Chapter 24: Is the Cake a Lie?
Lucy stared intently at the magazine in front of her, her expression serious, her brow furrowed, worry clear in her eyes.
Erza wondered if Heart Kreuz had upped their prices again.
"Lucy, what are you reading?" the redhead asked, finally her curiosity won out over… whatever it was holding back her curiosity. Her lack of desire to interrupt Lucy when she was reading her magazine with such religious zeal, as the blonde did every time it came out, most likely. Lucy did very much love Sorcerer Magazine.
"Eh, that is, I, um…"
Panic. That was odd. Lucy shouldn't sound panicked after that question. She should sound mad, not at Erza but at whatever had earned her ire, or confused, at whatever had earned her confusion, or sad, at whatever had… you get the idea. But not panicked, why would an article in a magazine lead one, in this case Lucy, to panic.
Lucy went quiet after her startled mumble and was looking away from Erza and away from the magazine, contemplating something or so Erza thought. As such Erza decided to leave Lucy to it and waited patiently.
Several moments passed, for Lucy Erza's intense stare, Erza really didn't know how to wait patiently, made it several tense moment, for Erza it was several moments of waiting patiently. For what, she didn't know, but she was impatient to find out.
And then, just as Erza was about to speak again, after the sum total of twenty five seconds had passed, Lucy handed over the magazine.
And Erza's heart skipped a beat.
"Torched Heaven's Salamander In Custody" she read, the bold all caps title over the article being the only thing she had read. Her gaze moved down the page while her heart thudded in her throat for reasons beyond her understanding.
Yesterday, a man believed to the infamous Salamander of the Dark Guild Torched Heaven turned himself into Fiore authorities. He was quickly moved to a secure cell in the capital, where confirmation of his identity is still ongoing.
An eight foot tall, spiky red haired man, with red eyes that burned like fire, is reported to be the appearance of the Salamander, though others reported a young, orange haired, blue eyed, and supposedly quite attractive man, and a pink haired, scarf wearing teen.
Whichever is him, is he merely an attention seeker, wanting some fame from the name of a heinous criminal, or is it truly Salamander himself, responsible for so many vile and notable acts? That question waits to be answered.
'If he is Salamander then who will try him?' I asked a spokesperson for the Royal Family in whose custody the supposed Salamander remains 'With the Magic Council disbanded who has the authority to try and punish such a criminal?'
Though no one was willing to confirm it is strongly believed that the King himself will preside over the trial, rumours of him sending out requests to several notable guild master and former council members abound. Is he creating a committee of mages to judge Salamander? No one would say for certain, but no one would deny it either.
Either way this…
Erza handed it back, and smiled at Lucy, her smile widening at the worried and concern look on the blonde's face. It was nice to know Lucy worried that much "I'm not bothered Lucy. Salamander… he wasn't a good person, even though he saved me. He was probably insane…" Erza smiled sadly, Salamander's memories just as clear as her own inside her skull "Definitely insane… But if he's turned himself in then he probably wants death. And that's probably what they'll give him" Erza placed her hand on Lucy's head, the worried looked having never faded since the start "I don't feel any obligation to save him, Lucy. I promise you that" Lucy opened her mouth "And I won't, obligation or not. I will not save Salamander."
Lucy nodded "Okay… Erza… I…"
"The Fantasia Parade is in a few days, isn't it?" Erza moved the conversation on. As far as she was concerned that topic was over "You know the Miss Fairy Tail Contest's prize will pay your rent for this month, right?" she teased, know that the blonde was…
"AHH! My rent! I totally forgot about that! Will it really?!" she asked Erza. Erza nodded and relief flooded the blonde's body. If it was a Miss Fairy Tail Contest then looks would definitely play a part, if it was a battle tournament she was screwed, but if it was just a case of showing up in a cute outfit then…
"But if you want to win Lucy" Erza told the blonde with a dangerous smile, feeling a certain rivalry building "You will have to defeat me!"
Lucy blinked "I'm screwed."
Natsu Dragneel had seen many prison cells over his long, dark, torrid, bloody, and rather ash filled career as a dark mage of one of the most prominent dark guilds in Fiore, if not the world. They were all roughly similar as well, simple and efficient, as uncomfortable as possible, and as difficult to escape from as a mouse trap, i.e. rather easy, so long as you were strong enough.
But rarely had he borne witness to a prison cell from this side of the bars, he wasn't known for getting caught after all, in fact the only times he had been caught he'd let them catch him, and rarer still had he been in a prison cell with absolutely no chance of escape. So rare in fact that the situation had never occurred.
The magic sealing cuffs that bounds his wrists together would pose a large problem in any escape attempt, getting them off would cost him bits of his hands and while he could do it, pull them down through the flesh and bone of his palm and thumb, his fingers would probably be alright they could bend inwards after all, there was one simple question.
Why should he?
This situation was not one of overwhelming odds forcing his hands, or a skilled foe defeating him, or anything like this, this was just like all those times before, he'd let them catch him, no it was actually even more than that, he'd turned himself in.
So why would he try to escape?
For fun was a reasonably good reason, to see if he could was also valid ground for an attempt, to escape the executioners block that inevitably awaited him was a personal but entirely understandable cause.
But none of them appealed to him, nope, not a one. He had turned himself in for a very simple reason, for those people who he just might care about, and because… because Natsu Dragneel had found what he was looking for, someone to love and a reason to live, and… and he had lost someone he loved as well, not nearly as much as he loved her but…
Well, whatever it was, whatever had guided him here, Natsu was finally, finally, willing to accept it.
He wouldn't struggle, he wouldn't fight, it didn't need to be like that anymore, a part of him wished he had followed after Charmain, instead he was here, but that was fine too.
He was perfectly content… with this being his end.
The deep red sunset stain the sky like blood, the golden stone of the valley was dyed crimson, the grass and the trees turned black, the lake reflected back the red light glinting like a ruby amidst the blackness, and the sun slowly dipped below the horizon.
Alastor glanced to the two children sat on the edge of the cliff he stood beside. Both were sad, neither understood fully, they didn't want to accept, but they had done.
It was Natsu after all, Natsu had saved them all without ever meaning to, he had become someone they cared about without wanting or even trying to be, he had become the single most important thing in all of their lives, and he probably didn't realise it.
He turned his black eyes back to the beautiful sunset that had seemed to set the sky ablaze, or cut it open. The Red King, though right now he felt more like an old man, wondered which was more appropriate, a wounded sky or a burning sky? Which was more appropriate for Natsu Dragneel?
The word echoed through the halls of the guild, like a bell tolling in a city. There was no one who hadn't heard him, no one at all.
Rohit forced himself upright "You… you killed…"
"Get out" Natsu said, ignoring the dark skinned man.
"Oi, Salamander, I…"
"Get out!" Natsu repeated, a fireball building in his hand. Anyone who was half decent at fire magic could recognise what that magic was, charging fire into an explosion, and it was powerful enough to wipe this castle off the map.
The simple disbanding of the guild wasn't enough it would seem, he wanted it gone entirely.
Alastor moved, Spitfire and Ayano would follow he knew, not because they understood but because they were expected to, and not doing what you were expected to do was a bad idea right now.
Everyone else… ran like hell.
Kamala dragged away Rohit, Smoker tossed his cigar and legged it, Rafe and Cinner summoned clouds of fire to ride away upon. The Blistering Trio simple walked, where all the others ran. They were halfway down the rough trail that led down the mountain when the castle exploded, huge chunks of rock sent flying up into the sky, all the wards and protections Charmain had placed upon the Devilfire Keep, one that not even his death had destroyed, were blown apart by sheer force.
Alastor pulled his group of three, including himself, to a stop, and let the chunk of wall that would've crushed them all crash down and slid away off of the edge, all without so much as blinking.
The red haired man turned around and looked back at the crater that had been his home for years, he felt little about its destruction. The people inside, one in particular, were what he cared about. The building didn't matter.
And there they waited, for a pink haired youth to join them.
"Man that was exhausting" Natsu commented, yawning as he arrived.
Alastor didn't remark, Spitfire rolled his eyes, Ayano was confused.
"What…" the pink haired girl frowned "What happened back there?"
Natsu chuckled "Did you go deaf Ayano? I killed Charmain, I've disbanded Torched Heaven, that's what happened."
He paused and frowned, that question stumped him a bit "Because… I wanted to" he said, grinning.
Spitfire chuckled "Typical Natsu reaction, I wanted to. Is there anything you wouldn't do if you wanted to?"
"Well, given the number times I've wanted to smash your head against the ground until it nothing more than pate… yes, there is."
Spitfire blinked… "Really? You've actually resisted the urge to do that? That is… that's kinda touching actually. I never knew you cared so much… or were that lazy, it's one or the other."
"Oh, shut up Spitfire" Ayano spat. Why did he have to ruin the nice things, the brutally violent but nice things.
"What, are you angry cause Natsu wouldn't resist smashing your head open, but aren't anywhere near as annoying as me, Ayano?" Spitfire teased the grumpy girl. He wasn't sure why she was grumpy, possibly because Spitfire's mouth was open and moving, but whatever it was he intended on teasing her until days end.
And maybe even later than that.
Like that the foursome made their way down the mountain, with Spitfire and Ayano arguing back and forth, sometimes with words, sometimes with magic, occasionally with fists.
But all the while…
"Don't look so glum Alastor" Natsu told him, giving the older man a grin "Look on the bright side… I don't know what it is but when you find it you should look on it."
Alastor offered him a humourless smile, any expression from him was rare, a expressionless expression was rarer "I now have just two idiots to look after, instead of three, that's a bright side."
Natsu laughed "Sarcasm? Really? My, how the expressionless have fallen."
"I…" Natsu blinked as Alastor said a word then stopped. He turned his gaze onto the older man again, raising an eyebrow in silent query "I rather liked having three" Alastor finally said, not looking at Natsu but up at the snowy peaks around them.
Natsu smiled glumly "I know."
"Natsu-sama, I… I would take your place, without hesitation, without ill will, in fact I would happy too… but…" he raised a hand before Natsu could interrupted "But… I understand and I will not interfere. And… thank you… for everything."
Natsu's smile was tinged with remorse, but there was only ever remorse when wrongdoing was or would be done, there was no remorse for not doing something after all "Thanks Alastor" he said with a grin "Thing is though, I'm kinda happy…" Alastor's eyes widened when he saw a tear trickle down Natsu's cheek "… This is a happy and a sad ending. And that'll do for me."
Then the tears were gone, and the grinning idiot remained "Come on, Al, let's get the fuck down this mountain, I fuckin hate mountains."
"Alastor?" not drawn from his memories for they had already ended their seventieth play through Alastor turned to look at Ayano who had spoken, her eyes already beginning to tear up "I…"
"What shall we do?" he asked the both of them, earning only confusion "We have the rest of our lives ahead of us, and we have to live them. So what shall we do? Start a guild of our own, become heroes of justice, or warriors of darkness, shall we try to turn this world to ash, or else merely reduce that which is front of us to ash. What, I ask again, shall we do?"
Ayano and Spitfire shared a look. They had their entire lives ahead of them, and they had to live them… because they were lives Natsu had saved.
But the question remained…
"Kill me, and I'll love you for it" that was what he had said to those few who came close, closer than anyone else.
The fake heroes, the ones who failed, the skeletons that greeted the true hero as they rose to face him, or as she did rather. There weren't many, just a few, and all had failed, obviously, otherwise he wouldn't be in this situation. But he… he was the first, Captain Jessop Mullingar of the mercenary guild Titan's Rage was the first to ever hear that line, and the first to fail.
He had stood there, still drawing breath, with his heart still pounding in his chest, thoroughly dissatisfied. At the time he hadn't truly understood why he was dissatisfied, in fact Natsu wasn't sure he ever understood what it was, what he sought, until after he sort of got it. His wounds bled profusely, he was so badly injured, worse than any injuries sustained in battle before, and although he was closer to death than he ever had been, though not as close he would one day come, he was still alive.
And because of that the good captain, that man who was one of the most thrilling fights Natsu had had, earned only the Salamander's wrath.
Perhaps that was why he did it? Perhaps that was why he left Jessop alive but burnt so badly that he would never move, an existence so tortuous and dissatisfying that he would wish for death, because Natsu was angry so he took it out on someone else. Or perhaps it was more a kind of poetic retribution? Natsu had left Jessop in the state Natsu himself was in, unable to live, unable to die, and burnt black to everything in the world.
Or maybe he was just bored, maybe he thought it would entertain him a while. Whatever the reason, Natsu had left Jessop lying burnt and broken, but alive, and walked away from that ashen wasteland.
And as the memory of that fight faded his eyes snapped open, and Natsu was back in his cell. No longer fighting against Jessop and his mercenaries, not dodging that greatsword wielding with such skill and speed despite its immense size, he was here again.
Memories were funny.
They were flawed, imperfect representation of what had happened. They could be awakened by the strangest of things, all but forgotten then summoned up at a moment's notice or as a random event occurred, a sort of connected random event but random event none the same. Something as simple as a smell could conjure up a world you had long forgotten, an overheard conversation could remind you of something long past.
But when you had time, when you had nothing but time and memories, they came to life.
They played out as if you were reliving them, you closed you eyelids and no longer did you exist, instead the past you existed and went through the motions you knew.
Natsu's past was not something he liked to dwell on. Or it hadn't been, at least.
Now… he wouldn't say that that had changed but, something certainly had. Memories were no longer so bitter, and things he forced himself to forget rose to the surface. And he had little better to do than remember, so remember he did.
"Natsu" the name woke him from his slumber, from his dreams of… something. He wasn't sure what he had been dreaming of actually, but there might've been cake… or maybe the cake was a lie?
He yawned loudly and exaggeratedly, stretching out his arms and opening his jaw as wide as they would go, which wasn't far given he was cuffed at the wrist, but he just wanted to piss off whoever it was that had come to gloat this time.
First it had been the King, wanting to see the face of the man who claimed to be Salamander himself, and making comment of Natsu's attack on his own palace. That had been a fun day.
Next it was someone from the council, the currently disbanded council due to Siegrain being revealed to be Jellal and Ultear being his 'associate', he was just there as an overseer of sorts, and had immediately been nicknamed the fat bearded cunt.
Then it was some little girl with a armoured guard, haughty little bitch that one.
But throughout it all Natsu had remained stoic, internally ranting wildly but externally barely even recognising their presence.
This time though, Natsu smiled, the scent reaching his nose was one most pleasant "Ultear."
The purple haired woman gazed at him through the barely, a wry smile upon her red lips "Well, well, well" she said slowly "the mighty Salamander, locked up in a cage. How fortunes change, no?"
"What do you want, Ultear?" he asked, shifting himself where he was sat against the far wall so that he was more comfortable. His back ached like hell from how long he had been sat here, but he just couldn't be bothered standing and stretching.
"Join Grimoire Heart" those words made Natsu chuckle. He should've known.
"I told you before, no."
Ultear hissed "Charmain is dead. Torched Heaven is nothing more than scattered ashes. What reason do you have to refuse? Natsu…" she reached for him, her thin arm slipping through the gap but not reaching him "…we can get you out of here. We can give you whatever you want."
"Oh? You can, hmm…" he frowned as if he was considering it, but her scowling face told him she wasn't fooled, even though he hadn't been trying to fool her "Ultear, tell me something" she nodded without hesitation "What does Grimoire Heart want?" and that made her blink "You say you can give me what I want, and I don't doubt that any demand I made would be met. But what exactly does your guild want?"
"We…" a confident smile replaced her confused face "Grimoire Heart seeks to make the perfect world. That is all."
He didn't speak, merely glared at her.
Ultear giggled, she knew her vague answer would get a reaction "Imagine a world Natsu, a world of magic, only magic."
"Okay, I'm imagining it" Natsu told her, closing his eyes and picturing it. There were dragons and knights, floating islands, moons in full view all day that seemed close enough to touch, and flying cats 'No, no' Natsu decided, removing one part of his imagined world 'Flying cats is to out there, even for a world of magic.'
This time the Grimoire Heart mage sighed. She hadn't meant literally imagine it "A world where everyone has magic, where those without magic cannot survive. That is it, Natsu. The ultimate world of magic!"
"So that's your goal, huh..." he frowned "You know I was imagining something more… more… incredible, I guess. I mean you're an evil dark guild, so I figured you'd have some really noble purpose like saving the world, or stopping a really dark evil mage, or something like that. Instead you just want mass genocide against non-magic folk… it's kinda dull."
"Does it matter" Ultear asked "Our goal, does it matter? What was Torched Heaven's goal?"
"Hmm?" Natsu blinked "Err… have fun?"
She rolled her eyes "You can have fun with us. Natsu, you would be invaluable to us, and we in turn could prove valuable to you."
"Wait, I'm invaluable but you could prove valuable? How does that make sense?"
Growling and spitting curses under her breath Ultear forced herself calm "What do you want, Natsu?"
"What do I want?"
"Yes. You asked what we wanted, so isn't it only fair that you tell me you desires in turn?"
"Who said I play fair" Natsu grinned at her, before chuckling "What do I want, huh?" he considered it for a while, and eventually realised "You know, I don't really know" Ultear sighed, but he wasn't done "I think I wanted fun fights, ones that tested me, hurt me… or maybe what I wanted was… was someone more fun than all the others, someone who could defeat me. Because I'd never been defeated, not really defeated, and so I wanted to know what it was like" his smile turned sombre, and his gaze grew distant "But in truth, I think I wanted it all to end. This life, this world, these memories in my head, I wanted it to just… stop. I just wanted an out."
She opened her mouth, but no words came forth and none came to mind. This… this wasn't the Salamander she had known before, the grinning childish idiot and violent dangerous monster… but…
"Then I got one, and now I'm here, and guess what, Ultear…" he leaned forwards, to better look her in the eye "I don't know what I want, just that I'm happy with what I get."
"Even if what you get is death."
"Yeah" he said it so instantly, so without hesitation or pause, that Ultear had no choice but to believe him.
"Isn't death 'boring'" she argued "The End, story closed, off to bed, isn't that a bloody boring thing, Natsu."
"Probably" he agreed with a smile "But sometimes boring can be nice."
"Do you have nothing to live for?"
And he laughed. He laughed and laughed and laughed, he laughed so long and so loud Ultear had to check to make sure no one had heard, and when she was done checking he was still giggling like a madman, which she supposed he sort of was.
"Ultear, Ultear, Utear" he said her name three times, because the third times the charm, though for him it had been something like the twenty second or so, while waggling his finger like he was chiding a child "I have a hundred and one things to live for. But that doesn't mean I can keep on living now does it?"
"We can give you everything you want" Ultear told him "Everything… even him."
He froze, and Ultear saw her moment and pounced.
"With the ultimate magic world, magic's long forgotten will become common place, including those which can… restore what was lost. We can bring him back, Natsu."
There was silence for a long while, and Ultear truly believed he would say yes.
"To what end."
She blinked "What?"
"What reason, what purpose would there be in reviving him? What if I brought him back and he wanted nothing more than to return to death? What if he hated what I have become, loathed the man I grew up to be?" Natsu looked Ultear in the eye "I have my memories of him, and in my memories he is perfect, so that is where he shall remain."
"That…" she wanted to argue, to fight back, to say so many things, but… but instead "That is remarkably deep for you, Natsu."
He chuckled "I guess it is."
Ultear sighed "I honestly wanted you to come with us, Salamander. I like you."
"I like you too, Ul-chan" she twitched at the name, but didn't otherwise respond "But it would've never worked between us. In the end this is the best way to part, with nothing but good memories and fond recollections. Let us separate before they turn sour, before good becomes bad, fresh becomes foul, and love turns to hate."
"Natsu… why are you making it sound like some kind break up in a play?"
Natsu grinned "Because it makes it more dramatic."
"Oh? Then shall I follow suit?"
"Should you wish so, then let it be so."
She giggled, before her smiled turned into a half smile, half frown "You're being set free."
"The trial won't stand. There isn't enough evidence and the jury they're assembling are all to noble and just to send you down without any. It does help though that I used several of my connections to help, so be thankful" Ultear stated proudly "Oh, and there was some woman named Arache who did some stuff. Blackmail, nothing important, she certainly wasn't a deciding factor, no, not at all, we would've been just fine without her help" finally Ultear stopped her rather childish rant, and her face became solemn "I wish… I implore you, Natsu. Reconsider. Join Grimoire Heart."
Natsu, who was slightly off put by the fact that apparently he wasn't going to be executed, though in truth he'd only really believe when he saw it, i.e. when these shackles were removed, looked at Ultear long and hard "Let me ask you something Ultear, can Grimoire Heart give me Erza Scarlet."
"If you should so wish" Ultear told him.
Natsu leaned his head back "But can you give me her heart?"
"On a platter."
He chuckled "Not like that."
Ultear's eyes went wide "You…" then she smiled "I see. So little Natsu has a crush does he?" she giggled "Tell me, did you kill your guildmaster and destroy your guild for her, for a crush?" he said nothing, which she took as a yes "Haha, you're just too hilarious" she said, struggling to hold back her laughter.
Natsu smiled, it was his turn to solemn he guessed and his smile was a solemn one "I guess I am" he murmured.
"If you stand on her stand, Natsu, one day you will find yourself opposite me" Ultear told her, suddenly serious "When that day comes I will not hesitate."
"If it makes you feel any better Ultear, when that day comes, I will."
She twitched, but then finally smiled, a genuine one "Master Hades won't be pleased that you're going free but… I'm rather glad you're not going to die Natsu. You're far too much fun."
He grinned, but had nothing to say.
For it death wasn't what awaited him then there was a much bigger question that begged to be asked.
What should he do now?