Hinc Itur Ad Astra

Act 2

ACT II—

"A star falls from the sky and into your hands. Then it seeps through your veins and swims inside your blood and becomes every part of you. And then you have to put it back into the sky. And it’s the most painful thing you’ll ever have to do and that you’ve ever done. But what’s yours is yours. Whether it’s up in the sky or here in your hands. And one day, it’ll fall from the sky and hit you in the head real hard and that time, you won’t have to put it back in the sky again.”

C. JoyBell C.


Natsu once knew of a boy that loved adventure, a boy that would explore the land of his village from sunrise to sunset until his mother called him in to eat. The boy’s brother always stayed home, and the boy felt a bit lonely, but his heart was filled in the meantime with every little thing he discovered—and every big thing, when he found a dragon.

The dragon was just as the legends foretold: a beast of immense size, magic, and greed. The boy found him as he tumbled into a closed-off mine surrounded by a horde of gold and silver trinkets. How dare you intrude upon my domain? the dragon boomed. As punishment, I shall trap you here for the rest of your mortal life.

What? No, please, no! the boy cried, staring up at the dragon with wet eyes. I don’t wanna leave my family!

The dragon then inclined his head curiously. Family? That’s not a treasure I possess.

Family isn’t a treasure that’s like your things you can pick up! Family is a treasure…here. The boy grabbed his chest with both hands. Mama, Papa, and Brother are treasures better than all the cheap stuff here.

Cheap? Foolish boy, my hoard is worth several of your human lands, the dragon argued.

Your treasure is a bunch of old things. Old, he repeated upon glancing at a nearby silver plaque. The date inscribed was a whole hundred years ago from the current day. The world is a lot more interesting. It changes all the time.

The world does not change.

Yes, it does! In spring, the bluegrass outside of our home was full of caterpillar shells, and a few days ago, I went outside and saw a bunch of butterflies hatch!

Butterflies? the dragon said with confusion. The boy guessed that it didn’t see butterflies, being as huge as it was. He proceeded to tell the dragon about butterflies, and then wildflowers when it proved ignorant of those as well, and songbirds and wild berries and anything fantastic he could think of, which, to the little boy, was the world itself.

You have quite the share of stories, boy, the dragon said eventually, folding its hands on the dirt and resting its massive head there. The boy grinned at him. I shall release you then, to return to the world and gather more stories for my horde.

The boy’s grin widened—he really did, he just befriended a dragon, the freest and most untamable and unruly species walking the land. Of course! Surely, he thought, there would be more adventures to be had there.

And lo, he had many fun times with the dragon, whose given name was Igneel, and title, Flame Dragon King.

He-ey, Igneel, the boy said several weeks later, sitting in the crook of Igneel’s elbow with his pink head against the reptile’s warm scales, why do you stay here?

tis a dragon’s duty to guard their treasure, Igneel replied. The boy groaned aloud and crawled up the bony protrusion of his ear to his horns.

Why? You sit here and stare at it. What does it do? You can have a lot more fun up there…

For more than that, I restrain myself. You wouldn’t understand, little hatchling. The boy pouted but quickly began giggling as the dragon let him slide down his great wings. Tell me of your family. A drake knows not their mother and father of birth, but the sky and land that instead hold and feed them.

So, the boy spoke of his mother, who had soft black hair and the gentlest voice even in scolding, and father, who had strong hands and a big laugh and apparently his smile, and twin brother, who was small and quiet but very attached. Igneel seemed especially interested concerning people, so the boy went on to the rest of the village’s inhabitants, like grouchy old man Matthias that ran the market, and nice lady Kailyn who always gave the boy pastries when he visited. Igneel took great joy in the boy’s stories, and so he looked for as many as he could tell.

But, like all good things, their time came to an end. One day, Igneel was gone. The boy never did find him again.


“So, where does Titania live?” Natsu asked.

“To find her, we must seek out The Golden Ones. They are only visible at twilight, so we must make haste,” Zodiac said, glancing at the midday sun. They had been walking for at least six hours, resting once in the village Natsu passed earlier to get to the forest. He went unrecognized as they asked for bread and water, and he wasn’t sure if the fact shocked him or not. For certain, Zeref’s magic had done quite a number on his appearance. Looking into the cup of water he was given, he recognized a face he hadn’t seen in decades.

“The Golden Ones?”

“The primordial name of the Seelie Court, the light faeries. If fortune serves, we won’t have to do business with the Unseelie Court.”

“Which would be a…bad thing, I presume.”

“Dark faeries are unpredictable. They certainly have a wider spectrum of information, but the King could seek to kill us or make us pets,” she said.

“Not that Titania is much better,” he muttered with a repressed shudder. Zodiac glanced at him over her shoulder.

“What is it with you and her?”

“She, ah, tried to slay me once because of a…mistake I made,” he said carefully. “I barely made it out with my life. For a faerie, she is impossibly strong.”

“For the queen of faeries, she is strongest of all those who preceded her.”

“That much, I believe.” They reached an uneven plateau of land where the sunbaked earth was barren of greenery and jutted out from large fissures between. Zodiac stopped Natsu at the first one, and they swayed a moment before jumping over in unison. “You do know a lot about the world for someone who lives in a forest.”

“I didn’t always, you know. I had a life.” The second fissure was larger, about the width of three bodies. Natsu put an arm around her waist to support her in the jump.

“And you decided to stay in the forest…why?”

“To help people that need it. They could find me and ask my aid, and should I be able to provide it, I do.” The next fissure required them stepping over in unison. “But you’re E.N.D., the one who does the bidding of the Dark Wizard with no mind of his own.”

“Yes, we’ve established that several times now,” he said dryly. “It’s not as if I had much of a choice in following him. For several decades past my resurrection, I had no memories of what…who I was. I’d say it was accidental, but Zeref plans down to the last detail in everything he does. I doubt he expected me to rebel as I did.”

“So,” she said as the land levelled out, “what was your plan?”

“What?”

“After you became human.”

“I wanted to find a dragon.” Zodiac stopped short and looked at him with the corners of her mouth twitching.

“Find a dragon, you say? Where, in a children’s fable?”

“They’re real. He’s real! Why am I even wasting time on this?” He attempted to step away in anger, but all that did was draw her closer, literally.

“No, no, I apologize,” she said with a smile. “I was poking fun at you. I for one am the last person to speak of myths.”

“But you don’t believe in dragons.” He gave her a hard look. “No one does. They say I’ve seen a wyvern or something of the like, but Igneel is a dragon. I’ll be saying that even on my deathbed.”

“As I’ve said,” she replied calmly. “I dance with the stars as the evening reaches its peak. More than anyone, I know of myths.”

“What’s it like to possess such a rare magic?”

“It’s…” She faltered, staring off into the distance blankly, then refocused on him. “Something I cannot describe in mere words.”

“I suppose.” Magic could be like that—or so he had heard. He hadn’t had magic as a child, though he begged Igneel to teach him often enough (“My magic may hurt you, little hatchling, and then who would tell me such extraordinary stories?“) and as E.N.D., his body was numbed to nearly all sensations. “Where exactly are we going?”

“We simply walk towards the sun until the last streak of crimson dominates the sky.” As she spoke, the sunset was painting the heavens shades of orange and gold.

“That’s…it?”

“The land of which the fae inhabit is entwined with ours, but generally lies invisible to most eyes, even wizards’. Unless you know where and how to look, you may go your whole life without beholding one.”

“I wish I would’ve gone my life without beholding one.” Then he gave her a peculiar look. “You sure do know a lot. How old are you exactly?”

She made a half-choked, half-outraged noise and raised her free hand threateningly. “How old do I look!?”

He was unmoved and even more unimpressed. He gave her a dry look. “I’m well over four centuries old. How old do I look? That’s why I asked.”

“Still! You don’t ask a beautiful young lady her age! It’s rude.”

“Beautiful?” he repeated, raising an eyebrow. She puffed out her cheeks, which suddenly became a pretty shade of scarlet. “So…are you going to answer?”

“No, you insensitive demon!” she yelled in his face and smacked his chest. He cracked a smile rather than his knee-jerk reaction at being called a demon, which was…new. He never thought he would smile at any way of being called a demon, but her doing so while wearing that face, he found it quite amusing.

“Soo…you look about forty. I’m gonna say forty.”

She gave a loud scream of frustration with her face turning even redder. Natsu’s little smile grew into a wide grin.

“I was not aware you danced with demons, Celestial Mage.”

They both stiffened, then spun at the new voice. The sky had changed during their small exchange, and a scarlet backdrop stood stark against the tall figure that now held herself in front of the last slivers of sunlight. Her long red hair settled over an armor made of striking steel, everything from the curved steel feathers rising from her back to the heavy boots on her feet. Aside from the cups lifting her ample breasts, her abdomen was bare, but Natsu knew from experience that it left her no less exposed than full-body regalia.

“Things change in so long, Titania,” Zodiac said behind him. He refused to tear his gaze from Titania’s. She didn’t speak for a long moment after, then closed her eyes.

“Well, you’ve found me. You and your…friend. I suppose it’s not for leisure either,” she added, glancing at their intertwined arms. “It’s approaching dark. We should move out before more disagreeable creatures appear.”

“No offense taken,” Natsu said loudly, but he was ignored as Titania walked off towards the greying sky. Zodiac let out a huff and gave him an annoyed glance before following, thereby pulling him forward as well. He opened his mouth to retort, then his attention was drawn by their surroundings: with each footstep, the plains around them blurred a little bit more, and other figures winked into sight like the stars of the night sky. Blotchy, unclear creatures that solidified in the corner of his eyes but disappeared as soon as he glanced at them. The affair was beginning to give him a headache.

“You won’t see them unless they wish to be seen,” Zodiac told him. A growl built in his chest but he said nothing.

“You’re no more amicable, E.N.D.,” Titania said. He focused on the rhythmic movements of her hair swaying from side to side as the environment melted further in his peripheral, turning to green and grey forestry with the faint notes of singing in the back. It was like the forest of the Celestial Mage, but even hazier and less corporeal, like a fever dream he could easily awaken from. “This is also your first trip into our Land, is it not?”

“What of it?” He was sullen now, which brought the startling realization that he was…not sullen before to be so now. Which was ridiculous, because there was nothing of his and Zodiac’s situation to enjoy. Yet he was smiling earlier, wasn’t he?

“There are certain rules you should abide by,” Zodiac said.

“Do not eat or drink whatever I am offered is one of them.” Zodiac and Titania suddenly laughed, the former’s hearty and the other’s dry. Natsu’s blood boiled beneath his skin.

“I don’t think any fae is rushing to imprison a demon in our world,” Titania said. “On the other hand, some could be unrelenting in trying to take your life, E.N.D. Without your powers—”

“Who says I don’t have my powers?”

“You’ve lost much of your aura. I hardly recognized you. And anyhow, what pleases a demon about masquerading as a man?”

“I am not masquerading! Long before you were born, I was a man. This is the face I had.” He pointed at his face, which was much angrier than he ever would’ve been as a boy. Titania, it seemed, wanted to push all his buttons, and Zodiac and his own common sense be damned, he would eviscerate her for it.

His humanity be damned as well, then. The small voice went unnoticed in his mind.

“So you say,” said Titania before she fell silent. He glowered at the back of her head—if only looks could kill… Then Zodiac’s warm and firm grasp on his hand brought him back to the moment. Since when were their fingers intertwined? He supposed it was more comfortable than having their hands awkwardly dangling together.

“I think it not the best plan to demonize the one who may offer us aid,” Zodiac said in the most pointed tone of voice possible, and he didn’t believe her use of the word demonize to be entirely chance either.

“Speaking of, I’m curious as to how you two ended up in this situation.” She reached forward and pushed aside a long hanging string of English ivy, and stopped to beckon them past. They surfaced into a wide clearing made up primarily of a silver-topped pond, where small fae and larger centaurs grazed. They started a bit at Natsu and Zodiac’s presence and followed them with their eyes before Titania entered the area, at which they prostrated themselves until they fell in the wake of her path. She moved so easily over the pond it was as if she glided, and she crossed the clearing to set herself on an old stump. Her ensuing gaze bore holes into Natsu’s forehead until Zodiac not-very-lightly jabbed him with her other elbow.

“She wants you to begin speaking, demon.”

“How was I supposed to know?” he muttered. He looked at her and opened his mouth to speak when another figure passed through the brush. He was tall, Natsu’s height for sure, and with dark-colored hair and a ragged black cloak that hid his figure from view. He passed the other Golden Ones, who bowed before him as well, and stopped at Titania’s side, lowering himself to one knee.

“My Queen,” he said in a voice that easily carried the distance. To Natsu’s surprise, Titania inclined her head in her own show of deference.

“Dear Husband, you’ve returned safely.” Then her neck snapped rigid again, as if suddenly reminded she had guests. “Here, you make the acquaintance of my Husband, who is called Oberon.”

He inclined his head to one side to look at the two. His eyes first widened, then narrowed at the sight of Natsu. “You reek of Dark Magic,” he remarked in a tone far from pleasant. “My Queen, what have you brought into our sacred woods?”

“Regardless, she has, and she was the one asking the questions.” Oberon’s eyes narrowed further and he took a step in Natsu’s direction.

“Be careful of your tongue, that it does not wade into dangerous waters.”

“As he said,” Zodiac hissed under her breath. “What did I just say about those who wish to help us?”

“Fine, fine, I shall sheathe my fangs.” With that, he sucked up the last dribbles of his pride in the situation and illuminated for Titania and Oberon the happenings between himself and the Celestial Mage.

“Zeref, you say.” For a breath, an odd scarlet marking flared to life under Oberon’s right eye. Its light immediately died away right after. Titania gave him a meaningful look that loosened the sudden tension in his shoulders. “E.N.D.…Your mere presence will leave a taint in the Seelie Court.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Natsu said flatly. “I’m E.N.D., I’m a demon, I’m repulsive, I’m rotten, I’m any and all synonymous words to the vilest creations imaginable. I also imagine you don’t care much for whatever inconveniences befall me—in fact, you could even find them humorous.”

Titania sighed and held out a hand to stop him. “You may not believe me when I say so, but my problem in you and Zeref lies not in your breed. When I speak the word demon, I think it accurate to Zeref’s current character—you, his brother, should know it best—” Natsu averted his eyes, refusing to respond, “—and yours in turn.”

“…Fine,” he said, swallowing a growl. “But you haven’t said whether you’d help or not.”

“Of course,” said Titania, “I will. What’s within my power I will provide.”

“Oh, I haven’t seen willingness like that from you since you kicked my—”

“Thank you very much for your aid. We are humbled by your benevolence,” Zodiac loudly interrupted, bowing her head. Natsu was not in the mood but he mimicked the gesture anyway.

“Of course,” she said again, folding her arms and closing her eyes, “No earthly being would be able to sever that string.”

“Are you kidding me?” Zodiac said irately before clapping a hand over her mouth with a cute little squeak. Natsu smirked privately but cleaned his face when she snapped her head over to him. “Err, Lady Titania—”

“It’s the truth,” she insisted, holding up a hand. She pointed at the string binding their arms. “This object has become ethereal thanks to your magic, both of your magics. To be able to cut it, you would first have to reforge and temper it with a material of this land—not just any material either—then have it purified of demonic taint.”

“That’s a lot,” Natsu remarked. Titania sighed and waved her hand flippantly.

“To only coat it with a resin would still leave the mark of E.N.D., which burns all who oppose it.” Natsu’s jaw snapped shut with an audible click and he fought hard not to grind his teeth. “To only purify it would leave it as untouchable as the heavens still.” Zodiac looked to the stars, perhaps for strength, perhaps in answer as to why she was still stuck with him. Then Titania smiled a little. “It would also spell an answer for each your problems. The one who can purify curses can release the taint of E.N.D.’s heart, and the material provided could be the catalyst of a Celestial Key.”

“No,” Zodiac said breathily, as if she dared not hope. Natsu glanced down at her and noticed she trembled faintly against him. “I thought—was told that—undetectable, merely legend in these lands—” He had never heard her fumbling for words so badly and realized whatever she wanted, she wanted with her mind heart and soul, much like himself.

“I said I’d do everything in my power to help, which not only concerns this problem.” Titania looked skywards as the moon, fat and pale yellow, surfaced from thick grey clouds. “The night shall soon reach its peak. You must leave this land before it happens. Oberon shall guide you towards your goal.”

Oberon looked like he’d rather not be doing any such thing, but quickly schooled his expression back to impassivity.

“You’re being very generous for nothing in return,” Natsu said. Zodiac was still too stunned to chastise him for it. “Why is that?”

She gave him a long look, eyes sharp and piercing. Normally, Natsu would meet the look with one of his own, but with tanned skin bared rather than an armor of scales and no Dark Magic on his side, he felt somewhat…naked. But this was…is what I want, he thought, clenching his fist and raising his chin. I’m a human. I care not if she’s Queen of the Fae or the mightiest knight to walk this earth, she can lay me bare and find the red blood of my veins. I’m no longer E.N.D., only Natsu Dragneel. The name filled him with strength even as a mere thought. He hadn’t even thought of his true name in so long…

Titania straightened to her feet in one quick, graceful movement, and she was stepping over to him in the next second. Her boots glided over the surface of the pond as easily as marble, and with each step, the fae lights around them grew brighter and clearer. Giggles sounded at the edges of his hearing and he could finally see their fantastic forms flitting about. Then Titania was head to head with him, and she seemed a bit smaller than he recalled.

“Natsu Dragneel,” she said softly, holding her hand palm-up. He rested his hand atop hers, and her other hand traced a weird design on the back of his. It burned a little as she drew away, but not unpleasantly. “And you, Celestial Mage,” she added, doing the same for Zodiac, whose lips pressed into a thin, tight line. “I wish you both safety and success.”

Natsu watched her turn away, then looked over his shoulder to see Oberon had somehow moved behind them. “Well? The night is limited,” he said before pushing into the brush. Natsu and Zodiac exchanged a look before following. They slipped through the thick web of foliage and light before he spoke again, his voice a bit defeated, “Jellal Fernandes.”

“Who is that?”

“That is my name.” Zodiac let out a little astonished noise.

“But your name, it’s—”

“My Wife trusts you for whatever reason,” he said, looking back at them for a moment. In his eye, Natsu could see a man who had suffered, yet found the one to lead him into the light. He couldn’t imagine her being that person, but people could be full of surprises. “Your brother, he turned someone into a dark fae very long ago. That fae spirited me to the Seelie Court and had me under her spell for a long time. I did things…I’d come to regret far along.” His tone was far too heavy for the word regret—Natsu didn’t think there was a word in existence to describe his shame.

“Jellal…” Zodiac said softly. He let out a long breath and the way around them abruptly shifted to gilded silver netting holding the plants up and away from them. The ground was crunchy marble that shifted loosely beneath Natsu’s bare feet.

“This strong woman freed me, freed me under no urge but a long-passed childhood meeting, and I found it only fair to devote my life to her in turn, atoning for my misdeeds. Eventually, my need for penance turned into genuine devotion to her… And she sees you two worthy, a fallen Star and forsaken Demon. I’ve held faith in her so far, I see no reason to withhold it now.” Jellal’s tone changed at the end, becoming a touch friendlier. Natsu cracked a smile although he was facing the man’s back.

“It’s been a while since anybody has had faith in me.”

“Don’t get too accustomed to it.” They reached the end of the path and Natsu was suddenly struck by a gust of frigid air, although the way beyond was obscured by filmy grey blotches. “She found it valuable to even provide her name for you two, so it seems only right.”

“She what?” Zodiac’s eyes widened slightly and she looked at the exit.

“Hurry,” Jellal said, resting a hand on Natsu’s shoulder. Like before, the contact warmed his skin slightly, and he found himself moving ahead into the unknown. “On your hands, you know?”

He closed his eyes as more icy air flowed forth and found the odd pattern emblazoned upon the backs of his eyelids in a very peculiar, very old language. Slowly, the language shifted and broke apart, reforming into characters he could read.

Erza Scarlet.′

…Fitting.


“What did you think of Jellal’s story?”

They were in Iceberg now, several thousands of miles north of Fiore. Natsu had questioned how they travelled so far before dawn had even broke, and Zodiac said that time moved differently in the Seelie Court—faster. Now, having trudged through several inches’ worth of thick white snow, a bit of blue was breaking through the slate-grey sky.

“What’s there to think?” he replied, feeling annoyed by the subzero temperatures.

“Zeref is your brother, if you recall, and there, he has damaged two lives. Don’t you feel…regret, or anything like that?”

“I am not my brother’s keeper. He knows well what he does, and I have no culpability in it, not anymore.”

“Family ties, like this string, transcend beyond the physical.” Their bond glinted in the wintry light. “They are not so easily cut.”

“Well, aren’t you just the expert?” he said dryly. “You couldn’t even say as much in the beginning.”

“Because I’d never had this happen before!” she protested with flustered cheeks. “W-Well, in any case, Jellal said our first objective is at the coldest point of the world.”

“Can’t imagine how anything could survive out here.”

“Maybe it isn’t surviving,” she said in a softer, darker tone. He cocked an eyebrow as she continued, ”Yuki-onna are the spirits of long-passed women, roaming the iciest lands and freezing men where they stand. More yurei than that lurk in the snow, too.”

“Great,” he said with the least amount of enthusiasm possible. “Oberon hadn’t even told us what we are looking for.”

“It’s a material meant to solidify Celestial Magic. Something like that will have a magical signature very easy to identify.”

“I’m not identifying anything at the moment but a lot of fuzz.” He didn’t know why he chose that particular word when he said it, but a moment later it made sense: it felt like there was cotton stuffed all between his ears, his usual sensitivity to magic dulled. He turned to Zodiac, finding her wearing the same befuddled expression as he. “Something is jamming my senses.”

“And mine as well,” she said tersely. “Something—or someone—is here. We are not alone.”

Immediately after she said it, a gale blew between them, but since they couldn’t separate, Natsu had to brace himself to keep from falling with Zodiac. He glanced back to make sure she was alright, and when he looked forward again, a figure was dashing towards them.

"Ice Make: Rosen Krone!"

The snow around them gave a loud clang as it solidified into a field of pale blue ice, which then took the form of thorny roses. Zodiac, who had just regained her footing, stumbled again in surprise. No worries, Natsu hadn’t taken her for the reactive type, except when it came to jabs at her appearance. He grabbed her other hand and leapt up, clearing the area as the roses’ briars sharpened to long points where they were previously standing. A second later and they would have been impaled.

"Yuki-onna?" Natsu asked. Her nod was a bit jerky.

"Yuki-onna."

They hit the ground at a skid from the angle of his jump, but the snow softened their impact. From out the magical garden came a young woman clothed in a shinishozoku. Natsu, while considering himself in the dark with many human cultures, had seen—and unwillingly brought about—much death in his long life, and could recognize funeral rites as easily as the back of his hands. If not that, then the white tankan against the deep purple of her hair marked her as one whose journey had long ended upon their world.

“Her obi is beautiful,” Zodiac murmured. Natsu didn’t know what she was talking about at first, but there was just one piece of fabric on her which wasn’t stark white. The sash tied about her waist was a myriad of shades of blue that glittered in the light, and delicate embroidery colored violet lined the hems.

“Can you focus on how she’s trying to kill us?”

“I could,” she said flatly, “but what can I do? My magic is useless without a medium.”

The yuki-onna advanced again, swinging an arm forward. The snow hardened into a stream of grounded spikes that shot ahead with record speed. Natsu pushed Zodiac behind him and braced himself before swinging his other hand. An arc of orange and red fire cut her attack short, creating a wild plume of steam that lanced between them and severed visibility.

“That’s a dragon’s magic,” Zodiac said with wide eyes. He gritted his teeth and shook his head slightly—not now, the gesture said. The yuki-onna had been stunned and recoiled a bit from the flames—she doesn’t like heat, of course she doesn’t like heat—but quickly recovered and charged forward again, her gota appearing to slide over the snowy ground. He changed his stance and clenched his fist, fully aware of Zodiac’s presence behind him.

If she gets through me, Zodiac will be killed. I can’t let that happen. I have to…I have to protect her…!

Never in his life had he found something to protect, and the thought made even his demon’s heart swell. His fire flickered for a moment, then the yuki-onna struck again.

"Ice Make: Lance!" A herd of icy spears shot from her extended hands and towards them. Natsu’s eyes narrowed but he couldn’t keep the smile from his face. He may not have had Igneel any longer, but this Fire Magic made him feel alive.

"Fire Dragon’s Iron Fist!"

The fire became a typhoon that speared through her attack and coalesced around his fist as he charged at her. The heat made her freeze, dark eyes wide, and even the wind around them stilled as he drew close. He was only inches away when a new noise caught his attention. It sounded like a large arrow being drawn, but—

"Don’t touch her!"

A whoosh was Natsu’s only warning before an arrow embedded itself in his ribcage with enough force to take down both him and Zodiac. The yuki-onna stumbled backwards as a new body joined the mix, this one distinctly male with a build like Natsu’s. Natsu went for the arrow, but touching its icy-cold shaft brought burning welts to his palm, and he hissed in pain. “What in the hell—”

He heard a quick shwish and looked up to see the man restraining the yuki-onna, who flailed angrily in his grip. A new slice was on one of his pale cheeks, but his expression was too pained to have been because of that. “It’s alright,” he said in a softer voice. Slowly, her struggles ceased, and her eyes fell closed. Shortly after, she faded into a snowy bluster. The tension left his body in a long sigh, but his cerulean eyes were hard as they fell on Natsu once more. “You must truly have a death wish to walk through these lands, Demon.”

“Isn’t the first time I’ve heard that—” He hissed again as he tried and failed to sit up, the arrow sending waves of pain throughout his chest. The man knelt down and, grasping it by the shaft, dug it in deeper.

“You’re lucky it has missed your heart, otherwise you’d be ash.” The pain grew to dizzying levels and Natsu’s growls quickly turned to whimpers. Zodiac’s voice floated through the haze.

“Devil Slayer Magic…but at first glance, I mistook you for…” She made a slightly annoyed sound. “Never mind that. You mustn’t kill him—I very well can’t lug a dead body everywhere, let alone of his size.”

“Why?” Then he paused and removed his hand, which then fell upon the string binding them. “Oh, I see… You allied yourself with none other than the worst of Tartaros. I’d known you were a fallen Star, but to have fallen this low—”

“Enough of that. The point is as you can see, he is not nearly enough of a demon to warrant this, neither is this vulnerable state of his a fair fight. At least extricate the arrow long enough for a conversation, or is that beyond your power?” She sounded upset, which wasn’t new, but…on his behalf? He thought it was a hallucination brought about by near-death.

“What appearance he holds does nothing in the name of his heart. If he didn’t have a demon’s heart, this magic wouldn’t have worked. Besides that, I don’t forgive him for harming Ur.” Did he have ties with the yuki-onna? It made sense—crazy begot crazy.

“I’m sure he’d apologize if he had the arrow removed from his lung.” He made an unpleasant noise, which Zodiac matched with one of her own, and finally the arrow was unceremoniously yanked from his innards. Natsu gasped and clasped his hands against the craggy hole left, failing in pushing the blood back into his body.

“Thanks a lot, bastard,” he managed once he could breathe. The man snorted and folded his arms. He wore a dark blue kimono that hung loose around his chest and short on his arms—how is he not freezing?—with grey hakama and the same gota as the yuki-onna, Ur. The bastard in question raised his chin at the scrutiny.

“The only reason people stray this far north is for me. So, convince me.”

“Convince you…?” Zodiac asked. He cocked his head to the side like it was obvious.

“Why I should help you.”

“Oberon said you would…” She glanced questioningly at Natsu, who shrugged a shoulder and pushed himself up.

“Oberon, huh? Well, he might have said I could.”

“How do we know you can?” Natsu fired back, in pain and annoyed he was in pain. A muscle in his jaw twitched.

“You haven’t been very lucky hitherto, have you?”

“And how in the world would you know that?”

“Because I know more than just of the world. The heavens, too. Takamagahara, specifically, has an excellent view on humanity and otherwise.” Zodiac’s jaw dropped and Natsu’s face blanked. He sighed and gave them a look as chilly as the ice around them. “Kotoshiro-nushi-no-kami. Hiruko. Ebisu. Webisu. No, I don’t have a favorite or preferred name—any will do. You, on the other hand, prefer Zodiac as of now,” he added, looking at Lucy, who flushed shamefully and averted her eyes. “Ironic.”

Fallen Star. He didn’t think before that it held a deeper meaning, but seeing how distressed it made her, he found he didn’t want to press. Either way, his focus was the man in front of him. Or…well, deity was more accurate. Laughably accurate, because he looked no more divine than Natsu himself. And for the god of luck, the steel glint of his eyes told of a dark history behind him.

“Convince me,” he repeated. Natsu looked at Zodiac again, but she was lost in her thoughts. It seemed things fell on him, but he had never been the eloquent charmer—that was Zeref. And look what a fine mess that put him and everyone else in.

“I cannot,” he admitted, startling Zodiac back to reality. “Not if my life depended on it. There is nothing to my name except Zeref, and he is not a worthy card to be played.”

“Then why have you come at all? For judgment?” His eyes narrowed further. “If you’ve met Oberon, you’ve met Titania as well, and she could’ve easily dealt you death in your lands.”

“She tried, once,” he said dryly, and was going to go on before Ebisu interrupted him with a raised hand.

“You fought Titania…and live to tell the tale?” When Natsu nodded, a half-smile quirked his lips. “This is your pass, E.N.D.”

“Huh?”

He stepped backwards until there were ten or so feet between them and ran a hand through his dark hair, leaving it mussed and standing on end. Then black marks crept up from his collar like ink against his pale skin. “Defeat me and I will listen to your request,” he said, taking a fighting stance. Natsu shivered as a gust of cold passed over the sensitive wound. If it had been normally inflicted, it would’ve healed already.

“Hell of a time to be challenging me, handicapped and all.”

“You can head back if you want.”

“No way.” He took a deep breath despite the pain it caused and straightened his back. “You asked me why I came at all. It’s because I’ve made a mess of things for someone who doesn’t deserve it in the slightest. So I don’t much care what happens to myself now, but I want her exonerated.” She made another noise, one he couldn’t easily decipher, but when he looked at her, her face was turned away.

“You’re giving a lot for a fallen Star. But I don’t suppose she’s told you, with that stupid expression on your face—or is that your usual?”

“You’re one to talk, with those droopy eyes,” he retorted, gritting his teeth. “And no, I won’t fight you either. Not while I can put Zodiac in undue danger as well.”

“Zodiac,” he repeated, raising a hand. “Haven’t you considered this to be a punishment for her as well? Maybe she’s done something to deserve it?”

“Not as far as I believe. And I won’t believe it until I have reason otherwise.”

Ebisu’s expression changed to something Natsu couldn’t read very well. “That’s a weird outlook for a demon to have.”

“I’m an oddity,” he said. Ebisu scoffed and smirked a little.

“It seems so.” His smile dropped a moment later as he focused on the string again. “I suppose this is the root of your problem. I can help, at least partway.”

“You will?” Zodiac asked.

“I will,” he said, “so I may extinguish E.N.D. myself on fair terms.”

“Good,” Natsu said deprecatingly.

After examining the string, Ebisu declared it “simple” to reinforce it and increase the corporeality. He summoned again the arrow he used to impale Natsu—he was sure, because his blood was still there—and held it next to the thread, watching the two items flicker in resonance. “This will work,” he said, pulling away. “There’s no material on this earth stronger or more magical than my ice.”

“Dunno, Titania’s sword hurt a lot more.”

“Then you can go begging at her skirt for help, slanted-eyes,” he said peevishly. He pressed his palms together as if in prayer and held the arrow to the thread again. This time, it hissed softly as it dissolved in on itself. “She gave you her name too?” he muttered after a moment of silence.

“What does it matter to you?” Zodiac said it this time, giving him a side-eyed look.

“I’ve known her a lot longer than either of you have, and she hates Zeref’s creations more than I, yet she would give you such power over herself…” His eyes rose to Natsu’s, scanning for something he didn’t initially see. Natsu was caught off guard and his expression wasn’t as defensive as he would have liked, and whatever Ebisu saw made him nod almost imperceptibly. “That’s it.”

“What’s…it?”

His ice was gone and the string, rather than being partly translucent, now shone white with a very faint blue tinge. Ebisu straightened and folded his arms. “That should do it.” A pause. “And I fully expect you to return afterwards, should you have any honor left, E.N.D.”

“I imagine you’ll be hard to find, being a god and all.”

Ebisu’s cheeks took on a faint color as if he hadn’t thought of it. He turned his back to them, mumbling to himself, then finally raised his voice. “Gray.”

“Gray?” they repeated, watching him walk into a sudden snowfall. His figure was blurred by the falling puffs, but his voice remained clear until the end.

“That is the name Ur called me a very long time ago. If you call me by that name, I’ll respond. So I expect to hear your voice sometime soon, E.N.D.”

“Natsu!” he shouted, and although he couldn’t see Gray, he was oddly certain the deity could hear. “You should know the name of the man who will kick your ass!”

The wind blew a bit chillier as if in answer, but his voice didn’t ring again. He felt a soft pressure against his side and looked down to see Zodiac leaning into the curve of his torso.

“You spoke in my favor and even sought to protect me. No one of this earth had done so as long as I’d been on it, most likely for my title as fallen Star.” She gave an ugly scowl, then looked up at him with shining eyes. “Thank you, Natsu.” It was the first time she used his name referring to him, and it rang prettily from her soft pink lips.

“Why not? Right, because I’m an Etherious, I must not care for anyone but myself.” She bit her lip at the remark and shied away slightly. Natsu squinted into the coming blizzard and waved her over. “I see a cave a little way’s away. Before we can go further, we must wait this out.”

With his body heat clearing the way ahead, they found a snowy hillock with an opening big enough for both side-by-side—no problem, since they were forced into living side-by-side anyway. Natsu let Lucy in first so he sat closest to the cold, then let a ball of orange fire hover over his palm, lighting the space between them and generating ample heat.

“I don’t know much about you besides you being an Etherious,” she said, restarting their earlier conversation. “By choice. With your name, I could easily use my abilities to read your past, but I find it…impersonal. It has never been something I stood for, unlike the Twelve.”

“The Twelve…Zodiac?” She nodded once.

“My Keys are my last connection to them and the heavens in which they live.” She drew her knees up to her chest and the slit along her dress again bared her leg for his view. He stared at the silver markings winding incomprehensible patterns around the slim extremity and disappearing into the fabric at her hip. “Someday, I had hoped to see them again without casting a spell first.”

“Why are you a fallen Star, Zodiac?” She winced and turned away from him, a loose strand of hair falling over her shoulder.

“I…hurt…one of the Twelve. Mortally wounded. Aquarius has been lost for many years, and the blame was on me. For that, I was sent here, and for that, I seek to grant wishes until I can get what I need to bring her back. No matter if it takes me another century or three.”

“How long have you been at it now?” Her silence spoke of more than just a handful of years. “That is a lot of devotion. I think your friend is incredibly lucky.” She let out a sharp laugh devoid of humor.

“How lucky can she be if she’s gone?”

“I doubt it was your fault.” She laughed again, but it was more of a sob.

“Natsu—”

“That’s what I believe. Call me foolish or whatever, but it’s what I believe.”

“What a weird demon you are,” she muttered, giving him a side-eyed examination. He smiled to himself and his flames puffed twice, reflecting his internal satisfaction.

“I suppose so.”

“And you? Don’t think you can slip out of talking either.” She folded her legs beneath her and leaned on her bound arm. Her hair tickled Natsu’s shoulder. “How can you use Dragon Slayer Magic?”

He took a deep breath, savoring the pressure against his sore lung before releasing it again. He didn’t think the wound Gray inflicted was going to heal anytime soon, if at all.

“There once was a boy who loved adventure…”

Eventually the sky turned black and Natsu’s flames died from fatigue, so he held onto Zodiac to keep her warm with his body heat. Not that he really thought she needed it, but he didn’t want her uncomfortable. She had fallen asleep with her cheek on his shoulder and he could feel her drooling there. Somehow, he wasn’t bothered.

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