Happy standing beside him. The cat was riveted to the spot, his large eyes seemed stuck in their lost gaze.
Gray wondered if he looked the same way.
Makarov lead Lucy away with a quiet order for everyone to clear out.
Gray was all too happy to oblige.
Master Makarov stayed behind with Happy a long time after the others left.
He felt compelled to be here with the cat and help him through his shock. Even if the only thing he could do was stand beside him and offer the silent comfort of his presence.
Oh who was he kidding?
Makarov was in need of comfort himself. The old man sighed to keep himself in check and stole a glance at the cat. Happy had not moved an inch from this spot.
His paws were clenched and his jaws were locked, no doubt containing a scream of rage, grief, and anguish. Makarov knew the feeling all too well, it had been coiling inside him since the day Natsu had disappeared.
He acknowledged that Happy must be feeling even worse, for he knew the cat was blaming himself for letting Natsu out of his sight. The old man wished to give some comforting words, but his mouth was dry.
He lightly touched the cat's shoulder before walking across the guild's wood floor. He needed to investigate this place. Makarov was going to present this to the council, he was going to make sure nothing like this ever happened again.
He reached the staircase Lucy had emerged from and descended it. The smell hit him like a punch to the gut. Makarov nearly doubled over from it, barely keeping his lunch down. He couldn't describe the horrors this scent conjured for him, and it only got worse as he went further.
The stone steps echoed beneath his feet, keeping in time with his nervous heart. Truth be told, he was afraid of what he'd find here. The wounds on Natsu's body had made him sick with rage and horror. Who or what could possibly turn him, of all mages, into that broken creature?
The staircase turned at the bottom and Makarov entered a large chamber. There were crude devices hanging on the stone walls, their edges glinting in the low lamplight: Whips, cattle irons, glass shards; things that sent cold chills down his spine.
The old man forced his eyes from the wall and examined the other side of the circular room, the one lined with cells. Wickedly curved knives were strewn across a wooden table. The table was stained with blood in varying stages of decay. What disturbed him most about this device were the straps hooked into it. There was no denying that mages had been tied to this table and suffered countless times. The cells were positioned in such a way that allowed prisoners to watch.
Makarov swallowed his disgust and took all of this in. There was no doubt, this place was a torture chamber.
He wondered how many of these tools had been used on Natsu, how many times was he strapped to that table and abused?
How long did he scream before someone came to help him?
Makarov lowered his head and cried for his beloved child.
A/N: I recently became obsessed with Fairy Tail so I really wanted to write a fic with it, and this concept has been floating around my head for a long time now. I thought it would be great to use Fairy Tail because Natsu is so confident and untouchable, a real cornerstone for the guild; I wanted to explore what it would be like without that. I was also a little disappointed at the lack of fics like this for Fairy Tail (I know, I'm such a sadist). Please review if you'd like me to continue, reading them makes my day and really inspires me to keep going!