Hinc Itur Ad Astra

Act 3

ACT III—

"One star shone brighter than the others. It flickered restlessly as if ready to burst with the great light bestowed on it by the Creator’s hand. It had nothing to hide, so much to express, as it hung in the heavens as a testament to the One who had put it in place.”

Nicole Sager, Cleftlocke


As a young boy, he often wondered what became of shooting stars. They fell to earth and were never heard from again, after all. His mother told him once that they instead hung themselves in people’s hearts, having grown tired of the coldness out there. He hadn’t believed it then, but now…

"Where, pray tell, are we going?” Zodiac slowed his march with her feet-dragging and whining. Natsu exhaled hard and twin streams of smoke came through his nose.

"I told you. The village elder suggested southwest, so we go southwest.”

"The elder barely knew what was happening around him, he is so old. How do we know he’s valid?”

"We’re older than he by leaps and bounds.”

"Yes, well, our lifespans are different than a human’s. A human’s lifespan is more like a cherry blossom,” she muttered. He turned to see her blushing a little at her own comparison and sucked in a breath. “Don’t say anything! I know it’s a ridiculous thing to say.”

"I wasn’t,” he said weakly. Because lately all Zodiac did was make him weak.

Worse, he sometimes found himself thinking traitorous thoughts as he gazed at her full pink lips, her abundant chest, her long legs leading up to a pert behind… His human weaknesses peaked whenever he looked at her lately, and he could do nothing but fall prey to them, because they all stemmed from the most traitorous fact of them all:

Over the last few months of travelling, he had slowly, deeply, bemusedly, unwillingly, but happily, fallen in love with the fallen Star called Zodiac.

"You have this look in your eyes when you’re about to laugh,” she pouted. He hid his grin so she wouldn’t take it the wrong way.

"Is it so bad to laugh? You’re quite the amusing person, Zodiac.”

"Thanks,” she said with a burning amount of acid in her voice.

Several months of travel softened their bickering to something nearing affectionate. It helped during long stretches of freezing hail, blustering winds, and scorching deserts through their search for one to purify curses. They initially thought it to be another fairy, but if Queen of the Fae could not release the curse, then who else was more powerful? The village elder proposed someone more primordial than even Titania—the Original Queen. Also called the last High Queen of the Daoine Sidhe by some. Other than their vague clue as to her direction, the only other living being old enough to know who she was, was Zeref Dragneel.

Fucking Zeref Dragneel. The Black Wizard, the Dark Mage, the Death-Bringer, Enemy of Ankhseram, The Stars’ Cursed—the list went on with no moniker being above “a fate worse than death.” But then, lost deep within the misery and bloodshed he brought on, a simpler, innocent title lay: “Brother.” Reality was so incongruous it was nearly painful: Why must the same older brother who listened eagerly ’til Natsu ran dry of his adventures with Igneel, be the older brother who sought to curse and retain Natsu for the rest of his immortal life?

When next I see the bastard, I’ll rip his heart out myself. Only a monster can beat a monster, after all.

“Night will fall soon,” Natsu said, squinting a bit at the amber and violet-shaded sky. The last dregs of sunlight were burning away, replaced by a fuller grey shine from the moon. “Let’s settle down, get some rest.”

Zodiac hummed in acknowledgement and he glanced back at her. Lately, she had seemed oddly pensive every time night came—especially if it was a starry night. He thought it not too out-of-place for a Star but could never bring himself to ask. Instead, he pulled her aside on the forested ground to sit in a small clearing in the midst of a crowd of sycamores. They gathered a pile of dried branches and leaves and Natsu snapped his fingers, creating a couple of sparks that turned the thing to smoldering embers.

“Natsu,” Zodiac said as he blew lightly, stoking the fire, “do you ever miss your brother?”

“What?” He cupped a hand around the kindling, whispering softly until a golden flame was crackling between them, then met Zodiac’s eyes. “The same man who put us in this situation to begin with?”

She shook her head and said quietly, “Not the Dark Mage. I’m not talking about the Dark Mage. Do you ever miss your brother?”

He was flabbergasted as to where the question came from, and also stunned at his answer for it. Just as he opened his mouth, however, a not-so-distant noise brought a coil of tension to his shoulders. He held a hand out to Zodiac as she blinked in confusion and he made a fist; instantly, the fire was gone. His nose didn’t lie: there was another Etherious in their midst. Yet…something was off about the scent.

“What is it?” Zodiac whispered, moving closer to his back. He kept the noise level to a minimum as they stood.

“Keep an eye out.”

“It’s too dark, I can’t see.” He glanced back at her in surprise, then pressed his lips into a tight line.

“Alright, that’s alright. Just trust me.”

She hesitated, then her free arm linked with theirs and she nodded against his shoulder blade. He kept his free arm out as he led her forward, their bare feet crunching against the dry leaves below. His senses were on high alert as they progressed, but aside from the occasional noise, nothing came at them. His frown deepened and he pushed forward until the trees started thinning unnaturally. There is some kind of civilization close by, he thought. The dirt beneath their feet turned to concrete and they pushed through the bushes to see a dilapidated church.

“It’s a terrible thing, the way the people can abandon their gods,” Zodiac said under her breath. The rusting crucifix at its crest swayed slightly in the wind. “I don’t see anything else.”

“You never do.” Natsu slowly rotated in his spot, eyes fixed on the sky. “Etherious are fast and brutal; you don’t see it until—” His eyes widened and he dodged to the side, pulling Zodiac alongside him. A flash of black and white surged through their earlier spot, leaving great scores in the ground as if from a beast. Natsu’s lips pulled back in a growl. “What in hell is Zeref’s half-baked plan this time…?”

“A child,” Zodiac said suddenly, distracting him. The next strike sliced a clean line across his chest, leaving a line bubbling with dark red and midnight blue. “Natsu!”

“’m fine,” he said through his teeth, placing a hand over the wound. He forced a smirk on his face. “But you should see the other guy.”

The Etherious stumbled to a stop close to the church’s doors. She was about Lucy’s height and wore a bodysuit of black and white, matching her curly white hair and black headband, the latter of which bearing the mark of Tartaros. Her left arm was shredded, the bronze plating of her claws falling away to reveal charred skin. Natsu’s own hand was flaring with red and orange and crackled as the blood sizzled away.

“That’s an Etherious?” Zodiac’s tone was alarmed as she came closer to Natsu’s back. He brought his hand to his mouth and tasted her blood.

“Only partly. This is Takeover Magic. Which means one of two things.” He took a step back when the woman vanished again, moving too quickly for even his eyes. His senses remained sharp, however, and he spun around to sidestep her next attack, grabbing her intact hand and bringing his knee up into her wrist joint with a definitive crack. She howled in pain and stumbled backwards, regaining her wits in time to avoid a stream of fire from Natsu’s end. “Either she killed a demon herself, whether by luck or skill—though I somehow doubt the second.”

She returned with a war cry and both claws out for the kill. Natsu’s back was to the church, leaving him no room to dodge, so he made a split-second decision. He braced his feet and took one claw to the shoulder, and the other he grabbed with his own hand, putting them in a deadlock. Blood spurted around the incision point and his veins stood out stark and black.

“And…the second thing?” Zodiac asked. The she-devil growled; Natsu grinned maliciously.

“The second thing: she was set up by Zeref. That’s the one I find most believable.” He pushed forward to make her lose her balance and released her hand to grab her ankle. He swung up and out, tossing her twenty feet into a thick tree that split with a monstrous noise and toppled upon impact. “You’re a hundred years too early to be challenging E.N.D.” He put his hand over his wound, trying to staunch the flow of blood.

“Natsu, that’s a lot of blood.”

“Yeah. Can’t do much about that.” She gripped his back a bit too tight for comfort. “Ow! Zodiac, are you trying to skin my hide?”

“You can’t properly fight with me clinging,” she muttered. “And I can’t fight without a conduit.”

“Conduit?” He didn’t get an answer before the she-devil was back at it again. “What are you in it for? Zeref’s help? His mercy? His promises are worth shit; you won’t get either.” She kicked at his face, which he deflected with his elbow before lashing out with a whip of fire. She caught his flames and staunched them in her grip. He had no shortage of them however, and sent a larger wave that set the nearby brush ablaze, lighting up the night. She leapt back but couldn’t avoid blistering burns along her arms, and Natsu gave a ghastly smile. “An imitation could never measure up, I feel inclined to add. Fight me and you will die.”

“You know your brother.” The she-devil’s voice was surprisingly high and soft. “You know I don’t have a choice.”

Natsu scowled, then glanced back at Zodiac, who returned his gaze with a bit of concern. “He doesn’t want you to kill me,” he said to the she-devil. I hope. I pray. It gave him no questions of his brother’s morality or lack thereof, but if Zeref wanted them dead, then that was a major issue.

“He wants you out of commission.” She extended her hand and gathered the surrounding energy into a churning ball of black, visible in the winking firelight. ”Soul Extinctor!"

“Zodiac fall back!” Natsu shielded her smaller body with his own as a cannon of Dark Magic ate up every living organism in its path—including him. Pieces of the pink skin he considered so human were flaked away, leaving him raw and exposed and bloody. In a way, he was perversely glad for this outcome, as it meant this human veneer wasn’t merely a shell; on the flip side, it hurt like absolute hell. He suddenly regretted all the victims to his Dark Magic over his many years of life.

“Natsu!” Zodiac’s cry of his name was strained through her teeth as she gripped his shoulder blades. He forced his arms to move through the onslaught of ethernano and pain to create a burning wall of fire that cut between them and the she-devil and into the forest beyond. Her magic fizzled out and Natsu burst through the flames to latch onto her slim neck with his fingers and slammed her into a tree, splintering the rough bark. Her eyes, a startlingly bright shade of blue, were wide and glassy from pain, but what came from her lips was not a cry for mercy.

“I don’t want to kill an innocent,” she said, eyes flicking to Zodiac, “but Zeref has my family. I have to bring you one way or another.”

“Zeref wants me, does he?” He spat out a bitter laugh. “What, to do his dirty work? No thank you.”

“It wasn’t a question.” Magenta light surrounded her form and Natsu retreated as her form shifted, changing from a black and white jumpsuit to blue scales and pale skin. Massive wings took her aloft, and silhouetted against the growing forest fire, a mass of purple energy built in her uninjured hand. Natsu could feel the energy prickling at the back of his neck and he placed his uninjured hand on Zodiac’s hip.

“I hate to do this since we’re attached, but the next alternative is death,” he said quietly. “This might hurt you.”

Her fingers laced with his. “I can take a little pain,” she replied in an even voice. His heart swelled at the strength of this Star.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever used this magic against Zeref’s name.” His skin scaled over and his face itched as the tribal markings twisted around his eyes and mouth. Dark energy curled around his fingers like a horde of snakes and he raised his hand as the she-devil fired a massive wave of energy. “And it won’t be the last.”

The impact of Dark Magic knocked him backwards several feet, and it was only by Zodiac’s assistance that he kept standing. His bare toes dug trenches into the dirt as the magic weighed down on him like the world. His hand trembled under the onslaught but he didn’t dare add his second for fear of harming Zodiac. More of his skin was peeling under the pressure and the pain was immense, yet he held his ground and maintained his form until the last of her magic petered out.

“That’s not possible!” Her form wavered in the air and she fought to regain even a spark of ethernano. “You’re only half of what you were!”

“I don’t even need that much to end your existence, child. You’re a hundred—no, a thousand years too young to think you can take on the original Etherious with a bit of borrowed magic.”

He pulled his fist back and sent a massive fireball arcing into the sky. Though she tried to dodge, it caught on her wind, sending her plummeting to the earth in the direction opposite from them. Natsu took a deep breath, inhaling the scattered flames from the growing forest fire, then began ushering Zodiac away from the scene, quickly.

“Why is Zeref looking for you?” she asked in a strained voice. His brow furrowed.

“I don’t know, Zodiac. Maybe—no, no, that can’t be…”

“Natsu?”

He weaved through the thick growth of trees, hearing her bare feet barely crunching the leaves below. “He sought to revive me from death because I’m his brother, I do believe he felt some kind of familial attachment, but…there’s more. There’s something more to reviving me with the fullest extent of his Dark Magic. I am a vessel for spells that his living body could not safely channel.”

“What do you mean? What kind of spells is Zeref channeling?”

“That, I don’t know. However, I do know that we have to get out of here before that woman catches up.” He felt his free hand, invisible in the darkness but coarse against his torso. “I fear what would happen if I take much more of her magic.”

But as they crashed through the woods that hadn’t seemed so labyrinthine in daylight, they could hear the she-devil’s pursuit. Natsu assumed she didn’t have enough magic to change forms again but he didn’t want to risk himself in assuming she was completely drained. We need to get away, he thought, his pulse hammering at his throat like a drum. We need to get away now!

"Did you summon me, Youngling?” A saccharine voice echoed in his ears as the world blurred into a grey sort of darkness. A soft but freezing hand with no source caressed his cheek and he came to a quick stop.

“Zodiac, where are we?” he muttered, glancing back at her. Her face had paled, eyes wide beneath her disheveled bangs.

“This is not good…”

"Oh, no, be optimistic, Fallen Star. We have saved you, have we not?” The indistinct world resolved into a sort of…mirror image of the forest they were once in, however the trees were barren and dark as if it had turned the dead of winter in a manner of minutes. The source of the voice was a svelte female standing directly ahead of them, her hair so dark it shone purple in the moonlight, eyes the color of fresh blood. A velvet blue cape hid most of her clothing from view but did nothing to dull the corpse-white sheen of her skin. Her arms folded, delicate hands grasping her elbows, and her red lips quirked up in a smile. “From the Etherious seeking to end his—your—lives.” Her voice had a bit of an echoey quality to it that Natsu found oddly familiar.

“Is she…?”

“A fairy,” Zodiac confirmed, lips pressing to a trembling line. “And not the good sort.”

"I saved you,” she repeated, smile drooping to a frown. Zodiac stepped forward with shoulders squared.

“For what purpose?”

The fae’s fingers tightened. “You are being sought by Zeref. The Unseelie Court wants his head. Our paths align.”

“Is that really all there is to it?” Zodiac raised her chin. “I would think your people admire Zeref and his many unsavory deeds.”

"We did,” she said and left it at that. Zodiac’s lips skewed. “Why are you so upset, Fallen Star? I can release you back to your world if you please, and you shall once again be at the mercy of Zeref’s curse.” Zodiac’s face colored but she didn’t immediately respond, so Natsu stepped forward instead.

“You said you want Zeref. How are we supposed to help? We’re not going to throw ourselves in his way, if that’s what you want.”

"Pity,” she said with a smirk. “However, I have a better idea. We will bait Zeref with what he yearns for most in this world.”

Zodiac glanced at Natsu who merely shrugged. “What? I couldn’t read the man’s mind and he certainly never told me all his secrets. I don’t know what he wants.”

The fae’s smirk grew into a wicked smile. “We shall give Zeref his ‘Fairy Heart.’”


After a long period of silent walking through the distorted woods, Zodiac thought to ask the fae her name. “She’ll just give a fake name,” Natsu pointed out, at which Zodiac shook her head.

“Though the Unseelie Court is granted massive proficiency with Dark Magic and curses, the tradeoff is their inability to lie. Any direct question warrants a truthful answer.”

The fae smiled over her shoulder as she led the way. “The Fallen Star knows of what she speaks. My name is Ultear Milkovich.”

“And what is this ‘Fairy Heart’ you speak of?” Natsu asked. “I’ve certainly never heard of it.”

"Zeref does not even know we possess it. It is something we stumbled upon in the last hundred years or so, and it was only recently that we’ve realized what it signifies. Fairy Heart is a massive source of magic even we fae cannot comprehend.”

“I sense no such thing,” Zodiac said pointedly.

"Perhaps your sensory skills are not as advanced as you’d like to think.” Ultear snickered as a frustrated blush rolled across Zodiac’s cheeks.

“A-And when Zeref comes running, then what?”

"We kill him.” Her tone of voice was far too saccharine for her words and it made Natsu’s stomach coil. Zodiac looked at him worriedly but he didn’t respond. How could he? Zeref was a morally derelict piece of crap, but they were still brothers. Excuse Natsu for even the smallest remnants of sentimentality.

They came to a small clearing where the surrounding trees’ roots coiled under the ground like massive snakes, rising in the center to form a sort of cage around a massive Lacrima crystal. He wasn’t sure in the darkness but there seemed to be a sort of form within. “This is it. Fairy Heart.” Ultear did a flourish with her hand. “Now it’s your turn, E.N.D.” Something about the way she said his nam—title, not his name, dammit—made his skin crawl.

“To do…what, exactly?”

"Just touch it.” She took a step back and crossed her arms expectantly. Natsu exchanged a look with Zodiac, who shrugged.

“I would not recommend doing so, not at all.”

“Yeah, I’m not really—”

Something small and hard slammed into his back at a high speed. Natsu fell forward and automatically threw his hands forward to break his fall, causing them to land right on the surface of the Lacrima. He glanced back in time to see Ultear’s smile as she magically bounced some sort of orb between her hands—of course, of course—then a massive shockwave zapped up his arms and down to his toes. Zodiac, who was forced to touch the Lacrima alongside him, gasped at the sensation.

Why does this thing feel…warm?

Natsu’s heart started beating a rapid rhythm as if it would burst from his chest any second. His skin scaled over and his fingers ached as the nails made way for long claws. His temples ached as the bone broke and reformed to long horns and he dug his toes into the dirt when his ankles tried to shift. The transformation had never been so severe before; the thought startled him.

I’ve found you, Brother. Zeref’s cold and silky voice resonated in his skull and he gritted his teeth, gasping when the tips turned pointed.

Get out of my head, he thought alongside some more unsavory titles for Zeref, but his mind was empty once more. Yet the feeling of dread did not pass even as Natsu pulled his hands away. “Zeref is coming,” he murmured. Ultear’s smile widened.

"Perfect.”

“Fine. You have what you want. Now let us free.” Zodiac glared at Ultear when the fae’s smile faded and the orb landed heavily in her palm.

"My use for you has not yet ended.”

Natsu felt a hand latch onto his free wrist and a burning sensation emanated from the point of contact. He turned and swung at the attacker, who dodged backwards without missing a beat. A younger fae than Ultear, pink hair and green eyes, most of her features blurred by her red cloak. Natsu glanced at his wrist to find a strange pattern emblazoned on his skin. “What is this?”

"A Sensory Link. When we place the twin on Zeref, then we can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.” She turned to Zodiac while Natsu was still stunned. “Rejoice, Fallen Star, for your connection with this demon shall end here and now.”

The air turned cold and the world wavered around them. Natsu’s hand went up to his head as space itself seemed to rend, then Zeref appeared next to Fairy Heart. He touched the crystal almost reverently, closing his eyes and bowing his forehead to the surface. “I’ve finally found you,” he whispered. So, Zeref did know what this Fairy Heart was.

"So have I.” Zeref turned to Ultear as she spun the orb faster and faster, turning it to a blur. Her eyes glowed through the darkness illuminating her twisted features. “Your acolytes have ruined my people, ruined me, and for that, you will die.”

The pink-haired fae rushed Zeref with admirable speed. Zeref’s eyes flashed and he raised a hand, catching her by the face and throwing her to the dirt hard enough to create a trench. The girl cried in pain and Ultear’s eyes narrowed. “Arc of Time: Parallel Worlds.” Her orb shot forward and if Natsu wasn’t mistaken, it split into several dozen which spiraled around Zeref with incomprehensible speed before going for his head. He made no moves to dodge and took every hit straight on with not a single gasp. Her orb, just the one, finally returned to Ultear’s side as her eyes narrowed.

“Is that the best you have, faerie?” Zeref said, wiping a streak of blood from his lips. His pale skin was marred with large bruises, a bone even stuck out from one wrist, but as Natsu watched, the wounds healed in seconds. “I assume you planned on afflicting me with a Sensory Link to match my brother’s. Perhaps that would have worked…but you failed. And I will be taking Fairy Heart and my brother.”

“Where are my Keys?” Zodiac said, breaking the momentary spell of silence. Zeref’s dark eyes fell on her but she didn’t waver. “You took my Keys. Before you go taking anything else from me, I want them back.”

“I’m afraid not. Celestial energy is the one thing I’ve yet to try because of how difficult it is to attain celestial gold…and now that I have the real thing, I have a bit of optimism. Although,” and he paused, and Natsu’s gut coiled, “I suppose a Star’s conductive strength would be much greater than the vessel’s themselves—”

“You will not be taking Zodiac, Zeref.” Natsu stepped in front of her protectively. Zeref continued as if he hadn’t spoken, straightening and making his way towards them.

“Yes…even as a fallen Star, your magic energy must be incomprehensible by human standards… There were so few records of the Celestial King in the Mildian Academy, this would contribute to my personal research as well. She’d be happy to know more about such an untapped magic.” He glanced towards the Lacrima again. Natsu growled when Zeref grew within arm’s reach, raising his claws. Zeref stopped and inclined his head, looking more carefully at Zodiac. “You called her ‘Zodiac,’ Natsu? Is that the identity she gave you?”

“Stop.” Zodiac’s voice was weak, the weakest he ever heard, and that gave him pause. He turned to look at her and missed Zeref’s incoming hand.

“Because names have power, especially the name of a Star, she sought to hide it from you. But you, Brother, you have feelings for this woman. Are you not cowed to know she still holds secrets?” Natsu flushed at the admission of his feelings but didn’t miss a beat, swatting Zeref’s hand away before it could touch hers.

“Go away. If the dark fae want to play with you, so be it, but return Zodiac’s Keys.” Zeref looked between them with an unreadable expression.

“I always feared telling you of my dreams, feared your response. You see, you never had the chance to experience love, and so I knew you wouldn’t understand—but now, you do. You know the feeling of wanting to give everything for this person who fills you. So you should understand why I do the things I do.”

“Wha—you’re not telling me anything. I still have no clue what you’re trying to do, nor do I care. You’ve hurt too many people along the way.”

“Ah. You’re still naïve.” Zeref’s eyes flashed red and Natsu’s growls rose in pitch. Zeref’s hand snapped out and Natsu moved to block but that wasn’t his brother’s intention. He held his hand out, fingers bent like he was choking something. Natsu gasped as a cold sensation seized his heart—his demon’s heart. “I didn’t want to force my hand, Natsu, but I will do what I must.”

He hit the ground shouting in pain and dragged Zodiac to her knees as well. Ultear lashed out with a series of orbs again but Zeref was unmoved, maintaining his deadly grip all through the assault. Zodiac grabbed his cheeks pleading for mercy. Zeref was unmoved—he never was, he never ever was—his twisted brother, his only brother—

"Jiu Leixing!"

Natsu scented sulfur in the air before nine lighting bolts struck at Zeref, actually throwing him off balance and forcing him to take a few steps back. Oberon—no, Jellal—came from the woods to stand at Ultear’s side. She was frowning as she looked over him. “Jellal, it’s been quite a while. Am I forgiven now?”

“I didn’t say that,” he responded coolly, hands set and ready for quick casting. “And we will be talking about you taking Natsu and the Star. For now, I’m only here for them on my Wife’s behalf.”

“Titania, was it?” Zeref smoothed his robes as his skin faded back to its normal pale color, but Natsu noted it was slower than before. “Why would Titania care what I do?”

"Your acolytes have touched all us fae,” Ultear growled before changing her stance. “Ice Make: Rosen Krone!”

“Abyss Break!”

From Ultear came a field of purple ice that wove around their impromptu battlefield like an overgrown garden. Jellal summoned a series of magic circles bearing different elements that bore down several beams towards Zeref. He raised his arms against the attacks that created a large plume of smoke on impact. Zodiac took the opportunity to pull Natsu to his feet and run into the woods.

“Run, Natsu!” she urged in his ear when he stumbled and strained to put one foot ahead of another, especially on the uneven ground. It still felt like Zeref had his heart in a vise grip and he struggled for breath. “We need to get out of here,” she muttered, holding her hand out. A soft golden glow surrounded her fingers and she waved it back and forth before slowing in the northeast direction. Ahead there lay a small nook covered by a thick growth of English ivy. Zodiac parted the vines and pulled Natsu inside. There was only enough room to crawl ahead, so Zodiac took the rear and pushed Natsu ahead. “I’ll watch your back. Keep moving.”

Natsu struggled in the small space but Zodiac’s prods kept him going albeit slowly. After an indeterminate amount of time he could see real sunlight, not the grey murkiness of the Unseelie Court. He managed a few more feet before they fell out onto a field of grass. Ahead was a cliff drop leading to a field of barren mountain ranges. Zodiac sighed in relief and sat back against the wall of dirt. “Hopefully Jellal and Ultear will keep Zeref occupied for a while longer,” she said, closing her eyes. “How do you feel?”

“Dizzy, kind of nauseous…” He paused and turned away from her. “You heard what Zeref said, didn’t you?”

“Which part, exactly?”

“You know. The feelings part.” His face burned and he kept his eyes on the ground, his hands fisting in the dirt. No, not hands, they still hadn’t turned back from razor sharp claws. He really wished they weren’t bound together still.

“Oh. Right.” They fell into a silence so uncomfortable he was tempted to throw himself at the she-devil once more. Eventually she spoke up in a more contrite tone. “You’re a demon, or a human if that changes, but either way, my life is in the heavens. Once I bring back Aquarius, I shall return. My friends,” she murmured, “I haven’t seen them in so long.”

“Your friends, huh? Have they tried to speak to you at all?” Evidently that was the wrong thing to say, because her head whipped in his direction with eyes ablaze.

“Don’t speak ill of the Zodiac! They’re all I have!” A sting right where his demonic heart was.

“And not I?” She frowned and her shoulders slumped.

“That’s not true, Natsu.”

“Is it? After months of travelling together you still didn’t give me your name.” Her frown deepened and she turned away.

“A Star’s name is very powerful. It’s my birth, my death, my essence, my immortality, my light.”

“A demon’s name is the source of their power,” Natsu fired back. “Without this magic sustaining me, I’m a corpse.”

“Well, you gave me your name in exchange for my power. It’s not like I forced it from you.”

“Am I forcing your name from you now? I just think that after all we’ve been through together…”

“I’m sorry, Natsu.”

“Yeah, me too,” he murmured, closing his eyes.

“For what it’s worth, you’re both right.”

Natsu’s eyes snapped open at this new voice and he sat up straighter when he found a young girl standing across from them. Never mind that the cliff they were on was probably several hundred feet above the ground and she just appeared. “I’m sorry, who are you?” Zodiac said, sounding more than a little flustered.

“A friend,” she smiled, clasping her hands together. She couldn’t have been more than a teenager with flowing blonde hair and warm green eyes. Her dress was a fashion Natsu hadn’t seen in quite some years. “I would’ve liked to meet you before but I’ve been indisposed for…well, I don’t know how long, actually, but it’s nice to breathe some fresh air, so to speak. My name is Mavis.”

“That sounds familiar,” Zodiac mused, looking down thoughtfully. Mavis pouted a bit.

“It should. I remember you, L—”

“Zodiac!” she interrupted. Mavis glanced at Natsu with a bit of a frown before smiling again.

“As you wish then, Zodiac. And you’re E.N.D., or am I allowed to refer to you by name as well?”

“Wait, you know my name? Have we met?” Natsu’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you really?” Her fingers tightened and she hummed thoughtfully.

“Well…let’s say I’m an acquaintance of Zeref. And no, we haven’t met, but our hearts have interacted. I learned a bit about you in that time.”

“What are you—”

“Zeref is coming,” she said, eyes flashing with a more dangerous glint. She looked out towards the forest with shoulders squared and Natsu suddenly had the feeling she was older than she appeared. “If you want your Keys back, Lady Star, wouldn’t it be better to follow along with him?”

“Wha—how do you know he has my Keys?”

“I heard,” she said, raising her arms. Zodiac stood, helping Natsu to his feet as well. “I can direct you to where you must go next.”

“First you will tell us who you are and what you’re doing with Zeref,” Natsu growled. Mavis smiled slightly.

“Right now we only have so much time. Listen closely, please: I can tell you where you may find that which you seek, the celestial gold.” Zodiac’s eyes glazed and Natsu could feel her going rigid. “I can open a path to a sídhe, and from there you can travel to Tír na nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth.”

Mavis created a shimmering wall just ahead of them but Natsu, with his heightened sight, could see the trail of greying trees below. He was coming and quickly. “Tell us who you are,” he said, grasping Zodiac’s hand. Mavis looked at their bond and raised her hand to it. She whispered a spell in a language he didn’t know—and by Zodiac’s befuddled expression, she didn’t know either—and before their eyes, their tether for the last few months faded into a flurry of white lights. Natsu flexed his arm and found it strangely cold.

“I was a faerie once,” Mavis said with a bit of a sheen to her eyes. “And I fell in love with a sweet but misguided young man who ended up being the death of me. But he seeks to bring me back with his ill-gotten powers, and I cannot let him do that, both for my sake and his. I do love him, you know, and I’d like to think in another world, I could’ve been a great sister-in-law.” She smiled at Natsu before waving her hand again, displacing the world around them. “I hope to see you two again someday.”

Natsu threw his hand out. “Wait—Mavis—”

In an instant, she was gone, and he and Zodiac stood at a gravestone. The field around them was empty, grass neglected, skies weepy, but the gravestone was clean and sharp. Letters of an unfamiliar language stretched across its surface, but Natsu was able to make out the last bit: “The Last High Queen Of The Daoine Sidhe. —Mavis Vermillion.”

“The Original Queen,” Zodiac murmured. “I remember her. I remember she disappeared and the heavens wept. To think the one who killed her was…and to think she loved him… No, she still loves him. I wonder how that is.”

Natsu shook his head. “She said this is the way, right? To the Land of Eternal Youth?” He began to move forward but Zodiac stopped him with a hand.

“Now that we’re no longer tethered, this is my battle alone. This is my atonement, and I’ve waited centuries for it. Thank you, Natsu, for all we’ve done so far. I will fix Aquarius’s Key, reclaim my own, and then I shall purify you completely. That was our deal, after all.”

“But—”

“You can’t let Zeref find you. You’re already too close to becoming an Etherious once again.” Her hand caressed one of his horns before landing on his cheek, and she leaned into his chest. His arms went around her and he was floored—it was the first time they hugged. She was so, so warm. She looked up at him with warm brown eyes and placed a kiss on his cheek. “I will return,” she said into his ear before pulling away. Natsu’s fists clenched.

“And how do I know that? You can’t even trust me with yourself.” Zodiac’s lips pursed.

“When I return—when, Natsu—then I promise I will give you my name. But for now, you’ve done enough protecting me. Now it’s time to watch yourself. Be safe.” She bent at the hillock and pressed her palms together. A light shone out from her skin, forcing Natsu to avert his eyes, and when he was able to look again, she was gone, his heart taken along with her.

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