The darkness was all encompassing. He had never known a darkness so deep—so unforgiving as this. Sting could hear nothing. He could feel nothing. All he could do was run in no direction, with little hope to catch up to her. Lucy was walking ahead of him, with her back completely turned. He continued to run after her, but she somehow became even farther away.
(Wait for me!) Sting wanted to say, but no words came out.
You're too weak…
(Shut up.) Sting winced.
He kept on running—shadows were pursuing him.
You'll never catch up to her.
The gap is too wide.
No matter how hard you try…
(Stop it!) He yelled in frustration.
The darkness swirled around him like a jet-black vapor.
…You'll never join Fairy Tail.
Sting became deathly white. Upon hearing those words, a furious shock ripped through the entire bridge. Cracks spread out from the epicenter. The ground underneath him gave way and fell into the abyss. Sting crawled to escape somehow; however, every place he held onto collapsed. He turned his gaze towards the others. He saw Natsu and Happy holding Lucy back, like she wanted to jump in after him. Yukino was pale and had her hands over her mouth. Everyone had mortifying expressions on their faces.
The hold that Sting clung onto finally crumbled. He fell backwards into the abyss, while he tried to grasp the dimming light.
Hours passed, and he continued falling. The dark eternity had already pounced on him, ensnaring him in a vast, dusky void. He could feel its undoubtedly sinister energy making his head split open. The dense air choked him and the pain continued intensifying. There was little Sting could do but exist. He could already feel himself already slipping away into an isolated consciousness. After all this time, he wasn't strong enough. He closed his eyes and waited for his impending death… until someone pulled him out of the blackness.
He felt a soothing presence lift him out from the contempt, like the warmth of sunlight. Before him stood a certain, blonde celestial mage. She had saved him again: just like before. In that moment, he felt so happy just to see her again. Tears flooded his eyes and he braced her into a hug.
"…Lucy… Y..You're okay! You're really okay!" His voice shook, "I..I'm sorry… I never should have left—" He froze when his gaze met hers. Her glossy brown orbs had no pupils. The inhuman way she stared at him made his blood run cold. She had a blank expression on her face, completely void of emotion. On her chest was a huge—blood-red wound.
He let go of her waist and backed away from her. "No… You're not…"
His spine chilled when her stoic voice resounded in his ears, "This isn't real…"
"You promised that you would protect me."
Sting tried looking away, but he couldn't. He was stuck, as if he was frozen in time. There was no way she could be real. None of this was really happening. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. There was no sound whatsoever. There was only complete, utter silence… until she finally spoke...
"You betrayed me."
"Sting-sama, wake up!"
Sting immediately sat up, startling a concerned Yukino. He was panting heavily, quickly observing the surroundings. Daylight peered into the cave as he glanced around—He was sleeping in a makeshift bed that Yukino made out of leaves, right beside the rocky wall in the mouth of a cavern. He settled back down when he realized that it was just a messed up, twisted dream.
"Um… Sting-sama?" Sting frowned to see Yukino kneeling in front of him again, frantically bowing her head, "—I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to wake you—but… it's just that… you were yelling in your sleep again. Were you having another nightmare?"
"Yukino, you don't have to do that." He sighed, "And… I was. Thanks for waking me up."
In truth, Sting always had trouble sleeping. He didn't sleep at night; in fact, he didn't sleep at all. He'd just push away the tiredness and replace the feeling with all the darker, more insidious emotions that had accumulated inside of him. He was scared of sleeping. Every time he slept, he would have some sort of haunting dream; usually of remnants of the past and his foster dragon. But Sting's guilt had made him dream of something even worse: Lucy being in danger. So far, this was the worst dream he ever had, but he didn't feel like talking about it. He just never liked to talk about his feelings; not even to Yukino.
He stood up and stretched, causing her to stare unusually at him.
Before she could think about anything, her eyes subconsciously wandered over to Sting's upper body. In a split second, her eyes shot down at the ground—her face now quickly turning a massive shade of red. Sting noticed her shyly looking away, concealing a maddening red, blushing face. He eyed her for a bit, slightly confused.
"Yukino…? What's wrong?"
As he took a step toward her, Yukino backed as far away as she could from Sting. She backed up all the way against the wall until she couldn't escape from his concerned gaze anymore.
"—A—Aahhh," Yukino squeaked, not knowing exactly what to say, "…S—Sting-sama…"
She shakily pointed at his shirt lying on the ground, without making any eye contact.
"Y—Your… Your shirt please!" She squeezed her eyes shut.
Sting honestly didn't know what all the fuss was about. Sometimes he wondered why the hell girls were so weird. He swore that girls got upset over the strangest things. So what if he slept with his shirt off? He shrugged. "Whatever."
It's been a few months since Yukino has joined Sting's journey. She now had a new resolve: To find her sister. Sting was training to become stronger to join Fairy Tail, and yet… she could hardly even use magic; let alone fight at all. Sting had a really rare magic, and she had nothing. He told her not to worry about it, but that just made her even more frustrated. There'll come a time where she'll have to fight on her own. She can't just keep relying on Sting for everything like a free-loader. Sometimes she felt like a burden. But her problems were soon forgotten when they arrived in front of a colossal white dome.
"What is this place?" She gaped in awe, "It's gigantic!"
"This is the Lion's Den!" He beamed, "It's a place where I can train and fight a lot of strong people."
"Lion's Den?" Yukino wondered. Where are the lions?
"It's just an arena where people fight for glory." He said excitedly, "Basically, the more people you defeat, the more prize money you get. When I was little, I used to fight here all the time to earn money... but we've come here so that I can enter the tournament."
"There's a tournament?" She tilted her head.
"The Lion's Den hosts a lot of renown tournaments to determine the strongest mages in Fiore." He explained, "People from all over the place come just to watch. If I win this tournament, I'll become a Fairy Tail mage!"
If I win this... I'll be able to protect Lucy from any kind of danger. He silently added.
They wandered over to the registration desk to enter the tournament.
"Excuse me." Yukino peered up at the young lady behind the counter.
There was an awkward silence as the receptionist stared in front of her, completely ignoring Yukino.
"Uh... Excuse me again." She spoke a little louder this time.
"Umm… about the tournament—"
"Huh?" The lady's eyes widened as she finally noticed Yukino speaking to her, "A visitor!? Uwah! Please forgive me, I wasn't paying attention! Errrrm, Errrrrrrm!" She nervously bowed her head, "I'm sorry!"
Yukino frantically waved her hands in the air, "N-No, don't be… Don't bother about us!"
"I…I space out and people get mad at me because of it a lot… So—I'm sorry."
"AWAWAH," Yukino stuttered, "umm… I'm sorry for intruding you so suddenly."
"D-Don't be, it's totally okay! This is part of my job, so I'm really, REALLY sorry!"
"Oh no, please, don't apologize! It was all my fault, so I'm SORRY!"
Sting felt his sweat drop as they continued on like this for a couple of minutes. They're apologizing because they were apologized to… It's an infinite loop.
The young receptionist nervously looked over to Sting, "So… umm, what are you here for?"
"We're here to enter the tournament." He explained.
"Oh," The receptionist steadily recovered, "Well, today's event is the Tsuin Taigā. You two are partners then?"
"P—Partners?" Yukino blushed. Partners with Sting? Did she and Sting really look like they were in that sort of relationship? They only traveled together for a few months, so they didn't know each other that well enough to be lovey-dovey. But then again, the incident this morning did seem a little weird. Oh this is so awkward... We'd have to be married to be considered partners... Married? Yukino squealed in embarrassment. She rapidly shook her head to clear away her fantasies of a dazzling Sting holding a rose in his mouth.
"The Tsuin Taigā is a 2v2 tournament," She explained. "Where you and your partner have to KO both of your opponents to advance onto the next round and so on. Although... You two seem kind of young for such an intense event… But then again, I did just see another person your age enter."
"We're not partners." Sting said bluntly.
"Oh..." Yukino came to realize. She seemed a little disappointed.
"You're not required to have a partner to participate in the tournament, but it is highly recommended to do so. Many of the participants earlier were also unaware of the 2v2 and are single. However, you are allowed to pair up with another lone fighter to form a team." The receptionist bowed, "I'll take you down to the lobby where the remaining fighters are, so please follow me."
"Good luck, Sting-sama!" Yukino smiled, "I'll be cheering for you!"
"I'm counting on you then." He grinned.
The clumsy receptionist led Sting down a flight of stairs into the 'lobby' where all the fighters were waiting. As Sting entered the massive hall, all the other fighters stopped chatting and glared at the new competition. There was a dead silence as Sting walked further into the room. They stared at him for a while before going back to their regular conversations.
Yup, Sting sighed, this place hasn't changed at all.
The receptionist told him that all he needed to do was find another partner, but everyone around him were much older and already paired up with someone else; and none of them really looked like much of a challenge. Who would actually be willing enough to fight alongside a kid in an intense, competitive tournament that challenges the person's physical and magic capabilities?
Sting felt extremely awkward, but he had to do something. He took a deep breath, "…Does anyone not have a partner…?"
All eyes stared at him. He could already feel himself shrinking away, quickly regretting his decision. Dammit, His face turned red. This is too embarrassing... He was about to storm away, until a boy with dark black hair appeared in front of him. They were about the same height. He stared at Sting with his sharp red eyes, as if he was sort of amused.
"How old are you?"
Sting blinked, "I'm 12-years old."
"Hmm… We're the same age."
"Wow… You're twelve too?"
He nodded. "I'll team up with you, if you want."
"Sure!" Sting grinned. "My name's Sting—"
A loud horn blasted in the room, surprising everyone. An announcer entered the lobby, addressing all the fighters, "Welcome to the LION'S DEN!"
The room erupted with cheers from the fighters.
"Now I'm sure you all are familiar with the rules for today's event, the Tsuin Taigā: Your team must KO the opposing team in order to advance onto the next round. If you and your partner are both KO'd, the round will end and the other team will be declared victorious. The tournament ends until there is only one team remaining!" She cleared her throat, "We have just finalized the tournament brackets! Please be patient while we finish the final preparations."
Sting looked at the magic screen that hovered over the receptionist's head. Their faces were paired together on the first bracket. They were going to be in the first match of the tournament, against the Southern Wolves Mercenaries.
"It looks like we're going to be fighting first." Sting smirked, "Good luck."
"Hm~" The boy thought to himself, as if deciding about something, "…Rogue."
"You introduced yourself to me before," He cracked into a smile, "Call me Rogue."
Rogue… Sting sounded the name over and over again in his head. He grinned, "Your name is so cool!"
Rogue looked at him in surprise, "You think so?"
"Yeah, it's like you're a ninja or something!"
A magic circle suddenly glowed underneath their feet. "Alright folks! We're going to teleport the contestants of the first match onto the arena!" The receptionist cheered. The magic circle cloaked Sting and Rogue in an enormous light and beamed them onto the battlefield. "Let the Tsuin Taigā begin!"