Title: Meeting Against Fate
Notes: Just so we're clear, I'm skipping most of the battles. Things like Gildarts vs Bluenote, Gajeel and Levy vs Kain, Freed and Bickslow vs Rusty take place off screen, but they end in victory for Fairy Tail.
It was only while writing this chapter that I realized there was one loose end I didn't cover — Lucy not fighting Angel and thus not gaining her keys. So she doesn't have Scorpio, Aries, Gemini, or Caelum. That's something that would be reconciled after the seven year gap, I guess, if this story's timeline continued further.
11. End of the Rain
Ultear let out a sigh of relief as she caught Zeref's unconscious body. Her crystal ball slipped from her grasp, only to crumbled into dust as it hit the ground. Nullifying the negative effects of the curse had pushed it and her magic to the limits.
"What a fearsome power..." Ultear mused, shifting her grip on him so she could lower them both to the ground. With a slow, tired exhalation, she leaned back against the withered tree she'd thrown Zeref into earlier.
Her body was trembling slightly with exhaustion, but an unsettling smile began to spread over her face. She tilted Zeref's head back against her shoulder, studying his slack face. He looked young and just like Hades had described him — sad and distant, hollow as if his heart had been sealed away. Hades believed it was necessary to break that seal, but Ultear didn't think so.
The depths of magic, true darkness, a World of Great Magic... she didn't need any of that. All she needed was immortality. Infinite time, which she could pay in trade to Last Ages without giving up her life or future — that was all she needed from Zeref.
"I finally have it... the key to the past," Ultear murmured to herself, her grip on Zeref tightening, "and my future!"
She began to chuckle unnervingly, her head light with sudden relief, then forced herself to take a deep breath and reign herself in. It was too early to celebrate or lower her guard. She had to get off the island while Fairy Tail and Grimoire Heart were still preoccupied with each other. The window of opportunity until Hades realized her treachery and came in pursuit was small and there was much to do in preparation.
"That's right," Ultear muttered. "There's so much to be done. There's no time to be resting..."
Pushing herself to her feet, she dragged Zeref's unconscious body onto her back and began to move toward a small boat she had seen anchored on the far side of the island from the Grimoire Heart airship. It would be perfect for a private escape.
She hadn't gone far before the approach of another presence made her pause. But, recognizing it, Ultear only smiled and waited.
"Meldy," she called out as the girl appeared from among the trees. "You came quicker than I expected. How is the situation?"
Meldy took a moment to answer, looking between Ultear and the body she was carrying. "...The others are a way's from here. They shouldn't be able to interfere," Meldy said finally. "Is that him? Zeref?"
"That's right," Ultear confirmed, smiling. "We finally have everything we need. Let's get off this island quickly, okay?"
"...Okay," Meldy murmured. Her manner was still subdued, though it seemed that the short time they had been separated had let her calm down at least a little. Stepping toward Ultear, she reached out to take Zeref from her. "Let me carry him. It'll be faster."
Ultear nodded in agreement, already moving to hand him over. But perhaps it was because everything was going so well — the key in her hands, the path clear, the one ally she trusted at her side — that Ultear hesitated.
It was subtle. Meldy had trained long and hard to deserve her place among the Kin of Purgatory.
There was only the faintest trace of magic and a faint glow as a magic mark appeared around Zeref's wrist.
"Sensory Link...?" Ultear realized a moment too late. Her head snapped up and she tried to grab hold of them, but Meldy darted out of her reach, dragging Zeref with her. "What are you doing, Meldy?!"
"What am I doing...? I don't even know," Meldy admitted, her voice painfully quiet and her head low. "I don't know anything anymore. What am I doing? What are you doing, Ul? Are you really just going to erase everything?"
"What are you saying, Meldy? Isn't that a good thing?" Ultear tried to reason, spreading her hands disarmingly. "Your hometown and your family will come back too!"
"But I'll lose you," Meldy countered, still refusing to even look at Ultear. "I don't want that, Ul. Not even to have my parents back. And even if they came back... how am I supposed to face them? All along, I was helping something like that... I don't want that!"
"That's not going to happen!" Ultear protested. "We won't let that happen!"
"That's right. I won't let that happen," Meldy agreed, but it didn't sound like they were talking about the same thing at all. White blades appeared in the air beside her and turned until they were crossed above her neck, like a guillotine ready to fall.
"Even death can be passed through the Sensory Link," Meldy explained dully, not apologetic or defiant or anything at all — only accepting. "We're linked, so when I die, so will Zeref. This way, no one will use his power to create such a terrible world... but I won't have to lose you either." She smiled suddenly, painfully earnest. "It's okay, Ul. I'm fine not seeing my home or parents again, if it means I have you."
There was no guarantee she was right, whether her Maguilty Link could overcome a divine curse, but she was completely serious. Without a doubt, she would carry through.
"Meldy!" Ultear shouted. Her magic was exhausted, there was no way she could make it in time to stop Meldy's Maguilty Sodom — but she had to do something. In desperation, she blurted out, "You're wrong! I'm the one who destroyed your home! I'm the one you should be trying to kill!"
Meldy's smile trembled and tears flowed down her cheeks. "...I know," she said quietly. "I always knew."
She was one of the Kin. How could she not guess, when she had seen their missions and the destruction that followed — no, that they caused? Of course it hadn't been a coincidence that they were there, in her ruined hometown, on the day it was destroyed.
"But I still love you, Ul," Meldy said, smiling and crying.
The blades of light came down.
Meldy let out a short, startled shriek as spires of ice suddenly erupted behind her, knocking aside her Maguilty swords. She had been watching Ultear closely for any sign of movement or magic, but she had forgotten to pay attention to her surroundings. So had Ultear. Both of them had missed another presence arrive among the trees around them and observe their confrontation, waiting for the chance to act.
Though also taken by surprise, Ultear reacted first. Dashing forward, she chopped her hand across Meldy's neck. The girl crumpled, unconscious, into Ultear's arms.
Ultear lowered her gently to the ground, next to where Zeref had fallen. She didn't look up as footsteps approached, only gently brushing Meldy's hair from her face. "Why do you have to do this?" she mused to herself. "The both of you... Why do you insist on giving me things I might not be able to again a second time?"
"Probably because, for us, this is the only time," Gray said flatly, coming to a stop just out of reach and regarding Ultear with an unreadable expression.
Ultear sighed, straightening and turning to face him as well. "So you came... I should have known you'd find some way," she said. "But, Gray, I really don't want to fight you. Can't you let me go?"
"And do what, exactly?" Gray shot back. "Turn back time? Is that really what you're trying to accomplish? What all of this was for?"
He gritted his teeth, remembering all too clearly what all "this" was — not just attacking Tenrou and his guildmates, but also using Jellal and the Tower of Heaven, ruining the Council, destroying entire cities. Grimoire Heart and Ultear herself had committed innumerable crimes in the pursuit of their aims.
"Is that so bad?" Ultear asked gently. "To go back and see Mother again? To have a chance to prevent all the tragedies you've had to endure?" She glanced back at Meldy sadly. "It's true... originally, I intended to go back alone. But that was because I thought the two of you would be happier without all those terrible memories. I didn't have a chance to tell Meldy, but... There's no reason why I couldn't take you with me when I use Last Ages."
That wasn't entirely true — the part about her motives. In truth, she had never considered the possibility of including anyone else in the spell because she hadn't wanted anyone to remember her crimes. She had wanted to start over completely, with a clean slate.
But if Meldy could forgive and still love her... Ultear was sure she could make it work.
Closing his eyes, Gray let out a slow breath. "You're right, I'd like to see Ur again," he admitted. "Of course I would. ...But not if it means losing my guild, my friends, and the bonds between us. Not if it means giving up our future."
"So that's how it is," Ultear said, her expression changing to a glare. "That's fine then. But I won't let even you stop me!"
Thrusting out her hand, she reached with her magic as well. Like before, the trunk of a rapidly growing tree burst from the ground under her opponent's feet, but Gray had been expecting an attack. He quickly rolled out of the way, hands coming together in the usual pose.
"That won't work!" Ultear cut him off, vanishing his ice before he could even give it form.
Realizing his spells would all be just as ineffective, Gray backed away slowly to give himself time to think.
However, Ultear didn't follow up. In truth, her position was not ideal either. Her primary focus tool, the crystal ball, had been destroyed by Zeref's curse in a way that she couldn't easily repair, and Ultear hadn't thought to bring a spare. She still had her sword, but she hesitated to use that against Gray.
On the other hand, moving the environment — the earth, the air, or even the trees — took a lot of power, and Ultear's magic hadn't recovered yet. There was too much chance that Gray would be able to avoid her attacks and simply wear her down if she relied on those kinds of sweeping spells.
'I could switch,' Ultear thought, as the two watched each other, at an impasse. 'But I'd be giving up the advantage of completely negating his magic. I can't combine the two well...' And what she'd told Gray long ago, when they first met, was true — her mastery was not as refined as his. If it came down to it, she could very well lose.
But it didn't seem like she had much choice.
"You can still have a future, Gray. We will still have a future," Ultear tried to reason with him again, stalling for time and an opening. "Just because we'll change the past doesn't mean we'll lose that. All those bonds and friendships, you can make them again."
"Is that what you were planning to do with me and that girl?" Gray asked. "Just make those bonds all over again? Is that how little they mean to you? Just something you can change as you please?"
Ultear flinched and glared at him. "That's why I'm—"
"That's right, you're trying to convince us to go with you because you don't know if it'll all work out as you want," Gray cut her off. "The past isn't something you can just rewrite because it didn't work out the way you want! What happens if something goes wrong after you go back? Are you going to just go back again and again whenever something doesn't go your way?!"
An opening. Letting into his anger, Gray had let his guard slip, and Ultear took advantage of it.
"Ice Make: Rosen Krone!" she roared.
Thorned ice vines lashed out, wrapping around Gray and dragging him to the ground, arms and legs pinned in place. He coughed, the air knocked out of his lungs by the impact, but he was still conscious, and Ultear knew she had to press her advantage before he could retaliate.
With a sharp sweep of her hand, she directed the vines to raise him again and swing him around. She had intended to knock him out this time, but she didn't make it in time.
Twisting around to touch the vines binding him, Gray wrenched control of the ice away from Ultear and dissolved it. He freed himself just in time to spin around in midair and land in a crouch, absorbing the impact.
Both moved to ready their next attack, taking the same stance, the same hand gestures. But it was already clear that they were evenly matched, and any spell they used, the other would cancel out. They paused in mid-stance, glaring at each other in a stalemate. The only movement was the steadily worsening rain, pelting down against them.
"...There's no need to change the past, you know," Gray spoke finally. "The past is what makes us who we are now."
Ultear's expression was miserable and bitter. "And what if I don't want to be who I am?"
"Then going back isn't going to change that," Gray said flatly. His expression softening, he added with a faint, wry smile, "And... I'm rather fond of who you are."
'I love you.'
Ultear's shoulders stiffened, and her lips trembled as she tried to suppress the sudden swell of emotion. Why did she have to remember that now? Why did he have to say that? Why did he have to keep giving her reasons to doubt her path?
"Seems like it's the same for her," Gray continued, nodding toward Meldy even as his gaze remained intent on Ultear. "I know you want to see Ur again and take back the love and happiness you lost. I understand... But is that chance worth more to you than we are? Are you willing to kill us for it?!"
His sudden vehemence made Ultear flinch. "No! I told you, I can't—" she started to protest.
"That's what you're going to do!" Gray pressed. "Going to the past, changing everything — that means the people we are now will disappear! We won't ever come to exist! I won't abandon my friends and come with you, and whoever you meet back then will never be me! If you're so set on changing the past, then just kill me here and now!"
"You're wrong!" Ultear yelled, squeezing her eyes shut in denial.
An opening. Ice burst up from the ground around them, and Ultear instinctively reached out to take control of it and dispel it. But it was only a feint, distracting her long enough for Gray to close the distance between them. Twin ice swords appeared in his hands as he reached Ultear.
"Ice Make: Ice Bringer!"
He brought them down in a cross slash. Taking the full force of the attack, Ultear was thrown back and crashed into another tree with a sharp crack. Ice trailed across her body, pinning her in place against the cracked trunk.
Her vision swam, and it was a struggle to remain conscious. Ultear slumped against her bonds, not raising her head even as Gray approached her cautiously.
"How cruel... using your words to get me off guard," she murmured.
Gray watched her for a moment, well aware that, no matter what she said, Ultear was far more adept at tricks and manipulation than he was. But it truly seemed that she no longer had the will — or perhaps the magic power — to fight.
The ice dissolved, and without its support, Ultear slid to the ground. Closing her eyes, she tried to force back the helpless frustration welling up in her.
"I'm sorry," Gray said quietly, crouching in front of her. "I can't go with you. I can't leave my guild and my friends. I've got too much I would lose..." He sighed. "I guess it's not the same for you. You were alone for a long time. Even now, there's just two of us to tell you we care about you, and we can't even support you wholeheartedly. It's no surprise that the past would mean more to you than the present."
Ultear didn't look up, but her lips twitched minutely. Somehow, hearing him say all that didn't sit right with her.
It used to be so simple, so straightforward. She would go back and gain everything — her mother, her happiness, a second chance at life, and absolution from all her sins. Why, she thought again, did they insist on giving her things she couldn't gain back — things she couldn't bear to lose? How was she supposed to choose?
"The present isn't that great for you... I get that," Gray went on, only to hesitate for a moment, reaching up to run a hand through his hair awkwardly. "But... Can't you give us a chance to make a better future for you?"
"...Make...?" Finally, Ultear raised her head, staring at Gray's earnest, waiting expression in disbelief.
"If the present isn't enough, we just have to make a better future, right?" he said. "A future where you can be happy with us — with me. Can you give it a chance? Please...?"
Ultear's eyes burned, and she blinked back tears. She couldn't bring herself to say no.
But she couldn't say yes, either.
When she turned away, saying nothing, something seemed to drain out of Gray — hope, maybe. It was painful to watch. He closed his eyes for a moment, his shoulders slumping as he let out a slow, silent breath. His expression was carefully, forcefully blank.
"I see..." he murmured.
"The future—" Ultear said, without meaning to. She hesitated, unsure of what she even wanted to say — what she wanted at all. "The future... isn't something you can control that easily. And it's no guarantee that you even have one. Have you forgotten? You and your friends are being hunted right now."
"Hmph. Don't assume your guild's got the upper hand here," Gray shot back, crossing his arms. "Fairy Tail's on the counterattack now, and we won't lose."
"Against the Kin, maybe," Ultear allowed. "But you can't beat Hades. That's why I never intended to fight him either. He's already taken down your guildmaster. None of you can stop him, and once he takes Zeref's power, he'll change the entire world into a living hell. Before talking about making any future, you should worry about surviving at all."
The silence stretched after her ominous declaration, but when she glanced at him, Gray didn't look scared or even worried. He was studying her intently again. Then, suddenly, he smirked.
"We'll beat him," he declared. "We'll win and protect our future, and then you'll acknowledge I'm right. So until then... wait, okay? Going back in time, changing the past — wait until I can prove to you that we can make our own future."
"Or until you lose," Ultear said acerbically.
"We won't lose," Gray repeated, grinning now as if he'd already won something. Apparently, that had been agreement enough for him.
"You'll die," Ultear warned him, half-heartedly.
"I won't. I promise, I won't die," Gray said firmly, and knowingly. It was too late to protest that she wasn't worried or that she didn't care about him. But she couldn't stop him either.
"...Hades isn't someone you can just beat," Ultear said quietly. She shook her head when Gray started to reassure her again. "No, listen to me. Hades isn't an ordinary wizard. Even if he's defeated, he won't lose. His magic power is infinite, and he can't be killed... not as long as he has his Devil's Heart."
"So in other words," Gray said slowly, "we have to destroy this heart first."
Ultear didn't look at him, staring past him into the rain, as if she was only speaking to herself. "It's kept in the deepest part of the ship, under the strongest wards I've ever seen. Bluenote and I are the only ones who even know about it... He'll be guarding it, most likely, and even an S class would have trouble with him."
"Got it," Gray said simply, nodding to himself. Standing he stretched and rotated one arm, loosening the shoulder. Ultear had done a number on him, but he could still fight. Looking at her one last time, he said with a light smirk, "You better be watching when we beat this guildmaster of yours. No trying to back out — afterwards, I'll show you how amazing the future can be."
He didn't wait for her answer, already moving quickly in the direction of the Grimoire Heart airship. He'd need to get there before the others started their own assault. Ultear watched him go until his figure disappeared among the trees and rain, then leaned her head back and stared past the leaves into the cloudy sky.
"You're... such a fool," Ultear muttered. She wasn't sure anymore whom she meant — him, or herself.
"This is stupid," Natsu complained, as they observed the airship from the cliffs around its small cove. "When are we going to get a move on?"
Erza frowned, but did not berate him for his rashness. In truth, she agreed. "Carla," she said instead, turning to the Exceed in Wendy's arms, "are you sure about your vision?"
"Mmgh... I'm fairly sure," Carla drew out, far from pleased herself. Her eyes were squeezed shut as she tried to wrangle more out of her inconsistent prophetic powers. "I can't explain any more, but I know we need to wait. Our chance for victory depends on it."
They had taken position on the cliffs around the small cove where the Grimoire Heart airship was docked and observed it for a while. However, no one had approached or left the ship in that time. There didn't even seem to be a watch posted. It was unlikely that they could gain any more information without going in.
Deliberating, Erza looked between her assembled team members. Natsu, bored and expectant; Happy, hanging off his shoulder. Wendy, clutching Carla in her arms nervously but a determined look on her face. Juvia, her expression set in a cool, detached mask, while her hands clutched together around an umbrella that wasn't there.
On the way there, they'd run into Lucy and Cana — who had been heading back to the camp, but joined them instead, after relating Gildarts's situation.
"We can't keep waiting. They must have some way of communicating with each other, and if word of their generals going down reaches the guildmaster, he might make a move," Erza judged. "We're going in."
Unhappy but understanding her reasoning, Carla nodded.
"Heh," Natsu chuckled suddenly. It was expected that he'd be happy to get going, but he had turned away from the ship. Raising his face, he took a deep breath and smirked. "Well, look who finally decided to show up..."
"An enemy?" Wendy wondered. She sniffed experimentally at the wind, but her senses were not nearly as honed yet.
"Nah — better," Natsu said. "I guess he finished up early..."
They waited, following Natsu's gaze and watching the forest behind them. Finally, the bushes rustled — making everyone instinctively tense and ready their magic.
It was Gray that stumbled out, cursing a little and trying to brush loose twigs from his hair. He stared at them in surprise, freezing in mid motion — and they did the same, before everyone simultaneously let out a relieved breath and began to smile.
"Gray-sama~" Juvia cooed, spreading her arms as if for a hug. Erza wisely held her back from actually taking a leap at him, however.
"It's about time! You're late, snowflake!" Natsu complained, still grinning.
"I'm glad I caught you," Gray sighed. "There's something I have to tell you about their guildmaster..."
Erza listened to the abridged version of his encounter with Ultear calmly, though she couldn't wondering how much Gray was leaving out. After he fell silent, she thought over what he had said. "How much do you trust her information?" she asked.
"...I trust it," Gray said. "I don't think she's lying about wanting to take him down. We might be able to take him together, but we're individually weaker, so it'll be a better situation for her. And... I do trust her." He ran a hand through his hair, looking away.
"Gray-sama really tried hard to reach her," Juvia observed quietly. She offered him an encouraging smile. "Juvia is sure that it's not in vain. Gray-sama's love will surely prevail."
"L-love?" Lucy stammered in surprise.
"Oh-hoh," Cana drew out, leering at Gray.
Flushing a little, he ignored them both.
"Alright," Erza decided, nodding. "Then we'll have to change our plan based on that. We'll split into two groups — one to face this Master Hades, to first distract him, then to defeat him, the other to find his Devil's Heart and destroy it."
"I'm going to fight this Hates guy," Natsu declared flatly.
"I'm with Natsu," Happy chimed in.
"I think my enchantments will help more in the battle," Wendy said.
"I'm with Wendy," Carla echoed.
"Juvia will go with Gray-sama!" Juvia cheered.
"I want to fight this guy. I'll pay him back double for attacking us!" Cana said.
"I'd... rather not fight," Lucy muttered.
"Quit that. It's not about what we want to do," Gray cut them off irritably. "It's about what makes the most sense. Ultear said it's all warded and might be guarded by a man called Bluenote—"
"It's not. Gildarts is fighting him," Cana broke in.
Gray nodded in acknowledgement. "That's good, then the infiltration team can focus on getting past the wards and everyone with more power can fight Hades," he said. "Happy and Carla should go with the infiltration team, to sneak them on board. Juvia too — your water body will be a big help."
None of the three mentioned looked pleased, but they didn't protest either. "If it's what Gray-sama thinks is best," Juvia muttered sulkily.
He glanced at Erza to confirm that she agreed with his suggestion and, receiving a nod, continued, "Since there's only two of Happy and Carla, we should keep the infiltration team to two. For the other... Cana, I know you're good at sensing magic, and your cards are versatile. Will you do it?"
Cana hesitated, reaching up to touch the tattoo around her forearm. Sighing, she admitted, "It's probably better not to try this in a battle anyway... I'll do it. Leave it to me. I'll make sure there's nothing of this Devil's Heart thing left."
"So the rest of us will distract Hades, then take him down," Gray concluded. Lucy and Wendy swallowed a whimper, neither thrilled at the prospect of fighting someone strong enough to beat Master Makarov, but Natsu only grinned wider, punching one fist into the opposite palm.
"Then let's go already! I'm all fired up!" he proclaimed, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Erza nodded and said, more sedately but just as firmly, "Yes. Let's move!"
To create the biggest distraction possible — and because they were Fairy Tail — they crashed their way in, literally. The panoramic windows of the throne room bridge that made up the highest level of the ship exploded in a flash of dragon fire, letting in the rain and the gusting winds. Five figures stepped out of the smoke, facing Hades with determined, fearless expressions.
Lightning flashed in the distance, outlining their silhouettes, and thunder rumbled across the sky.
Unflinching and unconcerned, the master of Grimoire Heart had not moved from his slouch in the throne-line chair at the other end of the deck. Hades regarded the five of them with a look of boredom and some small measure of annoyance, before sighing and finally straightening.
"You were foolish to come here," he berated them mildly. "And even more foolish to face me like this. What do you think you can accomplish?"
"Shut up! We're going to pay you back for what you did to Gramps and to our island!" Natsu yelled, pointing at him angrily. "You won't get away with it!"
Hades studied them for a long moment — Natsu in the middle, Gray and Erza flanking him, Wendy and Lucy bringing up in the rear. "Well, I should not have expected anything else from Makarov's brats," he mused to himself.
Standing, he began to slowly descend the stairs from the throne to the deck, his dark cape sweeping behind him imposingly.
"Don't act so high and mighty, you old goat!" Natsu roared, losing his patience and charging straight in. Fire billowed around his drawn fist as he struck.
'You fire-brained idiot! That's not what we agreed on!' Gray thought furiously, even as he and Erza burst into motion as well.
Simply raising one gauntlet-clad hand, Hades caught Natsu's punch without even budging. Natsu's eyes widened comically before he found himself casually flung aside. Hades clicked his tongue, turning his head slightly to watch Natsu flip and land in a crouch, still sliding a ways before managing to come to a stop. "Such recklessness," he said. "Didn't Makarov teach you even the basics of strategic thinking?"
"Don't talk speak of our Master as if you know him!" Erza yelled. Requipped in her Black Wing armor, she slashed at Hades, who sidestepped the attack easily. Even so, it should have been an opening that her teammates could use — should have been.
Brushing aside his cloak, Hades had raised his other hand to point at Gray without even looking aside. Magic gathered in his extended first and second fingers, and fired off a rapidfire barrage.
"Ice Make: Lance!" Gray called out. Lances of ice flew forward, intercepting the shots, returning them to a stalemate as Erza darted away, to Natsu's side.
Hades shook his head, as if finding their efforts to fall short of his expectations. "I do know Makarov," he said mildly. "I was the one who appointed him guildmaster."
"Shut up! Someone like you could never be part of Fairy Tail!" Natsu burst out, despite Gildarts telling Mira the same thing. His disbelief was understandable. Hades was a far different person than Precht Gaebolg had once been.
"Oh?" Hades drew out, a sharp smile raising the edge of his mustache. "Then, shall I prove it to you? I wonder — do you recognize this magic? I call it... Grimoire Law."
He cupped his hands, one above the other, and a point of immense dark magic appeared between them, quickly growing in power until it seemed about to suck everything in. Only Natsu and Erza had ever seen Fairy Law invoked, but the sight was unmistakable — even if dark and twisted.
'We have to stop him!' Erza thought frantically, dashing toward Hades even as she knew she wouldn't be able to close the distance in time.
"Sagittarius!" Lucy called out, unexpectedly. She had been biding her time in the background with Wendy, but neither had been just waiting around.
The bow in the hands of the horseman next to her twanged, and a rain of arrows fell down on Hades, forcing him to sidestep and break off his spell. At the same time, Erza gained another burst of speed — Wendy, hands still together in a spellcasting pose, had finally completed her support enchantments. Under the power of Vernier, Erza blurred out of sight and reappeared in front of Hades.
Her speed was the only thing that had increased — although Hades had just managed to catch her sword between his palms, the force of her strike carried onward, an invisible blade that tore apart his cape and armor.
Still, Hades did not even flinch. Twisting her sword and dragging her along with it, he tried to raise his leg to land a solid kick in her gut — only to find that his feet had been encased in ice, along with the rest of the floor. In the moment he was distracted, Erza wrenched her sword free and spun around to nail him with a kick to the head.
Hades's tall body rocked with the force of the blow, but just as easily, he straightened again and lashed out with one fist, sending Erza flying. Ripping his foot free of the ice, he stomped down on it. The ice, and Gray's spell, shattered without even a token resistance.
When Hades looked up, his gaze was fixed on Gray, and a faint, thoughtful frown tugged at his lips. "I see... you're that boy, the one who made Ultear act so erratically," he noted.
Gray glared back, refusing to back down. "If you were really the master of Fairy Tail once, why are you doing this?" he demanded. "I heard about your plan from Ultear—" when she was revealing it to Meldy— "but do you really think you can control Zeref's power? Just one of his demons reduced my home to a wasteland!"
"You homeland, Isvan..." Hades murmured. He shook his head, unmoved by Gray's anger. "You are mistaken. I do not intend to control Zeref or his power. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that my goal is to do to the world what Deliora almost did to Isvan."
"..." Gray couldn't even form words, staring at him in shock. For a moment, he found it hard to breathe, remembering Deliora and its devastation. Distantly, he was aware of his friends shouting in protest.
"You're out of your mind!"
"How can you say that?!"
Hades tilted his head in acknowledgement and even a faint smile at their protests — foolish, to him. "That's right," he confirmed. "I want to plunge this world into darkness. Darkness is this world's true nature, its original shape long ago. By returning to darkness, we will be able to reclaim true magic that has been lost to time — even That One Magic, from which all began."
"You're wrong... Magic isn't like that!" Lucy protested. "The One Magic isn't darkness at all!"
"Who cares?!" Natsu roared. "You think we're gonna let you destroy our guild and the world for something stupid like that? We're definitely gonna take you down!"
Hades sighed again, with the same mild disappointment. "Fairy Tail always did have more guts than brains," he said. "Well, let's see you try."
"Gladly!" Erza declared, already darting toward him again.
The light of Requip engulfed her for a moment, leaving her in the Morning Star armor. She drew back its twin swords, and Hades readied to block or parry again, with a look of long-suffering. But instead of closing the final distance, Erza cut her momentum suddenly and brought her swords together, point to point, aimed at Hades.
"Photon Slicer!" she declared. A bright light burst to life at the tips of the blades and shot at Hades, its beam too wide for him to dodge at such close range.
His eyebrows rose a little in interest, but Hades showed no concern in the split second before the spell hit him. He held up one hand as if to block or deflect, his dark magic spreading out like a shield — but instead, Erza's light was absorbed into it. The glowing magic flickered for a moment, then twisted, becoming darkness as well.
"Still not enough," Hades remarked. "Not even close."
The reversed magic shot back, but not at Erza herself — at Natsu, keeping him from closing the distance to support her.
"Two can play at this game!" Gray yelled. "Ice Make: Mirror Wall!"
A tall, reflecting panel rose up from the broken ice floor between Natsu and the dark Slicer. It repelled the magic straight back at Hades, who chose to simply sidestep this time. He frowned, his single eye turning toward Gray again.
"I grow tired of your interference, boy," Hades said. "Ultear was useful, and your meddling nearly led her to ruin everything. Know your place!"
He gestured sharply, and a glowing white chain shot out from around his arm. It wrapped around Gray, pinning one of his arms against his torso, and he was wrenched off his feet and into the air.
"Gray!" Erza called out, only to have the breath knocked out of her as Gray collided with her, dragged along like a flail at the end of Hades's chain. Both of them grunted in pain, skidding across the floor.
Smirking faintly, Hades jerked on the chain again, and Gray was hauled toward him, helpless.
"Stop it!" Lucy yelled. Her whip cracked and wrapped around the chain, both pulling taut and giving Gray some slack. She yelped as Hades began to easily overpower her, her feet sliding across the deck. Gritting her teeth, Lucy reached out with her magic and called out, "Taurus!" In a flash of golden light, the massive bull spirit appeared behind her. Grasping the whip with her, he pulled as well, his strength matching Hades's.
'I have to get loose,' Gray thought, knowing he needed to use the spare moments Lucy was buying him wisely. Just freezing the chain wouldn't work, not when it was active magic from a wizard far stronger than him. He wiggled around, trying to bring his hands together for the molding stance.
"Fire Dragon's Claw!" Fire blazing around his foot, Natsu landed a flying kick on the slack length of chain between Gray and Hades. The white links were obliterated, along with a good section of the floor. Over his shoulder, Natsu called out, "On your feet, snowflake! We're not done yet!"
Relief made Lucy momentarily loosen her hold, and Hades took full advantage.
Pulling their tied chain and whip taut with one hand, he drew a quick shape in the air with the other. "Amaterasu: Formula 21!" Hades called out. Circles of glyphs appeared around Lucy — then burst into a pillar of pure destruction.
"Aaahhh!" Lucy screamed, echoed by Taurus's pained low.
"LUCY!" Natsu and Gray screamed.
They didn't have a chance to even try to help her. Letting the rest of his white chain vanish, Hades swept his other hand toward them in the same pattern. "Repeat: Formula 21!"
The same glyphs circled them. 'How can he cast so fast for such a complex spell?' some small part of Gray wondered distantly. He couldn't keep up, even a far simpler ice shield would take him longer to create.
Like a streak of light, Erza appeared suddenly in front of them. She had requipped into Flight armor, dashing across the distance, and was already requipping again, even before she had come to a stop. The plates of Adamantine armor snapped in place over her body, and Erza held up the two shield halves over her head, activating their innate spell, just as Amaterasu triggered again.
Everything trembled with the power of Hades's spell. Gray's ears rang, and his vision was overtaken by spots from the blinding light. Next to him, Natsu — worse off with his enhanced senses — could only grit his teeth and duck his head, hands over his ears and eyes squeezed shut.
Over it all, there was a quiet crack, then another, as Erza's armor gave way.
"Ice Make: Shield!" Gray forced his spell to completion. The ice crawling over Erza's shield disintegrated almost as quickly as he created it, but Gray continually remade it — even so, he could tell that they would give out before Hades did.
And finally, they did. In almost the same instance, Erza and Gray lost grip on their magic and spells. The Adamantine armor shattered, its shield crumbling to pieces, and Gray's ice broke with it. The full power of Amaterasu slammed into them.
Fortunately, they had managed to hold off most of the spell, reducing it from certain death to only a crushing blow. Amaterasu faded out a moment later, leaving the three of them lying motionless on the ruined deck — but still alive.
Hades clicked his tongue, as if he had expected better. He turned to where Lucy and Taurus had stood. Something poked out from between the broken floorboards. After a moment of silence, the strange object wiggled and two spindly arms reached up to pull it — what looked like a wooden box — out onto the deck.
The Celestial Spirit Horologium groaned, battered and far worse for wear, but having proudly protected its mistress. Reaching its limit, it poofed out of existence — dumping Lucy, who had been inside, out onto the floor. She groaned as well, struggling to push herself up. Horologium might have summoned itself in time to save her, but she had still taken the brunt of Amaterasu for a moment first.
"Just surviving isn't going to be enough," Hades remarked mildly. "If this is the limit of your power, you would have been better off letting yourselves die instead of extending this charade."
"Hold on, everyone! I'll heal you!" Wendy called out, scrambling toward them.
Hades watched her for a moment, consideringly. She was the only one to remain relatively uninjured, since Hades had not even seen her as worth attacking, but now he seemed to reassess the threat she posed, or perhaps just how troublesome it would be to let her extend the battle he was quickly coming to regard as pointless.
"You should worry about yourself first, child," Hades said. He pinned Wendy with a cold, piercing stare, killing intent washing over her and making her freeze in a sudden welling of primal terror. His magic filled the air, heavy and ominous. "KATSU—"
Wendy's scream was drowned out by the booming thunder.
Lightning flashed, blinding, and struck in the middle of the deck, between Hades and Wendy. It cut through Hades's spell and the crushing magic that hung in the air.
When the light faded, a tall figure in a pale cloak stood there. The man straightened slowly and let his gaze sweep over the battlefield — over Natsu, Gray and Erza, lying prone and battered, over Lucy, struggling to her feet, over Wendy, crouched uncertainly where she had been stopped in her tracks. Over Hades, watching the new arrival in return, his brow furrowed but his expression unreadable.
"—Laxus!" Natsu grinned, recognizing their reinforcements.
"Laxus..." Erza repeated, more reserved and wary. The last time they had seen Laxus had been under less than favorable circumstances, after all — silently departing after being banished from Fairy Tail for his actions during Fantasia. He shouldn't have even been on Tenrou, being no longer part of the guild.
"I see... so you're the youngest of Makarov's line," Hades said. "The resemblance is strong, even stronger than with Makarov in his youth. You're quite late, young man. Your guild has been hard pressed."
Turning back to him, Laxus said flatly, "I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't care. I don't carry Fairy Tail's mark anymore, so their issues with you don't have anything to do with me either..." He scowled, glaring at the old master balefully. "I just happened to be passing through and saw something I can't stand."
Hades smiled scornfully. "Oh, is that so?"
Laxus didn't bother to respond. Vanishing in a flash and crackle of lightning, he reappeared in front of Hades, who tilted his head to the side to avoid the punch Laxus threw at him. What he didn't expect was for Laxus's hand to clamp down on his shoulder and yank him forward — their foreheads collided with a sharp crack.
Hades winced, pulling back, but Laxus's assault wasn't over. His jaw opened, a blast of lightning magic bursting out and engulfing Hades. The old master was thrown back, showing real damage for the first time.
He flipped in the air, landing on his feet and skidding back, only to realize that his opponent had disappeared again — becoming lightning and darting behind Hades. Reading his attack, Hades raised his arms to block, but the sheer power behind Laxus's kick sent him flying again. He hit the deck hard enough to dig a furrow through the floorboards.
"Yeah, that's right," Laxus said finally, watching Hades claw his way out of the broken floor. "It was my own decision to fight — not because I'm part of guild, or because of what anyone else thinks. This is just my own desire."
"And that thing you couldn't stand to see?" Hades asked mildly.
Laxus's lips thinned into a harsh scowl. "Someone old goat attacking my grandfather's brats, of course," he spat. "Even if he's not my guildmaster, and they're not my comrades, he's still my grandfather! If it's important to him, I'll still protect it! That's what I decided!"
"Laxus..." Erza murmured, trying to hide a smile.
"Who's a brat?!" Natsu complained.
"Foolish," Hades remarked. His single eyes was cold as he looked at Laxus — cold and calculating. There was no other warning.
Glowing chains burst out from under the floorboards, crisscrossing and tangling around Laxus. Even with his lightning body, he wouldn't be able to navigate between them and escape. As Hades made a sharp gesture in the air, ominously familiar rings of glyphs appeared around Laxus.
"Sagittarius!" Lucy called out, the horseman appearing beside her again.
"Ice Make: Arrows!" Gray yelled, an ice bow appearing his hands.
A storm of arrows, both ice and spirit, rained down on the chains, pinning them to the ground and leaving Laxus free. Changing to lightning, he slipped out just before Amaterasu activated and a pillar of destruction crashed onto the spot where he had been.
Hades's gaze snapped toward Gray and Lucy, who had both staggered — Sagittarius vanishing and Gray's ice crumbling as they reached their limit. "Eyes on me!" Laxus snapped, closing the distance and landing a lightning-wreathed punch in Hades's jaw. He followed up with a double-fisted hammer blow across the back of his head and finally a knee to the solar plexus.
Coughing and choking, Hades staggered back. Raising one fist toward the sky, Laxus incanted, "Resound, roar of thunder! Raging Bolt!"
Magic ran up his arm and leaped off his clenched fist, gathering the air above for a moment before unleashing a massive lightning bolt onto the enemy below. Taking the full brunt of the attack, Hades let out a pained yell and collapsed onto his hands and knees, smoke rising from his battered form.
"Now!" Laxus yelled over his shoulder to the others. "The final blow should come from you, Fairy Tail!"
"Wendy!" Natsu shouted, already puffing out his chest as he drew in an impossibly deep breath.
"Y-yes!" Wendy leaped forward, doing the same.
Their spells merged seamlessly into a vortex of fire and wind that bore down on Hades. But even as battered as he was, the old master raised his head and glared balefully into their attack. "Don't get ahead of yourselves, brats!" he shouted, thrusting out one hand and gathering magic in the palm.
The gathered magic shot out just as the vortex was upon him, plunging into its center and detonating — even called up on a moment's notice, his spell had contained enough force to rupture the twister from within, sending waves of wind and flame sweeping across the remains of the deck.
Hades curled his lips triumphantly, only for his eyes to widen in shock as a something emerged from the center of the slayers' spell. Riding hidden within the vortex and now revealed still flying toward him, Erza — clad in her Flame Empress armor but armed with the Lightning Empress's halberd — brought her weapon to bear. There was no time to dodge.
The remnants of Laxus's lightning magic swirled around the blade, as Erza brought it down directly onto Hades with all the force she could muster.
Her momentum carrying her past Hades, Erza skidded to a stop — just barely remaining on her feet and leaning heavily on her halberd. Behind her, Hades dropped heavily to his knees, then fell forward onto his face.
Natsu, Wendy, and Lucy erupted into cheers. "We did it... We did it!" Wendy cried. Even Laxus let out a breath of relief — keeping up the high-powered offensive had quickly started to take its toll on him. 'I guess the others finished their part too...' Gray thought. After all, Ultear had said Hades could not be defeated as long as Devil's Heart was still operational, so—
A low, amused chuckle made them freeze in shock.
"Well, well, it seems Makarov's brats have some potential after all," Hades spoke, pushing himself up and rising to his feet. He slowly rolled his neck, then his shoulder, but there was no stiffness in his movements.
He shouldn't have been able to stand after all the damage he had taken, but aside from the ragged state of his clothing, there was no sign that he had been in a battle at all — not a single scratch or bruise remained, not even from Erza's direct hit across his entire torso.
"N-no way..." Lucy stammered, voicing everyone's shock.
In the blink of an eye, Hades had moved — appearing in front of Laxus, he grabbed him by the throat with one hand. Lifting him up, Hades slammed him into the floor hard enough to send him crashing through the deck... and the layers below, straight into the next level of the airship, far beneath.
"Laxus!" Natsu called out, furious.
"How unfortunate," Hades continued calmly. "Wizards of your strength could have thrived in the World of Great Magic... if you hadn't chosen to stand in my way here."
Reaching up, he pulled off his eyepatch. The eye beneath it slitted open slowly, a red glow emanating from the beneath the lid. Dark, choking magic swirled around him, engulfing everything until all light had been devoured.
"But I commend you," Hades went on. "You have earned this much. I will show you the smallest fraction of the coming world. This is the power I gained from the abyss of magic — the Devil's Eye."
'This is... this is why Ultear was afraid of him,' Gray realized, gritting his teeth against his instinctive fear. 'Juvia, Cana... hurry! At this rate...'
Spreading his arms, Hades said, "What dwells in the deepest darkness is not only death, but also the origin of life. The Black Magic that Zeref created is Living Magic... And this is only the weakest of its spells, Nemesis."
As Hades made a wide, sweeping gesture, his noxious magic sank into the rubble all around them. The broken fragments of the ship began to tremble and jump, and a dark mass oozed from each one, swelling and growing until the undulating forms towered over Hades. They took shape, heads, limbs, horns, claws emerging from sludge. Parting their jaws, they roared.
"Those are..." Erza murmured, staring in shock.
"Demons," Hades confirmed, his expression still as calm as always despite the shadows cast across his face by the malevolent crimson glow of his Devil's Eye. "Nothing that can compare to the ones sealed within Zeref's Books... But more than enough to rend and swallow the likes of you."
'That's right... that's right, these things are nothing compared to Deliora. So get a grip!' Gray told himself, as the demons began to slowly advance on their group. But still, he couldn't stop his hands from trembling.
Even Natsu was hesitating for once, his eyes darting between the horde bearing down on them and Lucy and Wendy, just behind him.
"Accept your fate and return to the darkness, children of the light," Hades told them, crossing his arms and bowing his head as if offering a prayer for their souls.
The demons roared, rushing at them—
—only to be horizontally bisected by a glowing golden trail. A blade of fire and light cut a swathe through the hoard, the pieces of the demons slowly sliding apart, then bursting into purifying holy magic.
Erza straightened from her lunge, which had carried her from her position on the opposite side to where her friends were. The spear in her hand pulsed with golden light, driving back some of the darkness. It reflected off her crimson hair and the red of her hakama. This would be her final requip, her magic almost completely drained.
"We refuse," Erza replied succinctly. "My friends won't disappear as long as I am here, and I won't die as long as they are with me. So the only one who'll be returning to the darkness is you."
"Erza, that weapon..." Gray started to say.
She smiled, spinning it and bringing it to bear on the regrouping demon horde. "The anti-demon armament, Million Suns," Erza said. "I told you, right? Back when we were on Galuna — I got a weapon against demons. It's good to finally have a chance to try it out."
"I like it! It looks tasty," Natsu declared, grinning. "How about you let me try a taste? ...After we pound this guy so hard he won't get back up again."
"How can you think about that at a time like this?" Lucy wondered. "We could really die, you know!"
"Because he's a lizard-brained idiot," Gray snorted.
Listening to their back and forth, Wendy let out a quiet, shaky giggle.
"Just like Fairy Tail, to be so foolish even in the face of death," Hades said, shaking his head. "But false bravado won't save you. You will only prolong your struggle. Still, if that is your wish, I will indulge you — and fight you as long as you still draw breath."
More demons were swelling up out of the rubble, their ranks closing over the gap Erza had created. Their numbers would continue to increase as long as Hades's magic lasted — endlessly, according to Ultear's dire warnings.
It wasn't like they were unaware of their situation. Unlike Hades, their magic had a limit. Lucy and Gray had already passed it. They wouldn't be able to cast even one more spell, and Natsu and Wendy were barely better off. Laxus had likely been knocked unconscious, and even Erza would only be able to keep her spear lit for so long.
"You got that right!" Natsu yelled. "We'll never give up! We're gonna fight as long as we're still breathing!" His chest ballooned as he drew an impossibly deep breath. "Fire Dragon's—"
Her face set with determination, Wendy straightened and followed suit. "Sky Dragon's—"
A whirlwind of flame tore through the demon ranks, but the darkness closed in again as it faded. It flowed out from Hades, who stood in the center unruffled and untouched. "As you wish," he stated calmly and spread his arms in the same gesture he had used to summon the demons.
For a moment, the same black magic gathered, more demonic shapes beginning to emerge.
Then, suddenly, Hades staggered and faltered.
Whips of water slashed at the pulsing, monstrous heart that had been hidden in the deepest part of the Grimoire Heart airship. Juvia gritted her teeth as her magic struggled for a moment against the barriers around Devil's Heart before ultimately giving way, not even enough to put a scratch on the source of Hades's power.
"It's no good! Juvia's magic can't pierce through the wards!" Juvia called out, her voice cold and furious.
Behind her, Cana mirrored her tense expression. "We have to do something," she shot back. "I can't hold down the traps for much longer."
Just getting into the chamber had been a struggle. Embedded in all across the walls, the floor and the ceiling — or rather, in the magic circles drawn there — her tarot cards flickered with magic as Cana forced the traps to jam and delayed their activation. The Exceeds, hovering nervously at the far end of the chamber, by the door, exchanged a look.
"Can't you use a stronger spell?" Happy called out.
"Juvia's magic isn't concentrated enough to break the barrier," Juvia admitted unhappily, even as she made another futile attempt.
"There must be a way. I can tell there's a path to the future here, but I just can't find it..." Carla muttered to herself.
"...I have an idea," Cana finally said. "I think I have something that might work... But I won't be able to hold down the traps at the same time." She chanced a glance over her shoulder, in time to see Juvia nod sharply.
"Then let them go off," Juvia said. "Juvia will protect Cana-san from the traps, while Cana-san destroys the Devil's Heart. Gray-sama and the others are waiting!"
Cana nodded to herself as well. Simultaneously, they both took a step back, then another, until they were pressed back to back. "Now!" Cana shouted, and they spun around, switching positions — Cana facing the Devil's Heart, Juvia facing the traps.
At the same time, the cards embedded in the traps gave way. The magic circles throughout the chamber sprang to life, unleashing a barrage of spells at the two women. Juvia's body dispersed, becoming part of a Water Lock that enclosed Cana protectively.
The trap spells pounded against the water barrier relentlessly, a cacophony of sound and fury, but Cana blocked them out, trusting Juvia and focusing on her own task.
'If we can't get the barrier down, we just have to destroy it and Devil's Heart together!' Cana thought. 'And this spell should be enough!'
Raising her arm toward the ceiling, she chanted, "Gather! O river of light that's guided by the fairies! Shine! In order to perish the fangs of evil!" With every word, glowing motes of magic gathered and grew stronger. Bringing her arm down, tattoo shining blindingly, Cana pointed it at the pulsing, bloated form of Hades's black heart.
Magic tore through the chamber, ripping open the ceiling and the floors straight to the sky — where the clouds were also being parted by beams of golden light. Fairy Glitter, one of the three great magics of their guild, collected and concentrated the light of the sun, the moon and the stars. That light condensed into a ring that closed around the Devil's Heart.
With a loud, ear-splitting ringing, the barriers around it shattered. Then, Devil's Heart itself was erased, piece by piece until nothing remained but the light.
Gasping for breath, Cana collapsed to her knees. Juvia's water splashed down around her, reforming into her equally exhausted body. Exchanging a look, both of them suddenly smiled. They had succeeded.
Hades staggered, and his magic faltered. His crimson eye darkened, slipping shut. All around them, the demons he had summoned wavered and began to fall apart.
"They did it..." Gray realized. "Now! This is our chance!"
With a final battle cry, Erza raised her spear and charged at the Grimoire Heart leader. Hades lashed out, trying to grab hold of her, but Erza ducked and, spinning, drove the shaft of the spear into his midriff.
Choking as the air was knocked out his lungs, Hades was thrown back and crashed into the deck. He groaned and twitched but could not do more than raise his head and glare balefully with one eye.
"It's over," Erza said, letting out a slow breath and straightening, even though she had to lean on her spear to stay upright. Sighing in relief, Lucy dropped to the floor, and Wendy followed suit. Gray was tempted to join them.
"It's... not over," Hades gritted out. However, his words carried little weight when he couldn't even sit up. "I will... reach true darkness..."
"No, it's over," Erza repeated. "We've won. Look."
The unnatural darkness his Devil's Eye had summoned was finally dispersing, revealing the nearly leveled remainder of the airship's highest level and the shore beyond. The sunlight slowly emerging from the parting clouds illuminated the group standing on the cliffs.
It was Fairy Tail — Freed and Bickslow carrying an unconscious Rustyrose, Gajeel with Levy dragging Kain, Gildarts with Bluenote's body over his shoulder, Evergreen and Lisanna leaning propping up Elfman on either side, while Mira hovered near Makarov.
"Your subordinates have been defeated as well. You've failed, so leave our holy ground and don't return," Ezra ordered. "Not until you remember what being Fairy Tail truly means."
Pinning Hades with one last cold glare, she turned and began to walk away. Slowly, the others followed. Hades watched them depart silently. Turning, he met Makarov's gaze even across the distance to the shore. Something passed silently between them, and Hades nodded, closing his single eye, in acknowledgement of his defeat.
"I can't believe they actually defeated Hades," Ultear murmured to herself, watching as the battered, half-destroyed Grimoire Heart airship retreated slowly out to sea with the surviving guild members once again aboard. "I guess that means I lose... I have to acknowledge that you're right."
Fairy Tail had created their own future, just as Gray had said. And now...
'Can't you give us a chance to make a better future for you? A future where you can be happy with us — with me.'
...so he said was his goal. It was unrealistic, it was foolish, it was pure delusion. He had no idea what he was talking about. He didn't know the true depth of her sins or her rejection of the world itself.
And yet, something in Ultear's chest felt tight when she remembered his earnest plea.
She didn't turn as soft footsteps drew nearer until Meldy stood next to her on the cliff. "What are you going to do now, Ul?" Meldy asked quietly.
Ultear shook her head slowly. "I wonder... I don't even know," she admitted.
"What happened to Zeref? To your plan?" Meldy said.
"I left him there," Ultear said. "My plan..." She shook her head again. She really didn't know — what to do next, what she really wanted. She didn't know anything at all anymore.
For so many years, Ultear had lived only for the past. The present was a twisted existence she wished only to wipe away, the future was meaningless and inconceivable. All she had wanted was to return to the state when she had still been happy — when she had her mother, the only person to care about her and whom she cared about in turn.
But without realizing it, Ultear had begun to care about the present day that she had aimed to destroy. Gray... and not just him. Meldy, even Jellal in a certain way — she had started to think about their fate and what would become of them, if she went through with Last Ages.
Her mother had loved her, and Ultear had never lost that love. But if she returned to the past, how could she face Ur, knowing that she had hated her mother for a decade and ruined countless lives in a quest to undo what she considered both their sins? The truth was, Ultear's own sins wouldn't disappear. She had realized that she would never be able to forget what she had done.
By going back, she would become the one who not only ruined Meldy's and Jellal's lives but also abandoned them to a miserable end to start over alone. And Gray... his life, she hadn't managed to ruin, despite her best efforts. So if she returned, how would she face the boy he had once been, knowing she'd taken away his future for her own selfishness?
Remaining meant carrying the burden of her sins and giving up the goal she'd pursued for so long. But going back would mean carrying a burden just as heavy and giving up the things she'd inadvertently gained in the present.
There was nowhere she could go and nothing she could do that would put an end to her sadness and despair.
'A future where you can be happy with us — with me. Can you give it a chance? Please...?'
'You fool... as if there's a future like that,' Ultear thought.
What would even happen if she went with him? She was a criminal — an infamous one. The Magic Council would hunt her to the ends of the earth. And it wasn't like he could abandon his guild and his friends to go with her instead. She didn't even want him to.
His place was with his guild, where he at least could be happy. While Ultear...
"...Ul?" Meldy prompted, uncertainly.
Blinking as she was startled out of her thoughts, Ultear turned toward the girl and looked at her for a long moment. Then, she smiled, awkward and a little strained. "Meldy..." she said. "What about you? What do you want to do?"
"I want to stay with you," Meldy replied without hesitation. "I don't care about anything else, but please don't leave me, Ul! I don't... have anyone else..."
"...Okay," Ultear said, reaching out to pet her gently. "Then let's stay together. I promise, I won't leave you." It was all she could do, to give back even a little of what she'd taken from Meldy. A thought occurred to her, and she glanced toward the center of the island. "Just let me do one thing first..."
She couldn't stand to meet him again, but he would worry, wouldn't he? At the very least, she had to give him a sign, to let him know she acknowledged his victory.
Everything descended into happy chaos once all their members had been retrieved off the airship.
"Way to go, you guys!"
"Gramps, you're okay!"
"You should have seen us, we showed them not to mess with us!"
"Gray-sama, Juvia did it!"
"What's that brat doing here?"
Gray found himself shoved from one direction to another, caught between the press of bodies that were hugging, ruffling his hair, patting him on the back. He couldn't get a word in edgewise, and before he knew it, they were headed back to the camp.
He was glad — more than glad, ecstatic — to see them too, all alive and well. And he was certainly exhausted, ready to sit back and relax. But there was still something that he needed to do and that couldn't be put off.
As he was glancing around, looking for some excuse to slip away from the group, Gray caught Erza's gaze. She had noticed his distraction easily and silently asked for an explanation. Gray only shrugged one shoulder, looking away. Erza frowned and, with impressive ease, shouldered her way through to his side.
"Do you want to go look for her?" she asked quietly, easily guessing what was on his mind.
"I... yeah," Gray admitted. "There's... something I need her to answer, now that we beat Hades. So..."
"It's fine. The explanation can wait," Erza sighed, then quirked a smile. "Get going."
Gray smiled back, indescribably grateful for her understanding. But as he tried to sidestep out of the crowd, he nearly crashed into Gajeel's back as the dragon slayer came to a sudden halt. He wasn't the only one — the entire group was suddenly drawing to a stop.
"Master? Is something wrong?" Mira's voice floated back from the front.
Makarov didn't respond. Instead, it was Lucy who spoke up. "Does... anyone else feel that? It's like my magic suddenly came back," she said, her voice carrying in the sudden silence.
She was right. Gray could feel it too — it was as if the island's innate magic had shifted, becoming more welcoming and lending its support. But the only reason for that would be...
"Hey, look! The tree!" someone called out, but Gray was too distracted to figure out who.
Everyone had turned their faces up, staring in shock — above them, the broken Tenrou tree was, impossibly, rising against gravity and tilting back into its original position. The broken pieces of the trunk were sliding back into place, and the bark was smoothing out as if it had never been broken.
In minutes, the Tenrou tree towered above the island again, whole and sound.
"Is this some weird guild thing again?"
"Did someone do that?"
"I've never heard about anything like that..."
Voices picked up around them again, everyone wondering at the tree's miraculous recovery. It was, Gray supposed, another thing they'd have to add to their explanation. He chuckled quietly. 'Of course she'd do something flashy like that,' he thought, trying to force a smile when all he felt was a bitter sense of frustration and disappointment.
He should have known better than to expect anything else. What had he thought would happen? This was enough. At least now there was a chance, that they could meet again, that he could keep trying. The present was no good, after all. They would just have to keep looking to the future, until finally, one day...
"Gray?" Erza said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Are you going to go?"
He shook his head. "There's no need," Gray said. "I get it. This is her response. ...She's probably already gone."
Reading his mood all too well, Erza gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze.
The atmosphere at the Fairy Tail guildhall was unusually tense. With their loudest, most destructive members gone, it should have been a relaxing week or so, but Makarov had left Macao and the others with an important directive — to keep an eye out for Gray and Erza, who had missed the departure to Tenrou.
That wasn't necessary, as Lyon had eventually made his way to the guild to let them know the bare bones of what had occurred. Thus, they were now instead waiting for any word back from the Tenrou group regarding... whatever they were in danger from.
Macao had taken to pacing in front of the bar, turning the situation over in his mind endlessly. He had considered sending someone to check on the S class trials, but everyone left at the guild was not at the level where he could feel at ease sending them into a potential battlefield. There was just too much chance that they'd end up caught in the crossfire and be unable to defend themselves. Same for sending reinforcements in general.
"It's gonna be fine, you know. Master, Gildarts, and even Erza are there," Wakaba told him. He had repeated that refrain several times now, but it was less than convincing when he was clearly just as worried as Macao, always chewing on his pipe but hoarding his tobacco.
"Yeah," Macao still replied distractedly. "Those guys are too strong to get taken down by anything."
Wakaba snorted. "Exactly. I feel sorry for anyone who tries!"
"Getting in the middle of the trials? Natsu'll flip," Macao played along.
They shared a slightly strained chuckle.
When the front doors opened, everyone in the hall spun around in anticipation. They had been doing that for the last few days, their focused attention scaring every unfortunate soul who happened to enter at the wrong time.
This time, the one to step inside was a Rune Knight, a high-ranking one by his uniform. His shoulders tensed as every eye in the guild bore into him, but he didn't seem surprised or questioning about the sudden attention. Setting his jaw, he marched toward the bar and Macao.
"Are you the one in charge?" the knight asked. His voice was quiet, but it carried across the hall in the silence.
"I am," Macao confirmed. "The guildmaster is away on business..."
"My name is Doranbolt. I'm with the 3rd Investigation Unit," the knight went on. "There's something I need to tell you. An... incident has occurred, at Tenrou Island..."