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Demon of Redemption

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Chapter 1-Revelation


They had been expecting some kind of retaliation from Alvarez, but they were still taken by surprise. After succeeding in reforming the guild and rescuing Makarov from Zeref's empire, Fairy Tail hadn't wasted any time. They had quickly spread the word of imminent trouble from Alvarez, and the immediate outpouring of support was incredible. Even though they'd been hesitant to ask for real help for what was shaping up to be a Fairy Tail problem, several other Fiore guilds had quickly mobilized and convened in Magnolia to figure out their strategy for the dawning war.

Not quickly enough, it seemed.

They had certainly been expecting these Spriggans to be powerful, but Magnolia had been thrown into utter chaos by only one. She had seemingly appeared out of nowhere and strolled into the gathering of mages as if she hadn't a care in the world, two younger girls following on her heels. It had been such a shock that no one could do anything besides stare at this crimson-haired stranger, surprised by her sudden appearance but also awed by the monstrous magical power emanating from her.

She had simply smiled mockingly and delivered her message into the stunned silence: she was Eileen, one of the strongest Spriggans, high enchantress, sent by Zeref as an emissary to prepare Fiore for the upcoming invasion by destroying every mage she could get her hands on. After all, Zeref had every intention of spreading destruction across the entire continent, but he was unimpressed with the weak magic offered by most of the native mages. There was very little here to interest him, and he was content to let his underlings take out the trash, even if he would supervise any invasion if it became necessary and was willing to take care of any worthy threats if they presented themselves. But while Alvarez's forces were mobilizing, Eileen had been given permission to send a message to Fiore's inhabitants—a message that she intended to write with blood and screams and death.

She was a charming woman.

Despite the amazing power coiled within her, it was hard to imagine that one woman could stand up to such a large gathering of mages and win. Unfortunately, just because no one could imagine it didn't mean that it couldn't be turned into reality anyway. She and her two tagalongs cut down mages in swathes, leaving destruction and carnage everywhere they went.

It wasn't that the battle had been entirely one-sided. Her sidekicks had been far weaker than her and defeated fairly quickly. The fact that they had apparently been enchanted swords all along was not entirely comforting, though. It was just one more show of strength to demonstrate exactly how incredible her magic was. And to be fair, Fiore's mages weren't making it easy on Eileen. They'd managed to land several attacks on her—although she appeared to sustain minimal damage—and had deflected or undone many of her enchantments.

The problem was that, aside from the immensity of her raw power, her magic was extremely versatile. She seemed to be able to enchant anything and everything, and it was, quite frankly, impossible for her to be performing all the different types of magic she was using. Well, it should have been impossible if she followed the normal laws of magic.

Gray wasn't sure that she followed the normal laws of magic.

He leaned against the crumbling wall of what had once been a perfectly good building, and winced as he iced over a particularly nasty gash in his side. Damn. Eileen hadn't actually decimated the assembled guilds yet, but it seemed like she was just playing with them now, a particularly cruel cat who already knew that she had won but was unwilling to put her prey out of its misery just yet. Everyone was out of magic by this point or getting there, some of their strongest reinforcements had yet to show up—why was Gildarts always late to the party?—and many mages were too drained or injured to even stand anymore.

Eileen stood in the midst of the carnage, a vicious half-smile tugging at one corner of her mouth and her eyes glinting coldly as she surveyed the scene.

"You truly thought that you could protect your country and find a way to stop Zeref and his armies?" she asked, her voice lilting upward slightly in amusement. "When you could not defeat even one of the twelve Spriggans? I'm actually a little disappointed. I was hoping you would be a bit more of a challenge."

Something inside Gray shivered in anticipation. He could almost feel the power trembling just outside his reach, behind the barrier he'd constructed long ago to contain it.

You could do it. Let it out and get rid of her before she kills someone.

I can't. It would ruin everything. I'd lose…everything. Everyone.

And that's worse than letting them all die? At least they'd still be alive, even if you lost them.

Gray shook his head sharply to banish his thoughts, determinedly pushing back against the monster inside him. It had become more unstable lately, starting during his stay with Avatar when he'd been forced to dabble in darkness and pick up old habits, and it was only a matter of time before the dam finally snapped.

Or not. He couldn't afford to let that happen, but he was worried that almost anything might be able to push him over the edge while he was so unstable. And watching Eileen prepare to kill his friends could very well be that catalyst, if he couldn't control himself.

Surely there were still other options, though. Eileen was powerful but she was hardly invincible, and not all of Fiore's mages were down for the count just yet. She had already had to use an incredible amount of magic to keep them down, so if they could just rally…

Gray's heart jumped into his throat as Zeref's emissary suddenly focused in on Lucy. The blonde was kneeling by Natsu, who was wincing and pulling himself into a sitting position as he clutched at his injured side. The flame-brained fool would be fine and back to fighting within moments, but Lucy was paying enough attention to him that she had become an easy target.

The spell moved fast enough that Gray couldn't even be certain what it was, but Natsu's head whipped up, and he grabbed Lucy and tugged her out of the way.

"Leave her alone," the dragon slayer growled.

Eileen paused, tilted her head to study the pair, and then smirked. "Oh, now this could be fun."

Her enchantment moved too quickly for even Natsu's heightened senses to detect this time, and it hit Lucy full on. Her shrill cry was quickly turned into a…squeak? Gray's eyes widened in disbelief as he stared at the tiny mouse left in Lucy's place. Then he tore his gaze away and narrowed his eyes at Eileen.

Kill the bitch. Rip her to pieces. How dare she?

Something inside him threatened to snap, and he took an unconscious step forward.

Eileen just chuckled coldly and kept her eyes fixed on Natsu. "For all you lot go on and on about love and friendship and all that silly nonsense… Can you look at her and say that you still care about her even in such a pathetic form? Can you look her in the eyes and say that you truly love her anyway?"

"Of course," Natsu snapped, scooping Lucy's small form up in one hand as he glowered at the enemy mage. "She's still family. Now change her back right now!"

Too bad that won't apply to you, if they ever find out…

Eileen's smug smirk immediately flattened into a displeased frown, her eyes hardening. "How boring."

She lifted her staff and Natsu made to jump out of the way, but Erza managed to move first, requipping and swinging a sword at the enchantress. Eileen aborted her spell to defend herself. When she spotted Erza, her eyes widened slightly and then narrowed.

"Hm. I certainly wasn't expecting to see you here."

Erza frowned. "Should I know you or something?"

Eileen eyed her a moment longer before shrugging. "No, I suppose not. It doesn't matter. I'm going to kill you anyway."

Gray didn't know what was going on with that, but his eye had caught on Lyon sprawled a short distance away, near where Chelia and a few other Lamia Scale mages were halfheartedly trying to regroup. Erza and Eileen had started dueling and for now Erza seemed to be holding her own, so Gray limped over to Lyon. He'd keep an eye on Erza in case something went wrong, but everything was so chaotic over there that he was afraid he might injure her by accident if he aimed for Eileen.

"Lyon? Hey, Lyon, are you alright?" Gray asked, dropping to his knees and shaking the other man gently.

Lyon groaned but roused himself. "I'm fine," he mumbled as Gray helped him sit up. "Just give me a sec."

Gray eyed him critically, but quickly determined that his wounds weren't too severe. He would be alright for now, and perhaps could even rejoin the fight soon.

"Alright, we need to try getting everyone who can still fight to work together," Gray said. "It's the only way we have a chance."

"Of course," Lyon replied, despite the doubt flickering in his eyes.

It won't be enough. Break the seal.

Gray swallowed. He couldn't do that. There had to be another way.

"Lyon, I…" He trailed off and looked away, shaking his head. He could feel the seal weakening, cracking, and he was afraid that he was right on the edge of snapping. One wrong move on anyone's part could ruin it all, and nothing he said now could change that. There would be no damage control beforehand.

"What?"

"I… Nothing. Why don't you go see if you can get some of your guildmates up?"

Lyon studied him for a moment before nodding. "Alright. Don't die, Gray."

Gray smiled thinly at the irony of that—not that Lyon understood it—but then sighed. "Stay safe."

He pulled himself to his feet and started toward Natsu and Lucy, still more than half focused on Erza's fight. And because he was so focused on Erza's battle, he didn't make it even halfway to Natsu before it all went wrong.

He saw the moment when Erza slipped up and Eileen went in for the kill, grabbing the younger woman and beginning to weave an enchantment.

"It's too bad I'm not in much of a storytelling mood, or I'd tell you about who you are before I killed you," Eileen said, her smile unsettling. "But I suppose you'll have to die ignorant. And then I'll kill all your friends and destroy your guild, and when Zeref and the other Spriggans come, we'll lay waste to your entire continent. Silly girl, you never would have been strong enough to face me."

Kill her now.

It didn't matter that Erza was already pulling away and might still be able to deflect the spell at the last minute. Gray didn't care about that now. The seal snapped in half with a force that reverberated through his entire body, fury and darkness and power flooding through him. His eyes narrowed to slits, focused intently on the bitch threatening his guild.

Gray–

Not Gray, not really. But he couldn't stomach his old name either, didn't want to be that anymore. Two names that were only half his, so maybe it would be better to have none at all.

The brief internal debate was quickly lost in the swirling vortex of his mind, swallowed up by the darkness and wrath washing over him. Without thinking, He opened his mouth and sucked in a lungful of air to unleash an inhuman roar that blasted across the battlefield and froze everyone in their tracks. Lyon stopped breathing, the sound playing havoc with his memories; the rest of the team felt an uneasy jolt at the primal sound; and everyone's hearts shuddered painfully to a halt, fear flooding through them regardless of whether they recognized the noise.

He had eyes only for Eileen, who had finally taken notice of him. Ignoring everything else, He stalked toward her purposefully with an almost feline grace, everything about him screaming predator. His wrath manifested itself in his magic, ice exploding across the entire area in jagged sheets even though He had nearly been out of power only moments before. But this was different ice, frightening ice, shot through with roiling shadows that seeped out of him and spreading through the frozen wasteland.

Icy fractals crackled under his feet as He advanced on Eileen, so intent on his prey that He barely noticed his shadow fluctuating, spreading out behind him and morphing into something positively monstrous as it glided along behind him at his feet.

"I suggest that you step away from her," He hissed, the sound dark and inhuman, nothing like his usual voice.

His ice had already sliced through the narrow gap between the two battling mages and shattered Eileen's spell, but He was taking no chances. The enchantress arched an eyebrow, some of her instinctive fear melting into contemptuous disdain again. Foolish woman.

"Or you'll do what?" she asked mockingly.

He growled low in his throat, an animal-like sound that it shouldn't be possible for his vocal chords to make. His dark eyes gleamed with a faint red shine, his teeth suddenly seemed to lengthen into fangs, his fingers curved over like claws. He even seemed to stretch out slightly, almost towering over the others even though his physical height didn't truly change.

To everyone who thought they knew him, He didn't seem like Gray at all. He didn't even seem human.

"Silly human," He said, his voice echoing strangely off the ice. "I will destroy you."

"Gray?" Erza asked. Her voice wavered uncertainly as He approached. "Gray, what–?"

Not even really looking at her, He leaned down, wrapped an arm around her, and pulled her to her feet. "Go to Natsu," He said as he gently pushed her back, his eyes still fixed on Eileen.

She might have said something else, but He wasn't listening.

"Well, maybe one of you will actually be some fun after all," Eileen remarked, lips quirking upward. "Although I'm not sure where all this magic came from so suddenly—I should have sensed it."

He didn't know what enchantment she was weaving now, but He broke through it like it was nothing, blackened ice carving through her half-formed magic like butter. She was a powerful mage, but she'd already used up quite a bit of magic downing Fiore's guilds, and right now He was too strong. A terrible magic, one that had been bottled up for years but had now been unleashed in one fell torrent, swirled around him and made him impervious to all but the strongest spells. With everyone else so weakened, He was the most powerful player left on the field.

Doubt flickered in Eileen's eyes as she watched him destroy her magic before she'd even had the opportunity to use it. He could see the unease and dread starting to creep back in, and bared his teeth in sadistic satisfaction.

Good. Make her suffer. Make her pay.

"You dare attack my guild?" He asked, almost snarling out the words as his eyes flashed menacingly. "To threaten it? To challenge me? You foolish mortal."

She backed away slowly, staff jabbing at the air as she wove spells. He stalked onward, implacable, batting aside her magic effortlessly. His ice continued to spread, reaching out for her, its darkness clawing at her mercilessly. His shadow billowed out behind him, the once-human shape spreading outward in a mass of fearsome malice.

"I will kill you. I will rip your heart out of your chest, rend you limb from limb, paint the city in your blood, tear you screaming out of this world once and for all. You made a mistake challenging me, human. I was created for destruction, and destroy you I shall. By the time I'm through with you, there will be nothing left."

Eileen's eyes widened. "What are you?" she breathed, undisguised fear clouding her face.

He smiled coldly. "You really don't want to know."

She raised her staff to prepare for one last, desperate spell, but now He moved faster than thought, darting forward and slamming into her chest. Pushing her to the ground, He snatched her staff and carelessly snapped it in half before tossing it away. He glowered down at her, lips peeling back into a feral snarl.

"Die."

You can't do that. Don't do that. Don't go back again.

She deserves it. Kill. Destroy, destroy, destroy.

Please…not again.

He squeezed his eyes shut, claws curling tightly around the prone enchantress's wrists as He waged an internal battle against himself. Every fiber of his being was screaming at him to kill this woman and then burn the world down, destroy everything like He had been created to do. But the small part of him not wholly consumed by fury and darkness beseeched him otherwise, whispering desperate pleas to the unleashed monster. One hand lifted to grasp the pendant hanging around his neck, and He let the point dig deeply into his skin.

With a groan, He rolled off Eileen and curled into himself, breathing heavily as He rocked back and forth and pressed his trembling hands against his eyes.

"You stupid, stupid human," He mumbled, half to himself. "You shouldn't have pushed me so far and broken the seal."

He took a few more seconds to collect himself and rein in the rage, before dropping his hands and fixing his eyes on the shaking enchantress sprawled across the ground. Her breaths were coming in small gasps as she stared at him wide-eyed, and He could sense the too-quick beating of her heart from here, could almost taste her blood and feel her flesh tearing beneath his fingers.

"Change Lucy back," He said finally, digging his nails into his arms in an attempt to ground himself.

Eileen hesitated for the briefest of seconds, but even that was too much for him and immediately whipped his fury back into a frenzy.

"Do not test me, woman!" He roared, rising to his feet and towering over her. His eyes flashed crimson, and the shadows and ice billowed outward in response to his emotion.

Eileen made an undignified whimpering noise and hurriedly undid her spell. Glancing backward, He confirmed that Lucy was back to her original form. For now He ignored the shocked and horrified looks on everyone's faces. He couldn't deal with them yet. Not when He was still so unstable.

"I suggest you don't try anything." He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes as He tried to get himself back under control again. "Not when I'm seconds away from snapping and killing you."

He couldn't say that He was particularly worried about her at this point. She was too frightened to dare make a move. Now that the threat was past, He should be able to calm down, lock the monster back up again.

Except that it was too late for that now. He had given himself away, and there was no going back.

"Gray?" Lucy asked from somewhere behind him, her voice still high-pitched and squeaky enough to be mistaken for a mouse.

Her voice, her fear, cut through the silence to assault him, and the barely-contained fury sprang to life again. He rounded on her, on all of them, his shadow flaring outward again as He bared his pointed teeth and growled.

"Gray?" He snarled. Something in his chest danced in vicious satisfaction as she shrank back in fear. There was something delightful about the horror and terror written across everyone's faces. They should be scared. "There is no Gray."

There was stunned silence for a long moment before Natsu suddenly straightened, anger taking the place of his shock. "What did you do to Gray?" he demanded.

He just laughed. "I killed him." His mouth stretched into a too-wide grin. "I killed him a long, long time ago."

Incomprehension flitted across Natsu's face, but then his eyes narrowed into slits and he clenched his hands into fists. "What the hell are you talking about? You had better give Gray back right now or I'll make you."

"You fool," He purred. "You never even met Gray. You only ever met me."

"Gray-sama?" Juvia asked. Her voice wavered as she wrapped her arms around herself and her eyes filled with tears. "What–?"

"Gray-sama isn't even human, you silly girl."

"Stop playing games," Erza hissed, knuckles white as she clutched the hilt of her sword. "Tell us how to get rid of you and get Gray back."

"Are you not listening?" He asked. His chuckle was menacing enough to make everyone's blood run cold. "You never met Gray. In fact…" His gaze drifted to rest contemplatively on Lyon. "He's the only one of you who ever met Gray."

Lyon stared back at him, face entirely drained of blood. They stared at each other in silence for what felt like an eternity, although it was only seconds.

"What did you do to my brother?" Lyon whispered finally, rage and grief and fear warring in his eyes.

He clicked his tongue in exasperation. "Have you still not figured it out? You aren't the smartest bunch, but I thought I'd made it pretty obvious by now."

"Tell us–"

"I'm not Gray and I never was." He leaned forward, lips stretching into a sadistic leer. "I'm the demon. Oh, you fools. You invited a demon into your guild and never even knew it. No, I'm not Gray. I'm Deliora."

The silence was heavy with disbelief and horror in response to the preposterous statement. Half of him, the half once chained but now suddenly unleashed, reveled in it. The other half, the half currently buried underneath the malice, shrank back. It was over now. There was no fixing this.

"That's impossible," Lucy choked out finally.

"Is it?" He asked. One eyebrow arched upward mockingly.

"Deliora is dead," Lyon said, his voice wavering slightly. "It's dead."

"Oh? Am I?"

"Of course. Ur's ice killed–"

"Your master never killed me," He hissed, eyes flashing. "Iced shell isn't meant to kill, is it? I know it isn't. I spent a lot of time finding out everything I could about that damn spell, back when I was still trying to figure out how to undo the mess your dear master put me in."

"But–"

"But nothing," He growled. "Let me tell you what her damn spell actually did, because it sure as hell didn't kill me. It severed my connection to my Book, which should be fucking impossible. But somehow her ice sliced right through my binding, and it had a lot of unexpected consequences. Maybe it would have actually killed me—I don't know.

"But by a miraculous coincidence of timing, your darling Gray managed to die at the exact same moment my connection was snapped. And by some godawful joke of fate, I somehow managed to get snagged by his soulless body and bound to it."

"That's impossible," Lyon interrupted, swaying as if he might suddenly keel over and pass out at any second. "It doesn't make sense. It's impossible."

"Impossible?" He pulled himself up to his full height and stared down the ice mage with burning eyes. "Impossible? Don't tell me what's impossible, human. As much as I'd like for it to be impossible, it's obviously not, is it?"

"It doesn't–"

"You still don't believe me? What do I have to do, draw you a pretty picture? Fine, let me explain it to you. Because it should be impossible, and I did an awful lot of digging while trying to figure out what the hell happened and how to reverse it. It's like this: when you cut a thread, you're left with two different pieces, aren't you? One end of Gray's thread stayed attached to his body after his soul was disconnected. It would have withered and shriveled up within moments, if I hadn't stumbled into it. And my thread was severed from my Book, and apparently from my old body too. So sure, maybe I would have died. Except that one end of my thread got tangled up in what was left of Gray's, and I got stuck.

"And even worse, there were pieces of him left behind in that last remnant of his soul-string. So not only did I get stuck with his body, but I got stuck with his memories, his values, his goals, his godawful feelings. I suppose that if there's any justice in this world, that's what I got. I sure managed to screw him up awful good before I killed him, didn't I? Well, you should be glad to know that I got saddled with it all, and God knows he had a lot of baggage."

The horror was more tangible now, more real. Because although He could still sense lingering doubts, see the questions and contradictions the others still couldn't resolve, they were starting to wonder if maybe He was actually telling the truth. Their darkest emotions made a satisfied feeling curl in his chest.

"But on Galuna, the demon fell apart," Natsu blurted out, still unconvinced. Poor fool was still holding on to the hope that his friend had just gotten temporarily possessed or something. "It was already dead."

He waved a hand dismissively. "My old body fell apart because there was nothing connected to it anymore. I was in Gray's body. My old one was empty and it decayed accordingly. You were never in any danger on Galuna."

"Then why were you going to use iced shell?"

Something deep inside warned him that was a dangerous question, although with all the darkness and wrath swirling around it was hard to remember exactly why He might not want to give them all the answers just yet. That uncomfortable itch only served to aggravate him again.

"Because I was going to try reuniting with my old body," He hissed, baring his fangs. "I spent years looking for a way to undo that spell, and Galuna gave me the perfect chance to try getting rid of this body and figure out a way to fix things."

"Then why," Natsu asked flatly, "did you change your mind and not cast the spell when I tried to stop you?"

He stared blankly at the dragon slayer, and then all the fight suddenly drained out of him in one fell swoop. He seemed to shrink, wrapping his arms around himself and hunching his shoulders. Suddenly He wasn't a wrathful demon anymore, just a tired and sad one.

Closing his eyes, He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out in a long sigh. He carefully gathered up all the hate and rage and darkness He had unleashed, and pulled them back to the dark corner of his mind where He had locked them up years and years ago. The old magic was next to go. Dissolving the blackened ice covering the area, He firmly packed the dark magic back into that corner as well, leaving only the normal magic—Gray's old magic—that He had used for the past years. Then He opened his eyes and unwrapped his arms from his torso. Reaching out to each side, his clawed fingers seemed to hook into the monstrous shadow flaring out behind him and He pulled it back into himself, reshaping it into something humanoid again.

Once everything was crammed back into the forbidden corner of his mind He put up a halfhearted barrier, tamping everything down and slapping a temporary seal on it. It wasn't nearly as strong as the old one had been, but then again, He no longer had any need to hide who He was. No seal was going to undo the damage now.

He absently noted that his features that had been exaggerated into demonic form had retreated back to their human appearance, although He wasn't sure if He truly looked human anymore.

Natsu was staring at him intently, hope flickering in his eyes. Desperate hope seemed to be plaguing the others too as they took in his sudden deflation and return to normalcy, but it was unfounded.

"Because I heard your voice," He said with a sigh, turning away. "Fool that I was."

"Gray–"

"Don't delude yourself," He interrupted, narrowing his eyes at the ground. "I wasn't lying to you. I'm not Gray, not really. But it's also true that you never met the real Gray. The person you knew as Gray was me all along."

"And you…are a demon?" Erza asked, swallowing. "You've been a demon this whole time?"

"Yes." His mouth twisted in distaste. "I was called Deliora once. The name no longer fits, but who I am hasn't changed. Well…it would be hard not to have changed, I suppose. A few years ago, I considered killing you all every other day. You have no idea how close the guild came to being wiped out. You've somehow managed to…domesticate me since then. But make no mistake: I'm still a demon and demons can't be tamed."

Lyon's eyes flashed belligerently. "If you didn't die, then maybe Gray–"

"Gray is dead," He said flatly. "I have the memories of it. I remember dying. I can feel it. He is gone."

There was an ugly silence.

"I told you that it wasn't your fault," Lyon whispered, betrayal and anger flickering in his eyes. "I told you that I forgave you."

He winced and looked away again. Yes, Lyon had come to him at one point to say that he didn't blame him for Ur's death. It had been an all-around awful experience, and He had nearly choked on the dreadful irony of it all.

"It was always my fault," He said with a sigh. "A lot of things are my fault."

He caught a slight movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Eileen slowly trying to creep away amidst all the confusion and drama, limping heavily. When she realized He had noticed her, fear flashed in her eyes and she quickly tried to throw up another enchantment. Gray's ice-make couldn't stop something like that, so He reluctantly let a sliver of his own dark magic escape to reinforce the ice as He cut the enchantment off.

"Can someone find some magic-restraining cuffs for her before I snap again and rip her head off?" He asked tiredly.

Everyone was still eyeing him warily, but now they seemed to remember the other threat that had fallen by the wayside when his drama had started up. Some mage He didn't recognize hurried off, hopefully to find a way to restrain Eileen.

"Since when have you ever cared about killing anyone?" Lyon hissed. His hands tightened into fists as he glared daggers at the demon.

"Things have changed," He murmured, weariness creeping back into his voice. "For better or for worse."

"How dare you wear his face?" Lyon demanded, hatred twisting his features. "How dare you use their magic? How dare you walk around playing at being human?"

He stayed silent for a long moment. "Not that it makes it any better, but I didn't exactly have a choice. Trust me, I tried dozens of ways to get out of this mess because I didn't like it any more than you do."

"I still don't understand," Lucy whispered, staring at him with tear-filled eyes as she hugged herself tightly.

"Don't–" Don't cry, He wanted to say, but it wasn't his place anymore. "Of course you don't," He said instead, sighing again. "Well, I suppose I owe you some answers now that I've gone and lost it."

Bowing his head, He stared sightlessly at the ground. Somewhere in the back of his mind He had always known this day was coming, had tried to prepare himself for the anger and hatred and fear and grief and betrayal, but somehow that didn't seem to help him feel any less worse now.

"At first I was more raw demon," He said quietly. "Hate and darkness and destruction and all that. I didn't have much need of thinking or feeling in the old days. I simply was, and I was destruction. The problem was that Gray's thoughts and emotions wormed their way into my fledgling consciousness and wreaked havoc on it. I raged against it for a while, tried to stamp it out, but I could never get rid of it completely. If it wasn't for what was left of him, I probably would have gone on a rampage and destroyed everything many times over in those first few years.

"I started off looking for a way to undo iced shell, more to try fixing myself than to try saving Ur. I went west because Gray's memories told me to and it wasn't like it mattered to me where I went. I learned that Fairy Tail was known for its powerful mages, and I went to see if anyone knew a way to undo iced shell. When Jii–" He broke off and shook his head. "When Makarov didn't, I nearly just razed the guild since it was no longer useful to me. I don't doubt that the remnants of Gray's values saved it.

"I wasn't angry back then because I was grieving, because I wasn't Gray. Well, there was an element of that because his experiences still haunted me, but mostly I was just being a demon and that's what I knew. Eventually it occurred to me that blending in with humans had its advantages. For one, I wasn't entirely stupid and I knew that demons weren't welcome and would be hunted, which would inconvenience my goal of undoing the spell. I stayed with the guild because it gave me connections in my search for answers. I adopted Gray's magic to better blend in.

"On my journey west from Isvan, I hadn't bothered disguising my magic as much and had done feats no child should have been capable of. No one connected the dots, but I realized that they might if I seemed too powerful for who I was supposed to be. So I locked away most of my magic and used Gray's instead, which was a pain to get used to, given that my default setting is destruction and his magic is all about creation. If I hadn't inherited his knowledge and know-how, I never would have been able to master it.

"Over the years, I found it easier to also lock up my darker impulses and memories to help make myself seem more human. It's not that they were gone, but they were easier to handle. What happened just now was that the seal snapped and it was too much for me to control when it was unleashed all at once."

The mage from before returned and, with some backup from a few other mages with Blue Pegasus guild marks, began restraining Eileen. Still, He didn't fail to notice the second set of magic-restraining cuffs dangling from the man's arm, and He knew what it was for.

"I still don't understand Galuna," Natsu said bluntly, studying the demon with wary, torn eyes. "At first you acted like you didn't want to see the ice melted, but now you're saying that you did want it melted, except that you stopped before completing iced shell."

"I didn't know what would happen if the ice melted," He said with a shrug. "I wasn't sure I wanted to take that chance."

"But you said that you were looking for a way to undo the spell and melt the ice for years," Erza pointed out, eyes narrowing.

He sighed. "I also didn't have as much to lose back then."

He wasn't the demon He had once been, if only because as He had begun assimilating with humans, He had gradually become more humanlike himself. It had been a long time since He had been of the mind to destroy everything and everyone in his path. It hadn't started off easy, but He had gradually—very gradually—come to accept the guild and humans in general.

It was Gray's fault, really, because He had inherited that child's morals and emotions. And even his silly stripping habit, which was something He had found annoying enough to break, but then had relented and picked up again because it felt too much like He was killing Gray all over again. Which shouldn't matter to him, but it was hard not to sympathize with someone when you shared their dreams and nightmares and memories.

These days it was hard to tell where Gray ended and He began. Sometimes He could even ignore his darker side and feel almost human. It might always be there, lurking under the surface, but it wasn't something that He was constantly aware of anymore. That had made it easier to create a new identity and build new ties.

He had spent a great deal of time looking for ways to undo what had happened to him in the beginning, but once He had begun fitting into the guild and making friends, He had gradually abandoned the endeavor. For all the good that did, now that the guild had stumbled on part of his secret.

He could tell that they were having a hard time accepting this, that they still didn't truly understand. He supposed it would be hard to figure out how to treat someone who might have been your friend for years but was suddenly revealed to be a demon. Aside from Lyon, who already seemed to have accepted it, judging by the revulsion and hatred written across his face.

That hatred, along with the pain and horror on the rest of the mages' faces, shouldn't bother him. But again, He was a really screwed-up demon at this point, and damn if it didn't hurt anyway.

"I still don't get iced shell," Natsu grumbled. "And I saw how upset you were and…it seems hard to believe that it was all fake."

"Oh no, Galuna was difficult," He agreed, choosing to ignore the question of iced shell. "Just not necessarily for the reasons you thought it was. I'd already given up on reversing the spell and hadn't been up to Isvan in years, so it was a shock to stumble across my old body like that. Plus everything managed to kick up all of Gray's memories and emotions again, and it was also startling to see…" He gave Lyon a sidelong glance and shrugged. It had been odd to see such an emotionally-charged memory of Gray's suddenly coalesce into reality. "And anyway, who really wants to be confronted with who they used to be in the past? It was strange to have everything shoved back in my face all at once."

Galuna had actually really wrecked him for a while, but He felt it prudent not to make himself seem sympathetic. His one-time friends were already experiencing enough emotional turmoil trying to figure out how to reconcile the person they had thought they'd known with the information He was giving them now and what He had unwittingly shown them when He had taken out Eileen.

The mages from other guilds were also wearing frightened and horrified expressions, but He didn't much care about them. It was harder to look at the faces of his guildmates—former guildmates now, He supposed—and see what was written there.

"But Gray-sama cannot be a demon!" Juvia exclaimed, her face suddenly lighting up. He watched her warily, wondering what had possessed her to draw such a conclusion. "Gray-sama's father gave him devil slayer magic, yes? How could a demon use devil slayer magic?"

"Oh," He said, eyes dimming. "Gray's father. Right. I didn't have the heart to tell him that his son actually was dead, after he got so excited thinking he'd been alive this whole time. Funny, he actually tried telling me that he was Deliora. Something about helping Gray overcome his past demons or something." He smiled bitterly. "It was terribly ironic.

"In any case, the devil slayer magic didn't kill me." In fact, that magic had ended up being something of a disappointment to him, but they didn't need to know the details of that right now. "It's really painful to use, though, since it at least recognizes me as a demon. That's why I haven't used it very often."

The hope faded from Juvia's eyes, and the silence was deafening. She started crying quietly again, along with Lucy. Erza looked like she might pass out at any moment, which wasn't that different from Mira's reaction, although at least the takeover mage was surrounded by the rest of her equally-horrified siblings. Disbelief and confusion raged in Natsu's eyes, while Lyon's eyes were still filled with silent hatred and grief. Cana was white-faced and trembling from where she was standing beside the stunned Raijinshuu and Laxus, Happy hovering nearby with a heartbroken and horrified expression on his face. Makarov's expression was impossible to read, marred by indecision and a turbulent mix of emotions.

In short, Fairy Tail looked like it was suddenly faced with the end of the world.

"So…" Natsu said slowly, incomprehension still twisting his features, "my best friend is gone? And is now a demon?"

He stared back at the dragon slayer silently, biting his tongue to stop himself from protesting that He was still the one that Natsu had laughed with and teased and fought and grown up with. With everything in shambles, it was probably better to quietly bury that. Better to hate him than to grieve and constantly wonder 'what if'.

"Your best friend never existed," He said coldly, ignoring Natsu's flinch.

Out of the corner of his eye, He could see that one Blue Pegasus mage creeping closer and closer, cronies in tow. He could easily dispose of them, silly magic cuffs and all, but there wasn't much point now. It wasn't like He really had anything left to lose.

Turning back to Lyon, He forced a mocking smile. "Are you really just going to stand there and stare at me? Going to let me get away with it, are you?"

For a moment nothing moved, but then Lyon was finally goaded into action, shock evaporating and fury breaking free as he charged forward. As expected, the Blue Pegasus mages took the sudden window of opportunity to attack too, and everything devolved into a chaotic mess. He wasn't sure who was trying to subdue him and who was hanging back, but He also wasn't sure that He wanted to know.

So instead He fixed his eyes pointedly on the ground, kept tight control over his darkness, and offered no resistance as they attacked him and restrained him and dragged him away.

Chapter Text


Chapter 2-On Trial


He didn't honestly know what they were planning to do with him, and He also wasn't about to ask. As He saw it, He didn't have any reason to talk anymore now that He had said his piece.

So He didn't rise to the sneering comments or heated glares of the mages who dragged him off. No Fairy Tail mages were among the group, although He wasn't sure if that was by choice or the other guilds were suspicious of a guild that had housed and befriended a demon.

He was taken from Magnolia to a nearby city. At first He thought it was just because they didn't want him around if and when Zeref and his other Spriggans showed up—which was probably a smart, if misguided, idea since He was one of Zeref's creations—but He soon realized that there was a prison here that, while not exactly high-security, was equipped to handle mages. Presumably everyone was still too caught up with the coming war to want to haul him all the way to the Council just yet.

Still, they weren't so caught up that they didn't leave a few mages behind to guard him. He wasn't sure what they thought they'd be able to do if He escaped, but He just stayed quiet and let them have their false sense of security.

The cell they threw him in was underground, a dank hole just big enough for a rickety cot that smelled of mildew and about ten square feet of pacing room. Hardly five-star accommodations, but He had bigger problems. He divided his time between sitting in the corner with his knees drawn to his chest, unnerving his jailers with his unblinking gaze, and pacing absently around the small space. It was dreadfully boring, which gave him far too much time to think about how everything had gone horribly wrong.

He almost missed the days when He hadn't really thought at all. It had been much easier back then, even if He had been a pretty terrible person. Demon. Whatever.

His memories from Before—before Gray, before being thrust into a human body He didn't want, before his slow transition to becoming almost-not-quite human—were rather hazy since He hadn't thought much of anything at all and everything blended together in a nightmarish mess of blood and burning and destruction, but they had migrated back to the forefront of his mind again. He almost missed the days when things like that hadn't bothered him. Ur and Gray and the guild had truly ruined him. Now He couldn't be a good demon, but He could never be a good human either.

Mostly He thought about the guild and all the people He had been friends with once, after He had learned how the whole friends thing worked and had come to accept that maybe He didn't mind it so much after all. There wasn't any point reflecting on the past or wishing for a different future—although He sometimes did anyway—but He did find himself wondering what would happen to the guild when Zeref and his armies reached Fiore. He didn't know much about the Spriggans and wasn't exactly close to Zeref either, but He knew enough to be wary.

Because of how absorbed He was in his thoughts and because He was trapped in an underground room with no windows or way to measure passing time, He wasn't sure how long He had been there before the normal routine was disrupted.

He was sitting with his back to the wall, eyes closed and head resting against the rough stone as He tapped his finger against his leg idly, bored out of his mind. The voices didn't concern him at first because the mages guarding him often talked amongst themselves—or to him, if they were trying to get a rise out of him—but He gradually became aware that one of those voices belonged to Makarov. He held out hope that He was hallucinating for a few seconds, before having to fight the urge to bang his head into the wall. Fantastic. He could even sense Mavis nearby too, but at least she was invisible to anyone without the Fairy Tail mark.

"Fine," someone was saying irritably. "But don't expect much. He hasn't said a word since his little show against Zeref's pet enchantress."

"It doesn't matter," Makarov said. "The Council finally gave me permission to see him before they send the Knights down, and you aren't going to stop me. He's still partly my responsibility."

"Well, good luck, then. He refuses to talk to any of us."

"I also don't have anything to say to any of you," He drawled without opening his eyes.

There was a pause, heavy with surprise.

"Oh, now you decide to start talking? So I guess you have something to say to your dear master, then?"

He wasn't sure if the wording intentionally mimicked how He had referred to Ur earlier to mock him or if it was a coincidence, but his lips tightened involuntarily. Now there was a snarled ball of love and hate.

"Not necessarily, but I'm bored and he's more interesting than you are," He said, finally opening his eyes to fix the hapless mage with a piercing look. Despite all the bluster, the human shrank back a half-step before remembering that the scary demon shouldn't be able to hurt him now.

Pulling himself to his feet, He leaned back against the wall and tried to cross his arms over his chest before remembering the magic cuffs locked around his wrists. He shrugged it off and let his flat gaze sweep over the assembled mages. He hadn't seen any of his old guildmates since He'd given himself away, and He wasn't sure what to expect now. Mavis was studying him thoughtfully as if trying to solve a puzzle, and although Makarov's expression was impossible to read, he too had the air of someone who wanted answers.

"Right, you can go," the Master said to the Blue Pegasus mage. "I want to talk to him alone."

The man frowned uncertainly, looking between him and the caged demon. "But–"

"What are you so worried about?" He asked, rolling his eyes. "The big bad demon is locked up and isn't going to eat him, and he surely wouldn't be foolish enough to let it out."

One corner of his mouth curled upward into a lazy smirk as his jailer scowled at him. It had been a long time since He'd gotten to verbally spar with Natsu or anyone else, and He wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to take a jab at an easy target.

"Nothing will happen," Makarov said firmly. "You can go."

The other mage hesitated a moment longer before spinning on his heel and stalking away, muttering something about filthy demons under his breath. Choosing to ignore him, He returned his unsettling gaze to the two Fairy Tail masters in front of him.

"I'd like to say that I'm glad to see you, but it was foolish to come here," He said, shaking his head.

"And why might that be?" Makarov asked.

"Honestly, Jii–" He broke off, his mouth twisting in distaste. Old habits died hard. "Makarov. Is that a real question?"

"Yes." The old man's eyes narrowed slightly. "You still bear the Fairy Tail mark. Therefore you're still part of the guild and my responsibility."

He sighed. "Not for long."

It really shouldn't bother him, but it did anyway. The guild had become part of his identity over the years, something He had grown to respect and love, and it wasn't easy to accept that that chapter of his life had come to an end. It was hard to let go.

"Why not?" Mavis asked, stepping up to the bars to peer in at him.

"For the same reason that you two shouldn't be here. Or at least why Makarov shouldn't be here."

"Why?"

"You're a clever girl. I'm sure you can figure it out. The last thing you need right now is to be seen consorting with a demon. Especially now that the Council is here, did you say? They'll eat you alive."

Current and former masters exchanged looks, and He resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the fact that they either hadn't considered that or had chosen to ignore it. At the same time, He wasn't entirely sure what to expect from them now and it was putting him on edge.

"Do you know why the Council is here?" Makarov asked.

"No, although I'm guessing it has something to do with how they're planning on making sure that I can't menace the general population," He said dryly. "I'm flattered that they took time out of their oh-so-busy schedules to deal with little old me."

Even though they'd be better served helping the guilds figure out the best way to try stopping Zeref. Then again, when did the Council ever do anything useful?

"They're going to put you on trial," Mavis said.

He blinked at her for a second and then started laughing. "Oh really, now? What could they possibly need a trial for? Subhumans don't have rights like trials and all that nonsense. The Council shouldn't have any problem doing as it wishes with me, no trial necessary."

"We pressured them into it," Makarov said flatly. "As long as you're a Fairy Tail mage, the guild reserves the right to demand a fair trial for you."

He closed his eyes. "You didn't."

"We did. They weren't thrilled, but then some of the other guilds got on board too."

"Why would they…? Oh, I see. Lyon and anyone else with a vendetta against demons want to see me get my comeuppance publicly. Gotcha."

"Something like that."

What a mess.

"Why are you here?" He asked tiredly.

"The guild isn't sure where to go from here. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, and no one knows what to make of…all this. We fought for a trial because we couldn't stand to do nothing when you've been—or at least pretended to be—a loyal Fairy Tail member for years. But beyond that…"

Oh, He understood exactly what Makarov was saying. The guild was reluctant to give up on him because there was still a sentimental attachment there, but they were also scared and unsure and didn't know if He deserved what was coming to him. In short, they were having a hard time reconciling a long-time friend with a demon, and they weren't sure whether or not they should fight for him.

"Your team wanted to come here too," Mavis added, giving him a sympathetic look. "We thought it was better that they didn't, though."

"Oh yes, they have questions too. It's good that you didn't bring them along."

The last thing He wanted to deal with right now was an onslaught of questions from people He still cared for but who were feeling hurt and betrayed and questioning everything about him. And honestly, their diplomacy skills were nonexistent and they were likely to start a war with someone just by walking in here.

"Gray, you were one of my brats for a long time." Makarov's steely expression finally wavered, and He could see how badly the Master wanted him to laugh this all off like a bad joke and say that everything was fine. "But with this… I don't even know how much of that was real. I need to know what's best for the guild."

"What's best for the guild is for you to turn around and never look back," He said flatly.

"It's not that simple. I look out for the guild, but the guild also looks out for its own. We didn't let Phantom Lord take Lucy despite the danger, because she's one of us. But when one of us becomes a threat, I need to deal with them accordingly, like when I exiled Laxus. I need to know which path to take with you, Gray."

He stayed silent for a moment, taking in that imploring gaze, before steeling himself and baring his teeth in a feral snarl. "Don't be naïve, human. I infiltrated your guild, nearly destroyed it on numerous occasions, and am most certainly still a danger. You're even stupider than I thought if you really think that I'm still the boy I pretended to be. Begone."

Turning away, He stared sightlessly at the floor, nails digging painfully into his palms as He waited for his visitors to leave.

The silence was deafening.

"I see," Makarov said finally, his voice quiet and regretful as it shattered the stillness. "Goodbye, then."

When his footsteps started up and the echoes they left behind slowly faded into silence once more, He remained still and waited for Mavis to leave as well. She didn't.

"You're cursed with immortality," she said.

"Hm, finally picked up on that, did you?" He asked, turning back with a sigh. Mavis was pressed against the bars, eyes wide and curious as she studied him contemplatively. "I could sense it on you from the beginning, although it threw me for a loop at first since we thought you were a ghost. And it was very faint. Took a while to figure out that your body was still off alive somewhere."

"I should have been able to sense it from you when I first met you, but I never noticed," she mused, frowning.

He shrugged. "The Tartaros demons didn't recognize me either. Not that we were ever particularly close—I never had anything to do with them, really—but we can sense other demons of the Books. My best guess is that I'd locked all of that nonsense away so tightly and assimilated with humans so well that I came off as human and mortal as long as no one looked too closely."

He had been so sure that all was lost when the Tartaros demons and Zeref had arrived on the scene, but He had disguised and suppressed his demonic aura and sense of immortality so well by that point that they had somehow failed to notice. He'd thought that at least Mard Geer might have started figuring it out by the end, but the appearance of the devil slayer magic had apparently thrown the other demon off the trail. The other major hurdle that He had faced long before that was Bickslow, but although the seith mage must have been able to see that He lacked a soul, he had never figured out where the problem stemmed from.

These successes might have made him a bit too confident. He had done so well at hiding his identity and overcoming these challenges that He had begun growing complacent. Then Avatar had come along and thrown everything out of balance, and He hadn't recovered from that blow as well as from the others. Eileen had only been the last straw.

"How did it happen?" Mavis asked.

"You know that thread theory I was talking about earlier? One end of my 'thread' was bound to Gray's body, but the other was cut loose too and it never reconnected to anything. Demons don't have souls—we're not double-bound to our bodies the same way humans are. If my Book was destroyed while I was bound to it or if both ends of my string were properly attached to this body and it was destroyed, I would die. Now that I'm not connected to my Book and not entirely connected to this body and there's some loose thread floating off in space connected to nothing at all, I seem to have ended up with the unfortunate inability to die."

"You're still aging."

"Yes, I'd noticed that, actually. Maybe I'll stop eventually. Maybe I'll just keep going and going until the body falls apart. I don't know."

Mavis stayed quiet for a moment. "I'm sorry."

"Yes, well. I suspect it will become infinitely more miserable once I've been conscious for as long as you and Zeref have, and at least I didn't get saddled with the other part of your curse."

"Still." She studied him for a second before sighing. "You still care about them a lot, don't you?"

He stared at her, taken aback by the sudden change of topic, then fought back a grimace. "I'm a demon. Don't expect too much from me. You knew Zeref, so I'm sure you have some idea of how he created his demons. I was created to destroy, not to care."

"I know, but… You seem awfully human for a demon, and I don't think it's all an act."

"I already told you all," He grumbled, half turning away. "I needed to blend in with humans, so I learned how to act like one. Of course it was all pretend."

"Except that you didn't," Mavis interrupted. Her eyes narrowed, and He felt like a bug under a microscope as she tried to pick him apart and figure him out. "Have to blend in. I understand why it would be convenient, but at any point you could have changed your mind and burned the world down instead. You didn't. You didn't have to make friends and fight so hard to protect the guild, but you did.

"All those years and you never gave yourself away, and when you finally did, it was because you were trying to protect the people you cared about. Even when you lost control, you only ever attacked Eileen, and you didn't even kill her despite threatening to. You were cruel to your guildmates, but you never laid a finger on them. And if it was all an act this whole time, wouldn't it have made sense to call it quits once you gave yourself away? That would have been the perfect time to stop blending in and go back to destroying everything. But again, you didn't. Why?"

He stared at her, stunned. It was odd how this girl, who hadn't even known him for nearly as long as everyone else, seemed to be able to see right through him. He briefly considered trying to throw her off the same way He had brushed off Makarov and the rest of the guild, but she didn't seem fooled by it. Letting out a harsh sigh, He rocked back on his heels and watched her through half-lidded eyes.

"He hated me, you know," He said finally. "The real Gray. He hated me and everything I'd done and everything I stood for. And when I was thrown into his body, I inherited all of his memories and thoughts and emotions. To be honest, that's what saved your guild and your world: all that hate he made me turn on myself."

Mavis's eyes widened. "Oh."

There was something almost like sympathy laced through her expression, and it made him shift uncomfortably. He neither deserved nor wanted her sympathy.

"Don't you worry, I undoubtedly deserved it," He said coldly. "At first it didn't bother me as much—because why should I care what some silly human child thought?—but it was still disorienting. I didn't need an identity Before, because all I had to do was run around wrecking everything like I was supposed to. My emerging sense of self was inextricably twined with what was left of Gray, and now… Well, now I'm not sure how much is me and how much is him. You think I seem human, but if there was a way to remove what was left of Gray's identity and leave only me here, you might find that in the end I'm still the same demon I was a decade ago."

He had found self-hatred to be one of the best motivators for change, and Gray had given him plenty to spare. If He suddenly felt bad for killing humans, it became easier not to kill humans. If He felt bad for who He was, it was easier to try becoming someone else.

But again, all that hatred had come from Gray, and without it He probably wouldn't have ever had the motivation to change anything at all. His growth was spurred and maintained by a child He had killed long ago, and without it He was just another demon. Did his identity really count if it was built off of someone else's? He wasn't entirely sure.

"I don't think you are," Mavis said after looking him up and down with her solemn gaze. "The same person, I mean. Even if you started changing because of what was left of that child, he isn't still here, is he? You've spent a long time forging your own identity, making your own choices, building your own friendships, defining your own values. And although I can't say that I know you that well, I do know that you and your team have spent a lot of time selflessly helping people, which rather sounds like you've been trying to make up for who you used to be."

He pulled a face. "I wouldn't go that far. I'm still a demon."

She arched an eyebrow. "Oh? Am I wrong?"

He looked away, an irritated growl building in the back of his throat. It was annoying how she could see through him so easily, especially when no one else could.

He wondered why Mavis was showing such faith and interest in him. Maybe she felt a kinship with him because of their shared burden of immortality. Maybe she was interested because He had ties to her one-time lover. Maybe she was just being a tactician and was trying to play him. Maybe it was something else entirely. He couldn't tell, and it annoyed him. He'd gotten fairly good at divining human motives over the years, and it was frustrating that she was harder to read than the rest.

"Look," Mavis said gently, "even if you aren't the original Gray, you're the only Gray that your friends have ever known, aren't you? I don't think all those years of friendship were a lie, and that's what they need to hear. They're having a hard time figuring out who you are and how much of what they thought they knew about you is true. If you tell them the truth, they'll fight for you."

He barked out a harsh laugh. "Let me tell you what will happen if they're foolish enough to try that. For one, it won't affect this silly charade of a trial you've forced the Council to put on. Regardless of what anyone says or does, the end result will be the same. If the guild disputes that, they're signing their own death warrant.

"The Council and the other guilds would turn on them. Lyon isn't the only one who hates demons, and not even the only one who hates me in particular. Accepting a demon into the guild might even be grounds for the Council to revoke Fairy Tail's legal charter, which would basically turn it into a dark guild. The guild's status is already precarious since it was just reformed, and it's too fragile to go about disrupting everything. Trust me, not everyone in the guild would be okay with fighting for a demon. It would be civil war, and at the worst possible time. While Fairy Tail is facing off against the Council and the other guilds and is being torn apart from the inside out, Zeref and his army will come through and easily destroy everything.

"This is the worst possible time to decide to rehabilitate a demon. And honestly, it isn't fair to put anyone in a position where they're fighting the world to protect someone they aren't entirely sure they can trust. This isn't about me. This is your guild, you know. Don't encourage it to self-destruct."

Mavis sighed heavily, her eyes dimming, and He knew that this conversation would be kept confidential because she'd do what was best for the guild, regardless of her personal feelings.

"Yes, you're right, but if you change your mind…"

"I won't."

"It just seems wrong to leave you here."

"Don't you worry," He said, hiding a wry smile. "If I really want to get out, I can probably find a way."

Both of their heads automatically swiveled to track the sudden sound of footsteps and grumbling coming their way. It looked like one of his wardens was finally returning.

"I suppose I should go," Mavis said, reluctantly backing up a few steps. "We wouldn't want them to see you talking to yourself."

He didn't particularly care about that. He just didn't want them to get suspicious about who He might actually be talking to.

"Take care of them," He said quietly as Mavis turned to walk away.

"Of course." She paused and glanced back at him. "You take care of yourself, too."

He smiled thinly. It was already too late for that.


It wasn't long after the Rune Knights replaced his previous, unofficial jailers that He was dragged out for this sham of a trial. Although it was impossible to know how long it had been since He had first been imprisoned, He thought it could only be a few days at the most. No one was wasting any time trying to get rid of him, possibly because they were in a rush to wrap up this drama before Zeref descended on them.

Whatever the case, He submitted docilely when the Knights dragged him out of his cell and to a building a short distance away that had been set up as a temporary courtroom. He took the briefest of half-seconds to survey the scene, noting that all of Fairy Tail and a good number of other mages, including a belligerent Lyon, were packed on one side of the room, and then let his gaze drift away. He didn't necessarily want to see their faces right now, so He focused on the Council instead.

He wasn't overly familiar with this new Council since He hadn't gotten reprimanded for destroying things since Tartaros had killed off the old Council and the guild had disbanded, but He supposed that it didn't really matter. Although He did have to wonder if a new rule had been instated that anyone who wanted to serve on the Council had to be at least seventy years old. Honestly. Aside from one or two middle-aged members, everyone seemed to have white or graying hair and wrinkles galore. No wonder the Council never got around to doing anything.

The Knights led him past the gathered mages and shoved him roughly into a chair in front of the panel of stone-faced Council members.

"He hasn't been talking, so I don't know how cooperative he'll be," one of the Knights warned, directing his words at the elderly man who was sitting in the center with an air of haughty superiority and unfriendly eyes. "His previous jailers said that he wouldn't talk to them at all and only spoke when Master Makarov came to see him."

"It doesn't matter," the Council's leader said dismissively. Since He didn't know the man's name, He decided to dub him Useless Council Member Number One.

Already bored with the proceedings, He let his gaze wander away and began counting the tiles on the ceiling.

"Demon," One said harshly, "how do you plead to your charges?"

He shrugged languidly. "How am I supposed to know? You never bothered to tell me what they are since I don't actually have any rights. But sure, I think it's fair to assume that I'm guilty of all of them."

"Good. In that case, we just have to decide your punishment."

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. At the very least, it was nice that this wasn't going to turn into a long, drawn-out affair. The Council wasn't even going to bother pretending that this was a real trial, and that suited him just fine.

"You didn't even tell him his charges?" Erza demanded. "How is that fair?"

He sighed and closed his eyes, rubbing at his face awkwardly since his wrists were still cuffed together. Of course his idiot friends—ex-friends, He supposed—would make nuisances of themselves. Wasn't it already bad enough that they'd lobbied for this trial to start with?

"He's a demon," One said impatiently. "And he's already admitted that he's guilty. All that's left to do is sentencing."

"What's the point of having a trial if you aren't even going to do it properly?" Lucy asked indignantly.

"I'm not sure you've truly realized this, but he's a demon. He's already guilty."

"All the same," Makarov interrupted, his voice steely, "it's your job to provide a fair trial."

"But–"

"Why don't you read him his charges?" Lyon asked coldly. He could practically feel the ice mage's gaze burning into the back of his head, the hostility palpable. "I want to hear them. I want to hear him admit to them."

The leader hesitated a moment longer, looking to his companions for help. They just shrugged.

"Might as well," one of them muttered. "It shouldn't take more than a few minutes, anyway."

"Fine, then," One snapped, a ferocious scowl appearing on his face. It was actually quite amusing. "Demon, do you admit that you are actually the demon Deliora of the Books of Zeref?"

He didn't respond immediately, pursing his lips as He resumed his scrutiny of the ceiling. Apparently He waited a beat too long, because the Council's leader quickly grew impatient.

"Answer me, demon."

"I told you, he hasn't really been talking," the Knight said again. "It might be too much to expect a demon to cooperate."

"But he talked earlier and–"

"Yes."

They both turned to look at him, and He met their eyes steadily. Might as well just get this over with.

"Yes?" One repeated automatically.

"Yes, I was called Deliora once," He said flatly.

"Right, then. And do you admit to murdering one Gray Fullbuster and stealing his body in order to infiltrate the guild Fairy Tail for your own nefarious purposes?"

"…Close enough."

"And do you admit to going on a rampage across the continent, destroying several cities and killing hundreds or thousands of people in the process?" There was a long pause. "Demon?"

"Thousands, probably." He leaned forward abruptly to stare down the Council. "But tell me, where were you in all that?"

"What?" their leader asked, at a loss.

His eyes narrowed to slits and He bared his teeth—which were starting to look a little too pointed to be human again—in a snarl, only half aware that the shadows at the edges of the room were beginning to blacken further and distort in response to his anger, creeping out as if to engulf the area.

"Shouldn't it be the Council's job to take care of a rampaging demon? So where were you, then, when I was running around killing everyone? Because you did nothing and left a child to do your job for you. And that child was foolish and rash, but he also had far more courage than you ever did."

"That was a long time ago and it wasn't–"

"Sure, sure, you weren't on the Council then," He interrupted, fury not at all sated. "But what has really changed since then? All any of you have ever done is sit back and wait for the guilds to do everything for you. When have you ever done anything useful?"

He finally noticed the encroaching shadows and frowned. Luckily no one else seemed to have noticed them or wondered how He could do such a thing while in anti-magic cuffs, and He would rather keep it that way. He preferred it when they underestimated him. Tamping down his righteous anger as much as possible, He let the shadows shrink back until they were nothing but normal shadows once more.

"So, you're trying to lessen your guilt by blaming the Council for your actions?" One asked into the silence, nostrils flaring.

He blinked at the Council blankly and then laughed, his anger fading to the background in the face of his mirth. "Oh no, I admit to it. This is just something I've wanted to tell you all for a long time, but Erza would never let me mouth off when you guys dragged me in for destroying something or other."

The leader arched a disbelieving eyebrow. "And you listened to a human?"

"Sure." He chuckled and relaxed, lounging back in his chair as a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. "She can be pretty scary when she wants to be."

"…You were scared of a human?"

His amusement disappeared as suddenly as it had come, the man's words making him realize what it was He had been doing. He had let himself fall back into his old identity, back when He had been…not the Gray, exactly, but Gray. Not the original, but not exactly Deliora either.

And He really shouldn't be doing that anymore, because He had already ruined that part of things.

"You're right, of course," He said, forcing the more humanlike side of his personality aside again. "I'm the scariest thing in the room now, aren't I?" Then, unable to completely resist temptation, He leaned forward to give the Council a sharp smile. "Boo."

A couple of them actually flinched backward, and it was impossible for him to fight back his grin completely.

"You sure are flippant for a demon," One said coldly.

"When have I ever not been flippant when the Council has dragged me in?" He rolled his eyes. "I have to get my kicks in somehow."

"You should take this more seriously."

"Why? It doesn't honestly matter what I say at this point—you've already decided what you want to do with me, and nothing I say will change that. If I sat here and denied everything, my sentence wouldn't be any lighter. If I told you that for the last decade I've been spending my nights hunting and eating children, my sentence wouldn't be any heavier. Why should I take something so pointless seriously?"

"You've been hunting and eating children?"

He stared at them. "What? Did you not hear anything I just said?"

"How many children would you say you've eaten?" One asked, snatching up his pen and riffling through the papers on the table in front of him.

"I haven't–" He broke off and shook his head, leaning back in his chair resignedly. "You know what, add it to my charges if you really want to. It's not like it will change anything. But for the record, I was never into eating people, just killing them." It took a second for his own words to register, but then He pulled a face. "I guess that doesn't make it sound much better, actually."

There was hushed murmuring from behind him, but He didn't bother turning around or trying to hear what his guildmates were saying. It was probably better that He didn't know.

"Well, either way, your crimes are enough to warrant execution," One said with a dismissive shrug.

He fought back a grimace. This wasn't entirely unexpected, but He had been hoping against hope that the whole execution thing wouldn't come up. Well, it wasn't like He could keep this issue of immortality secret forever.

He opened his mouth to reluctantly explain why exactly this particular form of punishment wouldn't be very useful, but didn't manage to get a word out before being interrupted.

"You can't just kill him," Natsu protested, anger evident in his voice.

Great.

"Why not?" the Council's leader asked, his upper lip curling in derision. "Capital punishment is an appropriate sentencing for cases of mass murder, which the demon has admitted to."

"Can't you just lock him up instead? I mean, even if he–even if he did those things, even if he's dangerous, even if he's been a–a demon this whole time…"

He bit the inside of his cheek and narrowed his eyes at the ground. This was almost worse than if the guild had just turned on him entirely, because this way He could see exactly how torn they were. They still couldn't entirely let go of the friend they had thought they'd known, even though they were still reeling from his betrayal. Whatever lingering sentiments they held toward him were preventing them from accepting something as final as death, even if they might not have protested a less permanent punishment.

"I think you fail to realize that he is, in fact, a demon with no rights who deserves to die," One snapped, voice icy. "You would do well to remember what he is."

"Be that as it may," Makarov started, "we can't allow you to–"

Honestly, He had thought that He'd at least gotten Makarov off his case. The thing about Fairy Tail mages was that they had a very hard time letting go.

"You can't kill me," He interrupted evenly, leaning back far enough that the chair tilted, its front legs rising an inch or two off the floor.

One's eyes immediately snapped back to the demon's face and flashed with anger. "Oh? You think you can tell the Council what it can and can't do?"

"Oh no," He said mockingly, "I wouldn't dream of it. I meant it quite literally, actually. You physically cannot kill me, because one side effect of all that nonsense with my Book is that I was cursed with immortality. You're welcome to try if you want, I suppose, but I doubt you can manage it.

"I've already tried all the normal ways: asphyxiation, drowning, burning, starvation, bodily injury, exsanguination, the whole nine yards. I even tried beheading myself once, but all that did was make a huge mess and put me out of commission for a month. I was rather curious to see if Acnologia was strong enough to do me in, but he got stopped. I was going to try iced shell since that doesn't technically kill the caster and might be the closest thing to death that I can get, but I was prevented from going through with it. I was hopeful that maybe that devil slayer magic would be able to kill me since it's made for destroying demons, but it didn't work. I was even trying to train Natsu up so that he might be strong enough to kill me eventually, but I've mostly given up on that now. If you have a better idea, then by all means, try it. I'll thank you if you find a way."

Heavy silence greeted his words, and He amused himself by watching the most interesting expressions flash across the Council members' faces.

"You're…immortal?" One asked.

"That's what I said."

The man scowled. "How are we supposed to execute you, then?"

"You can't. That's the entire point of immortality, isn't it?"

"What the hell do you mean, you were training me to kill you?" Natsu demanded.

He sighed, muttering under his breath, "Zeref wasn't the only one pinning his hopes on you."

"What?"

He silently cursed Natsu's enhanced hearing and his own big mouth. It would have been better if He hadn't gotten distracted and tacked that part onto the end of his list—He'd already given the Council enough shock value without it.

Staying with Fairy Tail had only ever been a temporary measure while He used its connections to search for a way to undo iced shell, but that had changed as soon as Natsu had joined. The demonic aura emanating from Natsu was very faint, but He had picked up on it, perhaps because He already had experience hiding his own identity and was therefore more attuned to recognizing when others were hiding theirs.

It had puzzled him at first, but He'd done some digging and come to the conclusion that not only was Natsu E.N.D., but he was entirely unaware of it. He didn't honestly know much about E.N.D. except that it was the strongest of the Etherious, supposedly strong enough to kill Zeref himself. And if E.N.D. was powerful enough to kill Zeref, then shouldn't it be strong enough to kill him too?

By that point, He had already started giving up on finding a way to undo iced shell and was convinced that death was preferable to being stuck for an eternity in a weak human body that He didn't want, with all the uncomfortable feelings and sensations that came along with it. He had already tried killing himself in several different ways and failed miserably, but this had presented a new opportunity. Natsu clearly wasn't strong enough yet, unaware of his identity or the potential of his power, so He had established himself as something of a rival to help the dragon slayer become stronger.

Needless to say, once He had started truly settling into his more humanlike identity and making friends, He had quickly realized that this was a terrible plan. So He had abandoned that scheme, instead resolving to try keeping his friend human for as long as possible. He didn't want Natsu to be E.N.D. anymore. He wanted him to be Natsu, just as stupidly naïve and upbeat and loyal as always.

"So, like I was saying, you can't kill me," He repeated, ignoring Natsu and the others.

"But Gray-sama died after the Grand Magic Games!" Juvia protested. The guild was making it really hard to ignore them, and Juvia in particular seemed to still be searching for any way to prove him wrong, as if that could make him any less of a demon. "Juvia saw it, and Lyon-san too."

His mouth twisted into a grimace. "I wasn't dead-dead," He said, still not turning around. "Not that you would have ever known the difference, I suppose. I've been able to pass off some injuries that should have been fatal, but I think that one would have been impossible to play off. If Ultear hadn't… Well, I probably would have played dead and later escaped to start a new secret life off somewhere, and you all would have been none the wiser."

Just because He was unable to die didn't mean that his body couldn't sustain injuries. More horrific ones tended to heal at an accelerated rate until they became more manageable for the body to cope with, but in the case of the dragonlings, He still probably would have been out of commission long enough to get himself buried alive. He would have had to abandon the guild entirely if He was unable to find an excuse for surviving.

He owed Ultear for saving him from that, as much as He didn't deserve it. He had wanted to stop the carriage when He saw her by the side of the road and realized what had happened, but what could He have said? Somehow He doubted it would go over well to tell her, 'Hey, thanks for saving me from dying, except that I wouldn't have actually died because I'm cursed with immortality. And by the way, I'm also the demon that killed your mother.'

"You said that you tried using iced shell on Galuna because you wanted to reunite with your old body," Natsu said accusingly.

"I lied," He said flatly, only realizing that He had been glaring a hole into one of the Council members when she shifted uncomfortably and tried to scooch her chair over a couple inches out of his line of sight. Oops.

"Why?"

He shrugged and stayed silent, switching his gaze away from the hapless woman to stare at the floor ahead of him with narrowed eyes.

"Actually, that's a great point," One said, his face brightening. "If we can't kill you, then why don't you use iced shell instead? Compromise."

"I can't do that anymore," He muttered.

The Councilman deflated again. "I suppose it would be impossible for a demon to actually cast the spell that had been used against it like that."

That wasn't at all what He had meant, but He didn't bother correcting it. On Galuna, Natsu had extracted an understood promise from him to not try using iced shell again. He couldn't bring himself to break that promise, even though it was probably obsolete now.

He had even taken it a step further, because that was around the time He had finally given up on actively searching for ways to rid himself of his unwanted curse. His suicide attempts had become less and less frequent over the years as He made friends and finally started feeling like He almost belonged at the guild, but Galuna had been the hard-and-fast turning point. He still kept an eye out for any possible way to die, but it had become more of a halfhearted curiosity. He'd look for a way to rid himself of the curse so that He could die when He no longer had any reason to live, but He wasn't actively looking to die anymore.

Although given the present circumstances, that might change. The guild was what had given him a reason to live, and He'd lost that now. And with Zeref coming to the continent soon… Maybe something could be arranged.

"Well…do you have your Book?" One asked.

"No," He said smoothly, careful to keep his gaze steady. "And it wouldn't do you any good, anyway. I'm not bound to it anymore, so you can't kill me by destroying it."

"Well, I'm sure we can figure out something," One said with a sigh, scribbling something on a paper in front of him.

He doubted it. He had gotten pretty creative about it back when He had been hell-bent on dying, and He was dubious that the notoriously incompetent Council could find something that He had missed.

"Or you could just not try to kill him," Erza said, her voice hard.

Not this again.

"He's a demon and–"

"But he's our demon, and we don't want him dead," Lucy snapped.

There was a scuffling sound from behind him, chairs scraping loudly on the floor.

"And if you try anyway, we're going to have problems," Natsu growled.

He finally turned to face the guild for the first time since He had walked into the room, but his eyes skimmed sightlessly over his old friends' outraged faces. The only person He had eyes for now was Mavis, and when He found her, He gave her a cold, meaningful look. She bit her lip and twisted her hands uncertainly, and He knew that she understood what He wanted from her. But still she hesitated.

"Mavis," He ground out through gritted teeth. She continued to waver, and He resisted the urge to growl. "I already explained this to you. This isn't the time for second thoughts."

Ignoring the guild's questions, He continued to meet Mavis's gaze steadily. After a moment, she sighed and turned to Natsu.

"Stand down."

"But–"

"Have you forgotten that I'm the founder of the guild and its first master?" she demanded, bracing her hands on her hips. "I'm telling you to stand down."

The dragon slayer resisted for a few seconds longer, before reluctantly dropping back down into his seat. A couple other guild members might have had to sit back down also, but He was already turning away, not looking at them.

Confiding in Mavis had been a purely tactical move. He might have no desire to share the details of his past and personal feelings, but gaining Mavis as an ally was more important than his comfort—she had influence with the guild, and wasn't so emotionally invested that she'd be unable to do what needed to be done. He needed her to keep the guild in check.

"Who were you talking to?" One asked, evidently confused by the 'talking to thin air' routine.

"My familiar."

"Your…familiar?"

"Sure," He said, straight-faced. "Didn't you know that demons have familiars? Traditionally they tend to be things like cats and toads and the like, but I'm a progressive. I have a fairy instead."

"A…fairy? But fairies don't exist."

"Of course they do. You think we'd have a guild called 'Fairy Tail' if fairies didn't exist?"

"Uh… Okay, then. What were you talking to your familiar about?"

The man ripped off a new sheet, and his pen hovered over its blank surface as he looked over at the demon expectantly. Well, it looked like this was going to get added to his list of charges, then. Might as well have some fun with it.

"Oh, we made plans for her to harass you a little once you lock me up," He said seriously. "You're going to be having a lot of fun soon. And maybe she'll eat a few children for me while she's at it, since I won't be able to anymore."

There was a long pause, and it was becoming more and more challenging not to laugh at the ridiculous expressions the Council members were wearing. The leader looked just as apprehensive as the others—apparently they couldn't tell that He wasn't as serious as He sounded—but he managed to scribble something down and his voice only wavered slightly when he spoke again.

"And can you describe this familiar for us?"

"Sure. She's kind of small and looks younger than her age. Cute and blonde, a little childlike, may or may not have a tail."

"May or may not?"

"The whole point of the guild's name is to keep the mystery of whether or not fairies have tails. I wouldn't want to spoil it for you."

There was a choked laugh from behind him and, before He could stop himself, He automatically glanced back and smirked at Natsu. Their eyes met and for an instant there was that old familiar spark, but then He recoiled as if burned and spun back around.

"Gray–"

"Do you have any more questions, or are we done?" He asked One coldly, no longer in the mood for joking around.

There was a brief pause, but then the Councilman rallied, clearing his throat and shoving the sheaf of papers aside. "There's still the issue of having infiltrated a guild. That can't be allowed to stand. As of now, your membership in Fairy Tail is revoked, and you are required to remove your guild mark."

"You can't just decide something like that," Makarov protested. "It's my guild and you don't have the authority to–"

"You know," One said, narrowing his eyes, "you lot seem to be awfully sympathetic to the demon. Is there something you should be telling us? Because I find it hard to believe that an upstanding guild would lobby for a demon."

"We just want–"

"No," He interrupted flatly. "They care about me even less than I care about them."

"But–" Erza tried.

"Oh?" One asked. "And you don't care about them?"

He stared back, his gaze unwavering and ruthless. "I'm a demon. What did you expect?"

"Hm. So how do you explain the fact that they keep trying to defend you? Have you brainwashed them? Or is there some kind of mind-control thing going on?"

He wanted to laugh at how ludicrous that was, but just shrugged. What was one more bogus charge against him?

"Sure," He said sarcastically. "I'm just a regular puppet master. Lots of manipulating and brainwashing going on here."

"But that's not even tru–" Lucy started indignantly.

"Alright, I guess that could excuse their bad behavior," the Councilman conceded, marking down another note. "Now erase your guild mark."

He obediently lifted his bound hands to his chest, hesitated, and smoothed the mark away. It hurt. A lot. It left him empty and cold, bereft. Staring ahead sightlessly, He suddenly lost his appetite for humor or optimism again. There was no more desire for snarky remarks or snide jabs, not even with how many easy opportunities were presented to him. There was no longer anything even remotely amusing about this barren world.

"Great. Take him away."

A Knight detached himself from the shadows to grab the demon and yank him up roughly. He didn't protest—there were no longer any words He wanted to say. Fixing his unblinking gaze on the floor, He stumbled along as the Knight shoved him forward, ignoring the blur of indistinguishable voices in his ears. The guild was in an uproar, but He didn't have the energy to care what they were saying.

It was only when He was almost to the door of the makeshift courtroom that He felt a slight prickling sensation next to him and stopped abruptly, digging his heels into the floor despite the Knight's shoving. He continued to stare at the floor, knowing that He wouldn't be able to see Mavis now even if He looked at her. He wasn't sure what she wanted, but He had some idea.

"I told you, I'm not going to change my mind," He said dully.

Her presence didn't leave, and He got the feeling that she was trying to tell him something. Great timing.

"I can't hear you anymore, you know," He said, before twisting about to snarl at the Knight when the man prodded him viciously in the back. The Knight jerked back a half-step before scowling back at him. "Whatever you're trying to say, it's too late."

As He turned back to face the doorway, his gaze caught on the empty space by his right and He paused, staring at the point He imagined Mavis's eyes would be. He could almost sense her frustration.

"Look, I'll try to uphold my side of the deal if you uphold yours. It's going to have to be good enough."

He didn't think that was exactly what she was trying to say, but He shrugged it off and let the Knight start pushing him along again, content with the knowledge that, if nothing else, at least Mavis would be there to protect the guild that was no longer his.

Chapter Text


Chapter 3-Jailbreak


Zeref was coming. He could feel it in his bones. The draw was there, that pull to go to his creator, to kill him. It would be a silly thing to do, of course, since He certainly wasn't strong enough for that. But that didn't erase his programming—his backward biological imperative to seek out and destroy the man who created him, owned him, made him what He was.

The pull was growing steadily stronger as Zeref approached. It was an itch He couldn't scratch, and would have left him pacing about restlessly if the Council's henchmen hadn't spent the last hours or days or weeks trying to kill him. He realized now how muted it had become during his time as an almost-human, because it hadn't been nearly this strong when He had been face to face with Zeref during that mess with Tartaros. Perhaps He had managed to dull it when He had shoved it back to that dark corner of his mind where He had locked up the rest of his demonic impulses.

Now that He had released all that, his sense of Zeref was heightened. He had been able to track his creator's approach, so He knew that he and his armies had reached the continent even before the Knights suddenly vanished, giving up their frustrated attempts to execute him.

Contrasting the pull to Zeref was another urge: the urge to break out of this prison and fight for the guild that was once his. Funnily enough, it seemed to be almost as deeply ingrained in him as the instincts He had been created with. He wouldn't be able to kill Zeref for them, the injuries He had sustained from the Council's execution attempts had weakened him, his old friends might not be glad to see him, but He still itched to go to them anyway.

But something was telling him to wait, so wait He did. He wasn't sure what exactly He was waiting for, but even after the Knights had abandoned their posts to participate in the brewing war, He simply retreated to a dark corner of his cell and postponed his escape.

When He finally heard footsteps approaching some indeterminate amount of time later, He thought that He might have found what He was waiting for. The intruders were trying to be quiet, but Fairy Tail mages weren't exactly known for their stealth. He could easily hear the soft clink of Erza's sword and heavy thumps of Natsu's footsteps, despite their attempts at secrecy.

He wriggled back a few centimeters until He was pressed as firmly into the far corner of his cell as He could possibly go, sitting with his back against the wall and pulling the shadows around himself to obscure most of his figure in darkness. When his old team rounded the corner, He just watched them unblinkingly as they paused, exchanged uncertain glances, and then cautiously approached.

They had already been roughed up a little. Erza and Natsu had clearly been in fights, Lucy looked exhausted, and even Happy had a small scratch under his eye. Still, they seemed mostly fine. For now.

He thought He knew why they were here but remained silent, unnerving them with his unwavering gaze as they studied him apprehensively.

"Zeref and his Spriggans are here," Erza said finally, her voice steady despite the agony of indecision raging in her eyes.

Oh good, they were going to cut straight to the chase.

"I know," He replied, tilting his head back against the wall and watching them through half-lidded eyes. "I can feel him."

"You can…feel him?" Lucy asked hesitantly. She drifted forward and peered through the bars to try getting a better look at him.

"Sure. I'm his demon, after all. We were all created with the drive to seek him out and kill him. It was easier to ignore before, but now I can feel him quite clearly."

"To kill him?" Happy asked. "Why would he create something to kill him?"

"Because he might be totally insane, but he's far from stupid." He smiled mirthlessly. "He's smart enough to know that you don't really want to live forever. There's a reason we say that we're cursed with immortality, rather than blessed."

The others exchanged looks again. He couldn't tell exactly what they were thinking, but maybe that wasn't surprising since they seemed torn about everything, a mess of conflicting emotions and desires written all over their faces.

"If you want to kill him, then–" Erza started.

"I can't. We were all meant to kill him, and we all failed. If I had been able to do it, then he would already be dead. He created E.N.D. to be the most powerful of us all, the ultimate weapon, and the rest of us are just failed byproducts. We still feel driven to try, but we aren't strong enough to succeed."

Erza's face fell. "Surely there has to be another way."

"If there is, it's not one that you'll find. He's had hundreds of years to try every method he could think of. The chances of you randomly stumbling across a way now are slim to none."

"We'll come up with something," Natsu said firmly. "It's not like we can just find and unleash a mega-powerful demon and hope for the best." He paused and then muttered, "I guess that's kind of funny, considering what we're about to do."

He winced at Natsu's ignorance, but then shrugged it off and studied the assembled mages with calculating eyes, waiting for them to make their request already. Erza shot Natsu a look, before sighing and returning her gaze to the demon in the cell.

"We've been fighting the Spriggans and their underlings for a while now," she told him. "We've managed to take down a few, but they're tremendously powerful and we…could use some help."

"Oh, I'm sure you could," He remarked unhelpfully. They needed to ask him flat-out before He'd feel comfortable enough to agree.

"Look, we need every mage to do their part," Natsu said bluntly, giving the demon a hard look. "We can't have anyone slacking off."

Close enough.

"Yes," He said with a sigh, "I'll help you."

"If we let you out, would you…" Erza trailed off awkwardly, her hand clenching reflexively around the pommel of her sword.

"Promise not to go all crazy psycho demon and kill everyone?" He suggested dryly.

She winced. "Well, um…"

"I promise not to attack anyone aside from Zeref and his allies."

The group started exchanging those uncertain glances again. Having second thoughts already.

"Still that bad?" He asked, sighing. "I spent the last several years working with and protecting your guild. I'm not planning to turn on it now."

Lucy cleared her throat awkwardly. "You have to understand, this has all been a huge shock and we don't know…"

"If you can trust me," He finished for her. He already knew that.

"Well, what did you expect?" Natsu asked, scowling at him. "After how you basically said that you could care less about us?"

"Couldn't," Erza said absently.

"What?"

"Couldn't care less."

Good old Erza, still managing to correct improper grammar at the oddest of times.

"Whatever. Does it really mat–?"

"He's right, actually," He interrupted. One corner of his mouth twitched upward for the briefest of seconds. "Even if it's totally by accident."

Erza gave him a look. "But you said–"

"That you cared even less about me than I did about you," He drawled, shifting positions and immediately wincing at the flare of pain it sparked. "And when pressed, I do believe that all I asked was what you could really expect of a demon, and left everyone to draw their own assumptions."

The hope was back now, faint and fragile, the barest flicker sparking to life in the Fairy Tail mages' eyes. He wasn't entirely sure whether He wanted to encourage it or not. He did, but… At least not until they made their move. He had chosen to stamp it out as best He could before, but if they were to rely on him for this fight, then maybe it would be better if they had a little.

But He wouldn't say anything to influence their current decision in his favor. Call it selfish, but He wanted to see what was left of the trust they had once held in him. If they went through with this, then He would owe them answers, but if not… If not, it was over. He would still break his way out of here and fight their fight with them, but it would be as Deliora, not as their Gray.

"So then you really do–?" Lucy started hopefully.

"We don't have to be all buddy-buddy anymore," He said coolly. "It would be a business transaction."

Natsu's face crinkled in confusion. "A business transaction? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Really? I know you're a little slow, but come on, flame brai–" He cut himself off forcefully, clicking his teeth together as his mouth twisted into a pained grimace. "Natsu. It means that you want something from me, and I'm willing to oblige without all this messy business with trust and friendship and all that."

Some of that burgeoning hope deflated and began to fade away. It was replaced by something almost like disappointment or resignation, although He couldn't quite read it.

"What do you get out of this, then?" Erza asked. "What's our end of the deal?"

"I'm getting out of confinement, aren't I?" He asked, hiding a secretive smile.

"I see." She sighed, squinting in an attempt to make out his features through the layer of shadows wrapped snugly about him. "And your promise still stands? To only attack Zeref and his allies?"

"Of course. I haven't broken a promise in years." His unspoken promise to Natsu on Galuna flashed through his mind, and his lips quirked downward. "Not even ones that are now irrelevant."

"That's true," Happy mumbled. "As long as it hasn't changed now."

He shrugged. "Whether you believe me or not is entirely up to you. It's not too late to walk away if you've changed your minds."

There was a pause.

"No." Erza rocked back on her heels, her calculating gaze sliding over every inch of his prison as she searched for weak points. "Hm… I wonder what the best way to break this thing open is…"

"Roar?" Natsu suggested hopefully.

"We're trying to be quiet."

"It doesn't matter," He broke in dismissively. "The Knights disappeared a while ago, hopefully to actually try doing something useful in the war."

"They abandoned their posts?" Lucy asked with a frown.

"When has the Council ever handled anything well? They aren't the smartest bunch."

"I wonder if I could work a knife in there," Erza mused, ignoring the conversation as she began peering at the keyhole on the cell's door. "I hope there's not some kind of enchantment on here."

"Wait." Pulling himself to his feet, He released the shadows He'd been holding and let them melt back into their respective corners. He limped across the small space to stand in front of the door. "Stand back."

"Gray!" Lucy gasped, her eyes widening. "You're hurt!"

He waved her off impatiently and ignored everyone's horrified expressions. "Stand back."

The mages obediently retreated several paces, but were still eyeing his injuries in concern now that the shadows weren't cloaking them anymore.

"But what did they–?"

Ignoring them, He reached for his power and grimaced faintly as it sprang to his fingertips. It was dark and oily and thoroughly unpleasant, but desperate times called for desperate measures. His automatic gestures were awkward since his hands were still bound together, but it didn't matter. The bars of his cell bent like butter, the metal twisting and contorting to give the façade an otherworldly appearance, as if something large and powerful had torn through and escaped. Not too far from the truth.

Stepping through the new gap, He yanked at the anti-magic cuffs around his wrists and set the shadows curling about them. They broke, falling to the stone floor with a clatter. His stolen ice magic flooded back to fill in the void it had left when the cuffs had blocked it out, and He sighed in contentment, a small smile gracing his face for an instant.

"That feels good," He muttered to himself. The magic had a rejuvenating effect, smoothing out some of the ache and exhaustion the last days had left him with.

Glancing up, He coughed to hide a laugh at everyone's flabbergasted expressions.

"You were in magic cuffs!" Lucy said, her eyes wide as saucers. "How in the world did you do that?"

He smirked despite himself. "Did you already forget about the Tartaros demons? They didn't use magic, did they?"

"No," Natsu said slowly. "They used curses. So you…?"

"Yep. I never had much need of them Before because I found it more satisfying to tear everything apart with brute force and I ended up locking them away After to hide my identity, so I've never used them much. But I can, now that I've gone and undone the seal. Since I never use them, they don't have such a well-defined form as, say, the Tartaros demons' curses, although they seem to have acquired a fondness for shadows. And I'm a bit clumsy with them. Molding is much more precise."

He pushed his curses aside for the moment. There was no point sealing them again when He'd likely need them at some point in the near future, but He didn't like the feeling of them. He much preferred the ice magic, and He'd use it until He was forced to augment it with something else.

"You could have broken out at any time?" Happy blurted out, eyes shining with incomprehension.

"Sure. It was a gross oversight, assuming that just anti-magic cuffs would hold me. They block off my magic, but not my curses. Although I thought I'd given myself away during the trial, when I got angry and the shadows started responding."

"But then why didn't you escape before?" Erza asked, shaking her head slowly.

He shrugged. "If I'd escaped, then the Council would have set up a manhunt in a futile attempt to recapture me. It would be foolish to get distracted when Zeref was coming. Better to let the Council and guilds focus on the upcoming invasion than on me."

"But…why would you care about that?"

"Like I said, I've been looking out for your guild for years. I considered putting an end to the charade when the Knights first disappeared, but decided to wait instead."

"What were you waiting for?" Natsu asked, brows drawn together in bewildered thought.

"For you, I think," He mused, testing the words. They felt right. "But if you hadn't shown up soon, I would have broken out and crashed your fight anyway."

"You would have… Okay, so what was all that stuff about a business transaction, then? Because I don't see what you're getting out of this."

He pursed his lips and let his gaze wander away. What He was getting out of this? Maybe nothing. Maybe just the satisfaction of still being able to help. Whatever the case, it was ingrained in him now, this need to protect the people He cared about.

These people might not really be his friends anymore, might not trust him anymore. He might no longer be part of their guild, might no longer have a place in their lives. And yet, He would fight for them anyway because, despite everything, He cared for them. Somewhere deep down in his demon heart, He thought that He might care about them forever.

"Like I said," He repeated, "I've been looking out for your guild for years."

He could tell that they weren't entirely sure what to make of that, but the hope was creeping back once more. It felt wrong to crush it again when they had just given him the same thing by trusting him just enough to agree to breaking him out of confinement.

"And if anyone asks, you were never here." He turned to peer at the mangled mess of metal bars framing the jagged hole in his one-time prison. "It rather looks like a demon found a way to escape through there, doesn't it? Let's leave it that way. Surely Fairy Tail wouldn't be foolish enough to free a demon."

He let enchanted ice spread over the floor and frost the metal surrounding the tear in the cell's façade. To anyone who stopped by later, it would be obvious that He had found a way to break out. And with his magical signature covering the place, it wouldn't be as easy to tell that anyone else had been here.

"I don't get you," Natsu grumbled.

He grinned. "Is that anything new? You've always been an idiot. Anyway, we'd best be going."

He started forward, wincing as his movements pulled at his wounds. Lucy noticed and was immediately drawn back to her earlier concerns.

"What did they do to you?" she breathed, her eyes tracing over the half-healed wounds crisscrossing his body.

"They were trying to execute me, remember? They weren't having much luck and got frustrated."

"God, you should have broken out sooner so that they couldn't hurt you anymore. Did they even feed you? I can see your ribs!"

He gave her a funny look. "Why would they feed me? They were trying to kill me. That would kind of defeat the purpose."

"That's really horrible," Erza said quietly. Righteous indignation warred with remorse and sadness on her face.

"What does it matter? They can't kill me."

"So?" Lucy burst out. Her eyes flashed with anger even though they were misted over with tears. "That's–that's…torture! It's cruel and inhumane punishment."

"No," He disagreed, his lips curling upward into an unamused smile, "it's inhuman punishment. Because, in case you've forgotten, I'm not human."

"But–but–"

"And anyway, I got off lucky. They didn't try any particularly nasty forms of execution, perhaps because they were worried you all might kick up a fuss if you found out. If they'd tried chopping my head off or something, then you'd probably be out of luck, but as it is, it's mostly just some cuts and broken bones and bruising. Most of the worst of it has already partially healed. I'm hardly in peak shape, but I'll still be useful to you."

"Useful…?" Erza scowled and jabbed a finger into his chest, taking him by surprise. "It's not about you being useful to us! We just don't want to see you being tortured."

He frowned and took a half-step back to get away from her accusing finger, absentmindedly icing over a couple gashes that had begun to sluggishly seep blood again.

"You're making a big deal out of nothing."

The girls gave him almost identical outraged looks, but it was Natsu who spoke.

"We don't want this to just be a business transaction," he said quietly, raw pain and indecision clouding his eyes.

It finally occurred to him that they felt at least partly the same way about him as He did about them. It wasn't something He had entirely overlooked, but He also hadn't understood why they would really want to stand by a demon. Things weren't okay yet, they still didn't fully trust him and weren't sure what to make of him, but they still cared.

It shouldn't make his chest tighten the way it did, but He had to swallow and drop his gaze anyway.

"Look, it's not going to kill me, and all I'll be left with is a handful of scars."

Lucy stepped forward, hesitated, and reached out. He shied away as her fingers brushed against his chest with the lightest of touches.

"That one will scar for sure," she murmured, stepping back again and wrapping her arms around herself.

Glancing down, He clicked his tongue in annoyance as He noticed that the wound on the right side of his chest had reopened again. He iced it over and then smirked.

"There's a funny story with that one, actually. These idiots were trying to get me through the heart, but they stuck me in the wrong side of my chest. Honestly, you'd think they would have realized their mistake when there wasn't nearly enough blood, but… Yeah, every time I think the Council and their cronies can't get any dumber, they always manage to surprise me."

Then it occurred to him that the wound was located almost exactly where his guild mark had been, and his grin faded. The Knights had missed his heart, but…

"Actually, maybe they weren't so far off," He muttered, no longer amused.

"Gray?" Happy asked hesitantly.

He shrugged it off. "Don't worry about it. I don't mind a scar here or there."

"As long as you can see them?" Lucy asked, one eyebrow arching upward.

He laughed and flashed her a grin. That had been a long time ago, way back on Galuna. And it held true. He already had an impressive collection of scars, because it was impossible to spend years trying to kill yourself and not leave a mark. Most had faded with time, passed off as just another job-related injury, and many more had been quietly magicked out of existence with minor healing charms that He kept for that exact purpose. Still, there were plenty to see if you knew where to look, and He was long since past the point of worrying about new ones.

It wasn't like this was even his body, anyway. Maybe He should take better care of it, but the original owner was dead and the skin healed itself no matter what He did to it.

"Still remember that, do you? Yeah, it's the ones you can't see that hurt the most." His smile melted into a grimace for an instant before He started forward, pushing past his one-time friends on his way to the exit. "Well, we'd better go."

There was a brief pause and then footsteps started up behind him.

"It's strange," Happy muttered. "Sometimes you go all weird, but sometimes you're still so…normal."

"Normal?" He laughed as He limped across the stone floor and entered the dark maw of the stairway gaping before him. "Of course. That's still my personality, you know, the one I created for myself over the years. That is what's normal to me now. It'll take me a while to stamp it out again, but I'm pretty adaptable so I'll figure it out."

"Stamp it…?" Erza trailed off.

The footsteps came to an abrupt halt. Pausing halfway up the darkened stairwell, one foot resting on the step above the other, He bowed his head and narrowed his eyes at the ground. He had told himself that He would give them answers if they decided to let him out.

"Gray, how much of it was real?" Erza's voice echoed softly off the stone walls, bouncing back at him like a whispered accusation. "All those years, all that friendship… How much of it was a lie?"

He stayed silent for a long moment, staring down at a thin crack splitting the crumbling step in front of him. The dim light of the lantern lacrima lining the walls flickered, sending inky shadows skittering across the walls. It was like He could feel them closing in around him.

"All of it," He said finally, starting back up the stairs again. "And none of it."

This time He didn't relent, just kept climbing up with grim determination until the rest of the team gave in and began following after him again. The wounds slashed across his chest and limbs, the broken bones and ribs, the gnawing hunger and desperate thirst… All paled in comparison to the burning of the stake impaling him through where his heart had once been.

"I was never entirely honest with you," He said flatly. "I wasn't necessarily who you thought I was. But it was still me the entire time. I was the one who found Erza crying by the river, who fought to get her out of the Tower. I was the one who welcomed Lucy into the guild, who fought for her against Phantom Lord. I was the one who helped care for Happy when he was a kitten, who went fishing with him and laughed with him. I was the one who went hunting for Igneel with Natsu, who fought him and teased him. I was the one who fought for the guild against Phantom Lord, Jellal's Tower, Laxus and his Fantasia hijinks, Oración Seis, the enemies from Edolas, Grimoire Heart, Future Rogue and his dragonlings, Tartaros, Avatar. It was all me.

"But that's over now, and you'd best leave it in the past where it belongs. Like I said, this is a business transaction. I don't care what story you come up with when everyone asks why I'm free and fighting against Alvarez, but it had better not include you attempting to break me out and get all chummy again. I was hoping Mavis would keep you all from doing anything stupid, but she did a terrible job during the trial and all the mind-control mumbo jumbo will only excuse so much of your foolish behavior. I can't save you from yourselves forever."

The mention of Mavis brought something else to mind and He frowned back at the mages following him, ignoring their stunned expressions. "Did Mavis send you down here to get me as part of one of her plans or something? I told her to leave it alone."

Erza opened her mouth, closed it again, cleared her throat. "I, uh… No, not exactly. We, um, we decided that on our own. But she somehow figured out what we were planning to do. She's actually supposed to meet us up top. She said that she had to find something first but then would meet us there."

He shrugged and turned away, not sure what to make of that. Was it good that his old friends had come after him of their own free will? Maybe, but it didn't change the fact that they needed to distance themselves from him and stop trying to get closer again.

He looked about with vague interest as He emerged into a dimly-lit hallway and started down it. At the time of his capture and later when He'd been dragged up and down for his trial, He had been too out of sorts to really pay attention to his surroundings. It didn't look like He had missed much—just stone, stone, and more stone, all of the ugly gray variety.

"So what about the fights?" Natsu asked. "You say you're the one who was fighting me all those years, but why?"

He shrugged, only half paying attention as the corridor forked off into two identical-looking paths and He paused. Damned if He knew which way to go. Erza brushed past him, giving him a sidelong look that He couldn't read, and He followed her down the left branch.

"There were a lot of reasons," He said. "Partly it's because the pecking order in our–in your guild is mostly determined by strength rankings. It was convenient to lose to Erza to put myself somewhere firmly in the upper middle of the pack—not so strong that I'd draw attention to myself, but not so weak that I wouldn't be able to do jobs and whatnot. And it was good practice, because I was still figuring out how to control my magic and curses. I was still pretty bloodthirsty back then, and fighting helped with my aggressive urges sometimes. And I could practice fighting people without killing them."

"Oh?" Natsu asked. Suddenly, He realized the trap Natsu had set for him, but it was too late to back out now. "And that thing about training me to kill you, right? You wanna explain that now?"

He let out a harsh breath. Natsu had to know. He should have told him much sooner, but He'd always avoided it. With Zeref coming, this revelation couldn't be put off any longer.

"Because you're…special."

They turned a corner and He could see a door to the outside at the far end of the hallway. Coming to a halt, He crossed his arms and watched the Fairy Tail mages with hooded eyes as they paused to frown at him curiously. This wasn't a conversation to have outdoors.

"I've been answering your questions and I'll answer whatever else you ask of me, but first I want you to answer a question for me."

His old team exchanged puzzled looks but nodded.

"Okay," Erza said. "That seems fair."

He stayed silent for a long moment before sighing. "If I hadn't known that I was a demon this whole time, if the revelation was as much a surprise to me as it was to you, how would you have reacted?"

"Uh…"

There were more bemused expressions, now edged with wariness. No one knew what to make of his odd query.

"Well," Erza said carefully, "you did know, didn't you?"

"This isn't about me," He snarled, eyes flashing with annoyance. The others flinched back and He sighed, reining his temper back in again. "Say it was someone else, any one of your friends. They didn't know what they were, they hadn't done anything wrong, but then they suddenly found out that they were a demon or something. Would you turn your back on him? Turn him in to the Council? Leave him for the Knights?"

There was a collective wince, and He realized that they thought He was accusing them of mistreating him. Honestly, had He not made it clear enough that He had arranged things that way? And, to be fair, it wasn't any worse treatment than would be expected for a demon that had infiltrated a guild by masquerading as a human. This wasn't about him at all, although they still didn't seem to realize that.

"It's, uh, hard to say," Erza mumbled, averting her gaze. "But I mean, if they didn't know, then it's kind of hard to blame them for it, right? So I guess not."

"Do we have time for dumb hypothetical questions?" Natsu grumbled.

"It's not hypothetical."

"Huh?"

"Gray," Lucy started, her eyes shining with regret, "we didn't want–"

"I already told you, it's not about me," He interrupted. "Natsu, the reason I decided to stay with the guild when I met you, why I fought you and trained with you at first, why Zeref and I think you can kill us…"

"What?" Natsu asked impatiently, scowling. "I don't understand."

He opened his mouth and hesitated, fidgeting uncomfortably. He had considered this scenario many times over the years, but had never come up with a good way to handle it.

"Natsu…you are E.N.D."

There was a beat of silence and then Natsu started laughing, the sound too loud in the stillness. "Very funny, but we don't have time for dumb jokes."

Closing his eyes, He bowed his head and turned his face to the side. The resulting silence was longer and more ominous than before.

"You…aren't joking."

"No." He blinked his eyes open and narrowed them at the ground, his shoulders hunching slightly. "We demons can sense each other. I could sense the demonic presence emanating from you back when we first met, and then I did some digging to figure out who you were. It's almost embarrassing how long it took me to realize that E.N.D. stood for Etherious Natsu Dragneel."

"Etherious Nat… I… You say that demons can sense each other, right? I can't sense anything so I can't–"

"You also haven't been Awakened. It's a very subtle aura you're giving off. I probably wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't already spent the last couple years figuring out how to conceal my own. The Tartaros demons didn't recognize either of us because our auras are suppressed, and you can't sense other demons because you haven't been Awakened."

He finally risked glancing up, and grimaced at the stunned and horrified expressions on everyone's faces. Happy looked like he had nearly fallen right out of the air in surprise, the girls were white-faced and wide-eyed, and Natsu looked torn between disbelief and horror.

"Tartaros?" Erza asked, her voice faint. "Didn't you try destroying the Book of E.N.D. during Tartaros? And that was your cover story for Avatar, too. So you–"

"Of course I wasn't going to destroy his Book," He interrupted. "It was a convenient excuse that I borrowed from Silver. What was I supposed to say? 'Oh, I just want to keep this Book for no apparent reason. No, I don't want to open it or destroy it, just keep it. Why? Well, why not?'

"I was going to pretend to destroy it but then keep it safe. If I could guard it, then the humans couldn't destroy it and Zeref couldn't open it, which would prevent it from killing or Awakening Natsu."

His hands clenched involuntarily into fists at his sides, his mouth twisting at the reminder of his failure. It would never have been as simple as hiding Natsu's Book and never having to worry about it again—there would always be those who wanted the Book of the most powerful demon—but it had been a perfect opportunity that appeared out of nowhere, and He had immediately seized upon it.

And failed. Zeref had appeared as suddenly as the opportunity and snatched the Book right from his hands. And as long as Zeref had the Book, there was a very real risk of it being opened.

"Awakening?" Lucy repeated slowly, still dazed.

"Your Book is opened and you go all crazy psycho demon."

"But Natsu was just going to keep the Book and not open it," Happy objected. "Why would you have to take it instead?"

"Because Natsu is an idiot and didn't know what the Book would do to him if it was opened, and accidents happen. I could have protected it better than him, maybe even better than Igneel. I'm very familiar with how the Books work."

Natsu's eyes narrowed suddenly, some of the shock wearing away back into incredulity. "Yeah, Igneel. Zeref said that Igneel couldn't kill E.N.D., but I was with him as a kid so he definitely could have if that was all true."

"Oh, Natsu," He breathed, eyes softening as He smiled at the dragon slayer sadly. "Igneel couldn't kill you for the same reason that I eventually realized you would never be able to kill me. He couldn't kill you because he loved you, Natsu, just like you loved me once."

Natsu opened his mouth but no words came out. His face twisted into a sickened expression.

"So Natsu is…Natsu is the most powerful demon, the one we thought needed to be destroyed?" Lucy asked, hugging herself tightly.

"He didn't know," He hissed. His eyes flashed as He edged in front of Natsu protectively and stared down the others. "Only I did. Me and Zeref."

Erza held her hands up in a placating gesture. "We just–"

"You said that you wouldn't turn on him."

"We aren't," Lucy said hurriedly. "Of course we aren't."

"Natsu has always been my best friend," Happy said with a sniffle. "And always will be."

He eyed them a moment longer before relaxing marginally. He still trusted them. Besides, they had been kinder to him than He deserved, and Natsu had done even less wrong than He had.

"Right. Well, let's keep this to ourselves for now, alright?" He sighed and shook his head tiredly. "The last thing you need is more trouble from the Council and guilds right now. Under other circumstances the guild might have been more accepting, but given what just happened with me… It might be better not to go around announcing it."

Erza hesitated but then nodded. "Everyone is already shaken up from you being… They might not take it well if there's suddenly a second…demon."

"Exactly. But I wouldn't be surprised if Zeref seeks Natsu out at some point, so it's better if he's prepared."

There was a strangled sound from behind him, and He looked back at Natsu again. The dragon slayer's face was completely drained of blood and his eyes were glazed over. The shock clearly hadn't worn off yet.

"I don't–I don't want to be a demon," he mumbled.

"Of course not," He said sympathetically. "Who does?"

"I don't want–I don't want to be like–"

"You are nothing like me!" He snarled. He whirled on Natsu and fisted a hand in his shirt, shoving him against the wall. Eyes blazing, He stared down the startled dragon slayer. "Do you hear me? Nothing!"

Natsu stared back with wide eyes, stunned at his sudden ferocity. "I didn't mean–"

"Out of all the people I've met in my life, you are one of the most human. Do you understand? Now, you've never been much of a thinker or worrier before, so don't bother starting now. We don't have time for you to be having an existential crisis, flame brain. Got that?"

Natsu opened his mouth, hesitated, and then choked out a half-amused laugh. "Got it."

Satisfied, He released the dragon slayer and started back down the hallway, ignoring everyone's conflicted expressions. They didn't have time to waste.

He didn't make it more than a few steps before Natsu's voice stopped him again.

"What…? What will happen if the Book is opened?" he asked quietly, voice wavering.

"I…don't know, exactly," He admitted, turning back to study the group with tired eyes. "I don't honestly know much about E.N.D. It's as much of a legend to us demons as to you humans. I don't know why Zeref chose to give you a human body or why he hasn't opened your Book if he really thought you could kill him. I don't even know if you've ever been properly Awakened, although I suspect not.

"But when—and I do think that it's when, not if—he decides to open your Book, it will Awaken your demonic side. The consequences will depend on how high up the evolutionary hierarchy you are. I'm pretty much rock bottom, where the Book was an on-off switch between full-on demon and…stasis. The Tartaros demons were more advanced and had better control of themselves while Awake. You should be more advanced than me, but you also haven't had as much time to evolve as the Tartaros demons. But wherever you are, everything will be released at once. Trust me, you'll lose control."

"But–"

"But nothing. Before you pull the 'you're just a brainless demon and you pieced everything together after the fact' card—yes, but I still know a hell of a lot more than you do. You will lose control."

"I…I don't want…"

He let out a harsh breath and kicked moodily at the floor. "E.N.D. is defined by whatever is written in that Book. If what's written there is death and destruction, then that's what you'll be. As long as it's open, you will be E.N.D., not Natsu.

"But you and I, we fall somewhere in the middle and have to choose which path to take. Deliora and E.N.D. are demons, Gray and Natsu are humans, or as close to human as it is possible to be. I've chosen a middle path, neither truly Deliora nor Gray. You will also make that choice. In the end, I'd prefer if you chose to stay Natsu and I'm not the only one. But when your instincts settle down and you're capable of choosing, that's a choice we can't make for you."

Natsu swallowed and looked away. "Okay. I… Okay. But for the record, I always thought that you were one of the most human people I knew, too."

"Don't be naïve." He narrowed his eyes and turned slightly, his gaze sweeping past his old friends' faces sightlessly. "It's not the same for me as it is for you. I was always a demon."

"But–"

"We don't have time for this. The longer we sit around here, the more people are going to get hurt."

"Gray…" Natsu hesitated, but then took a deep breath and steeled himself. "If I go all… Would you…?"

"Yes," He said quietly. "If it gets to that point, I'll do my best to help you regain control and stop you from hurting anyone."

"And if I–I can't regain control, then would you–?"

"Did I not explain to you why Igneel could not kill you and you could not kill me?" He demanded, fury and grief making his voice brittle. "Do not ask this of me."

In a fight against E.N.D., He didn't know who would come out on top. E.N.D. had more raw power, but He still wasn't sure if it would be strong enough to overcome his immortality. He had certain advantages over the other demon as well: more versatile magic, devil slayer magic directly opposed to E.N.D.'s element, slightly more practice with his curses, more cunning. But E.N.D. was also supposed to be the most perfect demon, stronger than them all.

It would be an epic fight, and it was an epic fight that He did not want to have.

Natsu dropped his gaze, shoulders slumping. "You're right. I'm sorry."

He inhaled deeply, waited, exhaled, and then repeated, his breaths loud in his ears. When He had tamped down his out-of-control emotions again, He gave Natsu a sly smirk.

"Besides, when have you ever given up before a fight even started, squinty eyes?"

Natsu barked out a surprised laugh. Searching the demon's face, he hesitantly grinned back. For a moment, that old camaraderie hung over them again.

"'Course I'm not gonna give up, droopy eyes. Let's go give them hell."

"Let's."

He started forward again, strides quick and clipped as He hurried down the hall. He could hear the others following behind him, and this time He was unwilling to stop for anything. They had already wasted too much time.

"Thank you," Natsu said suddenly.

"For what?" He asked, not slowing or turning back. "I didn't do anything."

"For…everything."

"We're sorry we doubted you," Erza added quietly.

"Oh no, you were right to doubt me. And don't forget, it's dangerous to appear too sympathetic to me. Don't do anything stupid."

Pushing the heavy double doors open, He strode outside and looked around. Not that there was much to be looking for. If Mavis was here as the others had said, He wouldn't be able to see her. Then He caught the slight prickling sensation of her aura, her curse calling out to his, and turned left.

"She's over here, but you'll have to translate since I can't hear her anymore," He said tersely as He slipped around the side of the building.

Then He stopped short, eyes widening as a small, blonde-haired girl came into view. He gaped at her speechlessly as she turned and gave him a wide grin.

"Hi, Gray."

"You… What? I shouldn't even be able to see you anymore." He paused, noting that her aura was stronger than before. "Oh, somehow managed to reunite with your body, have you? Congrats."

She laughed. "Yes, it was in a lacrima under the guild hall, where it's always been. Cana managed to break it out with Fairy Glitter."

"Cana?" The corner of his mouth twitched upward, and He felt a flicker of pride in the girl who had been one of his first friends. "Good on her."

"Mhm. I fetched Wendy because I figured the Council would have done some damage trying to execute you." Her smile faded as her eyes traced over the cuts slashed across his chest, an ugly mashup of drying blood and frosted ice. Shaking her head, she glanced behind her and motioned with her hand. "Come on, Wendy."

There was the briefest of pauses and then Wendy inched into view around a shrub, her eyes darting about nervously. When she saw the demon, she hesitated again, but then edged over to stand next to Mavis. Charle, on the other hand, had no qualms about speaking her mind.

"You actually did let him out?" she demanded, snowy fur bristling as she hovered protectively by Wendy's side. "I thought you couldn't possibly be serious."

"Of course I was serious," Mavis said patiently.

"Did you see what he did to that enchantress? I thought he was going to rip her apart!"

"But he didn't."

"I'm telling you, he's dangerous. He admitted it himself! He's a demon! I don't know what kind of deal you made to convince him to help, but expect him to break it."

"There's not really a deal," Lucy interjected. "He agreed to help even though he's not getting anything out of it."

Charle shook her head in despair. "This is the kind of stupid behavior I'd expect from the he-cat. Trust me, he'll want something from you, and now you've let him loose so that he can do whatever he wants."

"He's not going to turn on us," Happy disagreed, staring down his crush.

Charle blinked back at him in surprised silence, not having expected him to stand up to her when he'd usually fall over himself to agree. "You…actually trust him?"

"I do."

"You all do?" She shook her head as her gaze drifted over the assembled Fairy Tail mages.

"Yeah, I do, actually," Natsu said flatly.

"Me too," Erza agreed.

"And me," Lucy added.

"If I didn't trust him, I wouldn't have agreed to this scheme," Mavis said gently, still trying to appease the troubled she-cat.

He winced and averted his gaze. It was touching, in its own way, but might end up being troublesome in the end. They still wanted him to be human, and He couldn't do that anymore.

"Don't let anyone hear you say that," He grumbled.

Mavis flapped a hand dismissively in his direction but otherwise ignored him. He wished that she would heed his warnings for once.

"Have you seen a vision suggesting that we're wrong to trust him?" she asked Charle.

"Well…no," the Exceed admitted reluctantly. "The future isn't easy to read at the best of times and now it seems to be even more of a mess than usual, all ice and fire and shadows and confusion. But that doesn't mean anything."

"The cat is smarter than all the rest of you," He muttered under his breath.

"Oh, be quiet, Gray," Mavis said impatiently. "I know you want us to treat you like a demon, but–"

"No, I don't want you to treat me like a demon. I want you to protect your goddamn guild, which means that you need to treat me like a demon."

"I know." She sighed, her annoyance fading away. She stayed silent for a moment before turning back to Wendy and asking, "Would you go ahead and take a look at his injuries? The Knights did a number on him, and I don't doubt that it's worse than it looks."

Wendy nodded and stepped forward hesitantly, her eyes searching his face as if she expected to see answers written there.

"Are you alright?" He asked with a frown, taking in her disheveled appearance and reddened eyes.

She had certainly been in a fight already, and looked the worse for wear. Swallowing, she dropped her gaze and nodded, her hands gripping the sides of her skirt and tightening until the knuckles turned white. She didn't really look alright.

"She already used up a lot of magic fighting Dimaria," Charle protested, still appealing to Mavis. "She shouldn't be using more, especially not for a demon."

"I'm going to agree with Charle on this one," He said. "It's better for her to save her magic. I can't die, anyway, but she can."

Mavis let out a breath. "Everyone has already been fighting for quite a while. We're exhausted and injured and worn out. We could really use your help right now, especially since you still have all your magic and everyone else is running out."

"Yes, but–"

"But you're weakened from the torture the Knights put you through, and you'll be more useful to us if you're in better shape."

He frowned, wanting to refute that but not knowing how. She had a point: He was weakened and his injuries would make it more difficult for him to fight.

"It's not about being useful!" Erza interrupted, scowling at Mavis. "We already had to explain this to him. It's not–"

"I know," Mavis said with a sigh, "but when you're trying to reason with someone, it's better to use arguments that you know will win them over. And I think that by now you have also realized that the best arguments to use with him address how he can protect the guild."

Erza bit her lip and nodded reluctantly, while He sighed and rolled his eyes. He didn't like being manipulated, but Mavis's argument was sound even if her reasons for presenting it were questionable.

"Do as you will," He grumbled. "But it's Wendy's choice."

"I'll do it," Wendy said quietly. She stepped forward and asked, "May I take a look, Gra–Deliora-san?"

He flinched backward and she immediately jerked back as well, eyes widening again. The poor thing looked terrified, as if she'd made a mistake and He would punish her for it.

"I–I'm sorry!" she stammered, wrapping her arms around herself.

"It's fine," He said, looking away. "Don't worry, I don't bite. All that about eating children was for the Council's entertainment."

"You, um, you would prefer it if I called you Gray-san?"

"It doesn't matter. They're both old, irrelevant names now. Call me whatever you wish."

She eyed him nervously, but then crept forward again and let her hand hover over his chest as she began searching for injuries.

"Gray-san!" she exclaimed, eyes widening in horror. "How are you even still standing?"

He coughed out a laugh and then grinned at her crookedly. "Fairy Tail mages are known for being stubborn, and always seem to be able to keep going even when they should certainly be down for the count. And I was a Fairy Tail mage once, wasn't I?"

"But–but–"

"Why don't you just heal some of the worse internal things? And maybe fix some of the broken bones—healing my wrist would make molding a lot easier. Don't worry about the rest of it."

She gave him a look of utter dismay and began hurriedly sending her healing magic into his body. As some of the pain began to smooth away and his bones began knitting themselves back together, He sighed in relief. He had mostly been able to ignore the worst of it and put it out of mind, but feeling it disappear reminded him of what a difference it made.

"You were slamming me up against walls when you had broken wrists?" Natsu asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Only one broken wrist."

"That's not any better."

"Really? I'd rather have one broken wrist than two, but I suppose you're stupid enough to not see the difference."

Mavis shook her head as she watched the exchange. "Are you sure you haven't changed your mind yet?"

"I told you, I'm not going to change my mind." Noticing Wendy reaching for the stab wound where his guild mark had once been, He grasped her wrist gently. "Don't bother with that one."

"But–"

"Leave that one. You can heal something else."

She frowned in incomprehension, but then shrugged and moved on. His old team was giving him puzzled looks as well, but He turned his attention back to Mavis.

"You're the genius here, so you can come up with the story to explain why I'm suddenly free and helping you out instead of rampaging around killing everyone. But that story will not include anyone breaking me out of prison. Which won't be a lie, since I technically broke out myself."

"Your curses work, then? I wasn't sure if the anti-magic cuffs would interfere with them. Well, I suppose I should have guessed that they worked fine back when you said that you could find a way out if you really wanted to."

"Sure, I could've left at any time. But the Council doesn't need to know that, and Fairy Tail will not be implicated in this any more than it has to be. The Council seems to have a somewhat antiquated view of demons—they believed that bogus story about familiars, for goodness' sake—so maybe you could spin some tale about striking up a deal or something. Just be careful how you do it so that you don't look complicit with me. Turn yourself into a martyr or something—you oh-so-tragically had to give up your soul in order for the nasty demon to agree to help you. They might buy that."

"That's a lie."

"So? Did you hear all the charges they were making up for me? The truth is irrelevant as long as they don't find out what it is. I made sure it was really obvious that I escaped on my own, so just say that you found me off hunting children somewhere and struck a bargain. I'd say we could just blame the Council's ineptitude for leaving me unguarded, but it's probably better not to turn anyone against them right now."

"Ineptitude," Natsu muttered. "Business transaction. Existential crisis. Since when did you use all these big words?"

He laughed. "Only you would think 'transaction' was a big word. Look, it's not my fault that you've just got ash for brains."

"Hey! It's not my fault you suddenly started talking like you swallowed a dictionary!"

Chuckling, He waved Wendy off and she stepped back reluctantly, her eyes still tracing over the injuries she hadn't gotten to. "Thanks," He told her.

"Are you sure that you haven't changed your mind?" Mavis asked, her shrewd gaze darting between him and Natsu.

His good humor faded away. "I'm sure. Look, I spent over a decade creating that personality, and it's not going to be easy to erase it all at once. I'm working on it, though. Don't you worry, I'll be sufficiently demon-y soon enough."

She sighed and shook her head, eyes dimming. "You still didn't figure out what I was trying to tell you, then? After the trial?"

"Of course not. I'd already erased my guild mark, you know. I couldn't see or hear you anymore. I only knew you were there at all because I could sense your curse."

"I was trying to say that even though your guild mark was gone, you would still always be part of Fairy Tail."

A storm of grief and loss raged in his chest, making the words stick in his throat. Something threatened to shatter and He bared his teeth in a snarl instead, letting the pain turn to anger.

"You'd do well to listen to Charle. I am not part of your guild. I am not your friend. I am a demon, and you'd best remember that."

"It's a fine line you're walking," Mavis said, pressing her hands to her eyes wearily.

"Do I have another choice? Playing human has the potential to destroy your guild. Playing demon would destroy everything. The only thing left is the razor's edge between. I've made my choice, Mavis. You don't have to like it, but it's my choice to make.

"Now, we don't have time to be wasting here. I'm sure you have some brilliant plan cooking up in that pretty little head of yours, so why don't you tell me what you want me to do?"

There was a long pause before Mavis relented and nodded. She still looked displeased with the entire situation—so did the rest of the team, for that matter—but either she realized that she wouldn't get anywhere arguing with him or she knew that more people would get hurt the longer they bickered over silly things.

"Right. Well, Lyon is fighting nearby and he could really use your help right now."

"Are you insane?" He demanded, recoiling a half-step and scowling at her. "Send someone else."

"No, I want it to be you. We spotted him on our way over a few minutes ago, and he needs a hand."

"Just send–"

"I'm sending everyone else to do other things, so if you don't go help Lyon, then no one will."

This was a disaster waiting to happen. Lyon would not want to see him, and this could easily devolve into a huge mess. And Mavis knew it, so He had no idea what she was playing at.

"I think it would be good for the both of you," she added gently.

He closed his eyes and let out a breath. "You aren't really leaving me a choice here, are you?"

It wasn't like He could just leave Lyon to fight alone. Because it was Lyon, and He couldn't stand to see Lyon get hurt. But still, this would go terribly.

"No, I'm not. If you go down that path right there, you'll run into him pretty quickly. Hurry up."

He turned away with a sigh, but then paused to look back at Natsu and the team. "If worst comes to worst and you need me…just send up any kind of signal. I'll be watching for it. I'll find you when I'm done with Lyon."

He'd rather not leave Natsu in case his Book was opened, but He also knew that Mavis was formulating a plan that would require them to be separated. And although He was questioning her decision about him and Lyon, He ultimately trusted her and her strategizing. Anyway, He had the feeling that He'd be able to sense it if Natsu's Book was opened, and He didn't expect it to happen too soon. Zeref sometimes liked to play games, which was perhaps not unexpected of someone who had lived for hundreds of years and was easily bored.

"Okay," Natsu said, his eyes shining with uncertainty and reluctance.

He turned away anyway. Natsu would have to take care of himself for now. He barely spared a goodbye for the others before hurrying off, intent on reaching Lyon before the idiot got himself killed.

Mavis was right about Lyon being nearby. It seemed that the invasion had spread outward from Magnolia, even reaching here in the next city over. If left unchecked, He suspected that it would spread farther still.

He could see a flare of icy magic shoot up a short distance away and rushed toward it, trying to push aside the gnawing sense of dread about how this meeting was going to go. Skidding around the corner, He stopped short, his eyes widening in disbelief. There was Lyon, on his knees amid the rubble littering the street, but it wasn't him that He found his attention grabbed by.

Because there, striding toward the kneeling ice mage with a cruel smirk on her face, was his savior and destroyer: Ur.

Chapter Text


Chapter 4-Trials of Ice


He was as frozen as if she'd turned her ice on him. Because it wasn't possible. He damn well knew what had happened to Ur with iced shell, and it made her presence here impossible. He knew that, but it still didn't stop the sudden storm of emotion raging inside him.

The pieces of Gray He had inherited had begun to fade to the background over the years, but all those memories and emotions reacted strongly now. There was love and regret and guilt, memories of snowy mountains and half-clothed training sessions and subtle mothering. It hurt.

His own feelings on the subject, wholly separate from Gray's, were no less complex. He had hated this woman in the beginning, hated that she had beaten him and forced him into a body He didn't want with a curse to go along with it. Later there had been a grudging respect and, later still, an even more grudging gratitude. After all, she was the catalyst for his slow transformation from a raging beast into a person who could choose who He wanted to be, the reason that He had eventually created a life for himself and made friends and learned what it meant to be human.

In that way, she had been both the best and worst thing to ever happen to him.

He had Gray's memories of her, but He had never met her himself aside from their one and only fatal encounter. And, He realized, He still hadn't. Because this wasn't Ur any more than He was Gray. If He really focused, He could feel an off quality about her magical signature. This was nothing more than a piece of magic wearing the face of a woman long dead. Presumably, they could thank one of the Spriggans for this.

While He had been frozen, 'Ur' had not. She was still on the attack, and Lyon was just as rattled as He had been. The ice mage had fought his way back to his feet and was defending himself feebly, but the dazed look in his eyes didn't fade. Idiot was going to get himself killed if he didn't snap out of it.

'Ur' lashed out with her icy rose garden—a spell He hadn't seen in a long time but still remembered vividly—and Lyon was in no way prepared for it. He stepped forward unthinkingly, hands flying through familiar gestures as a thick wall of crystalline ice exploded out of the ground to block the spell.

"That's not Ur, you know," He said, quickly adjusting his shield to accommodate the ever-growing garden of ice. "Snap out of it."

Lyon whipped around, eyes widening and then narrowing dangerously as he spotted the demon. "What the hell are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be rotting in prison?"

"Must we have this conversation right now?" He asked with a sigh. "No need to get distracted in the middle of a fight."

But apparently the fight was suddenly of secondary importance to Lyon, who turned his back on his real opponent and advanced on the demon with blazing eyes, hands moving in a blur of motion. Cursing under his breath, He summoned a series of small projectiles to destroy the flock of ice eagles, all the while still trying to keep up a wall between them and 'Ur'.

"I want to know what the fuck you're doing here, demon," Lyon snarled, lifting his hands for another attack. "You should be off getting executed."

"The Council can't kill me, remember?" He muttered, dancing around Lyon's magic and keeping a wary eye on him.

"Then you should at least be stuck in a cell until they find a way. So how did you get out, huh? Fairy Tail let you out? Guess they're traitors after all."

"I escaped by myself. Fairy Tail just happened to stumble across me and strike a bargain, which is why I'm here instead of halfway across the continent."

"What the hell kind of bargain?" Lyon demanded.

"That's between me and them, and all you need to know is that it means I'm playing mercenary on your side for now. My end of the deal is that I'll help them fight this war."

"Ha!" Lyon scoffed, sculpting an impressive ice dragon. "As if I'd be stupid enough to trust a murdering demon. Fairy Tail must be even dumber than they look."

"Be that as it may–"

Breaking off, He sidestepped Lyon's attack and lunged forward, knocking the human to the ground as the barrier separating them from 'Ur' finally cracked and shattered, frozen roses slamming through the hail of ice shards in a tangle of razor-sharp thorns. The two mages slammed into the ground and He quickly rolled off Lyon, throwing up a temporary shield to hold off the encroaching magic.

"Look, you don't have to trust me," He said, unable to keep the strain out of his voice as He tried to fend off a magic stronger than Gray's. "In fact, it's probably just as well that you don't. But at this particular moment in time, it would be to your benefit to fight her instead of me. She is definitely trying to kill you. You might not trust me, but I'm saying that I won't kill you. You can attack me later if you wish, but for now, pay attention to the fight you're already in."

Lyon glared at him for several long seconds, clearly torn, but his internal debate was interrupted when the thing that looked like Ur blasted through the shield again.

"Is that all you've got?" She arched an eyebrow and gave them a cold smirk that didn't belong on her face. "You boys still aren't nearly strong enough to beat me."

He grimaced, knowing that He wouldn't be able to protect Lyon forever if the idiot was going to insist on doing this the hard way. "You wanted to surpass her, didn't you? This thing has her abilities and magic. If you defeat it, then you are, in essence, surpassing Ur."

Lyon wavered, torn between his hatred of the demon and his need to prove something to himself.

"Don't interfere," he snapped finally, turning to face 'Ur'. "You have no place here, demon. Stay the hell away."

He winced but obediently stepped back. That stung, but was hardly unexpected.

Curling his fingers into helpless fists at his sides, He watched as Lyon and 'Ur' fought. Lyon might not be as strong as Ur had been, but he also had a lot of tricks up his sleeve that she had never seen, and he could be quick and clever when he wanted to be. If only he wasn't still five seconds away from losing it.

"Come on, Lyon," He muttered under his breath, fingers itching to mold.

He recognized the fake Ur's spells, either from when she'd used them against him or from Gray's memories. They were powerful—not quite as impressive as Gray remembered them, but not quite as pathetic as He remembered them to be. Of course, He hadn't been bothered by most of her spells aside from iced shell Before, and Gray had been a child, easily impressed even if he wouldn't admit it. What was left wasn't insignificant, but wasn't invincible either. Lyon could do this, as long as he didn't slip up.

Or give up, as the case may be. Clearly, he had realized that his raw power still wasn't a match for Ur or this facsimile of her. That, compounded with his obvious hesitance at the magic's appearance of his former master, was making him clumsy and uncertain. He had managed to land a few hits, but then the fake Ur's ice hit him again and he went sprawling.

When he should have been jumping to his feet, he hesitated. The mournful helplessness in his eyes was only a glimpse of the battle raging within. Ice lashed out lighting quick, and He threw up another shield before He thought better of it.

"Get up," He called, scowling as Lyon glanced back with eyes filled with a mixture of heartache and rage. "You wanted to surpass her, didn't you? You spent how many years trying to melt me out of the ice? And now when you finally get your chance, you're going to give up within the first few minutes? Get over yourself. That's not Ur. I killed her and you know it. So quit being such an idiot and stand up."

They stared at each other for a long moment, but then Lyon scowled and looked away as he pulled himself to his feet.

"I don't need your help," he snapped. "Stay out of this."

Breathing a sigh of relief, He let the shield go and retreated to the background once more. There was nothing more He could offer Lyon at this point, and it was already cold comfort, given who—what—He was. Taking over the fight would be a last resort, because Lyon was right that He had no place in this showdown. This wasn't him and Lyon versus 'Ur', but Lyon versus two impostors masquerading as people from his past.

Lyon needed this. Lyon needed to be able to step forward despite all the curveballs he had been thrown within the past few days, needed to be able to start letting go of the past a little. And He wanted that for him, so He let it be.

Lyon's sudden determination was gratifying, even if it was only meant to spite the demon. The fight became more intense, and he seemed to actually be thinking strategically again, finding ways to work around the fake Ur's raw power with versatile spells of his own.

As much as Lyon wouldn't want to hear it, He was proud of him.

An impressive ice tiger leapt from Lyon's hands and somehow slipped around all defenses to slam into 'Ur', who went down to her knees with an arm pressed to her chest as if she was in pain. She didn't get up again, just stayed there and watched Lyon expressionlessly. The ice mage had already won—all that was really left was to finish her off.

"How dare you pretend to be her?" he asked. His voice wavered dangerously, somewhere between fury and grief, and his entire body trembled. What should have been a victory seemed to be hollow now. "How dare you…?"

There was a long pause, and He suddenly realized that being human made Lyon weak as well as strong. It wasn't his magic or strength that made him unprepared for this fight, but his humanity. It was beautiful how much humans loved, but heartbreaking too.

Maybe it was a good thing that He wasn't human, then, because He could still do what needed to be done.

Sighing, He ghosted down the street and pushed Lyon to the side, ignoring his protests. He leaned down to look in the fake Ur's eyes, searching for any sign of the woman Gray had once known. There was only a glimmer—not enough to be truly recognizable.

"You shouldn't wear a face that doesn't belong to you," He breathed in her ear. "It only causes more heartache in the end."

She said nothing, her resemblance to Ur fading a little more with each passing moment. He faltered but then straightened, a sword of ice forming in his hand. He punched it through her heart—if she had one—without any more hesitation, and she burst into a thousand pieces of shattered magic and broken spells. It stirred up memories of iced shell, of her turning to ice, but He pushed them away impatiently.

Still, He stood motionless, staring at the spot where she had been. That hadn't been Ur, but, funnily enough, that didn't seem to make the storm of emotions die down.

There was a scuffing sound behind him, and He shifted to the side as Lyon shoved ice through his chest. Way to ruin the moment.

Sighing, He shattered the ice crystals and formed some ice of his own to cover over the wound so that it wouldn't bleed out. He turned and raised an eyebrow at Lyon as he backed up a few paces and eyed the demon warily, hands rising defensively in preparation to mold again. Now he looked like he was waiting to be attacked in retaliation.

"Well, you got closer than the Knights, anyway," He said dryly. "Congrats."

Lyon frowned uncertainly, defensiveness not assuaged.

He sighed. "Chill out. If I was going to kill you, then I would have done it already."

"Why should I trust anything a demon says?" Lyon snarled back, eyes flashing aggressively.

This was the point where He could again try to explain that He had made some kind of deal with Fairy Tail in an attempt to get Lyon to calm down and maybe get the point already. But Lyon didn't want to hear that, and there was no point in getting into an altercation with him right now.

He would just say what He needed to say and then go. His sudden reveal and the aftermath had distracted him, making him worry about any number of things, but He was reminded once again that Lyon was perhaps taking everything the hardest of them all.

"He loved you a lot, you know. Gray."

Lyon's expression twisted into that odd mixture of rage and grief again. "Yeah, I loved him too. For all the good it did, seeing as you killed him anyway."

"And I can't imagine that Ur didn't love you either," He added, deciding that the best course of action would be to ignore the hostility as much as possible.

"Of course she did," he snapped. "Not that you have any right to talk about them."

"But I'm not Gray, and that wasn't Ur," He continued on patiently. "They died a long time ago, and maybe it's time to move on."

"Time to…? What the hell? What gives you the right to tell me anything like that?"

"Absolutely nothing, but I'm going to say it anyway. Look, you have a habit of looking backward and getting stuck there. You can't afford to have another Galuna right now. If you guys somehow survive this mess, then we can have a rematch and you can try coming up with a better way to kill me than the Knights did, but right now I have responsibilities and so do you. You can't afford to be stuck in the past when you've got a guild to fight for and protect. And Lyon, someday you're going to have to figure out how to move on, because you're only hurting yourself by obsessing over the past. They wouldn't want that for you and you know it."

Turning, He walked away. "Don't die, yeah?"

That was really all He could do right now, so He left Lyon staring after him like a gaping fish and moved on.

"'Go help Lyon,' she says," He muttered to himself. "'It'll be good for the both of you,' she says. Thanks a lot, Mavis."

Although it wasn't like He could entirely regret it. Lyon had needed that extra push, and He… Well, He would have given anything to help Lyon out one last time, even knowing that it would end badly and He would never be able to say everything that He wanted to. That confrontation could have gone a lot worse and it would have had to happen at some point, so maybe Mavis did have some idea of what she was doing after all.

"Thanks a lot, Mavis," He repeated with a sigh. It wasn't perfect, but it was something.

As He walked away, He silently said goodbye.

Speaking of Mavis, He wondered if He should hunt her down and see what she wanted him to do now. The problem was that she could be anywhere by now, and it wouldn't be easy to find her. Under normal circumstances He might be able to sense her curse if she was nearby, but with the pull to Zeref so strong, He probably wouldn't sense her unless she was a few feet away. He doubted He would really be able to sense Natsu either as long as his Book remained closed, which presented a bigger problem.

Well, there were still plenty of Spriggans to fight, so maybe He would just search for Natsu and take out any enemies He ran across along the way. He would, of course, have to stay under the radar as much as possible, because attracting attention would lead to more scenarios like the one with Lyon. But the end goal was to find Natsu, because He should really be there in case the Book of E.N.D. was opened.

He picked his way through the streets, trying to do his part but get away without being noticed. From time to time He would spot someone He knew, but if they were handling themselves, then He left well enough alone. He didn't see any Spriggans, but their less magically-inclined underlings, the body of Zeref's army, were like cockroaches. He didn't mind occasionally stopping to squash a few.

He managed to stay well out of view until He got dragged into Cana's fight. She had somehow gotten herself surrounded by a couple dozen of Zeref's infantrymen, and He wondered why she didn't just stick with a fighting buddy while they were in the middle of a warzone. Honestly. It couldn't hurt.

He lashed out almost without thinking about it, ice slashing through the ranks to her left. She spun around to study him with wide eyes, and He loped over with a sigh.

"Aren't you supposed to be locked up?" she asked, eyeing him warily.

"Yeah, but if the Council was that set on it, then they should have picked a higher-security prison."

"So… Should I be worried?"

"About what? Me attacking you? Honestly, if my intentions were that bad, then I would have just razed the guild years ago and been done with all of you so that I didn't have to field stupid questions."

"Geez, chill out. I was just asking."

"Ask later, pay attention to your fight now."

Cana rolled her eyes, but began whipping her cards out again while He covered her other side.

"Have you seen Natsu anywhere?" He asked.

"Natsu?"

"Yeah, I need to find him."

She was giving him a strange look again, and He sighed. This whole demon thing was going to make it hard to get useful information out of people.

"What do you want with Natsu?" she asked suspiciously.

"I'm not going to do anything bad. I just need to be there in case… Look, it's important."

He paused as the last foe dropped to the ground, and turned to give Cana his undivided attention. Or as undivided as it could be when He had an insatiable itch clawing at his insides, trying to drag him to Zeref.

Cana frowned at him. "One time I read your cards and told you it was going to be your lucky day," she said. "What happened?"

He stared at her blankly, trying to figure out what she was playing at. "Erza joined the guild."

"Have you ever beaten me at a drinking contest?"

"Only that one time I cheated to make a point. You know that I don't drink."

Cana nodded thoughtfully, and He resisted the urge to sigh again as He finally realized what she was doing. Maybe it would be easier to just say, 'yes, I'm still the same person I've always been, just like I told you,' but He might as well play by her rules. If she needed to be persuaded, then He'd persuade her. He wasn't supposed to be playing human anymore, but as long as she might have information He needed, He was on her terms.

"What did you do to me on my fourteenth birthday?" she asked.

"I pushed you in the river."

"Yeah, that was pretty mean."

"Please. You shoved me into a giant mud puddle. At least water doesn't stain. And I technically made your cake for you, if you'd forgotten."

"It tasted horrible and was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen."

He scowled, indignation temporarily washing away everything else. "It wasn't that bad." She arched an eyebrow, and his glower deepened as He added, "At least I tried. And you were too drunk to really taste it, anyway."

"Hm." She eyed him thoughtfully. "What's my address?"

"Now this is just getting insulting," He said with a huff, crossing his arms over his chest. "How many times have I hauled your drunk ass home? I could find your apartment with my eyes shut."

Cana nodded to herself. "I saw some fire over there that looked like Natsu's. Can't say for sure since there are so many people running around everywhere, but I'm pretty sure it was him."

She gestured vaguely behind them, and He relaxed a little as He realized that He had passed her test. It didn't necessarily mean that everything was rainbows and kittens, but it was a start.

"Thanks," He said, giving her a small smile. "I need to go find him before he gets himself into trouble, but you really shouldn't be fighting alone. I'd feel better if you had someone to watch your back. I saw Mira and Lisanna on my way over, so they're nearby if you want to join them. I'd walk you over, but it's probably better they don't see me, and I really have to go."

Cana's eyes narrowed. "What, you don't think I can handle myself?"

He rolled his eyes. "I think you're very strong, Cana, but you're also mortal. One unlucky shot and you're gone. Find someone to watch your back."

She muttered something under her breath, but turned away. "Whatever."

"I heard you broke Mavis out with Fairy Glitter. Good job."

He hid a smile as Cana wavered, torn between wanting to be irritated or appeased.

"Yeah, yeah. Later, stripper," she mumbled as she stalked off. "Take care of yourself."

"You too."

He hoped she would be okay, but right now He needed to find Natsu before things went south. He should sense it if Natsu was Awakened, but it wouldn't do any good if He wasn't in a position to do something about it.

So He hurried off in the direction Cana had indicated, dodging around anyone who might recognize him. He had been hoping Natsu might start throwing fireballs around again so that he'd be easier to spot, but He had no such luck.

It took him several minutes of searching before He finally felt a faint twinge of demonic aura underneath that ever-present draw to Zeref. Following it, He spotted Natsu, Happy, and Lucy huddled behind a half-collapsed building, talking in hushed voices.

"There you are," He said in relief as He stepped up beside them. "Where's Erza?"

"She got distracted fighting some Spriggan," Lucy said, turning slightly.

He frowned as He took in her unhappy expression and Natsu's shell-shocked look. "What happened?"

"I ran into Zeref," Natsu muttered, looking away.

With the E.N.D. thing not being a surprise, what else had rattled him?

"What happened?"

"Apparently all the dragon slayers are actually from four hundred years ago but we came through the Eclipse Gate, and supposedly Zeref's last name is Dragneel."

He had been about to ask about the four hundred years thing—although maybe that could help explain how Natsu was E.N.D., since the demon had been created long before this era?—but was distracted by the last part.

"Dragneel?"

"Supposedly. He says he's my brother. He says I died and he somehow resurrected me as a demon."

"Brother…? But…" He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes and tried to fit this new information into what He already knew. "It might explain why he has so much of an interest in you, even ignoring the E.N.D. thing. And why you have a human body when the rest of us don't. Maybe it was your body to start with, so…"

He let out a breath. "Beyond a passing curiosity, I guess it doesn't matter. I didn't know. If I'd known, I would have told you."

"Yeah," Natsu mumbled. "He did a little demonstration with the Book, so even if I didn't want to believe you before, I guess I have to now."

"He damaged your Book?" A scowl worked its way over the demon's face and indignant anger flickered in his chest. "Asshole. There was no need for such a crude demonstration when you already knew. It hurts like hell."

That Zeref had the Book was unsurprising, but it was frustrating that He couldn't do anything about it. He was still trying to figure out if any of this new information would be useful when Happy spoke up.

"He says that Natsu will die if he dies," the Exceed burst out, his eyes filling with tears.

He stared at the feline in stunned silence. "…What?"

"If Zeref dies, then Natsu dies," Happy repeated, sniffling. "We can't kill Zeref."

His heart sank as He tried to wrap his head around that. This was a possibility that He hadn't even considered, and it could ruin everything. Natsu as E.N.D. was their best chance at killing Zeref, but if he'd die doing that… Even if they found an entirely different way to kill Zeref… How could they do that if Natsu's life was hanging in the balance?

"Damn it," He groaned, pressing his hands to his eyes again. "As if the odds aren't already low enough without him throwing another wrench into things."

"I don't want Natsu to die," Happy said in a small voice.

"No one does," He said absently, distracted by his whirling thoughts as He tried to think this through. "E.N.D. was always special, so maybe there's a deeper connection to Zeref there? Depending on how Zeref managed his transformative resurrection… Or is it all the demons? We're all created from his magic, so maybe Natsu is the rule rather than the exception."

"Does it matter?" Lucy asked hesitantly.

"I don't know, but if we want to find a workaround, then it might be important."

"Does that mean you'd die too?" Natsu asked. "If it's all the demons?"

He dropped his hands and laughed harshly. "With my luck, no. I function more independently than the other demons because I'm not connected to my Book anymore, and my Book is what connects me to Zeref. I'm still technically made of his magic, but being hosted in a human body and without my direct connection to him… I'm off the grid, so to speak. Maybe nothing can kill me at this point."

"Is that really so bad?" Lucy wondered aloud.

"Depends how much you care, I guess." He smiled bitterly. "Maybe if you don't actually care about anyone, then it won't hurt when you watch them grow old and die while you're still stuck here for an eternity. Or maybe you'd still find a way to go insane after a few hundred years or so, because it will screw with your head. But I mean, whatever floats your boat."

"…That's a pretty horrible way to look at it," Natsu muttered.

He shrugged. "See what happened to Zeref? No way he's still sane. He's a clever bastard, but he's not sane. It can't be easy to keep your sanity for that long." He paused and then shrugged again. "To be fair, I guess I've already been around for a while too. But I wasn't Awake for most of that time, and the memories of Before are pretty hazy to start with."

"From before…what?" Lucy asked, frowning.

He stared back blankly. "Before."

"Yeah, but before what?" Natsu pressed.

He looked back and forth between the two mages with a slight frown, wondering how they could not understand something so fundamentally momentous. Rolling his eyes, He lifted his hand for a visual demonstration, moving it slowly to the right in a representation of a timeline.

"Before." Pausing, He made a slight chopping motion. "Iced shell." His hand continued on again. "After."

They stared at him for a few seconds, but then comprehension dawned in their eyes.

"Oh," Happy said.

"So… You really do want to die that badly?" Natsu asked, returning to the previous topic now that his curiosity had been sated. "That's pretty messed up."

He wondered what everyone's problem was. Honestly, had they forgotten that they were in the middle of a war?

"It depends," He said impatiently. "One day I want to, but I stopped actively trying for it after Galuna."

"Galuna?"

"Sure." He eyed Natsu, wondering why they were wasting so much time on questions that were not only pointless but whose answers should be obvious. "I promised you I wouldn't try iced shell again, didn't I? I just extended it. Like I said, I haven't broken a promise in years. Not even the stupid ones."

"You…" Natsu trailed off and gaped at him silently.

"Now, are you finally done trying to distract me? I know it's easier to talk about me rather than worry about your own issues, but right now this situation has nothing to do with me and everything to do with you."

"I'm not…" Natsu paused and frowned. "Huh. Maybe I am."

"I know you are. But seriously, can we get back to the problem at hand? We need to figure out how to get rid of Zeref without getting you killed."

"We can't kill Zeref," Happy said, inching closer to Natsu.

"I don't know what we're going to do," He said with a sigh. "We'll have to take care of Zeref somehow, but… Hm. If it's a demons-in-general thing, then we might be out of luck, but if it's just something about E.N.D., then maybe there's something we can do. I wonder if Zeref could actually fix the problem if he wanted to…"

The team exchanged looks.

"Why would he…?" Lucy frowned. "You mean that if there's some kind of special connection, then maybe Zeref could find a way to alter it? But would he do that?"

"Of course not," He said dismissively. "He seems to have gone into 'kill them all and burn the world' mode, which means he's unlikely to help even if he could. But if there is a way to fix things, then maybe we could figure out how to do it ourselves."

"Could you maybe ask him?" Lucy suggested uncertainly.

"…What good would that possibly do?"

"I mean, you're his, um… He kind of made you, right? So maybe…"

He threw his head back and laughed, genuinely amused by her naiveté. "Oh no, Zeref would sooner kill me than do anything for me."

"But–"

"Look, don't expect me to be of any help on that front. I don't expect anything from Zeref. Why do you think I never went to him for help After?"

"But kill you?" Happy asked doubtfully. "I mean, he made you for a reason, right?"

"Yeah, a reason that I failed at." He glanced at Natsu and raised an eyebrow. "You saw what he did to Mard Geer. My standing is much the same."

Well…there was one thing that might give him a little bit of standing with Zeref, but He had his doubts about that. And it might be possible to interest the black mage in his rogue demon, but that also wasn't something He was willing to gamble everyone's lives on.

"That's true," Natsu conceded, subdued. "He destroyed Mard Geer's Book like it was nothing."

"That's because it was nothing to him," He said, rolling his eyes. "We all are. You get a pass since you're special, but the rest of us have no value."

"But–"

"Look, I was created to destroy Zeref. I failed. My entire existence is a failure. I was given a secondary purpose, to destroy. I was actually pretty good at that, until I fucked it up. So now I've failed at that too. Like I said, the rest of us were just failed byproducts on the way to the creation of E.N.D. We had one main purpose and failed, therefore we are useless to Zeref. If we are useless to Zeref, then we have no worth. If we have no worth, then Zeref has no reason to help us."

There was a long pause as everyone stared at him. He didn't see why they were so surprised. What had they really expected?

"Useless?" Lucy asked finally. "Is this why you kept talking about how you'd be useful to us?"

"Huh?" He stared at her uncomprehendingly and then frowned. "Not really. But when your entire value is attached to your usefulness…" He shrugged dismissively.

"But it's not," she objected, wrapping her arms around herself. "I mean, you've done a lot of good while with Fairy Tail, and you've been a good friend. We don't think you're worthless."

He chuckled and shook his head. "How very human of you. Intrinsic self-worth is a very human concept. You aren't born with a purpose, so you can create your own and find your own meaning. Demons aren't like that. We were created for a purpose. If we fail at that purpose, then we are failures. End of story."

This idea of being worthwhile for being yourself rather than for your usefulness had been a rather foreign one to him, and it had taken quite a while before He truly understood it. Having no purpose had automatically relegated humans to a status even worse than uselessness in his eyes, but He had eventually taken an interest in the odd idea. He had even tentatively explored it a little during his time living as a human, but, in the end, He was a demon and always had been. Still, it was a beautiful idea, even if it didn't entirely apply to him.

Natsu scowled. "But–"

"You're different," He reassured the dragon slayer. "Even if you weren't the best of us all, you're still mostly human. You made your own meaning."

"So then why didn't you?"

"Because I'm a demon," He explained patiently. "I'm not meant to have any kind of worth. In any case, you would have more bargaining power than me because you're more valuable. But again, I don't think Zeref is in any state of mind to help us right now. The thing is, we'll have to figure out a solution before he opens your Book, because once that happens you're going to try to kill him. And seeing how you'll die if you somehow manage it, that's going to be an issue."

"Well, now that I know that, I'm not going to try killing him just yet, am I?"

"What makes you think that you have a choice?"

"…What?"

"You might be special, you might be mostly human, but you aren't immune to everything," He said, his lips quirking downward. "E.N.D. was meant to kill Zeref. We all were. We have an innate drive to, and that urge isn't easy to resist. Once your instincts are Awakened, they'll drive you to Zeref and you'll try to kill him. And then he'll either kill you or you'll kill him and die along with him."

"I'm sure I can stop myself," Natsu said with an irritated huff, crossing his arms. "Anyway, you aren't running off trying to kill him, are you? I can resist too."

"Sure you can." He narrowed his eyes, preparing to deliver a hard dose of reality. "It's already driving me crazy that he's so close and I'm stopping myself from going after him. I can resist because I have experience taming my instincts, but if I'm having so much trouble, then what chance do you have?

"Let me explain something to you about demons: we run on instinct, not intelligence. I was little more than an instinct-driven beast Before. No sense of self, no real intelligence, no real will of my own. I might have been the lowest of the low, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Tartaros demons started off more primitive as well. They were Awake for longer continuous periods of time than I was, and, despite their disdain for anything human, they'd had enough dealings with humans to pick up some things.

"I don't honestly know how primitive your instincts will make you, but I'm not holding out a lot of hope. Especially if you were never properly Awakened before, because you would have never had the opportunity to settle down and evolve. You might be special, but choices are a luxury that demons don't have."

Natsu opened his mouth, closed it again. The dragon slayer looked like he wanted to protest angrily, but there was also a new unease on his face. It wasn't that He wanted Natsu to freak out, but he needed to have some idea of what he was really getting into.

"So what was all that about making choices, then?" Natsu asked finally. "Back when we were breaking you out of jail?"

It took him a minute to sift through his memories, but then He shrugged. "Like I said, that's a choice you'll only be able to make once your instincts settle down. It's your human side that gets to make that choice, not your demonic one. Not that that should devalue it. When you're unable to make your own choices, the ones that you can make are all the more valuable.

"Regardless, this is why we need to find a way of saving you before Zeref opens your Book. Afterward, we're going to have considerably less wiggle room to work with. I don't suppose he said anything else that might give us any clues as to what we can try?"

Happy opened his mouth, but was interrupted before he could get a word out.

"Gray-sama!"

He jerked around to see Juvia running toward him, and bit back a curse. Why was it that every time He tried to avoid people, everyone seemed to find him anyway? He really didn't have the time to deal with Juvia when He needed to figure out this mess with Natsu.

"Gray-sama has been freed from prison?" Juvia asked, skidding to a stop to eye him and give the others a cursory once-over.

"I guess that's how every conversation is going to start now," He muttered. "Sure, I escaped on my own. No, I'm not going to kill you. If I wanted you dead, then you would have been dead a long time ago. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, do you mind? Sorry, but this is kind of important."

"Juvia just wants–" She broke off with a frown, shivering as the air around them suddenly dropped to a frigid temperature. "What…? It's cold."

"Stop freezing everything, ice block," Natsu snapped as he rubbed at his arms vigorously.

The others had all begun to shiver and were now trying to warm up as best they could, and even He was feeling the chill.

"It's not me," He said slowly, looking around.

Natsu scowled and summoned up a raging inferno to surround them and ward off the cold. For a moment, a flicker of warmth beat back the arctic temperatures. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it vanished as the flames froze into solid ice.

"No way…" Natsu breathed in disbelief.

There was a flash of movement a short distance away, and He turned to see a white-haired, bespectacled man strolling toward them. Glancing back, He saw that the others seemed to have been frozen solid, faces painted in horror and trapped in ice.

"What the…?"

Damn it, this was bad. Couldn't this guy have waited until after they'd finished their discussion and formulated a plan? Honestly.

Well, He'd just have to take this fool out so they could get back to work. He assumed this was one of the infamous Spriggans. Funny, He hadn't realized there would be another ice-type mage hanging around. Then again, He had also been stuck in prison until a couple hours ago, so maybe that wasn't surprising.

"Oh?" The man paused and eyed him with cold interest. "You seem to be immune to my cold. Fascinating."

Ignoring pleasantries since He had no time to waste, He charged forward. Before He even had a chance to mold anything, his opponent sent a formless wave of ice at him that knocked him to the ground. A series of icy explosions sent him to his knees, the cold seeping into his bones and stiffening his limbs. It almost felt as if… As if He was freezing solid, too. He couldn't get a clear reading on what spells this man was using, but they were definitely more powerful than Gray's molding.

"You may address me as Yura Invel," the Spriggan said, his voice still perfectly expressionless. He kind of seemed like an asshole. "I bring winter's wrath to all, and your paltry chill is naught before my winter."

Wow. And Natsu thought that He sounded like He'd swallowed a dictionary.

He pulled himself to his feet, wincing at the shivers racking his body. Damn, it had been a long time since He had really felt the cold, given Gray's immunity to it. His breath hung in a cloud of vapor in the chilly air, and He pushed aside his impatience so that He could focus on his opponent. This Invel character would require his full and undivided attention.

Invel raised his hands, and He automatically threw up a shield to deflect the coming attack. He was having a hard enough time making his body respond properly without getting hit by more of that frozen magic.

As the spell dissipated, He went on the attack. "Ice-make: Ice Impact!"

He hissed in surprise as Invel managed to stop the spell with one hand.

"Ice molding," he said. "I see how you were able to withstand my cold."

The demon's ice shattered, and He frowned thoughtfully. Invel had somehow managed to freeze his ice and then shatter it. Fascinating. Well, it wasn't like He had expected the Spriggans to be weak.

"I am the purest of ice mages," Invel proclaimed. "I do not make toys out of ice as you do, but use the very essence of ice itself to freeze all. Your playthings cannot hope to match me."

No, He realized that. Gray's molding wasn't powerful enough, but… Damn, this was going to hurt.

"How about this stuff, then?" He asked mockingly. He reached for his devil slayer magic and winced as it immediately reacted and began tearing at his insides like a million icy knives. "Ice Devil's Zeroth Longsword!"

His triumph at landing a hit on the smug bastard was eclipsed by the pain of the magic attacking him from the inside, but He just gritted his teeth and prepared to strike again. It would be less painful to use his curses, but He still had no desire to use them unless absolutely necessary. Besides, it would be satisfying to defeat this guy with ice.

"Devil slayer magic?" Invel breathed in stunned disbelief, clutching at his chest where the attack had actually managed to do some damage. Turning, he eyed the demon up and down, for the first time acting like he was facing an adversary rather than a child. "You have my attention."

"Isn't that nice?" He muttered, unimpressed.

But now it was a fight on more equal footing. The two opponents danced back and forth, ice flying. Invel's magic seemed to extend beyond mere ice, however, and soon there was a blizzard howling around them.

The cold still threatened to overwhelm him, but He pushed it back and fought on, combatting both his opponent and his own magic. The more He used the devil slayer magic, the greater the agony became. But He couldn't afford to lose control of it as it kept twisting around and trying to escape his grip, so He held on with grim determination and forced it to do his bidding. He would have to end this fight quickly, though, because the longer He used this hostile magic, the more it would weaken him.

"You have what it takes to stand beside me as a comrade," Invel said finally, pausing.

He paused as well, eyeing the other man warily. "What makes you think I would want to be any comrade of yours?"

Invel shrugged slightly. "I fear you may be unaware of it, but your heart is slowly being tainted with darkness."

He stared at the Spriggan, speechless. He was too astounded by the preposterous claim to actually laugh, although the temptation bubbled up within him.

"…What?"

He was a goddamn demon—of course there was darkness in him. Perhaps not his heart, though, since He wasn't sure He had one. He was borrowing Gray's, but demons had no need of such silly things as metaphoric hearts any more than they had need of souls.

"Your darkness is on the brink of being unleashed into the world," Invel added.

This time He did chuckle dryly. Clearly, this man was unaware that He was a demon. He would have thought that word of his identity had spread after Eileen's downfall and his subsequent trial, but perhaps not far enough.

"Spare me," He said coldly. "I'm not trying to play the hero. When you threaten the people I care about, I'll be as dark and black a villain as I need to be in order to protect them."

"Yeah! Go, Gray!" Natsu shouted.

He started in surprise and half turned. The others, although still looking rather cold, had been freed of the ice, and Natsu's fire danced around the dragon slayer. The fire-breathing idiot had somehow managed to melt the ice.

"Shut up, Natsu," He muttered, although one corner of his mouth curled upward. He was relieved to see that everyone seemed to be alright.

"Is Gray-sama okay?" Juvia asked.

"It's so cold," Lucy complained, as Happy hovered nearby and celebrated the melting of the ice.

He coughed to hide a chuckle. Yes, they were just fine.

Then, remembering the situation, Lucy braced one hand on her hip and pointed the other at Invel. "Just you wait! Now that we're free, we'll– Ah!"

A giant hand swooped down out of nowhere and grabbed her around the waist, hoisting her up into the air. Another snatched up Natsu and Happy, and He blinked up at the giant, green-haired woman in disbelief.

"…What the hell?"

"I'll be taking these three," the giant said expressionlessly. Ignoring her captives' protests, she turned and began walking away.

"Brandish, stop!" Lucy cried. "Let me–"

"Silence," the giant—Brandish—intoned, continuing on her way.

He assumed that this was another Spriggan, and suddenly wished that He had thought to ask the team for a briefing on the Spriggans they already knew of when He had first joined the battle. That would have come in handy right about now.

A more pressing concern was that He couldn't allow this woman to take them, especially not Natsu. They still needed to figure out what to do about Zeref's latest bombshell, and He needed to stay near Natsu in case he was Awakened.

"Hey, get back here!" He shouted, starting after the retreating giant. He didn't make it more than a few steps before He felt something heavy settle around his neck and looked down to see a collar of ice. "Huh?"

"Gray-sama!"

Turning, He saw that Juvia had been fitted with a similar collar, and a heavy chain of ice bound them together. Invel stood by the wayside, watching them with interest.

"Ice Lock," the Spriggan explained. "A magic that will make you my willing puppets. You will now fight to the death. The chain cannot be removed until one of you is dead."

A darker magic than the devil slayer magic began creeping through him, trying to insinuate itself into his mind and take control of his body and magic. He sucked in a ragged breath and fought back desperately. He couldn't afford to lose control, not again. God, not again. This thing eating away at the seals in his mind and at his inhibitions, it felt too much like it was trying to release his demonic instincts.

If that happened, He might actually become properly Awakened and kill everyone. And He would have no say in the matter, because demons didn't have choices.

"Go on and kill her," Invel said, one corner of his mouth twitching upward in the barest hint of a half-smile. "I'm looking forward to seeing you unleash your darkness on the world."

Chapter Text


Chapter 5-Awakening


He struck out as fast as lightning, pinning Juvia to the ground with jagged sheets of ice. She yelped and slammed water against the ice until it began cracking. It finally splintered, and she rolled out of the way just in time to avoid being impaled by the next attack. Then it was her turn to go on the offensive and send him dancing back. He tried locking his limbs and forcing his magic back, but his hands flew through the air of their own accord and sent ice lances at Juvia.

Maybe it shouldn't feel so wrong to have something force his body to move without his permission since He was a demon and demons didn't exactly have free will to start with, but He had spent the last decade living by human standards and it felt wrong. It wasn't as if this was the first time He'd had his control taken away, but this time was somehow worse because it reminded him that no matter how 'human' He had become, He would still never be free. He was still chained to Zeref and his instincts, and He hated it.

This time, though, it would be Juvia and his friends who paid the price, not some faceless mortal creatures that were little more than ants to him. No matter how much He had changed, that monstrous side of himself would never disappear.

If anything, it was only resurfacing. Invel's stupid spell was threatening to unlock his instincts in the process of taking control. It might bend him to Invel's will, but it was doing so by removing his own control over himself.

He hadn't even realized that He could still be properly Awakened now that He was no longer bound to his Book, but every time He lashed out at Juvia, something inside him threatened to snap. He could feel his instincts stirring, goading him to kill and destroy and burn the world down.

It scared him, actually.

He'd spent over a decade only half Awake, and although He'd known that He would always be a demon, He hadn't realized that it was possible for him to revert all the way back. This wouldn't be like when the seal He himself had created snapped, back when He'd fought Eileen. That had only unleashed what He had sealed away himself. He could already feel his curses taking interest and rousing themselves, even though He had lost access to most of that power back when his connection to his Book had been severed.

How convenient that it was resurfacing just in time to kill Juvia.

When she hit him with a water slicer, her eyes wide with horror, it was all He could do not to rip her head off or let his curses swallow her whole. Even with just his ice-make, He had an edge over her. With the devil slayer magic, He was far more powerful, even if it tore him apart from the inside out. With his curses, she wouldn't stand a chance.

"Gray-sama…" she gasped, the strain evident in her voice even though her resistance was futile and she couldn't help but throw more magic at him.

Hissing in pain, He sent back a wave of ice that sent her sprawling. "Sorry…"

Invel just watched over the dueling pair like a silent sentinel, something unbearably smug lurking in his eyes even though his face was perfectly expressionless. Bastard.

And still He didn't know what to do. There was no doubt that Juvia was outmatched, and He wasn't confident that He could keep himself from killing her. If He broke his wrists, then his molding would be shot, but He'd still be able to use ice even though it would be more uncontrollable. It wouldn't do anything about his curses, either—He might use his hands out of habit and because it helped him control an unfamiliar 'magic' better, but curses weren't like molding and He didn't need the gestures. And if they did find a way out of this, then He would have just handicapped himself for the rest of the war.

If Invel was right and the spell could only be lifted if one of them died… Well, He was immortal, so Juvia was the only one in any real danger.

He didn't want to kill her. Or anyone, really. Which was what would happen if He didn't figure a way out of this before He lost control went on a rampage. Not even the last remnants of Gray and the person He had become over the years would be enough to overcome a demon's most primal instincts.

Juvia managed to land a hard hit while He was distracted, making his lungs fill with water and his chest burn, but He didn't stay down for more than a moment before coughing violently and retaliating. Her shrill cries rang in his ears, but they couldn't drown out the insistent buzz of the call as it grew stronger and stronger.

The more his instincts Awakened, the stronger the call to Zeref became. Before it had been an annoyance; now it was almost physically drawing him to his creator, a drive that was overtaking the rest of his senses and giving him a sole goal to focus on. Well, sole goal aside from the urge to kill Juvia.

He took a few unconscious steps back, his head tilting in the direction of the pull, and his preoccupation was enough to give Juvia an opening. She sent him flying with a burst of water strong enough to bruise his ribs, and it was as He was pulling himself back to his feet that He noticed the change in her.

Her magic was in her hand, water swirling and flowing into a fluid but vaguely pointed form, but she wasn't attacking him with it. Her eyes had softened considerably and there were tears lurking at the corners. She smiled at him, and He suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

"Even with…everything…Juvia is glad to have had the opportunity to get to know Gray-sama," she said.

Her hand was moving, but He was already lunging forward, his sudden panic temporarily eclipsing the conflicting urges to kill her and go to Zeref. He reached out desperately, somehow managing to snag her wrist and yank her arm back down. Keeping hold of her wrist in one hand to keep her magic well away from her body, He grabbed her around the waist with his other arm, trapping her against him in case she tried to do something stupid again or attacked once more.

"Gray-sama–"

"Don't be stupid," He growled. His body trembled with the exertion of not plunging ice through her chest while she was in such a vulnerable position. "I don't know what possessed you to think that was a good idea."

"But–"

"Hush. We'll find another way."

Kill her. Put the ice through her heart, see the blood. Let the shadows consume her.

Go to Zeref. Kill Zeref. Go kill Zeref.

Kill her–

Go to Zeref–

He sucked in a ragged breath, unable to focus on whatever Juvia was saying. He didn't know how long He could fight this before it tore him apart and He lost control entirely. It was getting harder with each passing second, his instincts shifting restlessly as He inched toward a proper Awakening, while Invel's spell played on a loop at the forefront of his mind.

"There is no other way," Invel said flatly, although he was watching the pair with something like curiosity. "Ice Lock is a magic that imprisons one's 'heart'. You are no longer in control, and the chain cannot be severed until one of you lies dead."

I'm a demon. I don't have a 'heart'.

Kill her–

Then what is he binding?

Go to Zeref–

He took another half-step back, leaning slightly as He unconsciously strained away from Invel's spell and toward Zeref. He needed to break free and go to Zeref, needed to–

Juvia yelped, and He realized that He had been tightening his grip on her, nails digging into her skin. Releasing her with some difficulty, He pushed her away and grimaced as the urge to kill her sprang to mind again. But the call to Zeref was louder, stronger, pulling him back.

He froze, then hurriedly stepped out of the way as Juvia threw more water at him. Retreating as far as the heavy chain would allow, He turned away from her and stared at Invel.

"You can't bind me. Not like this."

"Oh?" The Spriggan raised an eyebrow. "I seem to have already done so."

"I don't belong to you," He said, testing the words in his mouth. Then He nodded to himself as things slid back into place, reminding him of what He was. "I belong to Zeref," He said more confidently, the words feeling right even though they were an acknowledgement of everything He had been running away from.

Invel frowned. "What?"

He just gave the Spriggan a sharp-toothed smile. If neither He nor the remnants of Gray were strong enough to overcome a demon's instincts, then neither were Invel and his spells.

This was possibly the worst mistake of his life, but He was running out of options.

"Gray-sama," Juvia whimpered as she lashed out at him again, "Juvia can–"

He shook his head and struck back automatically, sending her sprawling in a hail of ice shards and a mist of water droplets like rain. No, He couldn't kill her. He'd have to try.

Closing his eyes, He took a deep breath and forced himself to stop fighting back against his instincts. Not entirely, because He couldn't afford to Awaken fully, but enough to let the need to please Zeref outshine the need to please Invel.

Kill her–

Go to Zeref. Kill Zeref.

Kill–

–Zeref. Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref.

He was in motion before He even realized it, nearly dragging Juvia along in his haste to go to his maker. The chain stretched taut and He growled in frustration.

Go to Zeref.

He didn't have the patience for obstacles. Anything that prevented him from reaching Zeref was an obstacle and had to go, had to be destroyed. Yes, He was good at destroying things.

He grabbed at the collar around his neck and hissed in displeasure when it didn't break under the pressure of his grip. He seemed to recall being stronger than this.

He called the shadows instead, the curses bleeding through his fingertips and slicing ruthlessly through the silly human magic binding him. Nothing was allowed to bind him except to Zeref. And to his Book, but He had some vague idea that that was no longer possible.

The shattered chain fell to the ground with a clatter and He turned, ignoring the blue-haired girl in favor of zeroing in on the direction where his master was. But as He stepped forward, his eye caught on the white-haired man watching him with wide eyes and a slack jaw. He paused, eyes narrowing. This human shouldn't matter, was insignificant at the best of times and even more so when the pull to Zeref was so strong, but He had the sudden desire to rip his throat out.

Go to Zeref.

The humans were saying things, but He ignored them, not interested. Glancing behind him once more, He gazed longingly in the direction from which Zeref was calling him. Then He shrugged and turned back, rounding on the human again. He was allowed to destroy too, and it wouldn't take more than a second to kill this man and then go to Zeref after.

He stalked forward, eyes fixed on the slowly retreating human, and let the inky shadows flare out around him in preparation to strike.

"What…?" the white-haired man choked out as he scrambled backward. "How did you…?"

"What's the matter?" He hissed, lips curling upward slightly as He advanced. "Didn't you want to see my darkness? This is exactly what you wanted, human." Lunging forward, He slammed into the human's chest and sent them both to the ground. "You should be less concerned with the devil slayer magic and more concerned about the devil."

Ice and shadows formed a jagged spike in his raised hand, which He plunged down at the man's chest, drawing up short only when a piercing cry split the air.

"Gray-sama!"

He paused, the word tugging at something in his chest even though He didn't know what.

"Gray-sama, don't!"

He was unable to tear his gaze away from the terrified man beneath him to look over at the blue-haired girl, but He knew it was her. He could always kill her too, and whatever strange, incomprehensible feelings her words were stirring up would disappear and He could go to Zeref already.

Satisfied with that plan, He thrust downward with his unholy blend of magic and curse. At the last second, He jerked his hand slightly and the weapon smashed into the ground right next to the human's face, shattering into a million pieces of blackened ice. He reached up automatically, his hand finding the bit of metal hanging from his neck and closing around it tightly enough that the pointed edges dug into his skin.

If He thought very hard and tried to tune out all the instincts and calls that were clouding his mind, He could almost remember when He had first picked this up as a reminder to himself not to turn into a monster again. But then again, He had always been a monster and it would be so easy to give in and let his instincts take control.

He stood up shakily and stared down at the white-faced Spriggan. He continued clutching the necklace's pendant, needing it to ground him. It was like another collar and chain, but one He had made for himself, not one that Zeref or Invel had made for him.

"Congratulations," He rasped, digging the nails of his other hand into his arm. "I didn't even realize that it was still possible to be Awakened. You're lucky your plan failed, because otherwise I would have killed you. You might have had the satisfaction of knowing that I would have killed everyone else too, but that's little consolation when you're dead, isn't it? Fool."

That had been a close call. Too close. Without Juvia's reminder of who He had been and the necklace's reminder of who He no longer wanted to be, He might have lost it entirely. Thankfully, it hadn't gotten far enough to be a full Awakening. His instincts might have started clouding everything else, but He had still been reasoning, even if only on a minimal level, and had used human speech. Those were things He wouldn't have been capable of Before, so He couldn't have been completely Awake.

Of course, the other indication was that everyone wasn't dead. That would have been a bit of a giveaway.

"What are you–?"

He molded an ice hammer and slammed it down on Invel, shutting the idiot up as his eyes rolled back in his head. He'd had enough of that fool.

Turning to Juvia, He winced at the fear and worry and grief on her face. "Right," He said. "Well, we should probably–"

He broke off, suddenly remembering the metal cutting into his palm. Uncurling his fingers, He stared down at the little sword, the gears turning in his head. A collar and chain, had He called it? That was a binding. He unconsciously reached up to his neck with his other hand, fingers closing on empty air since Invel's collar was no longer there. That was a binding too. And his Book… That had also been a binding, and even without it He was still bound to Zeref.

He looked back at Juvia, remembering the collar around her neck. They had been bound together, but until one of them died. He had broken that binding. His binding to his Book had been broken as well. And to Zeref…

"Oh," He breathed, eyes widening.

"Gray-sama?" Juvia limped a half-step forward and then hesitated again.

"I think I might have found it," He mumbled, eyes unfocused as the beginnings of a crazy idea began slowly coalescing in his mind.

"Found what?"

He shrugged off Juvia's query and started forward, only realizing what He was doing after He had made it several steps. Coming to a halt, He grimaced and tried to tune out the call to Zeref. Now that He was more Awake than He'd been in a decade, instincts the depth of which He'd presumed lost swirling just underneath his conscious awareness, the pull was impossible to ignore. It was a physical thing, curling in his chest and tugging him forward painfully.

Not yet.

He frowned back over at Juvia. "I need to find Natsu. Or… No. Zeref."

He didn't think He'd be able to resist the draw to Zeref much longer, anyway, and it would be impossible to sense Natsu's aura when Zeref's was so overpowering. Besides, Zeref had Natsu's Book. He would need both Natsu and the Book, but better to get the Book before it was opened.

"Zeref?" Juvia asked. "But why–?"

"Can't just leave you out here by yourself, though," He muttered, only half listening to her. "Too dangerous with Zeref's army running around."

"Juvia can just come–"

"No, it's too dangerous for you to come with me. I'm going to find Zeref. But if I–"

He broke off and turned his head to the side as He began coughing violently. Gasping for air, He stared down at the fine spattering of blood on his fingers with mild distaste and swiped the back of his other hand across his bloodied lips.

"Gray-sama is hurt!" Juvia exclaimed, her worry apparently eclipsing her fear as she rushed toward him.

He waved her off impatiently. "It's just the devil slayer magic. It packs a punch. Don't worry, it can't kill me and it will give up trying soon enough."

It still hurt like hell, though. He winced at the renewed sensation of something trying to tear him apart from the inside out, forgotten in the midst of his almost-Awakening, and then scowled as He noticed that those stupid black markings were still covering half his body. He tried willing them away, but it was a long moment before they gave in and retreated. The magic was hungry today, and not ready to let go without a fight.

Juvia coughed delicately and He threw her a questioning look. "Gray-sama's eyes…"

It took him a second to figure out what she meant, but then He grimaced and pressed his hands to his eyes, taking a deep breath and willing his instincts and curses to quiet down. It wasn't perfect because they were still so close to the surface and fighting to break free, but if He could control them just enough, then they'd stop bleeding into his human form. On a hunch, He ran a finger over the tips of his teeth and felt a row of sharpened points.

He sighed and waited until He was confident that He had pulled himself back together, then looked back at Juvia. "Better?"

"Better," she said quietly.

He double-checked that his shadow was looking human again too, and then said, "Right. You need to find a buddy. Maybe…"

He nodded sharply to himself and grabbed Juvia's wrist, ignoring her squeak of surprise as He dragged her after him. He set off at a brisk pace, swiveling his head as his dark eyes scanned the rubble. Hopefully Lyon hadn't gone too far.

Ignoring Juvia's questions, He headed for where He'd last seen Lyon. It was hard—so hard—to walk away. Each step was a struggle against everything pulling him back. The ache in his chest throbbed more and more painfully as He resisted, and it was all He could do not to turn around and abandon this endeavor and go to Zeref.

It was hard enough to stay focused on searching for Lyon, much less listen to Juvia. But He finally spotted a quick flash of ice between two buildings and abruptly changed course, dragging Juvia behind him.

He barely noticed the Alvarez grunts Lyon was fighting, just waved a hand dismissively to send his own ice crashing into them, taking them by surprise and sending them to the ground. He didn't have the time or patience to play games right now.

Lyon turned, a scowl already on his face even though a hint of uncertainty glinted in his eyes. "You again? I thought I told you–"

"I have no interest in interfering in your fights," He said impatiently. Glancing back at Juvia, He released her arm and pushed her gently toward Lyon. "Here, you two stick together. I have to go."

"Juvia would rather go with Gray-sama."

"Well, you can't," He grunted, half turning to glance in the direction of the call. "It's too dangerous."

"Then Gray-sama should not go either."

"I don't have time for this. I'm the best chance you've got against E.N.D. and Zeref right now, and I can't die. So you're going to stay here with Lyon, and I'm going after Zeref."

"Zeref?" Lyon asked. His eyes narrowed as he studied the demon with a look that was somehow both unreadable and calculating. "Running off to your master?"

His lips tightened, but it wasn't like He could deny it. "Something like that."

"And then what? Kill everyone?"

"Hopefully not." Although that was starting to look like a distinct possibility at this point. As if the humans' chances of survival weren't already low enough.

"Then what?"

"I don't know. I might have found a way to stop Zeref and save Natsu, but I'm not sure if it will work. It's better than nothing, though."

"Natsu? Is that idiot getting himself into trouble again?"

"When is he ever not getting himself into trouble?" He sighed and started back the way He had come, waving a hand halfheartedly in their direction even though He'd already half forgotten about them over the buzz in his mind. "Stay safe."

"But Gray-sama–"

"I have to go. Just…don't do anything else stupid, alright?" He threw Juvia a backward glance, imprinting the image of her and Lyon into his mind. He hoped they'd be alright, but He couldn't stay.

Lyon started to say something else in a belligerent tone of voice, but He was already slipping between a pair of buildings and weaving his way through the rubble in the streets as He made a beeline for Zeref, back toward Magnolia. He broke into a run, barely noticing the people He flew past.

All that was left was Zeref. His focus zeroed in on the dark mage completely, and it was all He could do to think of anything but his creator.

Go to Zeref. Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref.

In fact, He almost missed Erza and half the guild in his haste. He stopped short just before running right through the middle of a battlefield, and watched as a dozen mages desperately tried to hold off hundreds of Zeref's foot soldiers. Zeref's pawns were little more than cannon fodder, but what they lacked in strength they made up for in number.

He could tell that the guild was being overwhelmed because of Makarov, who was in the stance for Fairy Law.

"You can't use Fairy Law!" Mavis was saying, eyes wide as she dashed forward. "The more enemies you face, the shorter your lifespan will be. Your body won't survive!"

"I'm well aware of that," Makarov replied, steely gaze fixed on the enemy lines. "And I don't want you to stop me."

He danced a step or two in the direction of the call, but then grimaced and forced himself to refocus. No one had noticed him yet, and He'd really rather keep it that way. But He hesitated, the pressure building in his chest as He stayed still and held his breath, waiting to see how this would play out. He should go, but it was hard to walk away until this was resolved.

He flinched when Mavis tried to explain her plan and Makarov cut her off with a harsh, "Shut up!" It wasn't something He'd expect from Makarov, and He suddenly wondered how dire the situation had become to make the Master react in such a way. To be honest, He wasn't sure why Fairy Law was even on the table if the consequences were so dire. There were certainly a lot of enemies, but since they weren't particularly powerful, He was pretty sure they could be taken out by other means. Makarov must have reached some kind of breaking point.

"My brats are suffering. They are wounded and overwhelmed. To you they might just be soldiers, but to me they are irreplaceable children."

"I didn't mean…"

"I know." Makarov sighed, but the ferocity in his expression didn't waver. "And I'm sure we could win with your plan, First. But I can't stand watching my children's blood spilled for even a moment longer. If this is the price that must be paid, I have no regrets."

Light spilled from his fingertips and the power of his magic reverberated through the air, charging it with power. Erza was screaming, trapped where she was in the viselike grip of an opponent. Mavis looked horrified, the rest of the scattered guild members were practically in tears from where they were fighting or trapped, and He had had enough.

Flinging his hands out in an automatic gesture, He summoned up his magic. The shadows behind the Alvarez soldiers wavered and then flared out abruptly, rising up into an inky mass that crashed down over their humans' heads. Suddenly the field was a mass of writhing shadows, darkness spreading over the area to eclipse the light of Makarov's interrupted spell, and a chorus of cries rang out as the enemies disappeared under the onslaught.

He grimaced at the shadows in distaste. He had been trying to use his magic, but it was his curses that had responded. It wasn't a good sign—He was starting to lose control and his demonic side was breaking through. Even worse, the amount of power it had taken to manipulate so many shadows at once was astronomical, and only went to show that his curses were growing stronger as He continued edging toward an Awakening.

It was all He could do to rein them back in, forcing them to release anyone from the guild who had gotten caught in their clutches. Convincing them to retreat enough to not actively work at killing the Alvarez soldiers was even harder.

When He was confident that He was back under control again, He started forward, his strides quick and clipped. By now everyone had turned to him. There was an interesting variety of expressions to be seen—even better on those who seemed to think that He was about to eat them for lunch—but He only had eyes for Makarov. Pausing in front of the old man, He and the Master stared at each other.

Then He whacked the fool over the head none too gently, a scowl spreading over his face.

"Ow!" Makarov yelped in surprise, reeling back and blinking at the demon in incomprehension. "Where did you–?"

"What were you thinking?" He interrupted as He gave the old man a baleful look. "Everyone wants to be a fucking hero today. Honestly. Get a grip."

Makarov opened his mouth, hesitated, closed it again.

"Right, then," He said, recalling the situation at hand as a particularly strong flash of need tugged him forward a half-step before He could stop himself. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref. "I need to go."

"You need to…?" Makarov shook his head, at a loss. "I thought the Council still had you locked up."

"Not anymore, they don't. They should invest in better restraints if they don't want me to just walk right on out."

"How did it go with Lyon?" Mavis asked. What she wasn't saying, what He could read in her eyes, was an immense gratitude for stopping Makarov.

He just shrugged and inclined his head slightly. A sardonic half-smile tugged at his lips as He said, "He only stabbed me once, so a lot better than I thought it would. But maybe you were right and we needed that."

Mavis's eyes widened, but it was Erza who said, "He stabbed you?"

He threw her an amused glance, one eyebrow quirking upward. "Relax. You'd want to stab me too, if you were him."

"But–"

"Wait, you knew he was out and didn't tell me?" Makarov demanded, looking back and forth between Mavis and Erza. "You didn't think it might be important for me to know that?"

By this point, He was already losing interest in the conversation. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref. He was walking forward before He realized it, pupils dilating as He zeroed back in on Zeref once more. The devil slayer magic, rather than settling down now that He wasn't using it, seemed to step up its attempts to shred his body. Perhaps it was because He was becoming more demonic by the second, and the devil slayer magic realized it and was reacting.

"Gray?"

He started in surprise and turned to give Erza a questioning look. She was watching him with a slight frown, sharp eyes studying him shrewdly as she took in his behavior.

"What?" He asked gruffly, shifting from foot to foot.

"Are you alright?"

He barked out a harsh laugh that made her flinch. Sure, He was perfectly alright, aside from the fact that He was trapped in Zeref's gravitational field and might go all crazy psycho demon at any moment.

"In a manner of speaking." His eyes narrowed as He studied her. "Actually, I have a favor to ask of you. Normally I wouldn't even consider it since it's so dangerous, but I'm running out of options."

He hesitated, still not entirely sure He wanted to do this, but the worried look on Erza's face deepened and she motioned for him to continue.

"What is it?" she asked.

He sighed. "I'm going after Zeref."

"You're doing what? Why the hell would you do that?"

He glanced away, his eyes focusing off in the distance where Zeref lay hidden. He could feel his entire body straining toward the dark mage, the slight tremble of tension in his limbs as He rocked back and forth on his heels.

"Because I don't have a choice. He's calling me and I have to go."

"Calling you?" Mavis asked.

"Mm. Like a goddamn magnet."

"But if you don't want to go, then–"

"Want?" His brow furrowed in confusion. "What does want have to do with anything? It doesn't matter what I want. You're thinking like a human."

"You said you could feel him earlier, but you didn't go running off then," Erza said carefully. "What's different now?"

"Ah," He said, eyes snapping back to her face as an unamused smile tugged at his lips, "now there's the issue."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"I was doing a pretty good job of resisting earlier, but I ran into one of our Spriggan friends and he was foolish enough to try binding me. What he actually managed to do was catalyze an Awakening. In order to break his binding, I had to allow a partial Awakening so that my connection to Zeref would override it. But that makes it harder to resist Zeref, and, even worse, I'm still edging toward a proper Awakening. Now there's a catastrophe waiting to happen."

He rocked back on his heels again, losing his train of thought. He was pretty sure there was something He was supposed to tell Erza, but the buzzing in his brain was making it hard to think.

"Awakening?" Erza asked. "Aren't you already Awakened?"

His gaze focused on her and He frowned. "Whatever possessed you to think that?"

"I mean…you're aware of everything and know everything about being a…demon. So…"

He coughed out a surprised laugh, which quickly turned into a fit of real coughing. Doubling over, He squeezed his eyes shut and waiting for his body to stop heaving. It was a long moment before He straightened up again, wrinkling his nose at the blood coating his fingers and wiping the sticky liquid unceremoniously onto his pants.

Makarov peered at the demon in concern. "Are you alright?"

"Are you coughing up blood?" Erza demanded.

He waved them off impatiently. "It's just the devil slayer magic. I should've known better than to use it, but it was worth it to see the look on Mr. High and Mighty Winter General's face. It'll eventually give up trying to kill me once it realizes that it can't. Well, maybe. This whole Awakening business seems to be aggravating it."

Erza's face paled. "But you've used that before and–"

"Yeah, I know. It sucks every time."

"But–"

"It recognizes me as a demon, Erza. It's meant to kill demons." He shrugged at her horrified expression, but then his eye caught on the tendril of inky blackness stealthily curling around his arm and He scowled. "Get off," He grumbled, shaking his arm and willing the shadows back. They were getting bold, slippery things that were getting harder to control.

"Gray–"

He tore his eyes away from the nest of shadows to arch an eyebrow at Erza. "An Awakening has nothing to do with consciousness or awareness. Like I said, it's when your Book is opened and you go all crazy psycho demon. It's an Awakening of instincts, not body.

"If I Awaken, I'll kill you all."

There was a long pause, and He might have had the presence of mind to qualify that statement if that infernal call wasn't trying to pull him forward, making it difficult to focus.

"You wouldn't kill us," Erza said finally, her voice wavering slightly.

"Oh, I very much think I would."

"But if–" Makarov started.

"I already warned you not to trust me. It's not my fault that you didn't listen."

"But I do trust you," Erza burst out. "And I don't think that you'd really–"

"Let me tell you what will happen when I Awaken," He growled, Zeref's call making him antsy and irritable. "I will no longer be able to think rationally. I will have no use for such silly human things as trust or loyalty. I'll be like an animal, but worse. I wasn't created with an instinct of self-preservation. I won't feel fear, and not even pain will stop me. The only way to get me to stop would be to injure me enough that I physically could not move any longer, and even that would be difficult since I'll have access to a deep well of curses and you all are running out of magic.

"Oh, I'm not saying you aren't strong enough to hold your own for a while, but the odds aren't in your favor. I can't die, but you can. You won't be able to hurt me enough to make me stop unless you can actually take me out of commission, and even then I'll still recover eventually. And, in case you've forgotten, you humans don't really have any way of restraining me. I walked right out of that prison.

"I was created to kill and destroy. That's the entire point of my existence. The Council can write up all the charges against me that it wants and I'll accept them because I did those things, but the truth is that I didn't really have a choice, either. This won't be like when I lost it against Eileen. This will be a bloodbath."

The silence this time seemed even heavier, if that was possible.

"That's horribly pessimistic," Mavis said finally, although her hands fisted in her skirts, the fabric bunching up around her fingers.

"No, it's realistic," He disagreed. "You keep thinking of me as a human, and it's going to get you killed. I warned you, didn't I? That if you took away what was left of Gray, I'd still be the same demon I always was? I'll kill you all. Not because I want to, but because I won't have a choice. It's not even that I can't make a choice as much as that I have no choice to make. There is no other way to do things. Not once I'm Awake. I won't even understand the concept of choice."

"That's really horrible," Erza said quietly.

He just shrugged. "I daresay it will be worse for you all, since a significant proportion of you will be dead."

"But still," Mavis started, "couldn't you–?"

"You don't understand how easy it would be…" He breathed, his voice almost a sigh as his shadow flared around him and He reached out for it unthinkingly, his fingers bone white against the pitch blackness.

Give in, let go. Fulfill your purpose. Go to Zeref. Kill them all.

The buzzing in his ears was so loud and the pull so strong, and it would be so easy to give in and let his instincts take over. Fighting them was threatening to tear him apart. It was pitting the more human parts of himself against the brunt of his demonic side, and letting one subsume the other would silence that conflict.

He could go to Zeref like He was meant to. The humans weren't terribly interesting, so perhaps He'd ignore them, at least for now. The shadows wound about him in an almost loving way, as if pleased that He was finally letting them take over.

"Gray?"

He almost ignored the voice since it was irrelevant when Zeref was so close, but something about the red-haired girl caught his attention. He tilted his head slightly and eyed her up and down, before his eyes widened and He let out his breath in a hiss.

"Damn it," He muttered, stepping to the side and trying to shake the shadows off him, as if they'd respond to such a futile gesture. "Enough."

The pressure in his head was building again as He drew back from the edge and dug his heels in. The shadows writhed in displeasure but retreated to melt into the ground at his feet, an inky mass no longer bothering to try disguising itself as a human shadow.

"For example," He said flatly, "that's a bad sign."

Erza started to say something else, but they were distracted by a muffled cry from behind them. He spun around and cursed under his breath as He noticed that the shadows pinning down the Alvarez soldiers were no longer merely restraining them, but actively roiling and tightening. Now there would be a horrible way to die.

"Enough, I said." His curses made no move to obey, just tightening their grip. Drawing himself up to his full height, He bared his teeth in a snarl. "You will obey me," He growled, focusing every ounce of remaining willpower on pulling his curses back.

The shadows reluctantly withdrew, shuddering slightly and sliding back to the ground. They solidified back into normal shadows once more as the curses animating them retreated back to him.

"You're going to have to find a different way to restrain them," He said absently, still keeping a wary eye on the shadows. "I'm as likely to kill them as anything else."

The devil slayer magic twisted in his chest, and He thought it rather unfair that something that had been at least partially integrated into him could hurt so much. This was what He got for being both devil and devil slayer, He supposed.

"Is it really that hard to keep control?" Makarov asked, a frown stealing over his face.

He held up one hand in a 'wait' gesture, fisting the other in front of his mouth as He coughed into it. When the coughs had finished racking his body, He peered down at the blood in distaste, noting that there was rather a lot of it pooling in his palm. He tilted his hand and watched the crimson liquid drip through his fingers. Well, then. The devil slayer magic was clearly taking offense to the curses.

"Oh God," Erza breathed. Her face twisted into a sickened expression.

Brought back to reality, He hurriedly wiped off the last dregs of blood on his pants and ran his tongue along his teeth to remove some of the red stain.

"It's fine. Trust me, it's not the biggest issue here." His curses were seeping out again, reaching up to twine about his legs. He sidestepped them, trying to force them back into submission. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going, I'm going," He grumbled, reaching up to tangle in his fingers in the chain of his necklace. The cold metal wouldn't be enough to keep him sane, but maybe it would ground him a little.

"Gray?" Erza asked hesitantly.

"Right. Well, to answer your question, yes, it is that hard to keep control, and it will get worse the longer I resist. Sorry, but if you don't mind, I really need to go."

He started forward again, and had almost forgotten about the humans entirely when Erza called him back.

"But didn't you say that you had a favor to ask me?" she asked.

He paused and blinked over at her blankly before nodding. "Oh, right, that's what I've been meaning to tell you. I knew there was something I was supposed to say so that I could leave, but I couldn't come up with it."

"You just said that a few minutes ago." Erza's frown deepened. "You really forgot already?"

He shrugged. "This is all really screwing with my head. It'll scramble my brains until there's nothing left."

"But you–" This time Erza broke off herself, likely anticipating the interruption, and shook her head. "What do you want?"

"I want you to come with me."

"You…do? Why?"

"Because I need a reminder," He said with a sigh. "I need you to stop me from losing myself for as long as you can."

She swallowed hard. "Of course."

"But first, you have to promise me two things."

"What?"

"One, you will not engage Zeref. You leave Zeref to me."

"But–"

"He probably can't kill me, but he can certainly kill you. You will be staying well out of his way. I can only do so much to protect you. Don't make my job any harder than it already is."

Erza bit her lip, but then sighed and nodded. "Fine," she said unenthusiastically. "And the second thing?"

A frown stole over his face, but He continued to meet her gaze unwaveringly, needing her to see how serious He was about this. "Two is that the instant I lose control, you will run away and not look back. You will not try to engage me or reason with me. You will certainly not get between me and Zeref. Hopefully I'll be focused enough on him to leave you alone, but if you get in my way, then I will kill you."

"I can't just leave you!" she protested, hands clenching into helpless fists at her sides.

"You can and you will. I know you all are big on the power of love and friendship overcoming all obstacles and whatnot, but that's not going to work here. The bindings you've placed on me, they won't be enough to overcome my bond to Zeref." He grimaced and wound the chain of the necklace tighter in his hand. "Not even the bindings I've placed on myself will be strong enough. Yours won't stand a chance."

"I haven't put any bindings on you," she said with a frown.

"Not all bonds are made of magic," He said gently, a small smile gracing his face for an instant. Then He sobered, adding, "If you won't promise me this, then I won't allow you to accompany me."

She looked away, eyes shimmering with unshed tears, but her posture remained defiant. "Do you really think you could stop me?"

"I do, actually. But I'd rather not restrain you with my curses while they're so unstable, so let's not do this the hard way. I'm serious, Erza."

"I am too."

He reached out with his free hand to tilt her face toward him so that He could meet her eyes again. "I don't want to kill you," He said quietly. "When I Awaken, I won't have a choice. I'm asking you to make that choice for me. Please."

Her lips trembled and one tear slipped free to track down her cheek. "Okay," she whispered.

"You're going to need to pay attention, alright? The second I lose it, you need to leave."

Erza sniffled and leaned back. "And how am I supposed to tell that? You started going all weird a couple minutes ago, but you didn't completely lose control. I don't want to leave if it's just a momentary thing. How will I know that it's the real deal?"

"You'll know," He said with a sigh. "Believe me, you'll know. But if you want the dead giveaway… When you look into my eyes and don't recognize me, that's game over. To be fair, I won't recognize you either."

Erza's face twisted into a funny expression again. "I…"

"Promise me, Erza."

"I…I…promise."

"Thank you," He said, rocking back on his heels as a little of his tension drained away. Then He grinned at Erza brightly. "Cheer up, it's not all bad. If nothing else, I have some semblance of a plan to take care of Zeref and E.N.D."

"What plan?" Mavis asked, drawing his attention back to the others for the first time.

"Ah, well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's all purely theoretical, so there's a good chance it might not work. Still better than nothing, though."

"But what is it?" Erza pressed.

"You won't like it," He muttered, backtracking. "Don't worry about that just yet. We have other concerns."

"If you just told me, then I might be able to help," Mavis said reasonably, trying to keep the frustration out of her voice and failing.

"Look, you're just going to have to trust that I know more about demons than you do. But I would have to go to Zeref anyway, because he has the Book."

"He has your Book?" Makarov asked.

"What? Of course not. E.N.D. He has E.N.D.'s Book, and the last thing we need is another Awakened demon running around."

A hushed murmuring started up at that, and He remembered for the first time that several other guild members were still hanging around. They had slipped his mind entirely, but they obviously hadn't forgotten about him—several of them were eyeing him as if He might attack them at any moment.

"So E.N.D. is here?" Mavis asked. "What is–?"

"E.N.D. is mine," He interrupted. "No one else will engage him if he's Awakened."

"But–"

"I'm serious. No one but me will get involved with that." He gave Erza a meaningful look, and nodded at the knowledge reflected in her eyes. "Everything I said about me goes for him too," He told her. "Promise."

"…Promise."

"You're making this very difficult," Mavis said, her frustration bleeding into her voice and face. "I'm a strategist, you know. If you'd just let me help…"

He eyed her contemplatively. She was someone that He'd trust with Natsu's secret, if only because He knew how she had reacted to his own unveiling. But… He gave the gathered mages a sidelong look. Better not to involve them.

"You're a clever girl," He said finally. "If I told you that E.N.D. was an acronym, with the 'e' obviously standing for 'Etherious', then whose initials are 'N.D.', do you think?"

Her brow immediately creased in thought, and He was sure that she had picked up on his hints.

"But," He added, "I'm serious when I say that everyone else is to stay away from E.N.D."

She hummed absently, her attention still focused inward as she puzzled out his riddle. It would have to be enough.

"You're shaking," Erza said suddenly, reaching out for him. "Are you alright?"

He stepped back out of her reach, his trembling hand tightening around the necklace again. His other arm was wrapped around his abdomen, fingers digging into his side, and his shoulders were hunched slightly as if He was in pain. Not that He wasn't in pain.

Still, it was the shaking that had caught Erza's attention. It had been present from nearly the very beginning, but had definitely been escalating the longer they talked.

Go to Zeref…

"Yeah," He said through gritted teeth. He edged back another couple steps. "That's because I've been half a second away from bolting. I really have to go. It'll keep tearing me apart the longer I resist."

"I'm sorry," Erza said, her eyes widening. "You're right. We should go."

He let out a shaky breath. "Thanks. I hope you aren't too injured to run…"

"Um, I think I can manage."

Well, that would be good. Once He started, He wasn't sure that He could stop or slow down.

"Gray…" Makarov hesitated, uncertainty written across his face. "I…"

He tilted his head to eye the Master, but then shrugged. "Don't worry about it. We all do what we have to do. Just don't try pulling any more stupid sacrificial bullshit. You've still got too much work looking after the guild, alright, Jii-chan?" He frowned and shook his head. "Makarov. Sorry, old habits die hard."

"Yeah, someone has to keep an eye on all the brats." Makarov cleared his throat and looked away. "And you can call me whatever you want."

A small, sad smile flitted over his face as He turned away. "It's better this way. Good luck, and stay safe."

"You too," Mavis murmured.

He flapped a hand in acknowledgement and glanced at Erza, who nodded her readiness. With a sigh of relief, He leapt forward, finally giving in to the pull. It was a headlong rush for a few moments, before He could rein himself in enough to fall into a more controlled stride.

Thankfully, Erza could keep pace once He'd slowed down to a steadier lope.

"So," He said around his breaths, giving her a sidelong look, "Lucy said you were fighting a Spriggan. How'd that go?"

"Alright," she huffed out. "Although he was…summoning up…dead enemies to fight… It was weird, but…I handled it."

"Hm… That would explain Ur, then."

"Ur?"

"Mhm." He switched his gaze back to the distance where Zeref was waiting. "As if Lyon needed more reasons to be screwed up."

"Stabbing?"

"Yup." He fell silent for a moment, gathering up his breath again. "Also, Natsu ran into Zeref and….long story short, if we kill Zeref, then…Natsu dies."

"What?" Erza demanded, her footsteps faltering.

He paused for the barest of half-seconds, but couldn't resist the pull for long. Erza would just have to keep up.

"I have a plan…but it's in our best interests to…not kill Zeref yet… Don't get in my way if I…lose control, but if I'm not Awake, then you might…try to remind me why it's a bad idea."

"This plan of yours… Don't do anything stupid, Gray."

He half shrugged. "With things already so screwed up… How could I possibly make them worse?"

"That's not what I meant."

He knew that, but He just shrugged again and fell silent, putting his focus into running.

Go to Zeref. Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref.

Now that He had told Erza everything relevant, He was content to lapse into silence. The two friends ran toward Magnolia with only their harsh breaths in their ears to break the monotony.

He unconsciously increased his pace the closer He got to Zeref, the dark mage's gravitational pull becoming stronger and stronger. When He noticed, He tried to check himself. After all, He was injured, and running at full speed was not doing him any favors. The bigger concern, of course, was that Erza was also injured and having a hard time keeping up when He started getting too fast.

The curses and instincts scratching at the inside of his skull were a definite distraction, but not even they were enough to make him miss the rumbling roar that suddenly echoed across the area. He stopped short, his heart jumping into his throat. Beside him, Erza froze as well.

"Oh God," she breathed, "what the hell is he doing now? It can't be another Spriggan, can it? What else does he have up his sleeve?"

"No," He said, his voice trembling slightly as his face paled. One hand automatically reached up to tangle in his necklace again. "We're too late. It's E.N.D. He's Awake."

Chapter Text


Chapter 6-Demons' Dance


There was no more talking. He needed to reach Natsu right now before something went wrong. Not that E.N.D. being Awakened wasn't already a wrench in the plan, but He needed to stop Natsu from doing something that he would regret…something that might get him or someone else killed.

Not even his injuries could slow him down now, not when Zeref's pull was tugging him forward and He could feel Natsu's aura lurking underneath. He was vaguely aware of Erza's heavy breathing behind him. It was good that she was keeping up, because He couldn't afford to wait for her if she fell behind.

He knew how easily things could go tragically wrong, and He needed to find a way to fix this, even if He didn't know how. He needed to, because He had just failed Natsu horribly. He was supposed to have reached Zeref first, found a way to get the Book, and stopped this from happening in the first place. But now Natsu was Awake and would have to deal with the consequences, and all He could do was try to minimize the damage.

The pull was so strong that He knew Zeref must be directly ahead, but when He dashed around the side of a building and was faced with a wide-open stretch of rubble-strewn ground ringed by the twisted skeletons of what had once been homes and shops, his attention was arrested by something else entirely.

"Shit," He breathed around his gasps for air, bracing his hands on his knees as He tried to catch his breath.

Not only was Natsu Awake, but he was fighting Acnologia of all people. It took a minute to make the connection since the dragon was dressed up as a human, but He recognized the toxic magical signature radiating from him. Acnologia might look human, but he was plenty intimidating nevertheless as he neatly stepped around Natsu and threw back some of his own monstrous magic.

And Natsu was, well, Awake. Not that he usually put much thought into fighting other than 'hit as hard as possible without considering strategy at all', but he had definitely lost whatever brainpower he once had. He just continued to lash out in a blind rage, pointed teeth bared in a snarl and eyes glowing a faint red. Other than that and the utter lack of humanity in his eyes, the only oddity in his appearance was the faint suggestion of scales across his body that sometimes seemed to shimmer and disappear, before reemerging somewhere else. The dragon slayer might not be in a fully demonic form, but he didn't have to look like a demon to be frightening.

"My God," Erza murmured. "What do we do now?"

What indeed.

The combatants lunged to the side, and He suddenly found himself staring at Zeref across the battlefield. As if sensing the scrutiny, the black mage tore his gaze away from the battle and met the demon's eyes. They stared at each other for a long moment, Zeref's eyes flickering with curiosity and pointed interest, but then He curled his lip in derision and returned to watching the fight, ignoring the mantra playing in his head as best He could.

Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref, Zeref, Zeref.

It was so loud when Zeref was right there and He was caught in the black mage's overwhelming gravitational pull. But right now He cared more about Natsu, so He did his best to resist.

Acnologia sent Natsu sprawling, and He winced automatically. It didn't seem to faze Natsu at all, though, and he just jumped back to his feet and charged the dragon-man again. To be fair, He understood that too. When it was only instinct driving you, it was hard to deviate from that one goal. Natsu would persist until he was physically unable to go on.

"Gray! Erza!"

He glanced over to see Lucy and Happy running toward them from where they'd been observing the battle a short distance away. They both looked a mess, wide-eyed and scared.

"What do we do?" Lucy asked as she stopped next to him and Erza. Her voice cracked and wavered, and He found it easier to return his gaze to the battle at hand, carefully tracking Natsu's every move.

"Gray?" Erza asked when He didn't respond.

He let his breath out in a harsh sigh. They were deferring to him because they thought that He had the answers, and He hadn't a clue.

"Did he attack Acnologia first or did Acnologia attack him?" He asked finally.

"Does it matter?" Lucy asked.

"Maybe."

"I think… Uh… I don't really know. It all happened so fast. Acnologia showed up and Zeref opened the Book and… I don't know. It was such a mess."

"I think Natsu struck first," Happy volunteered.

"Before or after his Book was opened?"

"Before. Zeref opened it once they'd started fighting."

"Hm."

"Why?"

He grimaced as Acnologia's magic flattened half a dozen of the few buildings still standing. Natsu just brushed it off and struck back, even though he must have taken damage.

"Acnologia killed Igneel, so Natsu has a vested interest in fighting him," He said absently. "But now that he's Awake, his only real interest should be in killing Zeref. I was curious if his human interests had actually overridden his demonic ones, but if he'd already struck before his Book was opened, then he's probably just continuing the fight he was already locked in."

There was a long pause, although it could hardly be considered silence with the din of the raging battle going on in the foreground.

"Can he…?" Lucy swallowed and tried again. "Can he beat Acnologia? He's not going to–to–"

"It'll be a close fight," He said noncommittally, gaze glued to Natsu. "He's unlocked his curses and is using them, which makes him far more powerful than he would be under normal circumstances. E.N.D. was created to be powerful enough to kill an immortal, so theoretically he should have enough power to kill Acnologia too. He'll be better off if he still has enough presence of mind to use his dragon slayer magic as well, although I don't know if he'll remember it even exists when he's like this. It'll be close because Acnologia is ridiculously powerful too, and it could go either way. One lucky shot on either side…

"Shit." He buried his face in his hands and took a deep breath to try quelling the hopelessness and self-recrimination clawing at his heart. "I was supposed to get the Book before Zeref opened it. And where the hell did Acnologia even come from?"

Erza touched his arm hesitantly, her fingertips just barely brushing his skin. "You can't do everything, Gray."

Maybe not, but He had a responsibility to Natsu and to the guild and to the whole damn world, and He was doing a miserable job of fulfilling it. What He was demanding of himself was probably impossible, the extent of it was possibly too great for him to handle alone, but that didn't stop the feeling that He was failing to repay a debt.

He took another breath, dropped his hands, and focused on Natsu again. He had no time to drown himself in thoughts of his failures. Not when there was still so much to be done. He couldn't afford to lose focus now.

"As much as I'd like to try providing him with assistance, it would probably do more harm than good," He said, his voice flat and matter-of-fact. "They're moving so fast that I'd be just as likely to hit Natsu, and it also has the risk of drawing their attention to us. That would be bad. And as cold as this sounds, it might be better to let Natsu take some damage."

"What?" Happy demanded, his fur fluffing out in indignation. "Why?"

"Because once he's done with Acnologia he'll turn on me, and he has more raw power than I do. Having him weakened and with his curses depleted will improve my chances."

"He'll turn on you?" Lucy repeated, her voice rising in pitch.

"Well, he'll turn on Zeref, but since we have a vested interest in keeping Zeref alive for now, I'm going to distract him."

"Is that really a good idea?"

"Do you have a better one?"

No one responded, and He just shifted about restlessly as He watched the fight. Zeref's presence was still making him antsy, but it was a little surprising how much He could ignore it now that He had something more important to focus on. His intense need to help Natsu was doing a surprisingly good job of muffling the obsessive fixation on Zeref, even if it couldn't drown it out entirely.

It was hard to keep track of the action when Natsu and Acnologia were moving so fast, just blurs of color and flying magic, and it was killing him to not be able to tell what was going on the second it happened. If Acnologia got in one lucky shot, then it could all be over. E.N.D. was created to be powerful, but He remembered Acnologia's power as well. And at the moment, it looked like they were both shredding each other.

"Natsu-san is E.N.D.? That's… Gray-sama should not fight Natsu-san. He will get hurt! Is there a way to get Natsu-san back? He still seems pretty human, for a demon."

"Of course," He said absently. His fingers flexed into fists as Natsu was thrown into a building with a loud crash and Acnologia pounced on him. "You don't see me running around all crazy demonic either, do you? We're tied to human bodies. Sometimes our curses bleed out and start altering small portions of our appearance when our instincts stir, but it would take an astronomical amount of power to recreate a true Etherious form and–"

He broke off and whipped around as the speaker finally registered in his mind, his eyes widening as He spotted Juvia and Lyon standing behind him. "Where the hell did you come from?" He demanded.

"Is there anyone in your guild who isn't a demon?" Lyon asked sourly, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Juvia wanted to follow Gray-sama." Juvia's eyes were full of stubborn determination.

"What is wrong with you?" He groaned, dropping his face into his hands again, and a nauseous feeling settled in his stomach. "What part of 'I'm going after Zeref and it's too dangerous for you, so stick together and stay here' did you not understand?"

"Juvia did not want to leave Gray-sama and–"

"I'm trying to keep you alive, you fool." He dropped his hands and glowered at Lyon. "I thought that at least you would have enough sense to stop her from doing anything this silly."

Lyon stared back impassively. "She's persistent."

He looked the ice mage up and down. "You're showing a surprising lack of overt hostility. What the hell happened to you?"

Lyon scowled. "I still hate you."

"Oh, I don't doubt it, but… Oh, good grief, how much did you overhear while you were following me?"

Juvia shifted uncomfortably and looked at her feet. "Juvia…may have heard a little."

"Of course you did," He said with a sigh.

"I still hate you," Lyon repeated stubbornly.

"Relax. No one is questioning that. Just…stay out of the way."

"I'll do whatever the hell I want."

"Not if you want to stay alive, you won't."

He shot a look at Erza, who was looking equally flummoxed by their sudden company. She caught his eye, sighed, and nodded slightly. At least she'd be here to try to stop them from doing anything stupid.

He turned back to the conflict just in time to see Acnologia transform back to his dragon form and let out a bone-rattling roar.

"Damn," He mumbled, his eyes automatically seeking out Natsu.

The dragon slayer was covered in blood and grime and was limping slightly, but was otherwise undeterred and still moved with inhuman speed. It was impossible to tell exactly how injured he was since pain wasn't the same crippling factor that it would be for a human. Natsu might be as human as they came, but E.N.D. would keep going until he dropped. He was getting nervous that Natsu would take too much damage and get himself killed, but what could He really do? Interfering would be dangerous.

Acnologia sent a blinding beam of magic at Natsu that obliterated a good chunk of the area, and He cursed.

"Get back, get back," He hissed, turning and flapping his hands to make the others retreat into an alley behind them. The crumbling buildings wouldn't be good protection if either combatant's magic hit them, but they were better than nothing and it might be wise to stay out of view when possible.

There was only so much He could do about keeping the others back when they kept trying to peek out and watch the fight, but He positioned himself at the mouth of the alleyway and stared out, a silent sentinel following the battle with dark, calculating eyes.

"So…can you fix Natsu?" Lucy asked.

"I don't know. If I can wear him out enough, then maybe I'll have a shot of getting through to him."

"You kept saying that if you Awoke, there would be nothing we could do to fix it," Erza said quietly.

"True enough," He replied distractedly, still absorbed in the bloody spectacle. Natsu looked so small against the dragon. But still terrifying in his own way, if only because He knew how demons worked. There was little that frightened him more than an Awakened demon, be it himself or anyone else. "But I'm better suited to fixing things than a human would be. And anyway, he is nothing like me. He's far more human, so maybe that would help. But I don't really know."

"You said you had a plan…"

"Yeah, well, that would be a lot more useful if Natsu wasn't Awake. Now I'll have to deal with this first."

They lapsed into silence, until He'd nearly forgotten that they were there at all. Acnologia screeched in pain as Natsu landed a brutal hit, but then sent the dragon slayer flying into a pile of broken scaffolding and charred stones. The whole area was a mess of rubble and magic-scorched land, dust lingering in the air along with the roars and sound of heavy crashes.

Although, to be honest, it was more amazing that the damage was being confined to such a relatively small area. Natsu and Acnologia had destroyed what might be a good quarter of the city, but they stayed locked together without straying too far from the point where their battle had started.

"What are you doing?" Happy asked finally.

"Calculating our odds."

"Oh?" Lyon asked, a derisive sneer in his voice. "And what, pray tell, is the all-knowing demon's assessment of our situation?"

The ice mage hissed in pain, as if someone had perhaps jabbed him none too gently with an elbow, but He was too preoccupied to really care.

"He has more raw power, but I have a more versatile array of magics to work with since I doubt he'll be bothered to use his dragon slayer magic. I doubt molding will be able to stand up to his curses, but it might be useful if I need something quick and flexible. The devil slayer magic would do as much damage to me as to him, but as a last resort it would be a powerful weapon. My curses are still being difficult to control properly, but they'll do. Maybe if I let myself Awaken more… But that would be dangerous too."

He hummed to himself, briefly considering that possibility. "He's going to be tough to take down since pain isn't really an object and he'll fight until he physically can't anymore. That would be useful, but…it would also take away my ability to think rationally, which is currently one of my main advantages. He's only thinking with instinct. The Awakening might be scrambling my brain, but I'm still reasoning. And if I lose it entirely, we're all screwed. I'm not sure I trust myself to keep control if I let myself slip. What a pain.

"But I might have enough other advantages. I may or may not be able to actually die—I'm not entirely sure if he can kill me or not. Hopefully the call to Zeref will distract us both equally, although it could ruin things for either side depending on who gets distracted first at a critical moment. And after all this with Acnologia, he'll already be injured and hopefully slowed down a bit. That will help."

He fell silent, his lips tightening as Natsu was thrown back again and disappeared into a newly-formed crater.

"Are you forgetting that you're injured too?" Erza demanded.

"I'd noticed that, actually."

"Gray, you're coughing up blood. And not just a little bit of blood. A lot of blood."

"What, really? Don't know how I managed to miss that."

"You're doing what?" Happy squawked.

"Gray, be serious."

"Erza, I have never been more serious in my entire life than I am now," He said with a sigh, eyes darting back and forth as He tried to keep track of Natsu and Acnologia.

"I don't like this plan."

"We have no other choice. It's our best shot. And anyway, I promised him that I'd stop him from killing anyone if this happened, and that I'd bring him back. I haven't broken a promise in years."

"But–"

"What would you rather I do? This isn't only about me. This is about him too, you know."

"I…" Erza sighed and fell silent, although He could practically feel how torn she was.

"Couldn't we just get his Book and close it?" Lucy asked.

He sucked in a breath and spun around, temporarily forgetting about the issue at hand. "Are you insane?" He demanded. "Stay the hell away from Zeref. Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

She shrank back. "I just thought–"

"Yes, it would work. If you could do it. That's a big 'if'. Zeref would just as likely kill you, and I'll be too busy with Natsu to do it myself. I could try now, except that if Zeref takes me out of commission, then we're all screwed and Natsu will go on a rampage."

A sudden roar rang out, and He hurriedly turned back to the battle. Only to come face to face with Acnologia's open maw, filled with a glowing magic that would be shooting their way any second now. It wouldn't be a direct hit, but even just getting caught up in the very edge of the dragon's spell would be fatal.

"Fuck."

His hands were moving almost before He realized it, throwing up a wall of ice and shadow across the mouth of the alley to try blocking the brunt of the attack. But it wasn't going to be enough, not against Acnologia. He glanced back and met Lyon's eyes for an instant. The ice mage stared back, indecision warring in his eyes.

The silent request went unanswered, and He had no time to try for anything more as a monstrous magic slammed into his ice. It was only a glancing blow, but it was all He could do to rip out his devil slayer magic to buttress his shield. It was stronger than his molding, but would it be strong enough? And could He even keep it up for long enough when it was tearing at his insides and sending jagged ice crystals slashing at his veins?

He swayed dangerously. Was it just his imagination, or was the ice splintering, cracking under the force turned upon it?

And then suddenly another layer of ice sprang up to fill in the cracks and reinforce the shield. He glanced over in surprise, but the mage beside him just kept his attention on the wall and pointedly refused to look at him.

And then, finally, the pressure of the dragon magic faded away. He let his magic go and sucked in a harsh breath, shoulders slumping in relief.

"Thanks," He rasped.

"I'm not helping you," Lyon grumbled, crossing his arms and averting his gaze.

He stared back for a moment and then started laughing. That lasted for all of two seconds before his laughs turned to coughs. His knees buckled as his entire body heaved, but something grabbed him to hold him upright. He gasped for air past the blinding pain tearing through his body, his head spun in a disconcerting fashion, and He could almost feel the shadows stirring in interest at his sudden weakness.

But then the coughs began subsiding and his vision slowly cleared, until He found himself staring down at a large pool of red seeping into the ground. He slowly turned his head, slightly unfocused gaze noting Erza holding him on one side and Lyon holding him upright on the other. He and Lyon locked gazes, and there was a definite war raging in the ice mage's eyes.

"Gray-sama! Is Gray-sama alright?"

"Gray? Hey, are you okay?"

"My God, you weren't kidding about it being a lot of blood."

"I still hate you," Lyon said.

He stared back blankly for a moment longer, and then felt a slow smile tug at the corners of his lips. "I bet I really look like I eat children now," He said in a raspy voice, feeling the blood dripping down his chin.

Lyon's expression was so utterly flabbergasted that He wanted to laugh again, but was worried about the potential consequences.

"Are you making jokes?" Erza asked incredulously. "You idiot."

He opened his mouth, but then a roar split the air and his head jerked around as He stumbled out of the other mages' grasp. Because that sound had a definite note of triumph to it. It was a victory roar.

A demon victory roar.

"No way could he have taken out Acnologia already," He breathed, swiping at his bloodied chin and staggering over to the entrance of the alley to peer out.

Acnologia was sprawled across the piles of debris a good distance off to the right, body torn and bloodied, wings tattered and broken. The dragon didn't move, but He would still be inclined to think it was alive if not for Natsu's very obvious triumph. Natsu stood above his defeated foe, eyes blazing and mouth curved into a vicious smile. The dragon slayer was covered in blood and crisscrossed in wounds, but he was still standing despite all the broken bones he must have. Maybe he had finally remembered his dragon slayer magic after all and used it to augment his curses. That would have been bad news for Acnologia.

It would also be bad news for the upcoming fight.

"Well, then," He muttered. "This is going to be fun."

Natsu turned away from the fallen dragon to advance on Zeref, and He grimaced and stepped out into the charred wasteland.

"Are you insane?" Erza hissed. "You can barely even stand!"

"Doesn't matter. If it gets too bad, then I can risk taking another step toward the edge." His curses stirred in interest, as if understanding his words, and He batted the shadows away irritably. "Not now."

Let go, give in, kill Zeref.

Something brushed past him and He cursed.

"Nat–"

Grabbing Lucy's arm, He pulled her back and shoved her roughly into the alley again. "Stay there," He growled, baring his teeth and glowering at her until she shrank back. "Right now that might as well not be Natsu."

"But if we could just–"

"He'll kill you before you 'could just' do anything," He snapped. "Do you want him to wake up and find your blood on his hands?"

Lucy opened her mouth and then shut it again, her eyes filling with tears. He didn't necessarily want to upset her further, but He needed her to stay back and not get herself killed.

"Just stay here," He said with a sigh. "I'm the only one who's going to go near him, because he'll have a much harder time killing me. Got that?"

He shot Erza a look, and she nodded reluctantly. He'd already bound her by promise and could count on her to keep the others safe, and that would have to be enough.

"Gray," Happy said, his eyes filled with tears, "can you–?"

"Don't cry." He gave Happy what He hoped was a reassuring look. "I'll bring him back. I promise."

He sure hoped that was a promise He could keep.

"Be careful, Gray," Erza said quietly.

He waved a hand in acknowledgement, but was already walking forward. "Hey, fire-breathing idiot!" He called, not particularly expecting a response. Sure enough, Natsu lunged for Zeref, who dodged away like the indestructible fool he was, black magic springing to meet the demon's fire. "Yup, he's pretty far gone," He said unenthusiastically.

"What will you do, then?" Lucy asked, sniffling loudly.

"I'm going to get his attention," He said grimly. This was going to suck. "You guys stay back here. I'll try to keep him away from you, but shit happens during fights. Be careful."

Without waiting for a response, He turned and jogged along the perimeter of the decimated area. He needed to get far enough away that the others wouldn't get caught up in Natsu's attacks, but He also needed to hurry up before the idiot managed to actually kill Zeref.

You could kill Zeref too. Let go, give in.

He made it about halfway around the roughly circular space before pausing. Zeref disappeared in a fireball and He winced, but Natsu didn't keel over so He had to assume that the black mage was still alive and kicking.

Sucking in a lungful of air, He let out a roar. It echoed across the field, and Natsu paused.

"Come on, flame brain," He muttered, bouncing up and down on his heels in anticipation. "You've never been able to resist a challenge before. Don't start now."

The problem was that with Zeref right there, He wasn't sure if it was really possible to make himself a more interesting target. He didn't think Natsu's instincts were as blindingly strong as his own, so maybe his natural competitiveness and demon aggression had a chance of temporarily overriding the call. Demons had a hard time resisting credible threats when they tended to be so antisocial and antagonistic toward challengers, and other demons were prime targets if their paths ever crossed. The Tartaros demons were, as far as He could tell, an exception to the trend of solitary asociality.

Natsu half turned, baring his fangs at the other demon. Behind him, Zeref looked over as well, curiosity sparking back to life in his eyes again. The black mage deliberated for a moment, but then nodded slightly, a dry smile tugging at the corners of his lips as he retreated several paces. Apparently he was intrigued enough by his errant demon that he was interested to see a show. How nice.

But it was Natsu's opinion that mattered now, and He watched his friend warily, poised to defend himself if necessary. Natsu glanced back and forth between his two possible opponents, and then seemed to come to a decision. Turning to the other demon, he let out a roar of his own.

Challenge accepted.

Natsu was already moving, fire flaring to life around him, and He hurriedly jumped aside as the blaze scorched the spot He had just been. He lashed out in turn as Natsu closed in on him, hooking into the dragon slayer's shadow and pulling it about to wrap around its owner. Natsu growled and slashed through the shadows like they were nothing. E.N.D. had, after all, always been the most powerful of the demons.

"Damn," He muttered, throwing himself to the side as the air next to him was raked with burning claws.

Natsu burned through the shadow curses and slammed into the other demon's chest. Yelping in pain at the scorching heat and ripping flesh, He desperately pulled the shadows around and managed to send Natsu sprawling. The dragon slayer didn't stay down for long, but He took the opportunity to quickly ice over the scratches scoring his chest. The last thing He needed was more blood loss.

Natsu lunged again, and He went scrambling. It was hard, because Natsu was going all-out but He didn't want to. He should, He really should, but it was hard to purposely hurt someone He cared about, even given the situation. This wasn't one of their normal fights—someone was going to get seriously injured, could even die.

He couldn't help but cry out when Natsu rammed into his chest again, making bone splinter. The sensation of liquid trickling across his skin alerted him to the fact that Natsu's flames had melted through the ice He had used to seal his wounds, and He didn't bother trying again. No ice would survive for long in this blistering heat.

He dove to the side, but changed his mind at the last second and threw himself in the other direction instead, just missing being scorched. He had to be careful where He went, because He didn't want to position Natsu in such a way that his attacks had the chance of hitting the others. As if He didn't already have enough problems without being forced to restrict his movement.

He managed to land a hit on Natsu before dancing out of the way of the follow-up attack. He thought that Natsu might be beginning to slow down under the weight of his injuries, but it wasn't enough. Not when He still couldn't bring himself to go full-out and was quickly losing ground from his own wounds. Everything hurt, and his cracked ribs were making it difficult to breathe and move quickly.

Which, of course, made it easier for Natsu to hit him. Gasping in pain, He retreated before the onslaught, using his curses defensively to stop Natsu from possibly killing him. He jumped out of the way of another blast of fire. It only took one wrong step, and his ankle was twisting underneath him, sending him crashing to the ground with a cry of pain.

His back slammed into the litter of rubble, and all the breath was knocked out of him at once. And suddenly He realized the danger, because now He was helpless and couldn't get out of the way when Natsu came and–

And then Natsu was right there, face twisted in triumph as he pounced on the prone demon. In desperation, He whipped his hands up and slammed them into his friend's chest, devil slayer magic exploding out and sending Natsu flying. The dragon slayer screeched in pain as an attack finally did serious damage, but He was left writhing on the ground too, squeezing his eyes shut as the magic tore through him.

He didn't have time to be distracted by pain, and He couldn't afford to keep holding back. He'd never be able to win the fight like that. Hurriedly rolling to the side as Natsu's fiery fist slammed into the ground where his head had just been, He carefully allowed the seal to crack just a little more. He had to be careful, still couldn't afford a full Awakening, but He desperately needed that edge of ruthlessness and ignorance of pain right now. Deliberately giving ground when He'd been fighting so hard to keep control was frightening.

Let go, give in, kill Zeref.

His head automatically snapped toward Zeref as his instincts' clamor ratcheted up another few notches, and his distraction provided a great opportunity for a fireball that enveloped most of his body. He hurriedly scrambled back and pulled himself to his feet, gritting his teeth. Letting himself slide was only agitating the devil slayer magic more, but at least with his instincts taking over, pain wasn't as much of an object. It still hurt and his injuries were still hampering him, but it was more bearable.

He lashed back at Natsu almost without thinking.

Kill, kill, kill.

No, no killing, not yet. But it was time to suck it up and fight properly. His curses seemed to wrap around Natsu almost of their own accord, and He also went on the offensive with the devil slayer magic. Using both at once was agony, but if He wanted to wear Natsu down, then He needed to.

Kill, kill, kill.

It was all a flurry of cursed ice and shadows and fire after that, barely even any time to think between attacks and around the insistent call curling in his mind. It was only when Natsu finally paused, retreating a few paces to eye the other demon warily, that He was dragged back out of the battle fog. Both demons were breathing heavily, moving awkwardly around their injuries, covered in blood and ugly wounds. They were tired and worn down, and maybe Natsu was finally incapacitated just enough that He could do something to fix the problem, if only He had any idea what that might be.

He met Natsu's gaze and swallowed hard, not liking that He couldn't see any of his friend around the bloodlust and animal instinct.

"But if you want the dead giveaway… When you look into my eyes and don't recognize me, that's game over."

He shook his head. No, maybe it would be the end for him, but Natsu was different. If He could just find a way…

A flash of white caught his eye, and He turned his face just far enough that He could seek out the movement as well as keep a wary eye on Natsu. The dragon slayer's scarf was caught in the rubble several feet away, shifting in the wind. It must have fallen off during all the fighting. In fact, He couldn't even say if Natsu had still had it when their fight had started—he might have lost it back when he was battling Acnologia.

One hand reached up unconsciously to wrap around the pendant of his necklace, and He narrowed his eyes. He had kept a reminder of who He would rather be and who He didn't want to become again, and it had been helping a little as He fought his Awakening, even if it wasn't perfect. Could a reminder help Natsu too? Even though he should be too far gone at this point?

"What's up, Natsu?" He asked conversationally. He watched the dragon slayer for any indication of a renewed attack as He slowly began inching toward the scarf. Natsu might not be able to really understand him, but neither did wild animals when people talked to calm them. "Getting tired? Don't tell me you're giving up already?"

Natsu growled deep in his throat and He hesitated, stiffening back into a defensive stance. The dragon slayer didn't lunge blindly again, but started edging forward slowly. Hunting.

"Oh, don't do that," He said, keeping his voice even as He darted another glance at the scarf and started for it again. "Your manners are already bad enough at the best of times. Keep yourself under control."

Just a little closer…

Let go, give in, Kill Zeref. Kill, kill, kill.

"Be quiet," He mumbled. He bent over slowly and reached for the scarf snagged on a piece of ruined building. "It would be much more convenient if you would shut the hell up for once."

He couldn't afford to get distracted by his instincts now. Tugging the scarf free of the wreckage, He returned his full attention to Natsu and held it out as if offering it to the dragon slayer. Or as if waving a flag in front of an angry bull.

"Do you want this?" He asked. "I thought I told you to stop losing this thing."

Natsu's eyes narrowed, but then he charged forward again. Slower than before now that he was tired and injured, but it was best not to underestimate him when he was still so dangerous. Lunging forward as well, He gritted his teeth against the sudden inferno and slammed Natsu to the ground. His curses made Natsu's shadow surge to life and wrap around his limbs, pulling him down as He and his devil slayer magic pushed down from above.

Natsu struggled violently, but He just ground his teeth and jammed his knees into the dragon slayer's chest as He knelt on it, steadfastly ignoring the flames licking at his skin as best He could. Whatever happened, He needed to keep Natsu pinned down. If he wriggled free, then the opportunity would be lost and He would be wide open to retaliation.

"Time to snap out of it," He hissed as He scowled down at his writhing friend. "I'm going to get through to you if it's the last thing I do. Do you remember Igneel?" He shoved the scarf up to Natsu's face, forcing him to look at it before quickly pinning down the escaping wrist again. "Do you remember how he cared for you, how you loved him? Do you remember the sadness when he disappeared, the loneliness and determination when you spent the next decade searching for him? Do you remember the triumph when you found him again, the heart-shattering pain when Acnologia killed him? Do you?"

Natsu just bared his fangs and thrashed about, and He grimaced but kept his grip despite the flames. Natsu wouldn't remember when he was like this, but if He could just get through to him somehow…

What makes you think that's even possible? You know that nothing would stop you if you were Awake; you've said so yourself. Why would this be different?

Because he's human too. It has to be different.

"Do you remember what it feels like to be human?" He asked, staring into those hate-filled eyes. "What it's like to make choices and think and have a mind of your own? What it's like to have friends and family and a place to belong? What it's like to feel? To laugh and be happy, to cry and be sad? What it feels like to have your heart ripped out of your chest when something goes wrong? What it feels like to love someone so much that it hurts and you would do anything for them? Come on, Natsu, you have to remember something."

Natsu showed no sign of remembering anything at all, and He could feel the desperation and hopelessness setting in.

"Do you remember when you joined the guild and found a new home? When you raised Happy with Lisanna? When Lisanna died and then came back through a miracle? When you found Lucy and brought her back to the guild? When Erza made us into a team? All the fights and jobs and good times that came after?"

He sucked in a breath and squeezed his eyes shut, his heart constricting painfully as He realized that He was fighting a losing battle.

"Do you remember Edolas?" He asked in a voice barely louder than a whisper, his pain and grief bleeding through. "When you and Wendy and Gajeel pretended to be demons to take the blame for the disappearing magic? Because I do. I remember thinking how absolutely silly you looked in that ridiculous costume of yours. And then I realized it wasn't the costume that made you look silly. I remember thinking how ridiculous you looked pretending to be a demon when you were so obviously human.

"Come on, flame brain, it's time to take the mask off. You look real silly playing dress-up as a demon."

Natsu had fallen still, his struggling finally wearing him out, but that wasn't enough. His hands tightened reflexively around Natsu's wrists and He bowed his head, the sting of failure clawing at his chest.

He was losing, and that meant He was losing Natsu too.

"Do you remember all our fights?" He babbled, needing to fill the dead air, unable to admit that He had already lost. "I always won, but–"

"That's…a lie."

His eyes flew open and He found himself staring into Natsu's. And God, He could see his friend there.

"Natsu!"

"Gray, I…" Natsu grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut, his breath coming in short gasps. His entire body was trembling with tension. "I can't…"

Natsu was still bound to his Book, and as long as his Book was open… Well, He might have somehow, impossibly, gotten through to his friend, but Natsu was now fighting the same war that He was, and he would lose if his Book wasn't closed.

Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref.

His head jerked up as He remembered Zeref, and his eyes sought out the black mage. Zeref was standing a good distance away, watching the proceedings with no little interest. Maybe He could work with that, that Zeref was so curious about how his demons had grown minds of their own.

"Close the Book," He ground out, his eyes boring into Zeref.

The other man tilted his head. "Why would I do that?"

"What, are you telling me that you're not interested in what I have to say? Because I think you are. I think you're very interested in the evolution of one of your greatest failures. And to sweeten the deal, I have a proposition that you might find interesting as well. In any case, you can always open the Book again later if you change your mind, can't you? What do you really have to lose?"

They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity, but then a faintly amused smile tugged at the corners of Zeref's lips and he nodded. The Book snapped shut, and Natsu fell limp and boneless.

Zeref forgotten again for the moment, He returned his attention to Natsu. "You okay?"

"I…think…so."

Satisfied, He released Natsu and rolled off him, wincing as the movement aggravated his injuries and blistered skin. Still, He managed to pull himself to his feet unsteadily and then reach a hand down to Natsu. The dragon slayer stared at it for a second but then grasped it, and He pulled his friend up with some difficulty.

"It feels like you ripped out all my organs and rearranged them," Natsu rasped, swaying.

"That would be the devil slayer magic. Don't worry, it hurt me more than it hurt you."

The dazed look cleared from Natsu's face a little as he looked around, and his expression twisted unpleasantly. "What did I–? Oh. Oh shit."

The memories might be a bit hazy and it might take a little while to sort everything out, but Natsu would certainly remember his time Awake in some form. And He understood the horror of realizing what you had done while you were out of control and couldn't help it.

"Congrats on taking out Acnologia," He said neutrally, bending to collect the dragon slayer's scarf and hand it to him.

Natsu wound it back around his neck almost unconsciously, his attention still focused elsewhere. "Yeah, but–"

"Natsu!"

They turned to see that the others had emerged from the alley. At least Erza had the good sense to keep Lucy and Happy from running right over when Zeref was still a threat, but their relief and disbelief was palpable.

Natsu waved halfheartedly but then turned back, his eyes traveling over the demon's battered body and taking in all the blood and burns. "Shit, I'm sorry. I didn't mean–"

"It's fine," He grunted, icing over some of the wounds now that He didn't have to worry about the ice being melted right away. "I've had worse."

"I'm sorry anyway." Then Natsu scowled. "But you're also an idiot. Don't think I don't realize that you were holding back the whole time."

A small smile ghosted over his face. "Couldn't have you done in by the devil slayer magic, could we? See, that's the problem when I always win."

Indignation flashed in Natsu's eyes as he temporarily forgot his horror in the face of this newest absurdity. "You definitely do not always win."

"If you say so. I–" He broke off as the urge to cough overtook him.

He tried to stifle it and keep his mouth shut, but even as muffled as they were, the coughs were still bringing up blood and flooding his mouth with the taste of iron. He spat a mouthful of blood onto the ground and finally gave in, knowing that the devil slayer magic wasn't going to leave him alone, especially now that He'd inched a step closer to Awakening. As He was attempting to cough up a lung, He could also feel blood trickling out of his nose, as if things weren't already bad enough. The whole blood thing was getting really old now.

He didn't know how much longer He could function, when the hostile magic was steadily deconstructing his body from the inside out.

Natsu grabbed him, supporting him as if He was about to fall. Which He wasn't, but He dropped his head against his friend's chest anyway, once He'd finished coughing and was only sucking in heaving breaths again. His job wasn't done yet—He still had to face Zeref—but for just a second, He let himself collapse against Natsu. Just one little moment of rest.

He was so tired. So tired of fighting. Of fighting his enemies and his friends and himself. Especially himself. The constant battle was wearing him down, and for just one second, He wanted to rely on someone else's support before He had to face the pain and heartache and rejoin the fight again.

Maybe it was selfish, but He was a demon and He thought that it shouldn't be unreasonable for demons to be selfish sometimes.

"Oh my God," Natsu was babbling. "Are you okay? I'm sorry."

"Don't flatter yourself," He wheezed. "I started doing this way back when I fought Invel."

"But–"

Taking a deep breath to steel himself, He pushed himself upright and away from Natsu. Time to get back to work.

"But nothing," He said firmly. "Go on and get Lucy and the others before they come charging over here."

Natsu's gaze darted over to where Zeref was lurking. "But Zeref–"

"I have a plan for Zeref. And no, you will not be involved. You can hardly stand."

"Neither can you," Natsu grumbled mutinously.

"Yes, well, it's my plan, so I can do what I want. If you were that desperate to make a nuisance of yourself, you should have come up with your own damn plan."

"If you'd just let me help, then–"

"No. Go get Lucy."

Natsu visibly ground his teeth together. "This had better not be one of your stupid sacrificial plans. If you try using iced shell again, I'm going to strangle you."

He stared back, his mind grinding to a halt. "Iced shell? I can't believe I didn't think of that."

Come to think of it, that probably should have been the first plan to come to mind. His only excuse was that the call was scrambling his brain.

"What?" Natsu's eyes widened. "That wasn't meant to give you ideas!"

"Chill out, I have another plan. Iced shell can be the backup plan."

Natsu's whole face scrunched up into a strange expression. "No, no it cannot. I'm sorry I even brought it up. You can't just–"

"Look, I already have a plan," He interrupted impatiently. "If it works, then it will have better outcomes than iced shell would. So relax, already."

"But–"

"You're just going to have to trust me on this one, Natsu."

Natsu hesitated, not wanting to go but clearly able to read that winning this fight would be impossible. Maybe it was good that he was so injured after all, because he'd never willingly abandon a potential battle if he was still able to fight.

After a moment, he let out a sigh and dropped his gaze. "Thank you."

He shrugged dismissively. "I told you that I'd bring you back, didn't I? I haven't broken a promise in years, and you're not going to be the one to break my streak, Natsu."

"Flame brain."

"…What?"

"It's weird how you keep calling me by my name," Natsu grumbled, shifting uncomfortably and staring down at his feet.

He stared at the dragon slayer for a second, before a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He had put up those barriers for a reason, to distance himself from the guild for their protection, but in light of what was coming… Well, maybe He could give Natsu this.

"Alright, flame brain," He said. "Go get Lucy."

Natsu darted another glance at Zeref. "Are you sure–?"

"Yes. You're too injured to be of much use, anyway. Go on."

There was another long pause.

"Don't do anything stupid, ice block."

He just sighed as He watched Natsu finally, reluctantly, turn away and start limping back to where the others were waiting. When did He ever do anything that wasn't stupid?

Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref.

"I hear you," He muttered.

Time was up. He turned and planted his feet firmly on the ground, staring down the man who had created him. He had spent so long running away, but now it was time to face the music.

"So," Zeref said finally, dark eyes gleaming with interest, "it's Deliora, isn't it?"

Chapter Text


Chapter 7-In the End


His lips tightened involuntarily at the sound of his old name, but He just shrugged. "Close enough."

"You don't go by that name anymore?" Zeref asked, arching an eyebrow. His gaze shifted to the people standing behind the demon. "You go by Gray, perhaps?"

"That's what they call me," He said neutrally.

"Oh?" Zeref threw him a sharp look. "So what do you call yourself, then?"

He shrugged again. "Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing."

"Even demons have names," Zeref said disapprovingly.

"Yes, well, I've always been a failure," He replied, smiling thinly. "Just add it to all the rest."

Zeref stared at him for a long moment, but then shrugged. "I was under the impression that you were destroyed a while back."

"Yeah, so was everyone else. And yet here I am."

Zeref looked like he was dying to ask a follow-up question, but settled for, "So, what's this proposition of yours, then?"

"As much as I don't like to owe you anything, you closed the Book." He scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. "In return, I'll answer your nosy questions. But hurry it up."

It also served another purpose. Right now it was best to keep Zeref entertained. If he was entertained, then he was less likely to get bored and decide to kill everyone.

Zeref could be cruel, but he was also something of a scientist. The demons had been experiments as well as a means to an end, and Zeref had been significantly invested in them not only because he was looking for a way to die, but also because he had nothing better to do and picked up projects to relieve the tedium. The black mage had discarded his demons once they were of no more use, but He was gambling on the assumption that his interest would be piqued enough by the idea of one of them going rogue that he would be willing to humor one experiment more.

He wasn't powerful enough to beat Zeref at the best of times and was definitely in no shape to be fighting right now. Not yet. He needed to keep Zeref talking until He'd had the chance to set his plan in motion. He'd answer the nosy questions so that the black mage would be more likely to cooperate later. He doubted Zeref cared much for fairness, but humans had an innate sense of equity that He had no qualms about exploiting.

"How diplomatic," Zeref said. "But good. I have a special interest in you."

The black mage gave the demon a calculating look, probing to see how much He knew, but He had little interest in being helpful.

"Oh?" He asked, his tone disinterested.

"I did create you…"

"You shouldn't have bothered," He said bitterly, his lip curling in distaste. "Don't expect me to thank you."

"Interesting," Zeref murmured, eyeing the demon like He was a curious puzzle. "You were the first, you know."

And there it was.

"I'm aware," He said flatly. "I'm the first, the original, the oldest, the prototype of the Etherious. The most primitive version, which you used to test and tweak until you could develop more refined demons. The beginning of the end. You shouldn't have bothered."

As the first, He was the demon on which all others were based. It wasn't fair that He had to feel responsible for the evolution of the later demons when it was Zeref who had done it all. The only good thing to come out of it was Natsu, He supposed. Hard to entirely regret that, but it didn't erase the rest.

"You know more than you let on," Zeref observed. "So, how much do you remember?"

"Enough. Everything from Before is rather hazy, but I remember some and pieced together more After." He pursed his lips. "But I suppose you're really asking about the experiments. Hazy, but yes, I remember some of your poking and prodding. And I do seem to recall being used to test some of your later models. You know, it's poor taste to use your monsters as garbage disposals."

He was the most primitive demon, but He wasn't the most flawed. There had been others, later, that had fatal errors. A good way to test whether improvements were being made was to pit the old against the new and see who came out on top, see what problems emerged. There had been many other demons besides the main Etherious, and most of them hadn't survived for long.

There had also been demons stronger than him, but He supposed that Zeref hadn't let those experiments run their course, possibly because he wanted to keep the original prototype around for later comparisons. And then at some point Zeref had given up on using him for these things or had finished experimenting with demons, and had closed his Book. That was a long gap in his memory, and He couldn't say how long He had been in stasis before someone had opened his Book again and He'd gone on a rampage through Isvan.

"Ah, sorry about that," Zeref said, although the apology rang insincere. "Some of those experiments were rather unsavory."

He pushed back the foggy memories clamoring in the back of his mind. "It doesn't matter. I don't honestly care."

Kill Zeref. Kill, kill, kill.

He shot a nasty look at the shadows roiling at his feet. His curses were bleeding out of him at an alarming rate, only noticeable to the naked eye when they snagged in a shadow and began pulling it out of shape. They were becoming especially unruly because Zeref was so close and his instincts were still calling him to kill and destroy.

He surreptitiously dug his fingers into a wound on his arm, hoping that the pain would distract him. He quickly realized that was a stupid idea. After all, He was already in so much pain that He could barely stand, although some of it was dulled by his instincts and semi-Awakening. Natsu had really done a number on him, and the freezing, ripping sensation clawing at his insides from the devil slayer magic wasn't abating.

"It was odd, because you should have worked. You have more raw power than the others, aside from E.N.D. You just wouldn't use it." Zeref clicked his tongue in annoyance. "I tried everything to get you to use your curses, but you never did. All you would do was tear things apart with brute strength. And you were good at it, but it wasn't enough for my purposes. Your curses never even developed a form.

"Well," he conceded, eyes resting on the writhing shadows at the demon's feet, "it looks like you've finally started using them. But now you don't have as much power as you should. Perhaps a side effect of taking a human form? Hm. In any case, I eventually discovered there was a trade-off between raw power and brainpower. The later demons had more of a mind and more specialized types of curses, but at the cost of less overall power. It's not easy to strike a happy medium."

Yes, He had very well been able to see the differences between himself and the Tartaros demons. Their curses had been more defined and they had been more clever, part of which might have come from learning as they stayed Awake for long periods, but must also have had a biological basis and predisposition that He'd never had.

"No, I don't have full access to my power because I'm not fully Awake, and I lost part of it for good when my binding snapped. Part of it is tied to the Book itself. But although creating me without a real mind was a mistake, I rather think it's something else that was the bigger problem."

"Oh?" Zeref tilted his head to study the demon with curious eyes. Good, he was still interested in his rogue experiment. "Do tell."

"It's instinct," He grunted. "You created me with instincts that were overwhelmingly strong. Even if I did have a proper brain, the instincts would have completely overridden any rational thought." Kill, kill, destroy. He sighed and poked at the shadows with his toe. "The later demons had the same type of instincts, but from what I've seen, they're to a much more muted degree."

Zeref frowned thoughtfully. "What an interesting perspective. I'd figured out how to fix some of the flaws by the time I got to E.N.D. so the ratio isn't the same as it is for you, but I suppose it would be fair to say that his instincts are stronger than some of the other demons' because his power is greater. And at the same time, they aren't as strong as yours because I found different ways to maximize benefits all around. Fascinating to see how the first and last demons compare."

"I am the beginning. Natsu is the end." A sly, secretive smile stole over the demon's face. "But perhaps it will come full circle, and the beginning and end will become one and the same."

Zeref arched an inquisitive eyebrow. "Your proposition?"

"My proposition. But hurry up and finish asking your questions, because I will have no more patience for them once I start."

"What happened?" Zeref asked immediately.

"A mage cast a spell that severed my connection to my Book," He said shortly. "I ended up trapped in the body of a human child who died, and then spent the next years figuring out how to play human as I tried to find a way to undo the mess. I never could fix it."

"And the immortality? I can sense it on you. Another side effect?"

"Yes. I've tried most everything, but I suspect you'll be unsurprised to hear that nothing worked. I almost got desperate enough to come looking for you, even though your ability to help is questionable."

"Oh? But you didn't. What changed?"

"I eventually found something to live for." His gaze went out of focus as He absentmindedly began playing with the necklace's pendant again, the cut on his chest above the absent guild mark burning into his skin. "For now." He tilted his head and studied Zeref with calculating eyes. "I don't suppose that you could kill me, could you?"

There was a violent scuffling sound behind him, and He glanced back to see a host of outraged faces.

"What does it matter?" Erza demanded. "You're not just going to let him kill you."

"Relax," He grumbled. "It's just a question. I don't think he can. If he'd found a way to overcome immortality, then he would have done it ages ago."

"But you shouldn't even be asking," Natsu snapped.

He rolled his eyes and waved them off impatiently as He turned back to Zeref. They meant well, but they also didn't understand what it was like to be faced with the prospect of never being able to die. He wasn't convinced Zeref could do it, but it didn't hurt to ask.

Although He supposed it would become irrelevant if his plan worked the way it was supposed to.

Zeref was silent for a long moment. "Do you have your Book?"

He snorted bitterly but obediently reached out, his hand disappearing into the shadow that rose up to meet him. It was a very basic magical storage space—not unlike Erza's requip storage, albeit a much simplified version made of curses—but it was adequate to hide things He needed to keep away from prying eyes. The Book was heavy in his hands as He pulled it out and stared down at it, his eyes tracing over the worn and scarred cover with his old name scrawled across it.

He could still feel the vestiges of a protectiveness toward it, but mostly it disgusted him and opened up a void inside him. The connection that should be there was gone, broken, and the thing in his hands was now just an ordinary book without any of the magic or meaning it was supposed to have.

"You said that you didn't have it anymore!" Lyon squawked, outraged.

He laughed mirthlessly, the motion sending shooting pains through his broken ribs. "What, you thought I would give it to the Council? Please."

A wave of bitterness overcame him as He scowled down at the object that had failed him so miserably. He half turned and threw the Book to the side. It slammed into the ground, bounced, fell still. There were no phantom pains in his body when it hit the ground, no sign or remnant of the connection they had once shared. He felt nothing, and the void in his chest yawned a little wider at the reminder.

"I'm not bound to it anymore," He said flatly. "It won't do you any good."

Zeref tore his gaze away from the Book. "I see. If you were still bound, then I could do something, but as it is… I'm sorry."

"I don't need your pity," He growled. "Are you ready yet?"

There was a long pause.

"There's one more thing I want to know," Zeref said finally.

"What?"

"It's obvious that you've changed a lot. Changed so much that I didn't recognize you before, even though I was within feet of you when I visited Mard Geer's guild."

"My aura was suppressed. Not even the Tartaros demons sensed it. And you were distracted with Natsu."

"Be that as it may, your evolution has been nothing short of astounding. You've acquired a mind of your own, created a personality, developed morals and values, built relationships, and ultimately survived in a world made for humans. You started off as the most primitive of demons, but you've become so painfully human."

He recoiled, the words searing him like fire. They hurt. They were a reminder of what He was not and could never be, and He hated them.

"I am not human," He said harshly, baring his fangs at his master. "I am a demon. I will always be a demon. But I am no longer your demon."

Zeref stared back thoughtfully, unfazed. "You resent me," he observed. "You feel a great deal of bitterness and hatred toward me. I wonder, can you also feel the opposite?"

"…What?"

The black mage nodded to a point behind the demon, and He turned just far enough to follow Zeref's gaze as it traveled over the mages behind him.

"Do you love them?" Zeref asked.

He flinched, the words cutting into him like knives, and let his gaze roam over his friends: Natsu, barely able to stand but looking like he might charge over at any second; Erza, eyes conflicted but still ready to reluctantly keep the promises she had committed to; Lucy, blinking back tears as she clutched Happy; Lyon, looking on with a raging war of betrayal and hatred and something unreadable in his eyes; Juvia, attention fixed solely on her 'Gray-sama'.

Looking at them hurt, so He turned away.

"…I don't know," He admitted, the words like ashes in his mouth. "I don't know if I'm capable of love." Reflexively clenching his hands into fists, He dropped his gaze and narrowed his eyes sightlessly at the ground. "But when they laugh, I laugh with them. When they cry, I want to dry their tears. When I see their faces, I want to smile. When someone hurts them, I want to hunt down whoever is responsible and set things right. When they are victorious, I celebrate with them. When they face tragedy and misfortune, my heart breaks for them. When they are threatened, I would do anything to protect them. They are the ones I would live for, and the ones I would die for."

He looked up, hoping that the torment wasn't visible in his eyes when He locked gazes with Zeref again. "I don't know if that's your human love, but it's my version—the closest I can ever get. I'd like to think that it's close enough."

It was cruel of Zeref to throw this in his face. Maybe at one point He would have been able to answer with a simple 'yes'. There had been a time when He had been able to feel almost human and push his true nature out of his mind, and that was when He had felt capable of such human things as choice and free will and self-worth and love.

But now, faced with stirring instincts and an imminent Awakening, He was forcibly reminded that it was all an illusion. How much was real, and how much was just him fooling himself? Had He ever truly had free will? Had He ever had any worth despite failing his one purpose? Had He ever really been able to love?

Because now He was slipping away, and He felt far more demon than human. He hated how it suddenly felt like everything from his time as an almost-human had been a lie.

There was a loud sniffle from behind him, and He turned with a frown, his ribs and ankle screaming in protest. Juvia was sobbing unashamedly into Lyon's chest, but the ice mage was absently comforting her even as he stared at the ground with narrowed eyes, so hopefully he could prevent a legitimate deluge. Natsu was also trying to bore a hole into the ground from where he was leaning against Lucy for support, and Lucy herself had tear-filled eyes and was sniffling outrageously. Even Erza's eyes were damp, although she still held herself rigidly and kept her watchful gaze locked on the conversing enemies.

"What the hell is wrong with you guys?" He grumbled. "Honestly, pull yourselves together." Juvia made an incoherent babbling sound, and He eyed her skeptically. "Is she alright?"

Lucy sniffed again and dabbed at her eyes. "I think what she's trying to say is that we love you too."

He stared back at her wordlessly. His heart was doing funny flips and twisting itself around painfully, and He was pretty sure that his expression had contorted into something strange and unrecognizable. Funny how something could feel so good and so painful at the same time.

"Let's not get all sappy and maudlin," He grumbled, his gaze sliding away. Then He sighed and added, "Clearly, I screwed up somewhere along the way."

"What do you mean?" Erza asked, clearing her throat.

He scowled at the ground. "I told you that all this was over and done with. This was supposed to be a business transaction. That message clearly got garbled at some point."

He had started off so well with distancing himself from the guild, but then He'd needed them to trust him a little, and it had all gone downhill from there. He knew that He had been wavering between human and demon, friend and foe, unable to settle on one or the other. Apparently, He had somehow managed to set himself firmly in the friend camp at some point.

"Because they're so obviously lies," Erza said gently. "You might as well give it up."

He sighed. "It would make things so much easier."

"Since when did we care about things being easy?" Natsu snapped, looking up to glower at him. "Honestly. That's just insulting."

"Oh boy, don't you get all sappy on me too, flame brain."

"Sappy?" Natsu asked in outrage. "I'm not sappy. Where do you get this stuff from?"

He shrugged and let it drop, choosing not to mention that He had enough experience in decoding his one-time rival's moods to know when Natsu was starting to get emotional.

"How is Lyon-san not moved?" Juvia asked, finally pulling herself away from the ice mage as she scrubbed at her eyes and frowned up at him.

Lyon kept his eyes fixed on the ground. "I still hate him. And anyway, it has nothing to do with me."

Tilting his head, He studied Lyon curiously. "What makes you think that it doesn't apply to you too?"

"What?" Lyon finally looked up, brow crinkling in confusion.

"I might have been dishonest about my identity, but I wasn't dishonest about everything," He remarked, one corner of his mouth twitching upward into the barest of half-smiles.

There had been some residual distaste for Lyon from Before, as well as the worry that he'd complicate things on Galuna, but He had felt a duty to watch out for him as some kind of penance. His fondness for Lyon had grown over time, and the relationship that had developed wasn't a lie, even if it was built on one. Lyon might hate him, but He didn't hate Lyon.

Lyon opened his mouth, but closed it again as the startled look on his face gradually resolved itself into a conflicted expression that was impossible to decipher.

"How intriguing," Zeref mused, and He turned back to glower at the black mage. "It really is remarkable how much you've evolved."

"What does it matter?" He asked, the bitterness creeping into his voice again. "Everything I've gained, you'll take away in the end."

"Oh? How so?"

That arched eyebrow and expression of detached interest suddenly seemed so mocking, and He could feel all the resentment welling up again. As if Zeref didn't know exactly what He meant.

"Don't play ignorant," He hissed, eyes flashing. "You didn't give me any of these things. All you gave me was this."

He peeled off the shadow-curse snaking its way up his arm and tossed it at Zeref disdainfully. It shuddered and dissipated in the air, but the shadows at his feet began shifting restlessly in response to his anger. He sidestepped them as if they wouldn't follow him everywhere He went.

"And the goddamn instincts. Kill, kill, kill, destroy, destroy, destroy, Zeref, Zeref, Zeref. I can barely even hear myself think anymore. They're driving me fucking crazy." He let out a bitter laugh, hating how it cracked halfway through like a broken sob. "All your questions are useless. What does it matter how far I've come? Once I Awaken, I'll lose everything and be exactly as you created me to be."

There was a long pause as Zeref watched the demon futilely try to shake off the shadows. The instincts were unbalancing his mood and making the rage burn hotter, and in return, the rage fed the instincts and made them even harder to control. A vicious cycle. The upsurge of curses that came in response to his instincts being stoked had the added bonus of also agitating the devil slayer magic, and He had to not-so-surreptitiously cough up another handful of blood and wipe it off on his pants. He needed to get himself back under control before He really lost it.

He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and tried to focus on calming down. He needed to be able to think clearly for what was coming, and couldn't afford to be distracted by his unsettled emotions and the chant of kill, kill, kill playing in his head.

"Interesting," Zeref mused. "An imperfect evolution, then. Your struggle against yourself is painful to watch."

"I don't need your pity," He snapped, dropping his hands and taking a deep breath.

He certainly couldn't afford Zeref's pity. It was imperative that the black mage keep looking at his demon as an object rather than as a person. Right now Zeref was looking at him like just another experiment, but if he started seeing him as a real person whose life had meaning… Well, understanding the value of life was what made Zeref destroy it. The curse was dormant now because Zeref no longer cared, and He would rather keep it that way.

"Have you heard enough yet?" He asked, his voice brittle. "I tire of this."

"Yes, I think you answered what I was most curious about," Zeref agreed. "Love is so quintessentially human, and it's fascinating how you've somehow achieved it even though you started off as the most primitive of demons. And since you're still so intriguing, I'll give your friends a reprieve for a few minutes more. Go ahead and give me your proposition."

There was probably a lot He could say about that statement, but He decided to ignore it. He had played along with Zeref's game, but now the black mage was about to step into the ring and the tables would be turned.

He hesitated for a moment longer to collect himself, waiting until his emotions had stabilized more and He was able to shove the call out of the very forefront of his mind. Everything from this point on would have to be handled very carefully, and being distracted was a bad idea. Zeref could very easily go back into 'kill them all and burn the world' mode at any second if He said the wrong thing. Just because the black mage was currently refraining from killing everyone didn't mean that it would stay that way.

"Right," He said finally. "I think I've found a way to kill you that won't also kill Natsu."

Zeref's eyebrows shot upward. "Impossible. Natsu's life is bound to mine. And in any case, you couldn't kill me before and you don't have the power to now."

"Humor me. It might very well not work, but it wouldn't hurt to give it a shot."

"Why would I let you try to kill me?"

"Because you're curious," He replied, a sly smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "You want to know if it's possible. Because when you've already tried all the normal ways dozens of times, they get rather boring, don't they? Any new possibility, no matter how unlikely, is enough to pique your interest. And because you want to see how far my 'evolution' goes. My failures are your failures, because you're the one who made me with so many flaws. You want to know if it could become a success.

"And anyway," He added with a shrug, "what do you really have to lose? This might well not work, in which case you'd go right back to happily destroying the world without even Acnologia to get in your way. If it works, then you get to die. And let's be honest, even if you're not one hundred percent sold on that right now, you still want to find a way someday and you haven't been having a lot of luck. Can you afford to pass up the chance? You win either way."

Come on, come on, take the bait.

Kill Zeref. Kill, kill, kill.

Shut up. I'm getting there.

The silence seemed to drag on forever, and He had to fight to keep the unconcerned smirk and not shift about uneasily. It would be great if this bastard could make up his mind before He passed out from blood loss.

"You're very persuasive," Zeref said finally. His lips quirked upward into an amused half-smile. "I don't think you can do it, but why don't you go ahead and try?"

He let out the breath He had been holding, but it was far too early to celebrate.

"I'll need the Book," He said, keeping his voice nonchalant even though his entire body tensed up.

Zeref's eyes narrowed and his hands tightened around the Book, eliciting a pained grunt from Natsu. "What makes you think I'll give it to you?"

Now would be a great time for that persuasiveness to kick in again.

"Why are you so surprised?" He drawled mockingly. "I said it involved not getting Natsu killed, didn't I? Of course I need his Book. But really, what are you so worried about? I can't risk doing anything that would damage it, so my options are already limited. And even if I tried to run off with it, you're much stronger than me and could stop me easily. I don't see what the big deal is."

There was another long pause.

"Maybe it's a good thing that I didn't give you a proper brain after all," Zeref said with a chuckle, proffering the Book. "You're very dangerous with one."

He approached cautiously, keeping a wary eye on the black mage in case he changed his mind or decided to attack after all. But Zeref just watched in amusement as He carefully took Natsu's Book and retreated several paces.

Finally tearing his mistrustful gaze from Zeref, He looked down at the Book and absently traced over the embossed letters on its cover: E.N.D. He held it reverently, carefully. It was a heavy responsibility, to hold someone's life in your hands.

Shaking off his reverie, He began carefully inspecting the Book. What He was looking for wasn't something visible to the naked eye. He wouldn't even know it was there at all if He hadn't gone through a lot of effort to figure out how these bindings worked back when He was trying to fix his own.

The thread metaphor He had used to explain his origin to the others had as much physical truth as it was an analogy. There was a very definite 'thread' of magic or life force or whatever you wanted to call it that bound every living creature He had ever come across. One end of that thread was tied to a body. For humans, the other end was attached to what could be called a soul, and that soul was also bound to the body. In a sense, then, humans were double-bound to their bodies.

Demons, on the other hand, were not. Because they had no souls, the other end of their thread was attached to something that could act as an artificial 'soul': the Books. If He focused carefully enough, He could feel that thread of life, could even almost see it shimmering in the air on a plane not truly visible to the eye.

"Natsu said that he was human and you somehow resurrected him as a demon?" He asked absently, finally finding that glimmer of silver and magic He was looking for.

"Yes," Zeref agreed.

"This is his original body?"

"Yes."

"And the reason his life is tied to yours is because his Book is bound to you and he is bound to his Book?"

"Correct," Zeref said, his curiosity evident in his voice now. "Just where are you going with this?"

"Relax. I'm getting there."

At least He had gotten the answers He was hoping for. That made his plan at least theoretically feasible, although there was still no guarantee that it would work.

He turned away and limped toward Natsu, his eyes fixed on the invisible string of magic as He followed it back to its other anchor. If Natsu had been human, then he would have had a soul. Zeref might not know exactly what mechanisms he'd used to resurrect the dragon slayer as a demon, but He suspected that it had involved attaching Natsu's soul—or what was left of it—to a Book, and somehow attaching the other end of the thread back to his body.

Pausing in front of Natsu, He cleared his throat and looked up to meet his friend's eyes. "This will cut off your access to some of your power. And it might feel funny."

"What are you going to do, ice block?" Natsu asked apprehensively, searching the demon's face.

"Do you trust me?"

"…Yes."

"Probably a bad idea, but it would come in handy right now." He sighed heavily and dropped his gaze back to the Book He was cradling. "I really hope I don't curse you."

"Wait, what?"

His immortality came from the other end of his thread not being attached to anything at all, but if Natsu did have a soul bound in his Book and this was his original body, then it should theoretically be possible to unite them again. It had been different for him because this was not his body at all and his binding to it wasn't perfect, and He had no soul to work with.

"This is the best chance we have," He said simply.

He was going to have to be lightning quick. Reattaching would be tricky, and without a soul to work with, He wasn't entirely confident of what would happen.

"I trust you," Natsu said after a moment. "But don't fuck it up."

He looked up to meet Natsu's conflicted eyes and chuckled breathily. "Oh, flame brain, I'm about to fuck everything up."

"Gray, what–?"

But He wasn't waiting for any more questions or explanations now. Not much was strong enough to break a Book binding, but iced shell had done it, so it was possible. And if there was anything suited to screwing up demons, it was devil slayer magic.

Catching the insubstantial thread in his hand, He reached for the devil slayer magic, ignoring its protests. Something snapped with a resonance that reverberated through the air, a hiccup in the normal balance of magic. He didn't have time to check whether He'd managed to detach all of Natsu's soul and still leave enough of the string melded to the Book—He had only a few moments before He lost his opportunity.

He slammed the magic He was holding into Natsu's chest none too gently—it probably didn't need to be so physical when it was all magic-based, but He wasn't taking any chances—and, after a few heart-stopping seconds of nothing, felt something connect, sending the dragon slayer stumbling back.

Hurry, hurry, hurry.

He snagged the end of his own floating string and pushed it into the newly-vacated Book, searching for any remnant of Natsu's to tangle it in, any echo to grab on to before it withered and died. He could feel it, feel something, but it just wouldn't–

Something caught, and He went crashing to the ground as fire suddenly blazed to life in his chest, sending searing heat roaring through his veins. He sucked in a breath with a whine, curling in on himself as He squeezed his eyes shut and his consciousness flickered in and out. There was the fire warring with the shadows warring with the ice, the curses battling each other for dominance as the devil slayer magic tried to destroy them both.

It hurt, it hurt, it was too much, too much for his body to contain. No vessel was meant to contain that many incompatible magics and powers. He had already been pushing it with the curses and devil slayer magic rolled into one, and adding another element to the mix was only destabilizing things more. They'd fight to the death until they tore him apart. Except that He, unlucky fool, couldn't die.

Pull yourself together, come on, you knew the risks. Stand up, you have to finish this before you lose it entirely.

His vision slowly cleared, and He realized that He was on his knees as He hugged the Book to his chest in a death grip, Erza and Juvia beside him as they asked worried questions.

"–sama? Can Gray-sama hear Juvia? What's happening?"

"Gray, hey, Gray, are you alright?"

He gasped for air and pitched forward, one hand shooting out to brace himself on the ground so that He didn't face-plant as his body heaved in protest. God, there was so much blood. It just kept coming and coming.

His vision swam in and out, but as the coughing finally began to subside and He could sit back on his heels again, He shook his head slowly to clear it. It still hurt—everything hurt—and He was still in very real danger of being put out of commission by his idiotic stunt, but if He could keep it together for just a few minutes more, then maybe He could do it.

Because this plan, as ridiculous as it seemed, had worked. Whether it was enough remained to be seen, but so far everything seemed to be working wonderfully.

"Gray! Shit, what did you do?"

He looked over at Erza's panicked expression and smiled slowly, halfheartedly wiping at his face as if He was actually removing the blood rather than just smearing it everywhere. She recoiled at his expression, but He just smirked and waved Juvia off before tilting his head back to look up at Natsu.

The dragon slayer was standing at least, although he was leaning on Lucy and Lyon. His face was ashen as he blinked down at the wrecked demon, but when He reached out to test Natsu's aura, He found no tell-tale hallmarks of immortality.

"Oh good," He rasped. "Looks like I didn't curse you after all. You alright?"

"Am I alright?" Natsu demanded, eyes widening even further. "Hell, ice block. What was that?"

"I'm fine."

"You are obviously not fine," Erza snapped, fear making her voice sharp.

"Chill out," He grunted. "It worked, didn't it?"

"What worked?" Juvia asked. "Juvia still does not understand Gray-sama's plan."

He smiled around the pain. "Congrats, Natsu. You are now a free human."

"I'm…what?" Natsu's face scrunched up in confusion.

With a laugh that was really more of a rattling cough than anything else, He managed to unlock the muscles of the arm clutching the Book to his chest so that He could pull it away and look down at it.

"Oh, Gray, what have you done?" Erza breathed as she followed his gaze.

The cover had changed, and although He hadn't necessarily expected the magic to physically alter the Book, it was hard to deny that it illustrated his folly beautifully. A line now slashed 'E.N.D.' in half, and beneath the old letters, 'Deliora' was scratched into the cover in a jagged hand. Just in case there had been any remaining doubt.

"Well, would you look at that?" He asked, his expression twisting in vicious triumph even as the war raged on inside him, fire and ice managing to sear and freeze him all at once. "It actually worked."

Stroke of luck there. He had never found a way to bind himself back to his own Book, but the reason He had gotten stuck in Gray's body was that there had been enough snapped remnant of soul-string to snag him and pull him in. That no longer existed in his Book, but He'd created another potential snare when He'd severed Natsu's connection, and then used that to entrap himself. He had known that it should theoretically work, but He hadn't been convinced that it actually would.

He staggered to his feet, almost stumbling and falling back down until Erza hurriedly stood and grabbed him. He leaned on her, gritting his teeth and forcing himself to stay upright, then nodded to her and stepped away unsteadily.

"Thanks."

Erza stared at him with eyes full of incomprehension and worry. "What is this going to do?"

"You're such an idiot," Natsu added, his voice wavering.

"Always have been," He said with a dry laugh, wincing and turning back to Zeref. "Looks like I got farther than you thought I would."

Zeref actually looked rattled for the first time, and it was a long moment before he shook off his surprise. "You managed to sever Natsu's connection without cursing him and you…bound yourself to his Book. Remarkable. I have no idea how you did that, to be honest. Although it doesn't seem to have solved your immortality issue."

"Hasn't it?" He gave Zeref a sharp-toothed smile. "Not directly, because it's an imperfect binding. Regardless, that wasn't the purpose of it."

He gave the Book in his hand a disdainful once-over before tossing it aside carelessly, not concerned when the pages flew open and the spine hit the ground with a resounding crack. It was an imperfect binding, wasn't his Book, and He was Awakening without its help—opening the Book didn't matter when the binding wasn't tight enough to attach his instincts to it. But He did wince and hiss in pain when it hit the ground and sent phantom pains lancing through his body. The binding was strong enough in that sense, at least.

Zeref's gaze tracked the discarded Book. "You should be more careful with that," he remarked. "Your soul is bound to it now."

He shrugged carelessly. "I don't have a soul. You didn't create me with one."

"No," Zeref said slowly, "I didn't. Which makes it all the more interesting. But if it didn't break your curse, then why did you bind yourself to it?" Brow furrowing in thought, he studied the demon like He was an interesting insect under a microscope. "I understand that you severed Natsu's connection so that he wouldn't die, but…"

Letting out a raspy laugh, He took an unsteady step forward and almost fell over flat on his face before Juvia grabbed him from behind.

"Gray-sama should rest and–"

"What, right when it's starting to get good?" He flashed her a grin. "Nah, I'm okay. Stay here, alright?"

He limped forward with no little difficulty, his injured ankle dragging behind him. He stopped a good distance in front of Zeref to watch him with a mixture of triumph and wariness. The ice and fire tearing through him had set his whole body trembling, but He ground his teeth together and tried not to topple over. He could do this.

Destroy, kill, Zeref. Kill Zeref.

Almost there.

"Oh." Zeref's face cleared, and something like respect flickered in his eyes. "You're right. It has solved your problem in an indirect way, hasn't it? The binding might not be strong enough that you'd die if the Book was destroyed in a normal way, but it's bound very strongly to me. If you could find a way to kill me, then the shockwave through the Book should be powerful enough to destroy you too, especially given that anything that could kill me would have to be strong enough to kill an immortal. You'd die in Natsu's place. Clever."

A smirk worked its way across the demon's face. "And they say that Mavis is the tactician."

"Wait, what?" Happy demanded.

Turning, He arched an eyebrow at the gaggle of horrified faces that greeted him. "What?"

"What?" Lucy screeched shrilly. "What do you mean, what? Why would you–? Why would you do that? You…"

He winced as her eyes filled with tears. "Can someone please make her not cry?"

"You're an absolute idiot!" Natsu burst out, his hands clenching into fists even though his face was white. "Why the hell would you do something so stupid?"

"Because it's the only way," He explained patiently.

"What, killing yourself?" Erza asked sharply. Her eyes narrowed as she took a threatening step forward.

"Well, that would be a side effect," He said with a shrug. She took another step and He added, "You promised that you wouldn't get between me and Zeref, remember? I told you that if you came, you would have to let me handle things."

"And you promised that you wouldn't pull this sacrificial shit anymore," Natsu broke in accusingly. "What happened to never breaking promises?"

"It was a somewhat irrelevant promise since I couldn't actually die," He muttered. Then He smiled wistfully and his eyes softened. "But some things are worth breaking for."

That they were still so upset after everything was remarkable. He had done a truly terrible job of convincing them that He wasn't their friend anymore.

"You know that we can't let you do this," Erza said firmly.

"It's too late now," He said. "Now that I've started, I have to finish. There is no going back."

"But–"

"Don't worry too much just yet," Zeref interrupted. "He'd have to actually have a way to kill me first. Natsu was your best bet, but now that you've cut him off from half his power… You ruined your options. You aren't strong enough to kill me, especially now that you're missing all the power bound to your Book."

"And here I was thinking that you'd begun to figure it out." He looked back with a sly half-smile. "You're right. I'm not strong enough to kill you. But E.N.D. is."

Eyes lighting with dark glee and smile widening into a triumphant grin, He raised one hand and wrangled with the unfamiliar curses until a flame flickered to life in his palm, blazing upward for a moment before He let it die again. He couldn't afford to put on too big of a show just yet, because using it tore him apart and He'd need all his strength for what was coming. The heat and trembling ratcheted up a notch, and it felt like blood was pooling in his lungs again. He did his very best not to cough it up, as that would ruin the dramatic effect.

And dramatic it must be, judging by Zeref's expression. The black mage looked so startled that He wanted to laugh. He'd managed to truly rattle Zeref again. Point two for the rogue demon.

"You… What…?" Zeref shook his head slowly as he picked his jaw up off the ground.

"You practically said it yourself," He purred, chuckling and spitting out a mouthful of blood. "Part of a demon's power is directly tied to its Book. By binding myself to E.N.D.'s, I have access to whatever is left. How did you think that I could use ice magic? I inherited it along with Gray's body. I might not be strong enough to kill you on my own, but between my curses, E.N.D.'s curses, and my magics, I think I might have a shot."

"That…is actually startlingly clever." Zeref smiled faintly. "I didn't create you to be clever."

"No, no you didn't."

Kill Zeref. Kill, kill, kill.

"Fascinating," Zeref murmured. "The beginning and the end. You weren't joking."

No, He hadn't been. He'd meant it quite literally.

There was a strangled choking sound from behind him, and He turned back again, bracing himself for the show the team was undoubtedly going to put on.

"Okay," Natsu said, "for one, you are not allowed to use fire. Fire is my thing."

He stared back for a moment and then started laughing, although it turned into another coughing fit at the end. "I don't honestly know how you can stand it. It's even more horrible than the ice."

Freezing cold and needle-sharp ice crystals tearing at his veins were painful, but He had, in a sense, begun growing used to them the longer the devil slayer magic kept up its assault. But this fire trying to cook his insides was new, and it hurt.

Natsu's face twisted into a pained expression, but it was Erza who said, "Gray, don't do this. There has to be another way."

"I told you that you wouldn't like the plan," He said, eyeing her mournfully. "But Zeref has to be taken care of somehow, and this honestly solves all your problems."

"What," Lucy interjected indignantly, "you dying isn't a problem?"

"No?" He shrugged. "If it works, it will be the perfect solution."

"Perfect?" Happy demanded. "It's not–"

"Gray-sama cannot do this! Juvia will not–"

"I know you're normally pretty stupid, but this is bad even for you, ice block. You–"

"You can't–"

"There has to be another way–"

Pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes, He waited for the world to come back into focus. All the voices were blending together in a surreal blur, and He was getting lightheaded. He took a couple deep breaths and then dropped his hands again.

"Look," He said, slicing through the protests, "Acnologia is dead and I took care of the E.N.D. problem. This here would take care of Zeref. All those threats will have been neutralized, making me the next biggest one. I'm still in the process of Awakening, and I can't fight that off forever. Eventually I'll snap and go on a rampage. And anyway, it would get the Council off your case and save you the trouble of figuring out what to do with a demon after the war. Sometimes when a knot is too gnarled to untangle, it's easiest to just cut it out entirely. It's a brilliant solution, to be honest."

"Who cares about the Council?" Lucy asked heatedly. "We'll stand by you, and what will they do then?"

"That's a horrible idea."

"And we could find a way to stop you from Awakening," Natsu added. "You fixed me."

"That's different."

"But–" Erza tried.

"If you won't take into consideration the practical benefits," He interrupted, "then maybe you'll listen to my selfish reasons. This would benefit me as much as it would benefit you." He sighed and closed his eyes, lowering his voice. "I'm tired. I'm tired of lying and manipulating and pretending. I'm tired of being scared and angry and in pain. I'm tired of hiding and running away and fighting. Oh, am I tired of fighting. I'm tired of fighting myself. I'm really, really tired."

Opening his eyes again, He stared down at the ground blankly. "I've already tried everything else. This is an opportunity that I can't afford to pass up. You can call it selfish, but the truth is that I don't have a place in your world anymore. I'm sorry. If there was a better way, then I'd have tried it, but this is what we have to work with."

There was a long, heavy pause, and He was fairly sure that He had managed to make the girls cry. At the very least, He could definitely hear Juvia. She wasn't a quiet crier.

"You're obviously not sorry," Natsu snapped finally. "If you were, then you wouldn't do this."

"No, I am sorry." He smiled wearily and briefly glanced over at Lyon, who had been silent this whole time and was wearing an unreadable expression. "I'm sorry for a lot of things, I guess." He sighed again. "Human emotions are so messy and complicated. It would have been so much easier…"

"We don't just do things the easy way," Natsu growled. "I already told you that. Stop giving up like a dumbass."

"Gray, you do still have a place with us," Lucy said quietly, sniffing and rubbing at her eyes. "We can figure things out together and find another way. Who cares if it's hard? We'll fight for you, just like you've always fought for us."

He was already shaking his head. "I don't want you to fight for me anymore. This is a fight that I have to fight myself."

"Well, too bad." Natsu scowled as he started forward, gritting his teeth against his injuries. "We're better at fighting."

That seemed to be a cue to the rest of the team, who had all begun nodding, faces creasing in determination. He needed to put a stop to that right away.

It took a second to isolate his own curses from the marshy hodgepodge inside him, but He managed to draw them out. Natsu's shadow wrapped around his ankles and peeled partway off the ground to restrain him, leaving him struggling futilely in its grasp. Similarly restraining the others, He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths as He rode out the pain.

Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, Zeref.

"Let me go!" Natsu hissed.

"Gray," Erza tried, "we–"

"Enough," He snarled, baring his fangs at them. "I don't have time for this."

Thank goodness they were already weakened from fighting, because his curses were depleted and maintaining restraints would be hard enough without strong resistance.

He could hear approaching footsteps and voices now. It had really only been a matter of time before someone stumbled across them, and given how much racket they'd been making with all the fighting… Well, it was more surprising that no one had shown up sooner. He needed to hurry and finish before anyone else got added into the mix.

"But–"

"He's right that it would be better for him," Zeref remarked. "Even from his battle with Natsu, it was easy to see that his curses and devil slayer magic are warring with each other. Adding in another set of curses, one that's even especially incompatible with ice magic, is tearing him apart from the inside out. If he can't die or find a way to get rid of the conflicting powers, it will be a long eternity of hell for him. This would be a mercy killing."

He turned back with a scowl. "I don't need your pity."

"So you keep saying." Zeref arched an eyebrow. "Is it because you really don't want anything from me, or because you're worried about activating my curse?"

He barked out a harsh laugh, wincing at the pain shooting through his ribs. "You got me. It's both."

"Hm. Well, I'm afraid that you're going to be in for a very painful eternity. What you've accomplished here is truly amazing, but you have to know that you can't win. You can barely even stand, your every breath screams of pain. And what you've gained of E.N.D.'s power won't be enough now that your own curses are depleted. If you'd had access to the rest of your power through your Book, then you might have been able to pull it off, but as it is…"

"Pain is irrelevant when I'm Awake. And I also have access to a much deeper well of curses."

Kill Zeref. Kill, destroy, kill.

"Except that you aren't Awake," Zeref said mildly.

"Not fully." He smiled grimly. "Not yet."

"You're going to initiate a full Awakening."

"Correct."

"You and Natsu truly are remarkable," Zeref said with something like grudging respect. "I'm impressed with how far you've come, and yes, I'd like to see how far you could go. I don't think you can do it, but you're welcome to try. But if you think I'll just sit back and wait, you are mistaken. I will fight back."

"I would expect nothing less."

He managed to drag himself forward a few more paces, then paused and swayed unsteadily. Looking down at the shadows curling about his feet, He swallowed hard. He had been fighting so hard to prevent an Awakening and the thought of giving in now was terrifying, but He needed that extra power. He'd need it to supplement the other curses and magics. Trying to use them all at once would be unimaginably difficult, but what was more frightening was the thought of not using any of them at all.

Like Zeref had said, He had never used his curses while Awake. If his instincts took over to the point where He was just trying to rip stuff apart with his hands again… Well, everything would have been for naught. Could He Awaken and still keep the barest sliver of consciousness? Just enough to have the presence of mind to use the curses? He'd have to try.

Kill, kill, kill. Kill Zeref.

The shadows wound about his legs lovingly—a dark kind of love—as they sensed that He was preparing to free them. He instinctively flinched back, but He'd need to get over his aversion pronto.

"Gray," Erza said, her voice cracking, "you don't have to do this."

He looked back at her, at all of them, and smiled sadly. "I do. It's honestly for the best, even if you don't see it yet. You're thinking with your heart rather than your head."

"What's wrong with that?" Lucy strained vainly against the shadows holding her before falling back again, her face streaked with tears.

"Don't cry," He said gently. "There's nothing wrong with that, as long as someone is still looking at the practical side of things. And since I don't have a heart the same way you do, I'm going to have to be the voice of reason here."

"What do you mean, you don't have a heart?"

"I'm a demon. Hearts and souls and choices and worth and all those other uniquely human things don't work the same way for me as they do for you." A wistful smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Although I found some of those things for a little while. You guys taught me a lot, gave me a lot. I lived through you. The guild was always my heart." He let out a tired, breathy laugh as He remembered the Knights' failed attempts to kill him. "Even if it's on the wrong side of my body."

He was a demon, He shouldn't have a heart, but at this moment He could almost swear that He had one, if only because He could feel it shattering.

He swept his gaze over all the tearstained faces before looking away. "If I could love, then I would love you."

His friends were everything. They were the people who had given him a reason to live, who had given him a home and a place to almost belong, who had taught him what it meant to be human.

That He was repaying them by breaking their hearts was a painful truth, but maybe one day they would understand.

"Gray," Erza whispered, tears spilling down her cheeks, "please…"

He shook himself out of his reverie and grinned at her. "Have fun trying to explain this to the Council. Make sure to come up with a truly outrageous story, will you?"

Erza's face twisted into a heartbroken expression, and He had to look away. That was when He noticed a few other people stumbling into the wrecked area and stopping as they took in the scene. Some were from other guilds, but He spotted Wendy, Charle, and Cana as well.

"Ah, our time is up." Through the forest of broken buildings, He spotted Mavis running toward them, Makarov trailing behind. "Looks like Mavis finally figured it out."

The last thing He needed was more complications.

He gave his friends one last smile. "Goodbye."

They were talking, crying, but He turned a deaf ear to their pleas and returned his attention to Zeref, who had watched the exchange with a great deal of interest.

"Ready?" He asked shortly.

"Whenever you are."

Black magic sprang to Zeref's fingertips in preparation, and He tensed. His memories might be fuzzy, but He had tasted this magic before, when Zeref still liked to poke at him and test his limits and see how far he could push him before He broke.

Kill Zeref.

"I'm not doing this for you," He said. "I'm not doing it because my instincts are forcing me to."

Zeref arched an eyebrow. "Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?"

"Shut up," He growled, shoulders hunching.

"Incomplete instinctual override. Interesting."

He took a deep breath and tamped down his anger. No more time for distractions.

His curses pulled the shadows out into a mass that bore a striking resemblance to his old form. They peeled themselves from the ground to coalesce in the air beside him, and He could almost swear that they were watching him, waiting.

Let go, give in, kill Zeref.

He didn't want to do this. It was sad that He was less afraid of dying than of losing himself. He wouldn't even mind the dying, if only He could die as himself and not as a monster that He had spent the past years running away from.

His hand tightened around the pendant. As it cut into his skin, He realized for the first time that He was holding it, and uncurled his fist to stare down at the glint of silver in his palm.

"The bindings you've placed on me, they won't be enough to overcome my bond to Zeref. Not even the bindings I've placed on myself will be strong enough."

He sighed. "As a demon, I belonged to you. As a human, I belonged to them. But in the end, I guess sometimes you just can't outrun yourself forever."

He yanked on the chain with enough force that it cut into his throat painfully and then snapped. Just one more way to break whatever was left of himself.

Dropping the broken necklace to the ground, He ignored the void it left in his chest and planted his feet firmly as He turned back to the waiting shadows. He didn't really need this physical manifestation of his instincts, but it seemed fitting.

Destroy, kill, Zeref.

"Alright," He breathed, reaching out and wincing as the shadows reached back. "I'm ready."

His hand wavered, but then He closed his eyes and turned his head away and let go.

Something inside him snapped. There was darkness and shadow and fire and ice, hate and rage and a driving need.

Destroy, destroy, destroy it all.

Kill Zeref. Zeref, Zeref, kill, kill, kill.

He was already moving—had to kill Zeref, kill Zeref now—and there was searing agony as the human struck back and He slammed into the creature calling him so strongly.

Kill Zeref, kill Zeref, kill Zeref.

Just the briefest flicker of awareness. And then there was shadow and fire and ice everywhere, consuming and burning and freezing.

Kill Zeref.

Not enough, not enough.

A glimmer of silver. Catch it, throw it at the human with the rest.

A widening of eyes, mouth opened in a startled 'o', the barest whisper of "thank you".

Searing pain and agony and a breaking.

And then nothing.

Chapter Text


Chapter 8-Redemption


When He opened his eyes, nothing made sense. Everything was blurry and formless, a sea of hazy color and muted sound. Everything in his head was all jumbled up and none of the pieces fit together, but He knew this was wrong because…because… He really had no idea.

Something intruded on his field of vision, and He blinked up at the object blearily as it slowly resolved itself into a blonde human girl. He almost dismissed her because He didn't care about humans any more than He cared about anything else, but something was nagging at the edges of his mind, just a feeling that He was missing something here.

Her mouth was moving, but the words came out distorted and indecipherable. No, there were words there, but it was hard to understand…

Letting his eyes drift away from the human, He sluggishly took stock of the situation. He was lying on the ground, on his back, in the midst of a ruined city. One of his, maybe? He had ruined a lot of cities in his time. There were a lot of other humans clustered around, but they made his eyes want to go out of focus, and their features blurred and wavered.

And oh, everything hurt. He couldn't say what the problem was, exactly, but everything ached. He tried to remember how He had gotten himself into this mess, but all He was coming up with were fragmented flashes and snippets of memory that only served to disorient him more.

"He's awake!"

"Hey, Gray, are you alright?"

Returning his gaze to the human girl, He frowned up at her and tried to clear his head. He was supposed to tell her something… What was it…?

He opened his mouth, but everything felt clumsy and awkward and the only thing that came out was a strange, garbled sound. The human's eyes widened in alarm, and He closed his mouth with an audible click. He knew there was a way to make this work, but with everything so muddled, it was all too confusing.

The human was saying something again, and He missed the first part before forcing himself to really focus. Her voice was clear enough, but actually interpreting and comprehending the words was a challenge.

"…hear me? Are you alright, Gray?"

He opened his mouth again and moved his jaw experimentally, testing out the unfamiliar mechanism.

"Gray?" He managed to ask finally, the word slurred and drawn out strangely. He understood the rest of her words, but this one didn't make sense with the others. Then it finally hit him. "Oh. Me. Right."

He thought this might be what they called him, although it wasn't what He called himself.

"Uh…" The human glanced back helplessly at some of the other humans and then looked back down at him. "Are you, um, okay?"

"Moving," He muttered. "Stop."

"I don't understand."

"Move much. Stop." He frowned, realizing that something felt off. The words didn't feel right. They felt jumbled. "Stop moving. Too much moving. Move, stop, uh…" He hissed in frustration at how difficult it was to master the nuances of this unfamiliar language. "Stop moving…so…much. Make hurt head. Head make. Make head hurt."

He trailed off with a guttural sound of frustration and closed his eyes. The human's wavering, jittery form was making his head ache. Or maybe it was just that his head hurt because it was trying to process too much unfamiliar information at once. But the constant jumping around wasn't helping anything.

"Um, I'm not moving," the blonde human said.

"Why is he being weird?" someone else asked.

"Okay, I know that he's usually pretty messed up in the head, but this is something else," another added. "What's wrong with him?"

Blinking his eyes open again, He narrowed them at the blonde human. No, maybe she was right and she wasn't moving. But his muddled senses and the ache in his head were certainly making her jump in and out of focus. He stared at her and grimly tried to force his senses to clear themselves.

"You're not making any sense, Gray," she said, twisting her hands together.

"Nothing sense make. Nothing sense…" Taking a breath, He forced himself to slow down and try again. "Nothing…make…sense. Jumbled. Jumbled everything."

Close enough. Trying to master this strange human tongue was exhausting.

And He was still so sure that He was missing something here. Missing a lot of somethings. Something was very wrong with this situation, didn't quite add up. It would help if He had any idea of what had happened and where He was and who these humans were.

The human girl leaned down a little, face creased with worry, and opened her mouth, but that was when He had a sudden flash of insight.

"Lu…cy." Then He frowned, wondering if that was true or He had just made it up. "Maybe?"

Her eyes widened, and her mouth gaped for a few seconds before she finally choked out, "Yeah, I'm Lucy."

He studied her closely, committing every detail of her to memory. Yes, He could almost remember her. The memories themselves were fuzzy, but He remembered an impression of her, could feel a sense of protectiveness spring up at the thought.

The other humans were talking again, but He was too busy surveying them one by one to devote enough attention to deciphering all their words. Redhead, Erza. Ridiculous pink hair, Natsu. Blue cat, Happy. There were more as well, and his eyes roamed over them as his mind grudgingly supplied the names: Wendy, Charle, Cana, Mavis, Makarov, Lyon, Juvia… There were others that He vaguely recognized, but there wasn't as strong a connection and it would take too much brainpower to figure them out individually. The only humans He really cared about were the ones right here, anyway.

"Oh," He mumbled. "Yeah, remember. Remember you. Sort of."

The more He thought about it, the more little bits and pieces He could remember. Snatches of laughter, good-natured teasing, brawls for the fun of it. Everything was still disjointed, but at least some things were starting to coalesce. He knew these people, could place traits and personalities to the faces and names. The actual timeline of events was still hazy, but as his mind continued to wake up and adjust, it became easier to piece together the small things.

Erza's head appeared in his line of sight. "Can you tell us what's wrong?" she asked.

He blinked up at her for a moment. "Awake? Feels like I…was Awake." Words were coming a little easier with practice now, although it still took a lot of concentration. "Would explain why confusing everything. Why everything confusing. Is confusing."

Clearly, He still had some ways to go, though.

But He latched on to that idea of an Awakening, turning it over in his mind. It would explain why his thoughts were so fragmented and everything human seemed so foreign. It felt a little like when He had first… First something. He was blanking again, although blurry snatches of memory and ice and confusion raged in his mind. But that had been a long time ago and didn't explain what had happened now. If He had been Awake, then why wasn't He Awake now? He seemed to almost remember something about his Book being messed up, so how…?

"Yeah," Erza said, swallowing. "You were Awake. Are you going to be alright?"

"Uh… Maybe?" He glanced around helplessly, suddenly feeling small and lost in an unfamiliar world. "Need time to, uh, to…sort things. Sort things out. It's such a big mess."

There, that felt a little better. Maybe He was finally starting to get the hang of this whole talking thing. He could vaguely recall that He had been able to do this without a problem before, so He should be able to figure it out again. If He thought very hard, He could almost remember how fascinating He had found human speech in the beginning, because He'd had no need of it as a…demon. Yes, that was right. Demon. And then something had changed and–

"So," Natsu said, interrupting his thoughts, "what do you remember, then?"

He furrowed his brow and began sifting through his shattered memories again. Everything seemed to come in bits and pieces, and He was jumping all over the place, hopping from thought to thought, memory to memory, as his scattered brain dictated. But the more He thought, the more He could start fitting things together.

"Um… Kill? Destroy everything. Supposed to– Supposed to– Kill Zeref. Have to, uh, have to–" He shook his head and tried to sweep away all the hazy memories from that time, as He continued to absentmindedly narrate his thought process. "No, long time ago. Things changed and, uh… Ice. Lots of ice. Snap, break, something is wrong, Book is, uh… Nothing working. Should kill useless humans except… Um… Not kill because…"

He huffed in frustration and shook his head again. "No, that was long time ago too. Irrelevant. This time was…was…" He grabbed on to a slippery sliver of memory. "How dare she? Kill the bitch. No, not again, not supposed to, uh… Eileen? Eileen. Right. Snap the seal. Pointless trial. Silly human game. Go with Knights to, uh…"

Flashes of blood and pain bombarded his mind, and He flinched back. Time to skip ahead, then.

"Bad idea, Mavis. Ice, her. It's not her, Lyon, it's… Big mess. What a big mess." Another memory of ice sprang to mind and He jumped on it eagerly, fitting it in with the pieces He had already been figuring out. "Ice, right. Kill her, go to Zeref, can't bind me. Don't belong to you, still belong to Zeref.

"Go to Zeref, have to get the Book, not fast enough. Have to fix Natsu, have to–" The pieces were sliding into place now, the gaps in his memory filling in faster and faster. His mind was jumping around so quickly that it was impossible to voice an entire thought before another replaced it. "Break his binding, transfer mine– Perfect solution because– Going to be enough because– Awake." He frowned suddenly, his mind snagging on this idea. There was something important here, something He needed to know. "Awake…Awake…Awake because… Zeref."

He was supposed to have killed Zeref, and that should have killed him too. So if He wasn't dead, then Zeref…

He sat up abruptly in a panic, but immediately bit out a choked curse and fell back as searing pain shot through his ribs. Squeezing his eyes shut, He rode out the pain and tried to push it out of his mind. His mind was already messy enough without adding in anything else to cloud it.

It took a few seconds before He could open his eyes again and get back to work sorting out the sea of words around him, linking them together with a grim determination as He set out to decipher their meaning.

"Sorry," Wendy was saying, peering down at him with large, pained eyes, "I didn't have enough magic to fix your ribs or a lot of your other injuries. You had so much internal damage that it was all I could do to keep you alive. Although I did heal the one right over your guild mark that you asked me not to fix last time." She darted a glance over at the rest of the team standing nearby. "They asked me to and it barely took any magic, so…"

He stared at her blankly for a moment before nodding. "Yeah, sure, I remember that."

Things were snapping back into place, and although a lot of it was still hazy and He had no idea what had happened after his Awakening, He was quickly reconstructing a mental timeline of what had happened since Eileen had come and wrecked everything. He had actually been planning to keep that scar, but it looked like his meddlesome friends had interfered, had perhaps figured out what it meant to him.

But that was the least of his concerns now. He sat up more carefully this time and then twisted around to survey the area, his heart in his throat.

"If I'm not dead, then Zeref…" He paused and frowned, feeling the distinct lack of the call. "No, I don't feel him."

"He's dead," Natsu said flatly. "Your stupid-ass stunt worked."

"Not as well as it should have," He muttered.

He pulled himself to his feet with some difficulty, swaying dangerously. His body felt heavy and awkward, and everything ached all over.

"You're supposed to be resting!" Wendy protested.

"I was fighting with way injuries worse than…with injuries way worse than these. I think I can manage."

"You're going to be a difficult patient, I see," said the pink-haired woman next to Wendy. It took a second to remember her name because it was something long and complicated, but He eventually came up with 'Porlyusica'. He wondered how long He'd been out that she'd had time to show up.

Eyeing her warily, He muttered, "Now, you're still scary."

She glowered right back. "I bandaged some of your wounds, but you'd do well not to go aggravating them right away. I can give you painkillers, but they'll make you drowsy and I feel it unwise to give them to you after you were so deeply unconscious. Maybe later."

He shrugged halfheartedly, already back to wondering what had happened and how his plan could have gone so wrong.

He took a hesitant step forward and his sprained ankle twisted underneath him, almost sending him to his knees. Someone grabbed him from behind to keep him upright, and his head lolled back against his rescuer's shoulder.

"You alright?" the orange-haired man asked neutrally, his eyes unreadable behind his glasses.

The pain was making it hard to think and sort things out, but He could almost remember…

"Um… Lo…ke?" He asked slowly. A disjointed series of images about spirits and lions flashed through his head, and He snickered. "Kitty. Big kitty." It took a second to notice Loke's flabbergasted expression, but then He was promptly dragged back to reality and dropped his face into his hands. "Damn, my brain is so fried. Sorry. Let's pretend that didn't just happen."

Loud cackling started up, and He noticed Cana standing by Loke's shoulder with a grin plastered on her face. "Like I'm ever going to let you live that down!" she crowed.

"Some things never change," He grumbled. He grasped Loke's arm tightly until He was certain that He wouldn't topple back over, and then stepped away. "So, what–?"

"Gray-sama!"

Juvia slammed into his chest and flung her arms around him, apparently having run out of self-control. White-hot pain seared through his ribs and He gasped, screwing his eyes shut. Then Juvia was being pulled away gently.

"He has broken ribs," Lyon told her quietly.

He stumbled backward a half-step, and Loke grabbed him again. Forcing his eyes open, He noted Lyon watching him with an inscrutable expression and Juvia staring with wide eyes, her hands pressed over her mouth.

"Juvia is sorry!" she wailed. "She did not mean to hurt Gray-sama."

"S'okay," He mumbled, forcing a smile. Darting a glance back at Loke, He added, "Sorry." Then, unable to help himself, a sly grin spread across his face. "Good kitty."

Loke shook his head and sighed in exasperation. "Really?"

"Well, if Cana isn't going to let it go, then I might as well have some fun with it."

"You're incorrigible." Loke's expression softened a little and he looked away. "I'm glad you're alright."

The demon's smile disappeared instantly and He gingerly stepped away. "Yeah. Sure." Wendy said something else, but He missed it and had to ask, "Sorry, can you run me by that again?" Then He groaned. "Wow, I forgot how difficult speaking was. Run that by me again, I meant."

"You've always had that much trouble talking?" she asked with a frown.

"In the beginning. Not for a while, but my brain is messed up right now."

"didn't suddenly forget how to talk," Natsu said skeptically.

"You were Awake for like twenty minutes out of your entire life, and you grew up human. It's different for me. I inherited some knowledge of this stuff, but it was still difficult. I wasn't capable of speech at all, Before. This all is unfamiliar. Is all unfamiliar."

"That won't last, though, right?" Erza asked. "You're already speaking much better than a few minutes ago."

"It's coming back to me. Anyway, it's not so much a mechanical problem as an issue of comprehension. I can make the words, but it takes a lot of concentration to actually understand how to say what I want to say and what is being said. Which is why it would be great if you could talk a little slower."

"You…are…so…stupid," Natsu said with exaggerated slowness.

"Natsu!" Erza whacked him and he yelped.

Also unamused, He glowered back at the dragon slayer. "You don't have to talk to me like a baby. Geez. It just takes me a second to work out the structure. You take it for granted, but your language is extremely nuanced, and those complicated rules of grammar and syntax affect the meaning."

"Syntax?" Natsu asked. "What the hell is syntax?"

"And you say I'm stupid," He said, turning his nose up. "You're even a native speaker."

"I said that I'm sorry," Wendy interrupted, and He turned his attention back to her. "Once my magic recovers, I can heal your ribs and other injuries."

"Nah." He snorted. "You guys just won a war. A lot of people are going to be severely wounded, and these are hardly life-threaten…ing…"

He trailed off, suddenly realizing what felt so different. That familiar siren song of immortality, it was gone. He was bound to something, and that was totally wrong.

"What the hell happened?" He demanded. "What am I bound to?" Looking around frantically, He spotted that silvery glimpse of magic and latched on to it, following it with unsteady steps. "My Book? That's impossible. How the hell did I manage that?"

But He could feel that old, almost familiar sense of his Book, even though it had been lost to him for over a decade now. And it might explain the sudden lack of immortality, because this felt like a proper binding, not like when He had bound himself to Natsu's Book.

But that was still wrong, because it was entirely impossible and wasn't what He had been trying to do at all.

Stopping in front of Natsu, He held out a hand. "Can I have my Book?"

"Uh, what do you mean?" the dragon slayer asked nervously, darting a furtive glance over at Happy and the girls.

"What, you think I can't sense it?" He asked impatiently. Even if He couldn't clearly sense his thread leading right up to Natsu, it was very obvious that he was holding something behind his back.

Natsu cleared his throat. "You didn't do it. I did."

"You…what?"

"I bound you to your Book."

"Impossible," He said immediately. "You think I haven't been trying to do that for years? No way could you randomly waltz up and do it. Even aside from being entirely incompetent, you don't know nearly enough about bindings."

"I…don't honestly know how I did it," Natsu mumbled, dropping his gaze. "Everything happened so fast and I didn't really know what I was doing, but I didn't want you to die, so… I don't know. I got some glimpses of how this stuff works from when you broke my binding and bound yourself to my Book, and I worked off of that. Except it wasn't working and you were going to die, but then I somehow, uh… I don't know. I just grabbed your Book, and I think I used my curses to help bind you once you killed Zeref and your binding to my Book snapped. But it all happened in seconds, and I really have no idea how I managed it."

Mind reeling, He tried to puzzle out how such a thing could be possible. "Maybe… Maybe because I bound myself to your Book first… I was already linked to your curses and they were part of me, so maybe you could use what was left of yours to bind me because they were recognized as being of me, even though they were really from you. I couldn't bind myself back because I don't have a soul and the Book acts as an artificial one, but maybe you managed to create something close enough that it worked.

"Bloody hell." He pressed his hands to his eyes. "If I'd known you could randomly stumble across something like this, then I wouldn't have left my Book lying around so carelessly."

Leave it to the most brainless of the bunch to somehow find the solution He had spent so long searching for. It was a complete miracle, but not one He was celebrating. Before everything with Zeref and Alvarez, He would have given anything for this. Now… Now He'd had a different plan.

"You aren't still having all those problems with the magics and curses, are you?" Natsu asked.

"Um… No…"

The strange fire from Natsu's curses was no longer coursing through his veins, although He could feel the barest echo of it in his…Book, He guessed. He didn't have a soul. Most of his own curses had been safely locked away in his Book again, but He still had access to a good portion of that power. The devil slayer magic was no longer tearing away at him, possibly because the curses had died down and things had been reset.

"I wonder if the devil slayer stuff would kill me now if I tried to use it," He mused.

Natsu's head snapped up, and he shot the demon a look equal parts horrified and furious. "We just saved you, and the first thing you're talking about is dying again? God, Gray."

"It's just a question," He muttered mutinously. "It would be helpful to know before I try using it."

"So, um…" Natsu's anger bled away and he returned to staring at his feet, shifting uncomfortably. "Your immortality is gone, then? I was worried I'd curse you again and you would… Well, Mavis said she didn't sense it on you anymore, so…"

"I wouldn't have hated you," He said with a sigh, picking up on what wasn't being said. "But this was still a really, really stupid idea, flame brain. So much could have gone wrong. You really shouldn't have…" He sighed again and shook his head. "No, the immortality is gone, but… What is it that I'm forgetting now?"

He wrinkled his brow in thought, replaying Natsu's words in his mind. Something the dragon slayer said was itching at him, trying to remind him of something.

"Oh," He said. "Mavis."

Book forgotten, He turned away, his eyes scanning over the crowd of faces and dismissing them all until they caught on Mavis. Gritting his teeth, He limped over to her. She frowned in confusion but stepped forward to meet him.

"What–?"

"I was so out of it that I can't say for sure," He mumbled, narrowing his eyes as He searched the air around her, "but at the end there, I thought I saw… Ah."

He caught that glimpse of silvery soul magic floating about her and reached for it. His memory from his time Awake was shot, but He had some shattered recollection of doing this for Zeref, at the end.

He pushed it into Mavis gently, brow furrowed in concentration as He tried to find a way to make her soul catch in her body. It seemed trickier than it had been for Natsu, and He didn't remember exactly how He had managed it for Zeref. Remembering Natsu's account of the rebinding, He decided to go that route. His magic wasn't part of Mavis, but she also had a soul, so maybe the supporting magic didn't have to be as integral.

It was as He was trying this that He realized it wasn't his magic that was fixing things. He couldn't really explain how He pinched a snippet of his thread from his frayed binding and used it to help fuse Mavis's soul back into her body, but He realized that He must have done this for Natsu and Zeref too, even if He hadn't recognized it as such. Natsu might have found a different way for the one rebinding, but all He had to give were pieces of himself.

Mavis gasped, her eyes widening, and He grasped her arm as she swayed.

"Funny," He said with a sigh, "our situations were so different that I never thought the root of them might be the same. I can't do anything about the rest of your curse, although you haven't seemed to be having much trouble with it since regaining your body. I don't understand how that works."

"You…" Mavis swallowed hard and looked down, still dazed. "Thank you."

"No problem," He said. He supposed that He owed her this much, and this was all He could give her.

"How come you make it look so easy?" Natsu grumbled. "I had no idea what I was doing."

The truth was that it wasn't at all easy. It was still strange and incomprehensible, and He had spent a lot of time figuring out how these things worked. He supposed that the only reason He was able to do it at all was because of that increased awareness. Most people didn't even have a clue that stuff like this existed, which was why they couldn't utilize it. He was the one who knew, because He'd experienced a snapped binding firsthand and worked to figure out how to understand it. Natsu had caught a glimpse when He had broken the dragon slayer's binding, and had used it to jerry-rig a solution to reattach a binding, even if he still didn't know how he had done it.

And even He, who should know these things better than anyone, had just learned something new. He'd been in such a rush or out of his mind while fixing Natsu and Zeref that He had been working on instinct and hadn't truly seen what He was doing. It wasn't until He tried it again with his entire attention focused on it that He saw what He'd done, realized that a thread meant to bind him to an artificial soul would make a perfect crutch for binding someone else's soul back to their own body.

In the end, He didn't know nearly as much as He'd like to think He did, and these things would always be shrouded in mystery.

He sighed. "I guess that one good thing came out of this, at least. But you all still screwed up big time. My plan you messed… You messed up my plan."

Shock wearing away, Mavis straightened to her full—if rather unimpressive—height, a scowl stealing over her face. "If you had just let me in on the plan, then I could have helped you make a better one. I told you I would help, but nooo."

"I got rid of Zeref, didn't I?"

"But we might have found a better way to handle things, one that wouldn't have nearly killed you."

He wondered how she and everyone else could so easily miss the entire point.

"One," Makarov added pointedly, "that wouldn't involve you playing the sacrificial hero. Weren't you just getting on my case for that?"

He blinked at the old man blankly but then snorted derisively. "Hero? I wasn't playing the hero. I've found that it doesn't suit me. I did what needed to be done for very practical and selfish reasons. An anti-hero at the best of times, and a villain at the worst. I hate to break this to you, but my intentions are not at all heroic. I have no problem being as dark and black a villain as I want to be in order to suit my own ends."

"That's not actually what you said," Happy interrupted, fur fluffing out.

He arched an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"It's not," Natsu said shortly. "I believe your exact words were, 'When you threaten the people I care about, I'll be as dark and black a villain as I need to be in order to protect them.' What, you think we don't remember that?"

Leave it to Natsu's brain to randomly start working at the most inconvenient of times.

"You barely remember what you ate for breakfast," He said scornfully.

"No, he's right and you know it," Lucy said, steely determination shining in her eyes. "I don't know why you're doing this, but…" She sighed. "It's funny how you mentioned Natsu dressing up as a demon in Edolas, because I thought much the same thing about you in Avatar. You looked really silly playing the villain."

"I played a damn good villain, actually."

"But it's still playing. It doesn't suit you and it's just not… It's just not you. I kind of want to slap some sense into you again. I'd do it, too, if you weren't injured. Zeref is gone—you don't need to play the villain anymore."

"Oh, you naïve little human." He chuckled darkly and stepped toward her, a sharp-toothed smirk working its way across his face. "I'm not playing at anything. What, you think this is a joke?" He leaned forward and stared directly into her eyes. "Do you know how many times I've dreamed of killing you and your friends, woken to the taste of your blood on my tongue? Sometimes I wake up screaming, sometimes I wake up crying, and sometimes, my darling human, I wake up laughing."

Lucy flinched back, her eyes widening at whatever she saw in his own. He wondered what it was that she saw. He had looked into the mirror before, on his bad days, and seen a frightening pair of eyes staring back at him. Old eyes, eyes that had seen too much, eyes glittering with inhuman darkness—demon eyes.

"That, human child, is what makes me different from Natsu and his dress-up games. Natsu dreams human dreams. He doesn't have moments when he wants to tear you limb from limb, moments when you are but a worthless insect to him, moments when he likes the taste of your fear. I very much do. You humans are strange creatures. You burn so bright, burn like matches, and there's so much passion and vibrancy and life there. But your lives end so quickly, and they're so easy to snuff out.

"Child, what makes me different from Natsu or you or anyone is that you are made of flesh and blood, tendon and sinew, heart and soul. I am old, dear human, and dark. I am made of darkness and death, fear and destruction, paper and thread. I am a living curse. I have no heart, no soul, only a void. A void that was created to consume creatures like you. Insatiable. The black hole where humans like you go to die."

Reaching out, He grasped her chin and bored into her with burning eyes, letting his curses creep out and drag their shadows into grotesque shapes. "You are naïve to think of me as your friend. I am no such thing. Do you see the Book Natsu is holding behind his back?" He pulled her chin around to force her to look, ignoring her strangled sound of protest. "What do you think would happen if he opened that Book right now? I would kill you, human child. Does that not seem a bit dangerous to you? Are you scared yet, human? Because you should be."

Lucy's gaze snapped back to him despite the awkward position He was holding her at. Her eyes were hard to read, but there was certainly a glimmer of fear and incomprehension amidst the rest of the swirling emotions. As with most things, He felt both a vindictive satisfaction and heavy sadness.

Then He was suddenly being shoved back as Loke appeared out of nowhere and positioned himself between Lucy and the demon.

"I don't know what the hell is wrong with you," the spirit growled, eyes flashing, "but stay away from her."

He just smirked and leaned back. "Down, kitty."

Loke was clearly not amused this time, not now that his master had been threatened. Which was just as well, given that He was not amused either.

Loke opened his mouth to retort, but it was Erza who spoke first.

"Enough, Gray," she said firmly. "Don't think I don't know exactly what you're doing."

"Oh?" He asked with a lazy smirk. "And what might that be?"

"You're doing your distancing thing again."

His eyes narrowed. "What?"

Lucy nudged Loke aside, shaking her head at him. "Relax. He's bluffing."

"I am doing no such thing."

"You are, Gray," Erza said with a sigh. "You think we haven't noticed that the only time you go dark and start talking like a demon is when you want to push us away for whatever reason? And your goal this time is…what, to convince us that you're dangerous and evil and it would be better to kill you off like you so obviously want us to?"

He stared at her for a moment and then deflated, turning aside to stare sightlessly at the ground as He pulled the curses and shadows back into himself again. "You're too clever for your own good," He said wearily.

"You don't need to lie to us, Gray."

He smiled thinly, bitterly. "You're only half right. Everything I said is true, to an extent. I'm still a demon, and I always will be. It's not as bad as it was in the beginning, but I certainly have a dark side. You tend to overlook that, but the truth is that it's always lurking under the surface. I'm not just making up lies. I don't need to, not when I already have enough dark truths of my own. This will always be part of me, just as much as the side of myself I've presented to you all these years. They are both me, Erza, whether you like it or not."

There was a long, heavy pause and He was suddenly aware of all the eyes on him, mentally dissecting him as they tried to figure him out. Not many people had shown up yet and most of them were hanging well back, but it was still too many. Their attention exhausted him.

Erza stepped forward, and He eyed her hand idly as it stretched out toward him. She grabbed one of his own hands and deposited something within it.

"You asked me to come with you because you wanted me to remind you of yourself, to stop you from losing yourself," she said quietly, dropping her hand away.

He stared down at the silver glinting in his palm, his eyes slowly traveling over the broken chain and coming to rest on the pendant. "This isn't what I meant," He said hollowly.

He hadn't lost this—He had thrown this away. Everything it signified hurt too much when He couldn't have it anymore.

"I know," Erza said. "But maybe you could use the reminder anyway. You might have some dark pieces, but there's still so much good in you and sometimes I think you forget that."

"You humans hold on so tightly." He worked the pendant lethargically in his fingers, pressing the pointed tip against his palm hard enough that it hurt. "You hold me so tightly. I don't understand."

"Sure you do," Erza said gently. "You're exactly the same way with us. You've always held us as tightly as we've held you."

He shook his head with just the slightest of motions. "Distancing didn't work. The buddy-buddy, lovey-dovey approach didn't work. Scare tactics didn't work. I don't understand how else to make you realize that it's time to let me go."

Erza's breath hitched. "Gray–"

"Okay, I've had about enough of this," Natsu growled. "I already told you that we aren't looking for the easy way out. Get over yourself already."

"It really was the perfect solution," He murmured, his gaze slowly traveling up to meet Natsu's enraged eyes.

If anything, Natsu's rage only burned hotter. "Stop that. We went through so much effort to save you, and still the only thing you can think about is how much you want to die despite everything we've done for you."

There was a split second of silence, the calm before the storm, and then He scowled, his eyes narrowing to furious slits as his own emotions burned through his exhaustion and numbness.

"Is that what you think this is about?" He demanded, baring his fangs at the dragon slayer. "That it's about me wanting to die? You foolish, blind human. It's about you. It has always been about you. Let me explain something to you. After I took out Eileen, you all were almost entirely out of magic and I was the most powerful player on the field. Do you know how easy it would have been for me to leave? You couldn't have stopped me. I let them take me willingly. What, do you think it was for my health? It would have been in my best interest to run and not look back, escape before Zeref showed up at all. No, I chose to go with them for you.

"I submitted to the Council and their sham of a trial for you. I tolerated the Knights and their medieval torture chamber for you. I stayed in prison for you, and I broke out for you. I fought for you. I killed Zeref for you. Finding a way to die was a fantastic bonus, but I would have given up that opportunity if I had to, if it would have been better for you. You stupid fool, no matter how much it would have helped me, the ultimate point of me staying dead was for you.

"Do you think that, if I had a choice, I wouldn't rather live a mortal life with you than die? Death is great but the real issue is the immortality, which you somehow solved. Has it possibly occurred to you that the reason I'm so insistent on this, then, is because it would somehow benefit you? I gave you half a dozen reasons why this would be the perfect solution. Congratulations, you found a way to stop me from Awakening. But all those other problems are still there, and this would have solved all of them."

There was a silence so loud that it was deafening, muffling the entire area. It was finally broken by someone sniffling behind him, but He continued to glower at Natsu with burning eyes, fists clenched tightly by his sides and sword-point cutting deeply into his palm. Everything inside him ached, breaking into jagged pieces like glass to slice through him.

He had always known that the day would come when the guild found out what He was. He had played the scenario over and over again in his head hundreds of times, and although what had actually happened was not entirely expected, it didn't change the fact that the one common element was that there was no way for him to go back to the life He had lived before. He couldn't stay with his friends, not when his mere presence would turn the world against them.

It wasn't that He wanted to die so much as that He didn't want to live without them. They were the ones He would live for, the ones He would die for, and it was because they were the only people He had. He couldn't stay with them now, and without them He was nothing.

Natsu stared back, shock and grief and anger warring with a thousand other emotions in his eyes. Finally, he dropped his gaze and cleared his throat.

"Has it occurred to you," he asked quietly, "that maybe we also want what's best for you in the same way that you want what's best for us? This solution that seems so black and white to you is not the solution we want. This was never… This was never just a business transaction to us."

Natsu's voice wavered, and He felt the fire drain out of him again.

"You're only half right," Erza added. "Yes, it would have solved all of our problems, except for the most important one. You dying is a bigger problem than all the rest, Gray. We're willing to face the rest in exchange for having you."

"All those problems stem from you, because you are the problem," Lucy said, her voice little more than a sigh. "But you're our problem, and we wouldn't have it any other way."

Wasn't it already hard enough without them insisting? Out of all the scenarios He had ever played, He had never counted on them being so damn persistent.

Their words hurt. They were kind—too kind, far kinder than He deserved. They hurt because they were too kind and because they were too painful, and He didn't know where to go from here when his insides felt hollowed out and scraped raw.

"No one," He murmured tiredly, "has ever been able to hurt me half as much as you do."

"Gray?" Lucy leaned forward and her anxious eyes searched his face, trying to read his mind.

He turned aside. He might not have a soul, but He didn't doubt that his eyes were at least windows to some part of himself, and probably to parts that He didn't want the others to see. He dragged his battered body a few steps to the right to lean against a remnant of crumbling wall that was somehow still standing after all the destruction wrought on the area.

"The Council wouldn't stand for it," He said finally, tiredly. "They would kick up a fuss. And, to be quite frank, I have no intention of playing games with the Knights again."

Although if they did decide that they still wanted to execute him, that was now a possibility. But somehow He didn't see his friends accepting that.

"We'll stand against the Council," Erza said firmly.

"And we won't let the Knights near you." Indignation and fury crept into Lucy's voice. "Not after what they did to you last time."

He shrugged lethargically. "I can handle the Knights. But it wouldn't only be the Council. The other guilds wouldn't be happy."

"Juvia would stand by Gray-sama anyway!" Juvia interrupted. "She is sure that the guild can win over everyone else eventually."

"It wouldn't only be them, either." He turned his haunted eyes back on the others. "I'm going to be hunted, you know. No one is going to like this."

"People will give up once they realize that you're with us and we won't stand for it," Natsu said confidently.

"It's really everything," He muttered, the weariness seeping into his bones. "Nothing is as it was. I would have to reconstruct every single aspect of my life. What a daunting task." Breaking off a small chunk of the half-pulverized wall behind him, He turned it over in his hands idly and then dropped it to the ground. "Rebuilding was never my forte. Destroying things is so much easier."

"But it would be easier with help, wouldn't it?" Mavis asked. "You have an entire guild around you, and they would stand by you every step of the way…as long as you let them."

"You're right," Lucy added with a small, half-amused laugh. "That's a lot of problems. You've always been the guild's problem child."

He fixed her with a flat look. "I hate to break this to you, but I am no child. I'm older than all of you, even Mavis."

Her half-smile faded, and an awkward silence fell again. It was easy for them to forget that He was practically ancient in comparison to them, given that they'd only ever seen him as He grew up in Gray's body. But even if He had been in stasis for a good chunk of the past hundreds of years and had spent the rest of the time Awake, that didn't change the facts.

"Wait," Natsu said, his voice too loud and indignant in the tense silence, "I thought was the problem child!"

He blinked at the dragon slayer for a moment, and then a small half-smile slowly worked its way over his face. "Yeah," He said with a tired laugh, "you've always been a problem, alright."

"Hey!"

Erza cleared her throat. "And speaking of the guild, we want you to join again."

"What?" He recoiled, eyes widening in disbelief. "Are you insane? No. No way. That's a horrible idea."

"Actually, I think it's a good one," Makarov said.

He gaped at the old man, wondering how he could even say such a thing. Wasn't he supposed to be doing what was best for the guild?

"I'd get behind that, too," Mavis said brightly. "I did tell you that you'd always be part of the guild, whether or not you wore its mark."

"You've totally lost it," He breathed, horrified. "It's bad enough to purposely save a demon, but to invite it back into your guild? God, do you have no instinct of self-preservation? The Council will eat you alive."

"Look," Mavis said reasonably, "you killed Zeref. You're a war hero, and the Council knows that it had no way to defeat Zeref by itself. They're going to have a hard time justifying the imprisonment and execution of their savior and the savior of the continent. They might still put up a fight at first, but we have enough of a case to stand on to make them leave you alone. The other guilds will have to accept it too, because you saved them as well."

"It's not the other guilds I'm worried about," He said, shaking his head. "Do you have any idea of the kind of divide this would make in Fairy Tail? Let me tell you, not everyone will be behind this plan of yours. Why would you tear the guild apart over something so pointless?"

"It's not pointless," Happy muttered mutinously.

Everyone else exchanged uncertain glances, and He wondered if they had really just assumed that everyone would be happy about inviting a demon back into their guild. No, there would certainly be dissension.

Makarov sighed. "You're right. But the guild is strong, and it will come together in the end. You've always been one of our own, and the others will remember that eventually. Even if there's some infighting for a while, the guild won't fall apart."

Groaning, He leaned more heavily against the wall and tried to figure out how to make them understand what a bad idea this was. He didn't understand how they could be so sure that things would just happen to work out alright in the end. It seemed naïvely optimistic to him.

"Look," He said, choosing his words carefully, "you wouldn't invite a…wild bear, say, into your guild, would you?"

Erza gave him a look that was equal parts disapproval and weary disappointment. "You aren't a bear, Gray."

He flapped a hand dismissively. "You ever seen one of those circus bears? They can be trained to do their tricks, but if they have a bad day, then they're going to rip someone's head off anyway. I told you, didn't I? You can't really tame a demon. I might seem mostly civilized to you, but I'm wild and always will be. And one of these days, someone is going to get hurt."

He watched patiently as everyone started exchanging looks again. It wasn't the most perfect analogy, but maybe they would finally understand that He hadn't just been lying earlier—there were times when He was far more demon than human, times when his dark side started breaking through. And as much as it might be acceptable to have a humanized demon in a guild, a wild demon was a whole other matter.

Erza opened her mouth, but closed it again as Natsu suddenly started laughing. Everyone stared at him in disbelief.

"I'm glad someone finds this amusing," He said, giving the dragon slayer a baleful look.

"Did you just…?" Another peal of laughter overtook Natsu, and he had to fight around his snickers to get out his next words. "Did you just call yourself a trained circus bear?"

He stared at Natsu as his mind processed the words and sudden shift of tone, but then, ever so slowly, a small smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "At least I'm trained, which is more than you can say."

"Whatever." But Natsu was grinning now, eyes sparkling with relief and triumph. Probably pleased to have dragged a smile out of the demon and lightened the atmosphere. "Well, the guild could use a trained bear as its mascot. You can be like our pet."

His smile disappeared instantly. "I already said no. You guys suck at listening."

Natsu's grin faded, and he didn't move for a long moment. Then he scowled, anger blazing in his eyes as he drew himself up to his full height and glared at the demon.

"Okay, we tried talking, but you aren't listening," he growled. Whipping the Book out from behind his back, he shoved it at Erza. She made a sound of surprise, but hugged it to her chest as she watched him with wide eyes. "Looks like we're going to have to do this the hard way."

Natsu stomped over, but He was distracted by the Book in Erza's hands. He'd almost forgotten about it with everything else going on, but now He had to wonder again why his friends wouldn't give it to him. It was starting to make him think that there was something wrong with it. Had Natsu screwed something up while he was messing with the binding?

"Can I have–?"

He broke off with a gasp as Natsu slammed him back against wall. Maybe everyone secretly hated him after all and that was why they kept attacking his poor ribs. Pain lanced through his body, but his attention was arrested by Natsu's furious eyes.

"Will you listen already?" the dragon slayer snapped. "Of all the people I've met in my life, you are one of the most human. Do you understand? You've never been much of a thinker before, and there's no point starting now. Now isn't the time for you to be having an existential crisis, ice princess. Got that?"

Natsu's gaze, furious yet desperate, bore into the demon. He couldn't help but stare back, his heart jumping into his throat.

"Are you…?" He broke off until the stab of pain died down, and then forged on through gritted teeth. "Are you parroting back my…own words to me…almost verbatim?"

"Well, maybe if you won't listen to me, then you'll listen to yourself."

He was silent for a long moment, but then his gaze slid away. "Would this…be a good time…to remind you that…you broke all my ribs earlier?"

Natsu jerked back as if burned, releasing the demon. "Shit, I'm sorry. I wasn't even thinking about that. Are you okay?"

Sucking in a breath, He slowly slid down the wall, his back scraping against the rough stone until He came to rest in a sitting position with his knees drawn to his aching chest. It wasn't even because of the pain, but because He was so lost and tired and hurting that He didn't know what else to do with himself. He didn't know how to respond to Natsu, didn't know how to give his friends what they wanted.

He stared down blankly, silently. Everything seemed so dark, with no right answer, no real way out.

After a short pause, there was a slight scuffing sound and Natsu dropped to the ground in front of the demon.

"You were wrong," he said into the stillness. His voice sounded thick, and he cleared his throat. "When you said that my best friend never existed, you were wrong. I think you know that. I think you were lying because you thought it would make it easier for me."

Slowly, He raised his gaze to meet Natsu's. He could feel the empty blankness in his own eyes, but Natsu's were so heartbroken that it hurt.

"I thought you were going to die." The dragon slayer looked away. "We all did. Even after Zeref, you wouldn't wake up and we weren't sure you'd pull through. Trying to bind you to your Book could have been dangerous. I could have screwed up and somehow brought you back wrong. And sure, in the moment I wasn't thinking that through, but on some level I knew the risks. I did it anyway, because the alternative—watching you die and doing nothing—was worse. I decided that the risks were worth it. That you were worth it.

"If you…" Natsu let out a shuddering breath. "Your immortality is gone. You can always change your mind later if things don't work out. But won't you try? Things will be hard, you're right. It could all go wrong. But we think that you're worth the risk. Please… Let's find a way to work this out, okay?"

Natsu stood, leaving the demon staring at the spot where his face had been, now just the dragon slayer's knees. He continued to stare at that spot until Natsu's hand broke into his field of vision, hovering in the air in front of him. His eyes traced over the callused palm and tanned fingers, but then, ever so slowly, He reached out to grasp it and let Natsu pull him to his feet.

It wasn't exactly an acceptance because He still didn't know what He was going to do, but it was an acknowledgement. His gaze swept across all the worried faces around him. He sighed.

"What's wrong with my Book?" He asked, subdued.

"Huh?" Natsu frowned. "Nothing's wrong with it."

"Then why are you being so careful not to let me see it?"

The others started exchanging those funny looks again.

Erza cleared her throat awkwardly. "There's nothing wrong with it. It just, uh…changed a little. Like how Natsu's Book changed when you bound yourself to it? Yours changed a little too."

Awesome. It must be pretty bad if they were so worried about it. And here He had thought that things couldn't get any worse.

"Can I have it, then?"

"Yeah, um…" Lucy sighed. "We just want to make sure that you understand first."

"…Understand? Understand what?"

Oh God, they were giving each other those furtive, worried looks again. Natsu retreated and took the Book from Erza so that he could hold it against his chest, the cover facing inward. With the team all standing there, He felt like they were putting up a united front. It made him uneasy, because He wasn't sure what it was for.

"Gray," Erza said gently, "do you remember how you told me that it wasn't game over until I looked into your eyes and didn't recognize you? I still recognize you, you know. There might be a darkness there too, a part of you that I'm not entirely familiar with, but I still recognize you. And we'll take the bad with the good, because we love you. You have to realize that everything you said to Zeref… We feel that way too, about you. We love you as much as you love us."

He swallowed hard and dropped his eyes to the ground. He didn't know what to make of that, not when He was still so lost in a world where everything had changed and He was only just a problem that He couldn't figure out how to solve.

Soft footsteps signaled Lucy's approach, and she reached out to tilt his chin upward. Her eyes were big and sad, but she also wore the faintest trace of a smile. There was none of the fear or confusion from earlier, and He wondered how she could so quickly forget everything He had done to frighten her.

"We love you because we're family," she said with that strange, sad smile. "That's why you were wrong when you said that you no longer had a place in our world. You always have a place with family—you belong with us. We want you to come back to the guild because that's where you belong."

His gaze slid away as far as it was able, and she sighed. "Do you not believe me?"

She guided his face so that He was looking at the other half-dozen guild members who were watching the proceedings quietly. She let him go and stepped back, and there was a heavy pause.

"Well," Cana said abruptly, "someone's going to have to stick around to drag my drunk ass home next time I get wasted."

He blinked at her uncomprehendingly, but she just grinned back, part genuinely amused and part melancholy. And it was like she had opened the floodgates.

"It would be a shame if we couldn't get some more use out of your stupid kitty joke," Loke remarked. "Cana would be disappointed if we didn't."

Porlyusica snorted loudly. "What would be a shame was if I put all that time and effort into patching him up, and he went and offed himself anyway. What a waste of supplies."

"Porlyusica-san is right," Wendy said. She stared down the demon with eyes burning with determination. "You're still injured and there are a lot of question marks about your condition. I'll have to put you under observation, and you certainly can't leave the guild until I'm sure that nothing will go wrong."

"Juvia wants Gray-sama to stay!" Juvia wailed, rubbing vigorously at her eyes.

Happy crept over to press himself against the demon's leg. "Thank you for saving Natsu. But I'm glad that you're alive too. You have to come back, because the team isn't the same without you."

Swallowing, He half nodded. Thinking about the team was hard when He had shattered it so thoroughly. Except… Except that they seemed to have rebuilt themselves anyway, and left his old place open for him. He wasn't entirely convinced that it wouldn't be better for them to knit that hole back up and make their team stronger without him, but it still meant a lot, that they had left that place for him anyway.

"I know you were getting frustrated with me when I kept asking if you'd changed your mind," Mavis said, giving him an appraising look, "but I did that because, although I understand your concerns, I think you do have that choice. And I think that if you return to the guild, we can find a way to work things out."

Makarov nodded. "The guild protects its own. And despite your best efforts to convince me otherwise, I rather think that you're still one of my brats. Time to come back to the fold."

Rocking back a half-step, He stared at everyone in shock. He hadn't been expecting such an outpouring of love, not really. It was almost enough to make him believe that the future they wanted so desperately was actually in the realm of possibility, that He could reach out and grab it if He so chose. But as powerful and touching as their belief was, He just couldn't imagine how this could possibly work.

"I…" He trailed off, not knowing what to say.

It felt like He was teetering right on the edge. He wanted to give in and fight for this future that they wanted and He so desperately wanted for himself, but He was also terrified of everything that could go wrong. He was half a second from giving in and half a second from walking away, paralyzed by indecision.

"I loved him," Lyon said abruptly, and He jerked his head around in surprise. The ice mage was staring very pointedly at the ground with narrowed eyes, but this was also the first time he'd spoken directly to the demon in a long time. "Gray. But I also loved the person I found on Galuna and fought with against Oración Seis and mourned for seven years and who gave me back a relationship I'd lost, and apparently that person was actually you all along. I hate you, I probably always will, but… Stop being such a damn fool already."

Recoiling in shock, He stared at Lyon with wide eyes. This wasn't forgiveness—He would never ask for forgiveness, would never expect it—but it was so much more than He had ever expected from Lyon. He had wrecked that relationship when He gave himself away, and He had never dreamed that any part of it could be salvaged. But this was…something.

That the person who should hate him the most was giving him the go-ahead… Maybe this was what He had been waiting for—permission from the person who should most want him dead.

He did not deserve this—oh, He did not deserve this—but He wanted it so, so badly, this small gesture of acceptance from one of the people He had grown to care about the most.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He couldn't think of a single thing to say that would express his emotions and be something that Lyon wanted to hear. Some things were, after all, still too wrecked to fix. Everything He wanted to say—I'm sorry, I wish I could give you back everything I took from you, I miss you so much already, I love you as much as a demon could love anything—would have to remain unsaid.

But finally, in a voice no more than the softest of breaths, He whispered, "Thank…you…"

Lyon glanced up and their gazes met for the briefest of seconds before he looked away, the swirling whirlwind of emotions in his eyes lost once more.

Natsu cleared his throat awkwardly, and He finally tore his gaze away from the taciturn ice mage.

"You, um…" Natsu sighed and looked down at the Book he was holding. "You gave me a second chance. Everything you said about how we would have a choice of who to become after our instincts made a mess of things… You fought to give me that choice, and it means…everything. I lost myself and you brought me back and… Thank you."

The dragon slayer swallowed hard and looked up, his eyes pained and sad and anxious. "I know you said you didn't have any choices, and I think I understand what you meant now that I've been Awake too, but… I want to give you that choice, the same way you gave it to me. This here is your second chance, alright? It should be impossible, but here we are and now you're free of Zeref and free of immortality and free of the threat of Awakening. This is the best second chance you're going to get, but you have to choose what you're going to do with it. Make the most of it, okay?"

There was a long moment of hesitation, but then He slowly reached out a hand. It was such a small gesture, but it seemed so momentous. Like maybe He could accept this, even though He didn't deserve it. If nothing else, He somehow had the support of the people He cared about and the permission of the person He had hurt the most. Maybe, for now, it would be enough.

Natsu bit his lip and studied the demon uncertainly before handing the Book over. Turning it over in his hands, He searched for whatever it was that had rattled the others so much. He looked at the cover and immediately recoiled as if burned, the Book falling from his hands and hitting the ground with a loud thud.

Thankfully it didn't open, but it sent dull pain shooting through his body and He gasped as He reeled back. Impossible.

He sucked in a breath and started to bend over to retrieve it, wincing at the pain the movement sent through his ribs, but Lucy's small hand grasped his arm, stopping him. He glanced at her, mind still reeling in shock, but turned back as He noticed a flash of movement.

Lyon bent down to pick up the Book and, upon straightening, stared down at the cover. The demon stayed silent, waiting. Lyon didn't seem surprised—no one did, so they must all already know—but his mixed feelings were evident.

The ice mage's reaction might be the most important of them all, so He just watched as Lyon stood rigid, eyes locked on the Book. Then he looked up and half nodded, half shrugged, the movements so slight as to be almost imperceptible, and handed over the Book.

After a moment of hesitation He reached out and took it, his hands shaking so hard that He was surprised He didn't just drop it again. He felt the faintest flicker of something as He looked down. For the first time, He let himself believe that maybe, just maybe, He could have that future the others hoped for. It felt almost like a first step, even if it left him dazed and off balance.

Tears might be silly human things, but He could feel them welling up in his eyes anyway. So He cried his silly human tears as He let his fingers glide over the line slashed through 'Deliora' and then over the letters printed beneath:

'Gray'