"Really?" Gray asked softly. "Try to remember. There's an ice that imprisoned you for ten years, isn't there?"
Silver froze in his tracks, his façade as Deliora wavering for the first time. Gray would never actually go through with that, right? He needed to overcome his demons without killing himself. Had Silver taken this act too far? Every hit he landed on his son was a step too far, but it was something else entirely for his deception to lead to Gray's death.
"That was before I mastered devil slayer magic," he said with a confidence he didn't feel. "It won't work on me now."
He had no idea if he could actually interrupt or nullify a spell as powerful as iced shell, so his best bet was to dissuade Gray from using it in the first place. His devil slayer magic might be strong, but sacrificial spells were very difficult to interfere with once the caster had chosen to make their sacrifice.
Gray stared back with hard, cold eyes. "Then you shouldn't be afraid to take it."
There was no hesitation in his eyes as he pulled his battered body—his battered body that Silver himself had begun ripping apart—into position and summoned his magic. The raw power reverberated through the air, kicking up a magical shockwave. Such a powerful spell… And Gray had become a very powerful man, but Silver couldn't let him follow through with this.
Silver was already a dead man walking, and he would be a dead man with or without iced shell. All Gray would be doing was throwing his life away for no reason. And Silver… Silver might have taken this too far, but he wanted Gray to live.
He didn't know if he could stop iced shell from being cast, but he was sure as hell going to try.
He threw all the magic he could at Gray, trying to break through the building whirlwind of magic. Something broke through, a clean snap shivering through the air, but why was the air still so thick with magic? A residue?
Gray crumbled into a heap of translucent ice chunks, and Silver gaped. What the…?
"A sculpture…?" A sound from behind him had him whipping around, to see Gray still in casting position. "Shit," he breathed.
It was too late now—Gray had used the distraction to buy himself enough time to finish casting the spell. Silver threw everything he had at him in one last-ditch attempt to avert the oncoming train wreck.
He met resistance from the powerful maelstrom of icy magic, but then something shattered and the magic dissipated into the air.
"I crushed your iced shell!" he crowed, focusing on the triumph to hide his relief. He had actually done it!
Silver's relief turned to fear again. "Another sculpture?"
He turned, already anticipating that his son—his ridiculous, beautiful son who had once again outsmarted his old man—would be behind him. And, sure enough, Gray was there. He held a heavy metal ball in his hand, his arm wound back as if preparing to throw.
"A steel ball?" Silver asked. He had frozen over the entire area after Gray had the thought to use the surrounding rubble. "Where did you…?"
Gray's head was tilted down, his hair covering his face with a dark fringe. "I'm the one who melted the ice in the Sun Village."
Gray had…? Silver had assumed it was his dragon slayer friend, the one with the powerful fire magic. Gray had been able to channel the devil slayer magic earlier, though, so maybe Silver shouldn't be surprised that he could have figured out how to use that ability to unravel the magic and melt the ice.
Silver's eye caught on a part of the surrounding ruins that was conspicuously free of ice. While he'd been distracted with trying to stop iced shell, Gray had set an entirely different plan in motion. He felt a brief flash of white-hot pride in his son. Gray had become powerful—and when power wasn't enough, he was clever enough to devise another scheme.
Silver wondered if he had actually stopped iced shell after all, or if Gray had abandoned that idea when a better opportunity presented itself.
Gray looked up. His eyes were hard with determination as ice crept over his arm in armor plates. Silver was amazed at how quickly he created such an elaborate icy vambrace, and barely had time to react before Gray was whipping his arm back and throwing the ball with deadly force.
It slammed into Silver's chest, accompanied by a burst of blinding pain, and hit with enough force to tear right through him. He toppled backward and fell to the ground, trembling all over with the pain racking his body.
Gray had…done it. He had overcome what should have been insurmountable odds, pushed past his heartbreak and pain, and hadn't given up. And Silver was so, so proud.
"…Shit," Gray mumbled past his gasping breaths. "Did you really think I wouldn't notice? I've faced the demon so many times…" Silver couldn't force his battered body to move, but his gaze slid sideways to lock on Gray's bowed head. "Did you really think I wouldn't notice that you weren't Deliora? You're my father… Shit, why?"
Silver's breath fluttered in a sigh. And here he had underestimated Gray yet again. Even though he had put on such a good show, despite how much damage he had ruthlessly inflicted, Gray had somehow seen through him.
It was…too bad. It would have been easier if Gray had accepted the story. If Silver was Deliora, then Gray could overcome his demon and put it to rest. If Silver was his father, then Gray would have to learn the truth about his long-dead family. Instead of triumph, it looked like this confrontation would end in heartbreak.
"Land the last blow," Silver said in a sigh as he stared up at the clouds.
"Cut the bullshit!" Gray's voice shook. With anger or pain or disbelief, Silver didn't know. "You're my father, aren't you? I watched you die. What are you doing here?"
Well, it looked like the game was up.
"I was…waiting for you to kill me."
"Yes, I was your father, once. But now I'm not human anymore. I'm not even a demon. I'm just…dead. I died seventeen years ago."
"I–I saw…" Gray let out a shuddering breath and asked in a small voice, "But how?"
"One of the Tartaros demons, Keyes, is a necromancer." One corner of Silver's mouth curled into an unamused half-smile. It was easier to look up at the sky than watch his son's face. "I was a corpse he collected for his experiments."
"He wanted to see how much he could make corpses behave like living humans. I was only one of hundreds, but I lasted the longest. I kept going so that I could take revenge on the demons that took my family from me.
"I stayed in the demons' guild, but I've been secretly hunting and killing demons for years. Sorry about the Sun Village… It seems that flame wasn't a demon after all. I was going to weaken the other demons and eventually destroy Tartaros, but then I found out you were still alive."
Silver swallowed hard as his throat closed up. Even just thinking back to his chance realization still threatened to bring tears to his eyes. He had spent so many years thinking his son was dead, grieving over the fact that he had died a child and never gotten the chance to grow up, and then…
He had watched bits and pieces of the Grand Magic Games as an idle diversion, having no real stake in the outcome. When he first saw Gray up on that screen, he was sure his mind was playing tricks on him. It was just some other boy, who happened to bear a resemblance to what his son might've looked like if he'd had the chance to grow up.
But he knew. He had watched for every little sign until he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was his Gray.
His Gray was alive, had grown into a fine young man and moved on and lived. Silver had wanted nothing more than to go after him, but…he didn't want Gray to see what had become of him. He was a walking corpse, grown cold and callous from living with the demons he so hated, and had done more than a few things he wasn't proud of during his time in the dark guild.
Seeing Gray happy and healthy and recovered from their tragedy had made Silver ashamed of what he had become.
"And I realized," he whispered, staring at his shaking hands with damp eyes, "that my hands were too dirty. I no longer had the right to fight for you and your mother."
Gray said nothing for a long time but then asked, in a quiet voice, "Is that…why you want to die?"
"I'm already dead." Silver levered himself up on one arm and slowly pulled himself into a sitting position despite the waves of crippling pain radiating from his tattered chest. "I wanted to end."
Silver crossed his legs and looked down at his hands in his lap, still finding it too painful to look at Gray. "I was cruel to you. I hurt you. And…I'm sorry. You can forget about me. In the end, I'm just a dead man."
"But you're still…my father."
"No." He looked up and forced himself to take in every bruise and cut and crimson splash of blood littering Gray's skin. All the damage he had done. And although he had been trying so hard to keep it together, he felt tears welling in his eyes again and one tracked its way down his cheek. "No father would hit his son."
"It's enough. Just…kill me."
Gray didn't say anything, only bowed his head. As painful as it was, Silver wished Gray would look up so that he could see his son's face one last time. So much had been taken from them, and he wished he could have just a moment to be the father he had once been a long time ago.
The ice crystalized effortlessly into a sword in Gray's hand, but the point stayed lowered. "Do you want relief?"
If anyone would give Silver his freedom, it might as well be his son. He didn't want to just fall apart like the other experimental corpses, giving up to return to the earth. He certainly didn't want Keyes or one of the other demons to end him as a last laugh. They didn't deserve the satisfaction. But Gray, if he could overlook their one-time bond and take revenge for all that Silver had done to him and his friends, was someone he wouldn't mind freeing him.
"Please." Silver bowed his head. "Let me finally return to Mika's side."
Mika, the love of his life, who should have gotten the chance to finish raising their child. At least she had been allowed to slumber peacefully in the earth instead of suffering the same indignities of his restless half-life, but he was ready to join her again. It had been far too long.
He wished also to stay with Gray, to make up for lost time, but he knew that was an impossibility.
And still, Gray didn't move. The sword trembled in his hand.
"Why are you hesitating?" Silver barked. "I helped Tartaros with the Face project! I killed former Council members and threatened your guild! I'm your enemy!"
"Yeah…" Gray raised the tip of his sword as his voice strengthened. "Even if you're my father, you're my guild's enemy. I have to protect my family."
Silver smiled sadly at the ground. "That makes you human."
Family, huh? Even if he and Mika had been lost, he was glad that Gray had found another family.
"But…I still can't kill you." The sword dropped from Gray's hand and shattered on the rocky ground. He bowed his head and hunched his shoulders, one hand pressed to his face as his shoulders shook. "Shit. Shit…"
"That…also makes you human."
A tear rolled down Silver's face. Perhaps it had been unfair to ask this of Gray, a selfish wish. And he was selfishly glad to know that even after everything, Gray couldn't make himself go that far. That they were still family.
He pulled himself to his feet with some difficulty and staggered forward a few steps to wrap his son in a tight hug. Gray was so much bigger than before, when he was a small, happy, smiling child. But he was somehow still small, no matter how much he had grown. Small enough to always be Silver and Mika's child.
"Either way, my body isn't going to last long," Silver said with wistful regret. How unfair that he had lasted this long but was going to fall apart just as soon as he'd made his peace with his son.
"Dad…" Gray's breath hitched, and his tears were hot against Silver's shoulder.
"Let me stay like this for a while," Silver murmured. He wanted to hold his son one last time, for whatever short time he had left. Gray trembled in his arms. "You've become a good man, Gray. We're proud of you."
Gray's hand tightened in Silver's shirt. "There's so much I could tell you…"
"And I'd love to hear it all," Silver said. If only they had enough time for Gray to tell him everything about the past decade, he'd jump at the chance in a heartbeat.
"…But I guess it doesn't matter, because you're just going to leave anyway."
Silver closed his eyes, sorrow tightening its thorny tendrils around his heart once more. "…Yes."
"Can you…take us back to where Natsu and the others are?"
"Huh?" He stiffened, taken aback by the sudden shift.
"You got us here somehow. Used some kind of teleportation or something. Can you take us back?"
"I… Yes, I suppose, but why?"
Gray wriggled out of his grasp and stepped back. His hands were clenched into loose fists by his sides and tears still dripped down his chin, but he was looking down so that his hair hid his face again.
"If the necromancer dies, you'd be free, right?"
Silver's eyes widened as he finally realized where this was going. "Yes, but–"
"I can't…kill you, can't give the final blow, but I can…give you your peace."
"Absolutely not! You're already hurt. I…hurt you. A lot. You've done enough, and you're in no shape to still be fighting. Someone else will handle it."
"You can take me back, or I'll start walking."
"You can't… One of your friends will face Keyes eventually. Let's just stay here, with what time we have left."
Gray shook his head slowly, his hair swinging back and forth across his face. "You asked me to give you relief. And even if I can't… I can fight for your freedom. It's my duty, and I won't…fail you."
"Oh, Gray," Silver sighed, his eyes softening, "you've never failed me. You've already done enough. Let someone else fight this battle."
Gray stood stock still, expression still carefully hidden by his hair, and then turned to pick a direction and start walking. Silver blinked after him. The kid didn't know the way back. Silver could let him wander around until someone else killed Keyes, but…
But Gray was a grown man, no longer a child, and it had been a long time since Silver had been his guiding parent. Gray was grown up and could make his own choices, and as much as Silver wanted to protect him, it was time to let him go his own way.
"Wait!" He shuffled after his son, wincing at the agony that accompanied each step and just barely stopping himself from clutching at his abdomen. Gray paused in his tracks but didn't turn. His shoulders were set in determination, and Silver realized that it would be impossible to stop him even if he tried. "Keyes is the weakest of the demons, but his body is made up of magical barrier particles. That's how he can dissolve and reform his body to avoid attacks, and it can be dangerous to magic users since it acts as a poison for them. Be careful."
Gray turned and lifted his head. Tears streaked through the grime on his face, but his eyes were hard and his expression set in grimly determined lines. He stepped back and held out his hand.
"I will be the one to give you peace," he said.
Silver took his hand and wrapped his other arm around Gray to pull him close again. "You already have," he murmured into his son's hair.
Gray had chosen to fight for him, and Silver's heart swelled as much with pride as sadness and worry when he teleported them back to the battlefield they had previously left.
Torafuzar and Tempester were still struggling with two of the mages from Gray's guild, that pink-haired dragon slayer and someone who seemed to have an unhealthy fondness for metal. Keyes was toying with a blue-haired girl who hadn't yet figured out how to deal with the anomalous abilities the barrier particles gave him, and Silver's muscles all stiffened up again. He didn't want to see his son get tossed around like that, especially when he was already injured.
"I can help," he said. "I can–"
"No." Gray's breath fluttered against Silver's chest and his hand tightened in his shirt before he pulled himself away. "I'll do it myself."
Silver's arms felt empty when his son escaped the embrace. "But–"
"I'll do it myself," Gray repeated, eyes hardening. "I already put a fucking hole through your chest. Stay here."
"Hey, ice block!" yelled the pink-haired dragon slayer, noticing his friend's return and almost getting hit by one of Tempester's curses for his trouble. "You alright?"
"Fine," Gray grunted.
"You sure? 'Cause you look like shit."
"I said, I'm fine, Natsu."
"Really? You're looking even uglier than usual…"
It almost looked like Gray might smile, but he just stalked toward Keyes. "Says the guy with pink hair. Focus on your own fight, flame brain. I'm not going to bail you out if you take a loss because you were too busy ogling me."
His friend snorted and focused back on Tempester just in time to avoid another hit. It was just as well—getting distracted in the middle of a fight, especially against a demon, was dangerous. Still, Silver was glad someone cared enough about Gray to realize something was wrong. It was an intriguing glimpse into the friendship the two shared and Silver wished he had time to see more, but it was enough to know that Gray wasn't doing it all alone.
Gray had already dismissed the encounter, focus fixed solely on his target. Keyes had wrapped the girl in thick coils of barrier particles, and she struggled weakly and wailed as they crushed her body.
Gray's hands moved in a curt, dismissive motion, and an icy wall shot up between Keyes and the girl, slicing through the bands of particles so that they dissipated and released his friend.
"Gray-sama!" she said as she fell to the ground and pulled herself back to her feet. "Juvia–"
"Stand back, Juvia," Gray said, watching the particles reform on the other side of the ice shield. "This is my fight."
The word was heavy with finality, and Juvia reluctantly retreated even though she kept her eyes locked on Gray. Gray didn't look back. His shield dissolved, and he stared Keyes down.
"How interesting," Keyes said. "Here I thought father and son would kill each other, but this is quite a turn of events. I suppose it was about time Silver finally betrayed us."
Silver's mouth flattened into a grim line. Keyes was normally reserved, but it looked like not even he would be able to pass up the chance to rub everything in Gray's face.
Gray chose not to respond, instead throwing ice at the necromancer. Keyes's body dissolved and reformed, and Silver could only hope that Gray figured out a strategy to combat that and quickly. But his son was tough and smart. If anyone could do it, it was him.
"You realize that if you kill me, you'll kill your father," Keyes taunted.
"I know," Gray said flatly.
"It won't get that far of course. Perhaps after I kill you, I'll animate your corpse and use it to kill your friends…and end your father."
Silver's hands clenched into fists at his sides. Keyes would never get his grubby hands on Gray.
"I'm going to make you regret it," Gray said softly. A thick rope of particles wrapped around his arm, but he slashed an ice blade through it and it disintegrated. "I'm going to make you regret playing your sick games with my family."
Juvia started forward, but Silver dropped a heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Juvia needs to–"
"He wants to do it himself," Silver said. "He's a tough kid. He can do it."
"But Juvia wants to help!"
"You can try helping one of your other friends."
"…Gray-sama's father?" she asked uncertainly. Her lips trembled.
"Juvia is so sorry about–"
A shrill cry pierced the air, so Silver never found out how much Keyes had told the girl with his gloating. He looked away from Gray's fight before he could stop himself. Ghostly skeletons had risen from the ground to gather around a blonde-haired girl sprawled in the rubble. Keyes again. This was a dead city, and a necromancer's playground.
"Lucy!" cried Natsu. He lunged for the girl, but Tempester blocked his path.
"Go help your friend," Silver told Juvia.
She hesitated, looking back at Gray. "But…"
"Gray will be just fine."
Juvia wavered a second longer but then darted off to help Lucy. Silver turned his attention back to Gray, his body tensed in preparation. He wanted to respect Gray's wishes to do this on his own, but he would most definitely step in if things went too far.
Gray took a hard hit and went sprawling, but quickly rolled out of Keyes's way and jumped to his feet. Silver had no idea how he could still move with such agility when he had so many injuries. His hand moved unconsciously to his chest, fingering the tattered edges of the hole that would have killed any living man. The pain was hot and bright and real, but not even the most insane wound could set him free.
Keyes kept up a string of jabs about experiments and severed family bonds that had Silver grinding his teeth in fury, but Gray didn't rise to any of them. He had said what little he needed to say to the necromancer and didn't bother humoring him with responses. Gray's face, on the occasions he turned enough for Silver to see it, stayed stoic and cold. His fury and pain were held tightly under control, and he didn't let Keyes bait him. Good kid.
Keyes lashed out, but Gray was faster. His hands sliced through the air, and the necromancer's anti-magic particles were trapped in a thick block of ice that shattered on the ground. Most of the particles escaped back into the air and Silver wasn't sure how well the technique would work in the long-run, but it was a good start to creating a strategy. He could practically see the gears turning in Gray's head.
He wished he could have shared his devil slayer magic with his son. That would give Keyes a run for his money. Actually, there was an idea. Maybe if–
He leapt back in surprise as the pink-haired dragon slayer went flying past, thrown back by one of Tempester's explosions. Silver gathered up what was left of his magic, ignoring the pain radiating through his body, and threw it at the demon. Tempester's charge was aborted as he was tossed back.
"Be careful," Silver grunted, turning his gaze back to Gray.
"Thanks?" Natsu sounded quizzical as he took advantage of the reprieve to pull himself back to his feet. "So, who exactly are you, then? I'm telling you, you smell like Gray and now you aren't fighting anymore."
He sounded like he had his suspicions, but Silver just shrugged and confirmed them.
"I was Gray's father."
"Gray's parents are dead."
"Yes. Keyes is a necromancer."
"So killing him means that…?"
"Yes." Silver watched as Gray worked at freezing Keyes one piece at a time. "But I'll finally get my peace."
Natsu stayed silent but then said, "He must love you a lot."
"Hm?" Silver finally glanced over. The dragon slayer's eyes were solemn as he also watched his friend.
"He's got a bad tendency to blame himself for shit. It'll kill him to feel like he's killing you, so he must love you a lot if he's willing to take that on to give you your peace."
Silver's jaw clenched as he turned back to watch Gray battling Keyes. That wasn't how he wanted Gray to feel, but he trusted that somewhere, deep down, his son would be able to acknowledge the truth.
"You're his friend?" he asked.
"The best one he's got."
"Is he…? Is he happy with you?"
"Happy? Dunno. It's hard to tell with him. But he's definitely a lot better off than when he was a kid, that's for sure. He gets withdrawn and moody sometimes, but we have a lot of fun together and I think he's a lot happier than he was."
Silver let out his breath in a sigh. He couldn't blame Gray for still being haunted by the past, not when it was the only thing that had kept Silver himself going for so long, but he wished it didn't have to be that way. Still, it was good to hear that he had been healing.
"Take care of him," Silver said quietly.
"Duh," Natsu said. Silver looked over to see the dragon slayer giving him a look as if he were being ridiculous. "We take care of him, and he takes care of us. That's how family works."
The very corners of Silver's mouth curled upwards. He would have to leave his son behind again, but it was a relief to know that he'd be leaving Gray in capable hands with a family to look out for him.
"Look out behind you," he said.
Tempester, recovered from the hard and unexpected hit he'd taken from the devil slayer magic, pounced from behind and Natsu scrambled away with a yelp.
"You finally betrayed us," Tempester said in that flat, dispassionate voice of his as he took a second to glance at Silver. "But I don't think I need to take care of you." His eyes slid to Keyes. "It looks like your time is running out."
And he took off, hunting Natsu again. The dragon slayer turned and sent a wall of fire back.
Silver returned his attention to Gray. He didn't have the time or desire to worry about his former demon comrades or even Gray's friends.
Gray rolled out of the way of an attack, but now his eyes contained the cold certainty of a predator moving in for the kill. He had figured it out, or at least thought he had.
He threw out a truly magnificent amount of magic and encased Keyes in a huge block of ice. He slashed his hand violently through the air and the ice shattered into a thousand glittering pieces, dark from the particles they contained.
Keyes chuckled, voice disembodied as the particles began to reform again. "You can't–"
Silver couldn't tell what happened next. Gray moved too quickly, and the air was clouded with bits of flying ice and darkness.
Gray darted forward and disappeared into the middle of the chaos. Silver wanted to call out and warn him to be careful, that it was dangerous to come into contact with the magic barrier particles, but he didn't have time to open his mouth before the entire area exploded. Ice blasted every which way, arcing through the air before crashing to the ground and shattering in a glittering hail. The particles stayed locked in the crystalline fragments, and Keyes…was gone.
Something tightened and loosened abruptly in Silver's chest, and he felt his connection to the world quickly unraveling. Gray had done it, and Silver didn't have much time left. He held on to his grip tenaciously, determined to buy these last few seconds to speak to his son one last time.
Gray was still standing in the middle of the blast zone when the explosion died away and he came back into view. Silver approached, each step a struggle.
"Gray… You did it. Thank you." He dragged his disintegrating body over, but Gray stayed still and quiet and unresponsive. He frowned at his son's back, but accepted that this was the way things would be. "My magic, I think I can pass it on to you. I learned ice magic because E.N.D., the most powerful demon of all, is a fire demon. I want you to have a way to fight your demons."
With the devil slayer magic, there should never be another Deliora. Silver had failed in so many ways as a father, but he wanted to give Gray this one last thing, a way to protect himself from any other demon that might turn its sights on him.
"You're free to go, right?" Gray asked hollowly. He didn't look back, only stared at the ground ahead of him. "Isn't that what you wanted?"
Silver shifted uncomfortably. "I… Yes, but–"
"Then go. Just…go."
He blinked at the back of his son's head and then smiled sadly. His body was falling apart, starting to disintegrate into the ether now that the necromancer was dead, and he wished that he could see Gray's face one more time. But he couldn't blame the kid, not for this.
"It meant the world to see you again," he said. He dropped a hand on Gray's shoulder, although it started fading away almost as soon as it touched skin. "Goodbye, Gray. Your mother and I love you very much."
And Silver let go. There was no more need to fight it off. He was free to rest in peace now. He had gotten the chance to say goodbye, and that was enough to bring him the peace he needed to let go of the burning need for revenge that had sustained his body all these long years.
A choked, strangled sound worked its way out of Gray's throat and he whipped around suddenly, his dark eyes swimming with pain and tears. He threw his arms out as if seeking one last embrace, but they closed on nothing but air.
"Why do you have to leave me again?" he wailed, hunching over his empty arms as if in physical pain.
"I'm not," Silver whispered into the ether.
His magic fled his incorporeal form and wrapped around Gray, a piece of him for his son to keep. And, content that Gray had a piece of his old family to hold on to and a new family to hold on to him, Silver faded away.