. Between the Lines .
"Here, Master Natsu!"
Natsu stared at the familiar building he himself had visited before. He shuddered at the sight of it, remembering the Spirit King. But the Spirit King wasn't there. Instead, someone far less benevolent was.
Gray and the others beside him were eyeing the building curiously as he contemplated what to do. "Gray, take Juvia and go around. See if you can find a way through the back. Happy, you're with me. Gajeel, Levy, hang back here. Wait and see if someone else shows up. You'll be back up. Erza, you're with me. We're going-"
"Hold on," Gajeel cut in. "You're takin' your cat and that little thing instead of another person?"
Natsu looked down at Happy and Plue. "Your point?"
"Give me the goddamn cat and Spirit," Gajeel rumbled, holding his arms out. "Levy and I'll watch 'em."
Natsu reluctantly handed Happy over and the blue cat purred reassuringly. "Be careful!"
"Pun," Plue agreed as Levy took him, her ring flashing. She cuddled the Spirit close to her and Gajeel tucked Happy under his arm. Erza requipped into a fresh set of powerful armor, a massive axe in her hand. She exchanged a look with Natsu. "I'll come in behind Gemini," she decided. "Let Gemini bring you in as if you've been captured."
Natsu pouted. "But that's not fun!"
"When I give the signal," she mused, ignoring his look, "Blow up."
Natsu loved that signal.
"Alright, Gemini," he mused, grinning at the confused Spirit. "Do your worst."
Gemini dug into the other Spirit's mind - Hydra, it had called him - and shoved Natsu forward.
They traveled quickly through the Depths. Loke walked side-by-side with her, and despite her fearlessness, she held onto his sleeve to make sure they weren't separated. Nothing bothered them as they walked through the darkness.
"There," Loke breathed, eyes locked on something ahead. A glow, faint yet bright.
"What is that?"
"The Spirit King." Loke darted forward and Lucy sprinted after him. They got closer and when they reached the source, her lips parted in shock.
A cliff stood before them, a thousand foot drop. From the way the glow was contained, Lucy guessed that this cliff circled - a crater of sorts. At the bottom was a simple key. Lucy frowned as she looked to Loke for an explanation.
"Even the Spirit King," he rumbled, "Has a key. He just doesn't let people have it. Normally, a Zodiac key has to be broken for him to appear in the Mortal Realm." He paced a few feet away, along the edge. "The question is, how do we get down there?"
"We jump." The answer escaped her without permission and she smiled faintly as he gave her an incredulous look. "What? I'm serious."
Loke shook his head. "Fine. That's our only way down as of right now." He frowned. "Unless you toss my key down?"
Lucy shook her head. "I don't want to risk losing it."
"Then let's jump." Without hesitating, he scooped her into his arms. She didn't protest, winding her arms around his neck and peering over the edge as he stepped close. They exchanged a look.
And then he stepped over the edge. Lucy screamed as they plummeted through open air for a few seconds, and then grunted when Loke hit the ground. He flinched as he stumbled, dropping her, and then bent to rub his aching knees. "Sorry, Lucy."
"No worries," Lucy breathed, climbing to her feet. She swept herself off, wishing she could draw on the Star Dress again, but her magic was barely there. She didn't dare use it at the moment. Together they made their way over to the key.
"May I?" Lucy asked, and he nodded. She picked up the key, caressing it. It was a simple key, almost like what she expected pirate keys to have looked like. She ran her fingers over the metal. Not quite gold, not quite silver. A mixture - almost platinum. And practically seething power into her.
"If I summon the Spirit King," she said quietly, "I'll die."
"I thought your magic was low." He frowned. "We'll get out of the Depths first. Summon the Zodiac. You can combine your magic with Yukino's and then draw on our own. Even then, we might all die. There's a reason his key remains within him and not handed out." He eyed the cliff they'd jumped. "The next question is, how do we get out?"
Lucy's jaw dropped. "You didn't think of this before we jumped down?"
"Hey, you're the one who suggested it," he pointed out.
She silently admitted he was right and then rocked back on her heels. "See if there's anything along the edges," she ordered. Everything around them was black - she couldn't even see the cliffs themselves. She stalked over to the edge and ran her fingers over a smooth cliff she couldn't see. When she was done, she began to follow the edge.
She'd nearly gone halfway around, the Spirit King's key in her pocket, when she felt something cool and hard beneath her fingertips. She blinked. "Loke!" she called over her shoulder. After a moment, he jogged over, tie askew.
"Feel here." She took his hand and guided it to rest over hers, moving her own hand back once he'd figured out the spot. He pressed against the surface she'd found.
"A handle," he murmured. Loke wrapped his finger around it, jiggling it until something gave. He staggered back, some kind of door opening. He reached out, feeling with care - and frowned as his arm sank into darkness. "What the hell is this?" he rumbled to no one in particular.
Lucy shrugged. "Loke, I don't think we have much of a choice," she murmured. "We have to-"
Hot breath on the back of her neck had her whirling around, a short scream flying from her lips. A massive shadow - darker than the space around them if possible - with glowing red eyes bared piercing teeth in her face. It clicked its jaws, spindly legs reaching, talons grasping-
Loke grabbed Lucy by the arm and threw her through the door. She disappeared into the black, eyes shocked, and he jumped through, slamming the door shut behind them.
Natsu grimaced as he caught sight of a woman with a child hanging off of her long skirts standing before an orb that had been propped on a stand. Her gaze flickered up - and then stared as Gemini shoved him forward. He flinched as he hit the ground hard enough that his teeth clacked together.
The woman stepped around the orb, coming closer. The girl followed, starry eyes staring. "Hydra? What is this?"
"Natsu Dragneel," Gemini drawled in Hydra's voice. "The son of the Fire Dragon King and the...boyfriend of Lucy Heartfilia, a girl of the stars."
The girl giggled. "Can I play with him?"
"Not yet," she scolded gently, touching her head. The woman swept closer, dropping to crouch before him with a smirk on her painted lips. He glared viciously at her. Her golden hair looked as soft as spun gold - he silently admitted to his hoarding instincts spiking, but he refused to act on it. Hoarding this witch would be as bad as hoarding someone like Zeref.
Natsu licked his lips and then bit the inside of his cheek. He used his tongue to swipe blood over his teeth before he bared them in a grin. Wild, he told himself, look like you're not entirely human.
Easy enough when his second nickname outside of Salamander was "Monster".
"Igneel's child," she breathed. "Your blood is more valuable than you know."
"Where's Lucy?" was his only question. "If you've hurt her," he added, softening his voice to a purr, "I'll rip you into little bloody pieces."
And, somewhere in the back of his mind, Natsu realized he wasn't entirely acting.
It scared him.
Because he sure as hell meant what he was saying.
She looked delighted. "Miss Heartfilia is not here. I watched her sever the connection between my Hydra and Leo through the use of Star Dress and I must say she impressed me. She is very, very interesting. They delved into the Depths to retrieve the key of the Spirit King. Too bad no one ever comes out of the Depths."
His heart missed a beat. Flames tickled his lips. Where was Erza? He wanted to burn.
"Oh, well. That leaves me with one less bitch to deal with." The Spirit drifted away. "I am Andromeda, though my name shouldn't interest you. Cassiopeia," she suddenly added, looking to the young girl. "You can play now."
Cassiopeia stepped forward, giggling as she rested her fingertips over his temples. A throbbing raced through his head, as if she was delving into his mind-
"Natsu!" a voice suddenly shouted.
Natsu smirked, showing his blood-stained teeth to the girl, and exploded.
"Wait until Natsu's signal," Erza had told Gray before disappearing into the building.
Juvia stood beside him, her warm figure leaning gently into his. He had his arms crossed, black eyes locked onto the building, waiting-
The entire building burst into flames with a roar, and Gray exchanged a look with Juvia before they slammed through a window they'd chosen in the back. They hurtled over the short wall beneath it, ignoring the glass that raked their skin.
The sight that met their eyes was anything but pleasant. Natsu beamed like a praised child in the center of the throne room, his onyx eyes delighted as fire raced in every direction, the heat blasting everyone. Erza had her sword at the throat of an amused woman, Gemini had lost his form, and a little girl screamed in agony as she burned.
Gray felt sick.
Natsu was burning that girl.
Juvia threw herself forward, becoming a small tsunami that put out the girl. She cradled the sobbing Spirit in her arms, frowning, and then looked up at Natsu. He was looking up at the flames in fascination, and for a moment, Gray wasn't entirely sure about who he was looking at.
Because that definitely wasn't Natsu.
But then he blinked, shaking his head to clear it, and horror flickered through his eyes as he dropped his flames, erasing them and leaving the world stained with ash that fell around them like snow. He staggered, as if exhaustion had suddenly struck him, and then collapsed.
Erza froze. "Natsu?"
Gray darted forward to check on him as Gemini sprang to his side, bouncing anxiously.
"Piri," Gemi murmured as Gray knelt beside them.
"Master Natsu is suffering deficiency," Mini added.
"Deficiency of magic from using so much," they said together.
"He needs to leave," Gray realized. "We have to get him home."
Natsu scowled weakly, showing off his bloody teeth. Gray nearly shuddered - in horror, in disgust, he wasn't sure. "I'm not leaving without Luce."
"You don't have a choice," Gray retorted. "You won't see Lucy at all before dying at this rate. Gemini-"
Gemini hopped once. "We will take him."
Natsu clenched his jaw, flames trying to flicker around him before dying out. Gemini gently rested their small bodies on him and they disappeared in a flash of light. Gray took a deep breath, mentally promising himself that he'd help Lucy first and demand answers later.
Andromeda laughed. "You don't know," she said with a grin. "The truth about the Dragneel boys...how interesting." She turned her face towards Erza. "Drop your weapon, girl. Maybe I'll grant you clemency instead of killing you outright."
"I'll take my chances with death," Erza said grimly.
Andromeda opened her mouth to speak, her eyes glittering with outright malice, but then the doors to the throne room were flung open and Gajeel strode in, crimson eyes smug. Levy was at his side, arm looped elegantly through his despite the height difference, her gaze sparkling with laughter, and Rogue and Yukino weren't far behind them.
Andromeda blinked, and then narrowed her eyes hatefully at Yukino in particular.
But then, a massive head nosed its way through the door - Ophiuchus. Andromeda's face paled at the sight. She was scared of the Spirit, Gray realized.
Libra and the twin Spirits of Pisces came next, back to normal and furious.
Spirits spilled in after them.
Gemini was back, hopping in with Capricorn. Cancer strode in with Virgo, who surprised Gray by winking at him. Aries entered shyly with Taurus, who eyed Erza eagerly. Aquarius and Scorpio came in together. Finally, Sagittarius entered the throne room on his own. Lyra, Plue, and Happy came in behind them. Happy mewed anxiously as Charle and Lily followed them, not seeing Natsu.
Silence fell. Gray looked to Gajeel for an explanation, but Levy winked and looked to the door.
And then, Lucy strode in, arm and arm with a smirking Loke. She'd changed, body clothed in a black dress, the symbol for Leo plastered on her breast. Her hair was piled on top of her head, tied there with some kind of black ribbon. The dress slit up on her left to her hip, tied in place with a golden stash. Her heels clicked on the floor, her high-raised chin showing off the black lace at her throat. Tied into her hair was a golden crown studded with black.
She looked like she belonged in the Celestial Realm, at Loke's side rather than with them in their world.
For an instant, Gray was scared of her.
Lucy beamed at Andromeda.
"I hear you're the one who ruined our lives," she hummed as Loke dropped her arm. The celestial mage strode up to the stunned Erza, gesturing for her to move. Erza did so without question, bewildered.
"How about I do the same to you?" Lucy murmured.
She dropped a plain golden key to the floor and it sank into nothing with a ripple.
This arc's almost over! Then we launch right into Tartaros. :D
Thanks to reviewers (The Age of Awesomeness, Typhlosion8, LavenderMoonRose, AzaleaFields, PinkFireandGoldenStars, Crazymagic16, CupcakeGoddess22, EeveeOfFairyTail, ReviewWithFace, LePengwen, Vilchen, Juvia is my spirit animal, and Heavenly Star!) as well as those who favorited and followed!