Light Casts a Shadow

One Little Step

A few months later—

"A-Achoo! Ugggggghhhhhhhhhh!"

Rogue heard Yukino's retching as he sat next to her bedside. With a concerned look, he carefully placed a wet towel on her forehead. She was still burning up, but he could feel the fever's effects lessening. When her coughing fit became less tense, he asked her a simple question.

"How do you feel?"

"F-feel?" Then came the exaggerated response, "I feel -urk- like coughing up my insides..."

"That's a huge improvement," Rogue said. "Yesterday you said you felt like you were going to die."

"... I still do."

Yukino removed the towel and slowly rose up from the bed. She was barely holding up with her two shaking legs supporting her. As she swayed lightly towards the door, Rogue acknowledged what she what she was going to do and let out a sigh.

He crossed his arms, "What are you doing?"

"What else?" She croaked, "I need to -urp- watch over Sting-sama!"

"You don't honestly expect to go looking for him in that condition."

"It's my fault everything turned out like this. I have no choice."

"Sting should be fine one day without us. Go back to bed."

"NO. I CAN'T!" She yelled, glaring all over at him. Unspent tears threatened to leak out of her feverish brown eyes. "It's too dangerous leaving him by himself! He could pass out again... Or get himself in trouble. Or start another fight! OR destroy an entire town! OR—!"

"—You're still in no shape to go anywhere," He said. To prove his point, he lightly poked her forehead and she immediately lost her balance, falling powerlessly back onto the bed. "The clinic's only a few days away, and you're still too weak to travel. Besides, Sting already left and should be rushing back any moment with the Ygdrassil pill."

"I know... but was it really okay to leave him alone like this?"

"He'll be fine." He assured her. "After all, he needs some time to think about the future by himself."

"... This is all my fault." She placed her hot face into her hands.

Rogue lasped into silence, as did she. For a period of a minute, the two of them sat in an awkward stillness. After the incident, Yukino eventually decided to tell Rogue everything about the Dragon Lacrima, which brought a little bit of peace to her mind. However, they concluded that the truth would surely send Sting to his doom. From then on, Lucy's existence became a secret known only between the two of them.

After parting with his former dream guild, Sting no longer had any goals. Although he pretends to be perfectly fine, he became more arrogant, frustrated and often confused. Without any dreams or a set goal, he eventually reverted back to his original self: Untrusting. Coldhearted. And forever wandering without a purpose.

Grabbing up fistfuls of the wrinkled bedsheets, Yukino weakly wrapped her shivering self and turned away from his gaze, "Rogue-sama... If I didn't give him the Dragon lacrima that time, if he was still back to normal self... what would we be like now?"

"Who knows?" Rogue shrugged. "No matter what happens, that idiot is still my best friend. He promised that we would always be together, so there's no way I could ever leave him alone like this. The only thing we can do now is watch over him and find a way to bring him back to normal... Even if I have to constantly smack him over the head a few times." He smirked, but his face fell when he couldn't bring out the same elicit response from the girl.

It was awkward when they were alone together. What should I do? Rogue rapidly reminisced through his experiences of talking to the opposite gender and most of them led to a similar conclusion. Ask. Ask nicely and politely but firmly. Let her know that he is aware that something is bothering her and that she should share her thoughts so he can understand better.

"Is there something on your mind?" He gamely tried again. "If there is something troubling you, it is alright to speak out loud. I will listen."

Yukino blinked, a shadow passing across her face. For a moment there, she hesitated and Rogue held his breath. Then she spoke, her voice shrill and uncomfortable. The conflict within her passed and everything came bursting out.

"Can... Can you stop being so kind to me?" Her voice was strained, filled with a pained request as she hid herself in the blanket. "I'm so useless! I don't even deserve to be forgiven."

"... Why do you have to think like that?"

"Well... Because I'm just a burden." It was an unintented choice of words that shocked both Rogue and herself. "I... I'm sorry. It's all my fault. Everything's my fault. I'll do everything you say—I'll even go back to sleep. So Rogue-sama, please... don't ...hate me..."

"Hate you?" He stammered a little. What was he being all worked up for? Rogue shook his head, "None of this was even your fault. If I were in your shoes, I would have done the same thing. If it wasn't for you, Sting would have been completely broken beyond repair."

Yukino finally brought herself to look up at him, "... Really?"

"Yeah." He said. "From now on, we'll just have to protect Sting together."

When he first met Yukino, he found her cheerful personality and positive attitude almost as irritating as Sting's. What could she possibly be so happy about? They were polar opposites. It was only after learning of the traumatic experiences and hardships she's gone through that his opinion of Yukino changed. He even learned that her everyday smile in front of others was just a mask to hide her weaknesses.

This time, however, was different. Right now, he could feel that the pure hearted girl in front of him was smiling genuinely... and it made him happy. For the first time in his life, he experienced the desire to protect someone's smile. Yukino's real smile.

"What do I want to do?" Sting asked himself as he sat against a rock on top of the hill. The medicine pouch idly dangled from his hand as he stopped and took a moment to think about everything that happened so far.

After leaving Magnolia, he started helping Yukino find out the whereabouts of her long lost sister to no avail. Everywhere they looked, no one had any idea or clue who or where she could be. However; It wasn't a total waste of time, because Yukino actually gained a new power.

Not too long ago, he knocked over a stupid old woman that was in his way, which caused Yukino to nag at him and help her back up. That old hag gave him the evil eye, but she firmly grasped onto Yukino's hands in gratitude. She sensed that Yukino had a natural talent and strong affinity towards celestial spirits from the moment they touched. At the last moment, she made Yukino her successor and passed away peacefully, leaving them with 3 celestial gate keys: 2 gold and 1 black.

It turned out that the spirits Yukino received were keys of the zodiac. To his amazement, she performed a contract with both of the golden gate keys: Pisces and Libra, but she said that the ebony black key spooked her. She felt like its daunting power would somehow consume her, so she would avoid it for now until the time was right. Sting thought she was just being too careful, but the concept of summoning a meatshield during battle greatly thrilled him.

However; after staring at those celestial gate keys, he found himself in a dream-like trance. He felt unusual. He had this uneasy feeling in his gut that knew that he saw those keys before, but at the same time, he didn't. He tried to think back to the time where he saw those keys, but he suddenly got a piercing headache. His memories were all blurred and everything was obscured. The further he tried to unlock his memories, the more intense his headache became; up to the point that it felt like a dagger grinding and twisting into his mind. At that moment, all he could register was pain and he collapsed onto the ground.

"Sting!" Rogue and Yukino ran up to him.

His mind was disordered. Chaos. He couldn't make sense of anything.

His vision was blurring. Unable to perceive the world around him, it was all a mess of light and colors.

His hearing was fuzzy. Yukino and Rogue bombarded him with an almagation of sounds, their incomprehensible questions of concern were at the same time both a whisper and a roar.

Everything turned black in an instant. He was all alone. All he had remaining was a faint sense of self-awareness. He was confused, but not panicked; curious, but still alert. His perception of time was warped and he had no idea how long he stayed like this: An hour? A day? A whole year? He didn't know. Then suddenly a light flashed before his eyes.

And then he could see her.

A familiar, yet unknown presence. It was a beautiful teen girl with flowing blonde hair holding out her hand towards him. He didn't know this stranger, but she seemed so familiar. She smiled at him and Sting felt a surge of warmth blossom from the empty void in his heart. He was captivated by her. Drawn to her. He wanted to reach out and grab her hand in return. He needed to find out who she was.

But before their hands could touch, he was immediately brought back to reality. He found himself sitting on the ground as Yukino and Rogue surrounded him, asking if he was feeling okay. Sting's mind, however, was a mess. Was it all a dream? Or was it a vision? Sting never saw her again and the whole event slipped away into the back of his mind.

After contracting with her spirits, Yukino succumbed to a rare illness that potentially threatened her ability to use magic. It was decided that since Sting was the fastest, he would retrieve the cure while Rogue watched over Yukino.

Sting lied down on his back watching the clouds, thinking about his current circumstances. He noticed Rogue and Yukino privately talking about 'stuff' without him each passing day. Judging by their shifting glances and lowered voices, he could tell that they were secretly talking about him. With his enhanced dragon-like hearing, he could hear small tidbits of every word they said. But when he tried entering their conversation, they would always attempt to change the subject, which caused Sting to feel a small distance in their relationship.

Did you really think I would be surprised? He wanted to say.

I've seen and heard so much. How could I not realize? It ocurred to me some time ago that something happened to me. Everyone wanted me to stay ignorant... Whatever happened, they wouldn't tell me I lost my memories. If everyone knew, and they were hiding it from me... It would mean that they found me unworthy of their trust.

So he closed his eyes. It was better to be a naive friend than a friend who couldn't be trusted. He left them alone after that. He wasn't wanted there. He could tell by that twisted expression on their faces. It was the same exact—sickening expression that everyone gave to the wandering little boy after parting from his dragon.

Go away.

Leave us alone.

We dont want you here.

... He was lonely. Even after coming this far with his friends, he was still alone. He had no one by his side, no one he could talk to. The sense of loneliness was hurting him. Sometimes he wished that he could at least have someone to talk to...

As he laid against the rock deep in thought, he could hear a loud wailing from a distance.

"Sting-kun! STING-KUN!" A crying cat in a white vest came running over to him.

He smiled. "Were you bullied again, Lector?"

Lector. A small baby red cat that came from the Village of Exceeds, seeking adventure. When they first met, Sting saved him from getting eaten by a carnivorous chicken. They parted ways, but Sting soon saved the small feline again from drowning in a river, flowing towards a waterfall. He was a little pissed off at the cat's carelessness, so he separated from the kitten... only to rescue him again from a bunch of dangerous looking thugs.

Curiosity really does kill a cat. Well, he later found out that Lector was his self-proclaimed 'Number One Fan' and had been secretly following him ever since they met. Absorbed by his praise and enjoying his company, Sting and Lector quickly became friends.

"Waaaaah! No body believes me!" He cried, "I told them that you beat a dragon, Sting-kun! I'm not lying about it!"

"I know. Never mind jerks like that."

"I can't! They were saying bad things about you, Sting-kun! They even said that you cheated in the tournament!"

"I dont care." He shrugged.

"I... I... I hate it when people say bad things about my friend!"

Sting was surprised by the exceed's revelation. Lector genuinely cared about him and even defended him from other people. It was then Sting began to realize that during all the small moments they had together, he never had the smallest sense of loneliness. He had a faithful companion all along. Sting calmly made up his mind as he stroked the cat's head.

"Okay. Then I'll prove you're not a liar." He smirked.

"Eh?" Lector peered up at him in surprise with tears coming out of his eyes.

"There may not be any more dragons, but there is somebody called 'Salamander', right?" Sting finally knew what he wanted to do. "That stubborn bastard will come back someday, I feel it. When he does, I'll beat him, right in front of everybody!"

Lector stared back at his role model, taking a moment to absorb all his words. When he finally understood and grasped the meaning of his words, he started crying again with happy tears.

He solemnly looked into the exceed's eyes, "I promise!—"

Sting suddenly clutched his head as he felt a painful jolt in his cranium. A sudden flash of light appeared before his eyes in an instant.

A celestial spirit mage never breaks her promises!

"... Sting-kun?" Lector poked him.

He sat perfectly still against the rock. What... What on Earthland was that?

Lector began to panic, "Are you alright, Sting-kun?!"

"Oh. Ah... I'm fine. It's nothing. I was just remembering something, that's all. " He gave a signature smirk, "We still have to deliver the medicine to my friend though... Then I'll work hard to show everyone the power that killed a dragon!"

With a loud cheer, the two companions set off on their journey back home.

What's happening to me... Sting asked himself silently.

-A few days later-


Sting leered back at his opponent as he tucked Lector's injured body within his arm. The colossal old man with a bare, muscular upper body stood over them with terrifying magic power, but Sting still held his ground. Suddenly ambushed by that gigantic explosion, he only managed to shield Lector by a small fraction. He silently apologized to his friend for not being able to fully protect him.

"So you're the rumored kid that won the Tsuin Taiga, hmm..." The old giant stroked his white beard.

"Why did you attack us?" He asked, filled with hostility.

"Interesting. You took that attack still standing. I merely wanted to see how powerful you are to see if the rumors were true."

"I'm in a hurry right now." Sting said in an eerie calm as he converted all of his rage into willpower, "If you attack us one more time, I will end this pathetic fight of yours right here and now. If you seriously want to test my strength, then I wll not hold back. Just understand this: There are no second chances. You only live once."

... He's serious. Jiemma realized, staring back into those cold eyes. They were the eyes of a predator; emotionless, without compromise or compassion. The large old man knew those eyes well; he saw them every time he looked into a mirror.

"Ho ho ho! You sure have guts for such a small kid." He boomed with an approving tone. "I'm recruiting elite fighters all over Fiore to join me. How would you like to join the world's strongest guild?"

And then, seven years passed...

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