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As your shadows swallow me whole

Chapter Text

The world is ending in a cataclysm of dragon fire and Sting finds himself running.
Around him the lively town is drowning in chaos and despair, people running for safety like crazed cattle, wizards bellowing their spells through the darkness and the black shapes of dragons hanging dreadfully in the sky above them like some kind of nightmarish, unlit moons.

Right behind him the heavy footfalls of Scissor Runner are a constant reminder that his pursuer isn't tiring as he crushes buildings and whole streets with mighty talons.
But it's not the those talons, Sting's running from, neither the dragon itself, he is a dragon slayer after all. It's a weird premonition of upcoming dread that has him on edge and on the flight.
There's something wrong with the way the night smells, abhorrent, yet familiar. Like the dead body of a beloved person.

It's a sensation Sting had registered once or twice while the games where still on their way and relentlessly after all hell broke loose.
A scent achingly familiar at times, only to give off a sickening undertone all of a sudden that left him with shaking limbs and a feeling of grief churning deep within his guts.

Now with the smell getting stronger by the minute, the urge to be with his partner has bloomed in his chest and an inexplicable foreboding of mischief has sent him running in a frenzy.
Finding Rogue on his knees, clawing at his ears in despair does nothing to relief the fear cursing through his veins.
Then, in a gruesome moment of clarity he recognizes his friend as the source of the scent he'd been following unconsciously for the better part of the evening.
And yet, there is something off about the sensation, something that sits not quite right with Sting, but the scent carried on by an unfittingly gentle night breeze is unmistakably Rogue's.

Like a swarm of mosquitoes thoughts and questions flit through his tumbling mind, but Sting pushes them aside adamantly.
Right in front of him Rogue seems to be fighting for his very life with his hands feverishly trying to cover his ears and his shadows curling tentatively around him.
It's a literal shadow fight, although it lacks any artistry or entertainment and leaves the lonely spectator with bile rising in his already terror-constricted throat.
Sting falls to his knees heavily in front of the Shadow-Dragonslayer whilst gingerly reaching out to offer whatever comfort the other might take from the tender contact.
His attention is focused on Rogue and Rogue alone, forgotten are Scissor Runner hot at his heals and Levia hovering menacingly above them.

Hours later he'll find his knees scraped and bloodied, with lots of pointy pebbles buried deep within his flesh from his rash approach, but right now he doesn't bat an eye.
He is desperate, hurt and worried senseless about his friend and he just can't deal with this situation, but this is Rogue, who's looking like he's going to break any second, so Sting has to try.

He can hear his own voice boasting something about being teammates and the word “together” appears somewhere along the lines, but he can't for the life of him figure out just where exactly those words came from. Not the part of his brain currently screaming bloody murder at him in sheer panic, that much's for sure.
Still, he is kinda proud of how confident and reassuring his little speech turns out to be.
And he's even more relieved to see, he's getting though to Rogue, for the frantic look of raging white terror has suddenly left those ruby eyes and, even though he's still panting heavily, the shadow dragon accepts the silently offered hand and allows Sting to pull him up.

Right as they make contact, something akin to a storm boding static seems to spark from their joined hands, a scorching heat running through their veins, hearts and finally dissolving into the shattered ground.
When their fingers finally start to slide apart, the tingling afterimage of Rogues skin on his own leaves Sting with a dull feeling of loss and a craving for more. More of what, he wasn't all too sure, maybe if he thought about it a little longer he may figure it out, but not now, not when the world around them was ending.
So with all the courage he could muster, he faces his dreading doom with his head held high and a ferocious glint in his eyes.
And when Rogue turns to stand back to back with his brother in arms, the shimmer of relief still fresh in his eyes, as he leans heavily against him, Sting can't help but crack a smile.
Squinting over to Rogue, he finds his grin returned. Shaking and timid as it might be, Rogue's smile is still there and directed at Sting alone.

All of a sudden, something shifts like a wedged gear jerking back into place, and the two of them are completely in sync- a feeling similar to a Unison Raid and yet far greater than that.
The world stops around them, time stalls and in this moment frozen in a whirlwind of light and shadow they are invincible.
Sting knows it as if it is the most basic thing in the universe. With the other one by his side, he is unstoppable.
There is no need to look over to Rogue this time, for the Shadow Dragonslayer simply rests his head ever so slightly against Sting's. His black strands mingling with the white blond spikes are a beautiful sight to behold, as well as the dance of Shadow and Light, as their magic flares wildly around them.
In this second it's just the two of them secluded in their own bubble of raging magic power, silently vowing to keep the other one safe.
And then they fight.

When an eternity washed out in blood and sweat has passed and the dragons perished in a disgustingly beautiful explosion of golden light, the unsettling smell that had been haunting Sting's nostrils for hours peaked.
The White Dragonslayer turns harshly into the direction it comes from, where his eyes only meet a wasteland of rubble and the smoking remains of the Eclipse Gate.
The scent becomes unbearably strong until every fiber of he being screams in torment, then it vanishes completely.
At the back of his mind, a black emptiness seems to spread and while his blurring gaze is still fixed on a tiny track of golden sparks ascending into the night sky, his knees give out.
The heavy fall he's expecting never comes and moments later Sting blinks back into awareness, to find himself supported by Rogue's arms around his waist.
He is hit by a wave of the familiar scent of strong tea and cedar.
This time it's right, nothing nauseatingly twisted and horribly warped accompanies the sensation, just a feeling of belonging, that rapidly spreads throughout Sting's entire body, leaving him heavy and weak.
For a moment his eyes find Rogue's worried gaze staring down at him, then they flutter shut and he gives in to the wave of drowsiness washing over his mind.
He dully feels arms flexing around him, a muted voice calling out to him, but the darkness lures him in.

When Sting comes to his whole body is aching, as if a dragon actually had stepped on him, but the unsettling feeling is gone.
A soothing aura surrounds him like a blanket as his head rests comfortably in Rogue's lap.
Pale fingers card gently through his unruly hair, tracing the line of the old scar right across his eyebrow and coming to a fleeting halt at his temple to push some stray strands out of his eyes.
The touches are calming and Sting's juggled mind craves more of the comforting closeness he had denied himself for years, so he turns his head and buries his face in Rogue's bandaged abdomen, quietly nuzzling into the stained fabric.
There is a little yelp of surprise at the sudden contact that startles Sting fully awake and leaves his cheeks burning a brilliant crimson.
“ Ah... I... I was just...” he splutters unable to get the mess of words wheeling around in his head into any intelligible sentence.
“It's fine, you just startled me, is all.” Comes a quiet answer. “You ok? What happened? One second you seem no worse for wear, then you spaced out and collapsed out of the blue.”
There is a good amount of concern laced into Rogue's low voice and Sting feels sorry for worrying him and even worse for not really having any plausible answer.
The menacing scent, this sudden feeling of dread and the abrupt lack of them all- he wouldn't trouble Rogue with any of those things, not after he had found him in such a state of distress earlier.
His head snaps up at this thought.

“Throw that one right back atcha! What was wrong with you earlier? You looked, like you had totally lost it. I mean, you were down on your knees, clawing at your ears! Right in front of a fucking dragon, for heavens sake!”
Sting can hear his voice rising, even knows it won't do any good, but the sole memory of the scene makes him anxious, and that he just can't deal with.
“'m sorry. I don't really know what went wrong. Guess I just kinda panicked.” Rogue's gaze is fixed on the ground, dark bangs hiding his eyes. His voice seems hollow and his feet are far from stable, as he gets up and turns away.
“Thanks for showing up just in time. I mean it. Think you can walk?” Sting doesn't answer but staggers to his feet, gladly accepting the helping hand offered by his friend. He can tell, Rogue's not being honest, but there are more pressing matters at hand. The time for talking would come, and then they would talk, so for now seeking shelter and treating their injuries comes first.
Rogue seems to agree with him on that one.
“Let's get you home and your wounds cleaned up,” he mumbles “You definitely need some rest.” He's suddenly swaying dangerously, weariness obviously catching up, and has to lean against a crumbling wall for support.

“Not until we've taken care of your wounds, too!” Though Sting can feel exhaustion descending upon his beaten bones, he still offers his shoulder in silence and is surprised when Rogue complies without a single word of protest.

While guiding his companion through the destroyed streets, they come across several people, that had been cheering them on only hours ago.
Some of them are frantically digging in the piles of debris that had been happy homes this morning.
Many of them are crying, desperately calling out for someone they might have lost in the chaos some wailing as they find gruesome reassurance between the rubble.
But a handful is just wandering around, like lost children, eyes empty and wide, as they cannot comprehend what they had just witnessed.
A certain woman comes their way, her hair matted with blood and grime, dress torn and she stares them directly in the eye. She comes closer with swaying steps and looks at Rogue in wide-eyed wonder before she whispers a single word and is on her way.
It hangs heavily in the air above their heads, like a judgment. A conviction.
He can feel Rogue's silent form quivering against his side and can't think of anything to do, but fasten his grip around the bandaged waist and take comfort from a raven haired head suddenly coming to rest on his shoulder.
As they make their painfully slow way back to safety, normality, the dust settles in the sky and reveals the bony face of the moon, as it hangs silently above this closing stage of tragedy.
Neither of them realizes, that their fingers are still intertwined and each is mindlessly caressing the other one's palm.

Chapter Text

It's nothing short off a miracle that their inn is still standing. And yet, after what seems like hours of carefully picking their way through rubble and ruins, the welcoming sight of warmly lit windows and the promise of shelter greets the weary eyes of the Twin Dragons.
Both of them are a wobbly worn out mess, pain and exhaustion weighting heavy on their shoulders, with Sting seriously limping and Rogue nearly doubling over from countless injuries to his chest and torso.
So it's no real surprise, that the impact of two furry little balls flinging themselves at them with a high pitched exclamation of delight throws the boys off their feet.
A groan-filled second later Sting and Rogue find themselves on the floor both with an armful of teary eyed Exceed bundled up in their laps.

“I knew you could do it! I knew you'd defeat all the dragons by yourself! It's because you're the strongest Dragon Slayer in Fiore!”
Though the trembling and sniffling in his voice somewhat betrays him, Lector is still trying to sound confident and boasting, what earns him an affectionate head rub from Sting.

“Fro thinks so, too! Frosch was really afraid of the dragons, they were big and loud and everything was burning!. But it was much scarier that Rogue wasn't there, so Fro's been looking for you... but...
but...” whatever was to follow is lost in between sobs as the cat nuzzles into Rouges bandages with meek cries.
Where she rubs her face tears dilute some of the grime and dirt so that when she looks back, her fur is stained and ragged.
A fleeting shadow from the fireplace makes it look like blood clots – and Rogue nearly throws up.
“I found her wandering the streets earlier, she seemed absolutely lost and kept calling for you, so I took her with me to the inn.”
A soft, timid voice drifts towards him from the inn's sitting room and the eery illusion is broken as Yukino looks them over with soft, compassionate eyes.
And finally Rogue manages to fully face his beloved Exceed, gently scooping her up in his arms while releasing a shaky breath.
“It's alright, Frosch, it's all right” He hushes her in a low voice, “I'm here. 'm here. I'd never let anything happen to you.”
She looks up at him all teary eyed, snot-nosed and precious as she gives him the most shaken, god-awful attempt at a smile he's ever seen.
Yet there is a fierce trust in her hiccupy voice as she hugs his waist again and stammers:
“Y-yeah-- Fr-Fro knows th-that. Fr-Fro knows you'd always protec-c-t her.. B-but what about R-rogue? Fro was really worried for you! So promise Fro, that in the future Rogue would also protect himself!”
Rogue feels something glacial bloom in his chest.
The hope Sting's words had planted there so kindly is already being devoured by doubt;
guilt and shame flood his mind, while helplessness claws at his dwindling strength.
Dread is starting to eat away at him with bone chilling fangs, but he manages to press Frosch flush against his chest before his face falters.
“Of course.” He whispers. “I promise.” His voice is forcefully steady yet already fringing at the seams and he hopes to all gods that the hollowness he feels lacing into his tone is a figment of his imagination.
There is the faintest of touches when Sting's shoulder brushes against his seemingly by accident, yet when their eyes meet he knows he's been found out.
The questioning look in the bright blue eyes darkens to something more somber, almost terrified when the White Dragon Slayer tries to read whatever dark sorrows lay hidden in the blood red gaze of Rogue.
He is already opening his mouth to give voice to his concerns, when one- Lektor nudges a specifically painful bruise with his head and Sting doesn't manage to bite back a miserable yelp, and two- he witnesses a silent plead shimmer through Rogue's eyes, begging him to let the topic pass.
So the blonde just sighs heavily and staggers to his feet, as his face scrunches in pain, and extends a helping hand to his friend.
“ Alright, then. Time to get those wounds dressed before either of us falls asleep right here. Might be dangerous... Orga's snoring might as well push you right into the bonfire...” He cracks a shaky smile at his guild mates and is rewarded with a soft chuckle from Yukino and an obscene, yet good-natured grumble from the God Slayer.
Rogue finally grabs the offered hand and allows to be yanked to his feet in a surprisingly enthusiastic way, silently thanking Sting by squeezing his fingers.
Once again his friend's grin turns out to be contagious and seconds later Rogue finds his features relaxing, mouth quirking up in a lopsided smile, as Sting sneaks one arm around his waist and gently guides the swaying form of the Shadow Dragon Slayer to lean onto his shoulder.
“We'll be off then, time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again!”
Waving cheerfully to the rest of the Sabertooth Guild he makes for the hallway and up the protruding staircase, fingers never ceasing to trail feather light touches over Rogue's battered skin.
They're nowhere even near the first floor, however, when his bravado crumbles and his breathing becomes ragged with strain.
It might have been but a little act of cockiness to dispel the worried glances of their guild mates, but it drained whatever strength Sting had left.
Only with great effort does he finally manage to get them to his room, sighing deeply in relief as he kicks the door shut behind them.
“Hey buddy, would'cha look at that?” he huffs breathlessly. “We actually made it to our room... had my doubt halfway up the stairs. Whadda ya say, you wanna take the first turn showering?”
His friend barely responds.
Ruby eyes heavy lidded and glazed over with exhaustion, he tries desperately to comprehend what had been said and fails miserably.
They're barely meters away from a clean bed, and gods, Rogue has never wanted to just GET somewhere this badly, but he'd been pushing himself time and again for the past three days and now- way beyond his limits- his body just shuts down.
One second he thinks he can see Sting looking at him strangely, his mouth opening in a question, the next thing he knows is nothing but darkness.

It takes every last ounce of energy the White Dragon Slayer has left coursing through his body to keep Rogue's faltering form from hitting the ground hard. He barely manages to support the weight anymore and has to manhandle his friend quickly towards the bed, although he aches to lift him into his arms without aggravating the many injuries.
But when he lowers the limp form onto the mattress he does so with a gentleness he'd never thought himself capable of.
Rogue's head lolls sideways when Sting carefully retreats the hand cradling it, fingers sliding through the unruly strands with ardor.
A small moan rolls over his chapped lips and the dark lashes dusting his pale, pale cheeks give a tiny flutter before his eyes open blearily.
“ 'm sorry...” he presses out with strain. “'m so s'ry”
Something glittering catches in the corner of his lid, something that Sting belatedly realizes, is a tear.
“Hey... shhh... Rogue... it's all right. You're ok... We both are... There's nothing to be sorry about! It's okay....”
Albeit being dirty and bloody, Sting drops down onto the bed next to his friend, hand hesitantly cupping his cheek to wipe the small trickle of tears away with his thumb.
The gesture is soft and intimate and this is uncharted territory but it feels like the right thing to do. After everything that happened tonight Sting is thoroughly done with restraining himself when it comes to emotions.
Time to tear down those walls of isolation erected under the purpose of a false strength.
Here and now, starting with the silence that had been spreading between him and someone irreplaceable precious.
So he continues to caress the damp cheek while Rogue squints up at him warmly, eyes heavy and hooded. He doesn't understand what might be troubling his companion, but come hell or high water, he'd get him through the storm.
He already knows that they will be needing a lengthy conversation, come morning. But now was the time for healing. For clean bandages and the heady feeling of pain killers. Comfort, given through company and the feeling of belonging it brought.
And for small touches, tokens of an affection kept under lock for far too long.
So when Sting rests his forehead lightly against Rogue's, the other boy just breathes a sigh that ghosts over his lips and closes his eyes.
As if suspended in quicksilver, a bandaged hand is slowly lifted and comes to rest in the blonde spikes, fingertips carefully grazing over the sensitive skin.
Rogue shifts until he's resting on his side and with a light tuck on the strands between his fingers, coaxes Sting into joining him.
The White Dragon Slayer complies hesitantly, laying awkward and stiff at first, but when Rogue buries his face in the crook of his neck, nuzzling blindly into the fabric of Sting's jacket, he wraps his arms around his friend and quietly presses his nose into the tuft of raven hair. Frosch and Lektor hop onto the bed and curl up on their pillow, asleep as soon as they close their eyes.
Sting's hands move in light touches up and down Rogue's still trembling back, and he keeps up the motion long after the body in his arms has gone pliant and limp; even after he's fallen asleep himself.
The scent of black tea and cedar follows him into his dreams.

Chapter Text

Sting wakes to the tiny sound of Frosch sneezing and finds the Exceeds curled around each other snoozing peacefully on his pillow. The sight is adorable and a warm, lazy smile blooms on his face.
Early morning sunlight filters through the window panes, setting the fine grains of dust floating around in the air aglow and crowns Rogue's shimmering hair with a radiant halo of purest gold.
Everything is quiet as if the world has stilled overnight to collect its breath and the horrors of the previous day seem somewhat surreal.
Sting almost feels spellbound, does not even dare to move a muscle in fear the fragile bubble of placidity around them might crack and crumble, leaving them amidst death and destruction once more.
He measures the passing of time in the soft puffs of air steadily ghosting over his pulse line and the distant thud-thumping of another heartbeat against his own.
Rogue's head is still resting on his shoulder, lips almost touching the bare sun-kissed skin of his throat and from the looks of it, he hasn't so much as moved a single inch since succumbing to exhaustion last night.
In the gentle grasp of sleep his usually stern features have softened and with his arms pressed up against his chest, loose fists shielding his face, he suddenly looks very young and vulnerable again.
“Just what happened to you out there, huh?” Sting mouths his worries silently against the black strands beneath his lips. “I've never seen you look so frightened. I wanna help you, but you gotta let me! Please, don't let it be to late! Please don't shut me out!” He suppresses a shudder and moves a hand gently, slowly from Rogue's back to weave through the thick dark tresses of his hair.
The Shadow Dragon Slayer releases an unsteady breath, followed by a series of soft noises and whimpers as if trying to wake.
“Shh, it's nothing. C'mon, hush,... Rogue, shh,...just sleep.” Sting whispers, hand idly brushing stray strands out of the other's eyes and prays for him to refrain from waking. For some moments he lies with bated breath, waiting, hoping, until Rogue presses his face closer into his neck and sighs contently, before he quietens again. His nose bumps the sensitive skin on Sting's throat and every soft tickling hint of air sends goose bumps up and down his spine.
The White Dragon Slayer feels heat rising to his cheeks, but it lacks the juvenile awkwardness he's half expecting, instead it simply fills his chest with a fuzzy feeling of serenity.
The small smile that never stopped tucking at his lips since the moment he came around, widens a good measure and for the first time in ages he feels at ease with his inability to give a name to whatever Rogue might be to him.
He had halfheartedly dubbed it friendship, but underneath this shower of golden dust flakes, he thinks, he came up with a better wording.
And maybe, just maybe, it was okay for them to let this thing remain unnamed, so that profane titles couldn't desecrate what Sting deemed to be his greatest blessing.

He's just about to let his leaden eyelids slide shut again, when Rogue's hand randomly streaks Sting sore shoulder and a sharp, abrupt twinge jerks through his body.
Squinting down at the startled wound, he is painfully aware of his blood caked, sweat drenched and grime covered state, thus the prospect of a hot shower and clean clothes suddenly seems too alluring to ignore.
So he carefully lifts Rogue's head and beds him onto the pillow, letting his fingers linger a moment longer on the silken hair than actually necessary.
As soon as he leaves the bed the Shadow Dragon Slayer tries to blindly pursue the warmth so suddenly stolen from his aching body, but to no avail.
Sting watches the unconsciously searching hands with a small pang of guilt, but can't help but chuckle quietly, as Rogue's fingers graze Frosch's suit and he eagerly pulls her close. The little critter cracks an eye open, but closes it the moment she realizes that it's her beloved friend, who'd clutched her to his chest, almost like a snuggle blanket. She rubs her head affectionately against his shoulder and Rogue hugs her closer, before drifting off again.
Sting waits patiently by the bedside until Rogue's breathing has evened out, eyes moving rapidly beneath bruised, swollen lids in an apparent state of dreaming, before he makes his way to the adjacent bathroom.
Moving around hurts like shit and Sting mutters curses under his breath, that would make even the most foul-mouthed tramp blush in shame.
He stumbles into the rather cool air of the bathroom and sheds his clothes in painstakingly slow and cautious movements, all the while letting the cold draft caress the throbbing contusions and swollen bruises covering his body.
The first gush of hot water on his skin makes him hiss in unease, but soon enough the sharp stinging of his wounds dies down to a dull ache, as dried blood clots, dust and dirt are being rinsed away by the steady stream.
His muscles drink up the warmth so generously offered and finally slacken as the sentiment of safety settles in.
The alertness his body had been forced to maintain the past few days slowly dissolves and only leaves bone deep weariness and exhaustion in its wake.
But the feeling of hot water gently raining down on his head somehow grounds him, reminds him that for now, at least, they' re safe and sound.
And though they had lost both the games and the fight against the dragons, Sting considers neither of these instances a defeat, because they had received something far more valuable than the fleeting intoxication of victory.
They'd been given a second chance to become the caring family a guild was supposed to be, and with Fairy Tail a bright guiding light that would make sure, they didn't stray from their path.
So whatever was haunting Rogue, they'd deal with it together and no matter how dark the night, Sting would face every demon proud and brave until his friend was free of those shackles and fears.

Chapter Text

When Sting returns to their bedroom, feeling comfortably warm and clean, his gaze trails over Rogue's sleeping figure, curled around the Exceeds like a crescent moon. At some point Lektor seems to have wriggled into the secure clasp of his arms, snuggling close to Frosch as the tips of his ears tickle Rogue's chin.
The morning sun washes over them in cascades of scattering gold and something sweet and mellow settles in Sting's stomach as he watches the trio with gentle eyes.
But soon enough his brow furrows, as he takes in the black bruises blooming all over Rogue's battered form and the rusty trails of blood – the fair skin a canvas for their gruesome masterpiece.

They had stopped treating each others injuries somewhere along the way, after Jiemma had successfully beaten his violent creeds into their hearts, but Sting still remembers kinder days and the sensation of Rogue's nimble fingers easing the pain of his wounds with careful, measured acts.
The blonde had never exerted much diligence when it came to medicating his own lesions, what had left him with far more scars than the Shadow Dragon Slayer and only rudimentary knowledge on the subject.
But when he looks at Rogue's beaten face, open and unguarded in sleep, a sudden urge to soothe and protect rises in his guts, replacing any lingering doubt.
Gingerly he tip-toes back to the bathroom, now shrouded in lukewarm mist, and raids the cupboard as quietly as possible, gathering clean towels, a bottle of alcohol and a promising looking white box decorated with a red snake curled around an intricate staff.
“The rod of Asclepius” floats through his mind, accompanied by a nearly forgotten memory of Rogue reading a book by the flickering light of a bonfire, every now and then reciting some passages he deemed interesting enough aloud.
His mind lingers on this specific night, as his body subconsciously gathers an enormous amount of steaming hot water and balances all the supplies back to his nightstand.
Dropping down onto the mattress, he gently reaches for Rogue's shoulder and lets his fingers trace the outlines of one bruise or another as if he could erase the pain if only he laid enough of his heart into his touch.
But the skin remains marred and violated beneath his hands and he lets out a sad sigh.
And yet, he's far more concerned about those wounds hidden and invisible, etched not into pale skin, but the other's heart and mind. Something is obviously troubling his friend and Sting has absolutely no clue whatsoever, hadn't even noticed before shit went to hell in a hand-basket the previous night and he can't forgive himself.
There had once been a time when he could read Rogue's thoughts and moods by nothing more than a simple look at his eyes and he allowed it to be equally easily read when it came to the fellow Dragon Slayer.
But that had been once upon a time, when their nature was still kind and their hearts were yet to be petrified by harsh words and cruel acts of violence.
They had lost this openness with each other somewhere along the way as the years under Jiemma's unyielding reign of terror rolled by and they didn't even notice its absence.
Shortly after joining Sabertooth, they had still been searching solace in one another, but as the gruesome demeanor of their guild seeped into their being and started to fester there, either withdrew into his own sanctuary.
Rogue behind walls of solitude and silence, Sting into an off putting air of arrogance and cockiness.
And what had been inseparable for years started drifting apart.
Only when fighting did some semblance of solidarity resurface, but merely temporary, soon to die down again, for closeness was weak and there was no room for weaklings in Sabertooth.
That both of them had learned quickly from lessons written in blood.
Seeing how lovingly and respectful FairyTail treated their members, like a real family, and the strength they drew from this bond made Sting wonder, if there might have been a different way.
One where Rogue's eyes still held a warm shine whenever they met his and where he himself could manage a sincere smile not the mocking, gruel grin that contorted his face nowadays.
Only with Jiemma gone for good, does Sting realize just how much their previous master had really taken from them.
And now he's afraid, that he might have to add something irreplaceable to this list.
Somehow he has to make amends for how he's treated the people around him, try to make things right again.
He wants this warm, welcoming whatever, that gives FairyTail a radiance that's almost dazzling; wants it from the bottom of his heart.
So, for the sake of his guild mates - for the sake of Rogue - he'll swallow this damned pride of his and take the first step back towards the light.
He only hopes, that it won't be too late...

Completely lost in thought Sting continues to caress the mistreated skin a little longer, before giving the tense muscles beneath his hand a gentle prod.
The Shadow Dragon Slayer furrows his brow with an unintelligibly grumble and tries to bury his face further in the pillow, unwilling to be ripped from his slumber just now.
Sting breathes an airy laughter and tugs playfully at some wayward black strands tumbling down his neck. “Come on, dude, you gotta wake up, we need to get you all nice and clean...”
Rogue finally opens his eyes, squinting when the bright sunlight hits his face, and looks around blearily before his gaze finds Sting's. A warm smile unfurls on his lips, creeping slowly over his features until it sets his dark red irises aglow like embers. Something fizzles quietly in Sting's stomach at the sight of that smile and he releases a breath he doesn't even know he was holding.
It takes Rogue a moment to refrain from simply drifting back into unconsciousness and when he finally speaks, his voice is low and husky with drowsiness.
“Hey there... How are you feeling?”
Sleep-addled and disheveled as he looks now, there is something inexplicably soft and dreamy about him that calms Sting's fluttering nerves.
Suddenly he feels more like himself than he had in a long time.
His cheeks tingle as the blood starts running a little hotter through his veins, before laughter rises in his chest, bubbly and uncontrollable.
“Honestly?” he snorts, “Like shit. But at least like bathed and patched up shit...”
Rogue gives a small chuckle and hoists himself up with an undignified groan and a string of muttered obscenities.
He forces his throbbing body into a sitting position and his already preparing for the inevitable pain that getting to his feet will bring, when he notices Sting's hand hovering hesitantly in the air as if he had been reaching out to him, but abandoned the motion half way through.
Then his gaze falls on the small mountain of bandages and supplies next to his friend and he shoots him a questioning look.
His head races- has Sting been planning on treating his injuries?
They hadn't done this in ages, and even back then most of the work had been left to Rogue anyway, for the White Dragon Slayer had never shown much skill when it came to dressing wounds.
He is suddenly aware, that the silence between them is stretching on and Sting's face is starting to falter, hand dropping away.
His eyes are suddenly darkening with hurt and something else -maybe guilt?- as his glance finds Rogue's again; and when he speaks, his voice is thick with strain:
The words seem too heavy to utter, so Sting almost grinds them out, nearly choking as he does so.
“I'd hoped you'd let me do this....for you...”
He hangs his head, voice lowering to a bare whisper as he adds:
He sounds defeated and Rogue doesn't really know what brought it about, but he feels sorry for him, nonetheless.
So he carefully takes a hold of his chin and tilts his head back up until their eyes meet again and searches for answers in those pools of deepest azure.
It only confuses him more.
The harshness and mockery that made most people flinch under Sting's look is gone without a trace,
in its place a maelstrom of too many different feelings swirls violently.
Some Rogue can name- pain, longing, guilt, remorse- others remain a mystery, but there is a gentleness, genuine and endlessly familiar that those eyes had been lacking for so long, that the nostalgia hits him like a brick.
Sting rises an eyebrow in surprise and Rogue lets one finger mindlessly graze over his jawline, before he answers.
“If you wish to mutilate me even further, please be my guest.” Sting's eyes widen and light up as he reaches for a clean cloth and the antiseptic, but the Shadow Dragon Slayer stops his hand.
“But I don't see why YOU should be the only one allowed to feel like “bathed shit”.”
He's mock-quoting Sting with a huff of laughter in his tone. “Gimme a minute, I'll be back for ya.”
With that he heaves himself up and makes for the bathroom with staggering, achingly slow steps and leaves Sting –looking dumbfounded and incredulous- to his thoughts.

In the foggy seclusion of the shower, with steam curling around his bare body and water gently running over his skin, Rogue tries to regain his bearings. His head is a spinning mess that is still trying very hard to make sense of Levia's threatening words and the possible meaning they carried.
Now, after a good night's rest and sunlight brightening the world, the probability of a future version of himself wreaking all this havoc seems far less believable than it had in between all the bloody chaos.
Maybe hearing the voice of his own shadow had really been nothing more than a panic-induced illusion. For when he looks at his shadow now, there's nothing unusual about it, even summoning his magic doesn't cause any change.
Something's still nagging at the back of his mind, but for now at least, he pushes it away adamantly.
Sting was right, they were still a team, and no matter what was to come, he wouldn't have to face it alone.
After that, his thoughts linger on the White Dragon Slayer and the openness, that had reentered his whole demeanor, like shackles falling away since Jiemma's lifeless body hit the floor.
Rogue had watched him surrender to FairyTail with pride and an uncertain hope rising in his heart and when Sting had clutched Lektor to his chest, tears falling without restraint, he, too, had felt a treacherous pricking in his eyes.
And when the White Dragon Slayer had pulled him back from the brink of despair last night, he had to forcefully keep himself from throwing his arms around the other's neck in gratitude.
Still, he can't help but wonder about the countless acts of scarcely-hidden comfort and affection that Sting had given him within the last couple of hours.
He's afraid that it's nothing but pity – for the sorry state Sting has found him in, for being weak, for still letting himself long for closeness and companionship- when a tumbled memory rises from the fog that clouds the later part of the night.
Sting's breath wafting through his hair, gentle hands trailing across his back and a soothing heartbeat lulling him to sleep.
At first he's not entirely sure if he'd dreamed the whole thing, but then his exceptionally sharp nose catches a trace of Sting's scent on his skin.
Even through the freshness of soap, there is still a lingering reminiscence of pine and hayflowers, a sensation kindred to sunwarmed skin and a midsummer meadow.
So somehow he starts to pray - that this is genuine, that fate had given them a second chance to reclaim the the deep understanding and shy affection both had been denied for so many years, that this might be a way out for both of them.
He steps out of the shower and suddenly can't wait to feel Sting's clumsy fingers nudging at his wounds.
He knows it'll most likely hurt like hell, but he already welcomes the pain, for he deems it a fairly small price to pay.

Chapter Text

Somehow the pain Rogue has been expecting never comes. Sting's hands move ever so cautiously, a paradigm of gentleness, that even the surgical burn of the antiseptic is eased by the warmth radiating off of the slender fingers, ceaselessly wandering over his back.
Between cleaning lingering dirt from cuts, dabbing soothing ointment over angry welts and covering some especially nasty gushes in bandages, Sting never once refrains from touching, as if he was afraid of Rogue vanishing into thin air, the second he broke contact.
A comfortable silence settles between them, that also befalls their Exceeds, as Frosch curls up in Rogue's lap and Lektor perches on Sting's shoulder, watching his friend's work with a certain amount of awe on his little face.
The White Dragon Slayer revels in the task, executes each and every motion with abandon, as if going through sacred rites.
The muscles that had initially been brimming with tautness, have long since unstrung beneath the steady, fond motions and the tickling sensation of skin on skin, that make up Sting's treatment.

Rogue's shoulders slump ever so slowly, tension draining away with every ardent gesture, until he finds himself completely hunched over, eyelids leaden with peaceful drowsiness.
He allows his eyes to give in to the alluring pull and sighs deeply when his world narrows down to soft puffs of air and something akin to spring sunshine caressing his sore back.
So, when Sting applies a last band aid and gives his handy-work an approving look, Rogue's head is already nodding in the early stages of sleep.
He doesn't even stir when the blonde moves to sit in front of him, gingerly reaching out to take in the damage done to the pale, chiseled face.
But as soon as a hand cradles his cheek, he jerks away violently, the rough yelp that tears itself from his gasping lips only dying down, when his wide eyes focus on Sting.
“Easy there! Easy! It's okay...” his friend murmurs, fingers gently brushing the black bangs behind his ear, before starting to fall away.
Rogue seems to chase after the touch, a sad little hum leaving his almost pouting lips, which causes Sting to reach out once more, this time hesitating before making contact.
“Is this alright with you?” He asks in an unusual small voice, as if he was afraid of the answer.
Rogue, however, simply nods and closes the distance on his own accord, quietly leaning into the caress.
When he speaks, his lips barely graze Sting's palm.
“Sorry.” He breathes, eyes transfixed on the other one's; the harsh look quickly softening.
“Don't be!” the White Dragon Slayer hushes. “I shouldn't have startled you in the first place...
I... I seem to be doing this a lot recently...”
He lowers his gaze for a moment, then trails the deep, angry cut that mars the base of Rogue's nose with a feather light touch.
“That one's gonna leave a scar...” He whispers absentmindedly, before locking gaze with the Shadow Dragon Slayer again, this time forcing himself to withstand the intense stare.
“Hey, Rogue...” He continues cautiously, “is there... I don't know… is there something bothering you?”
The sharp intake of breath he receives as an answer makes his heart drop heavily in his chest, but it also gives him an incentive to keep going. Still, he's already mentally kicking himself for his choice of words.
“I mean, of course there is... We just had to fight some fucking dragons and couldn't do shit about them, and you're hurt.... and...” Damn, why does this have to be so hard?
“But, you seemed really out of it last night... and... I don't know, I guess I'm just worried...” He adds quietly, giving Rogue a sheepishly pleading look to pardon the jumbled mess of words that just fell from his awkward lips.
The Shadow Dragon Slayer keeps quiet for a long moment, before he reaches up to let his fingertips ghost over the knuckles of Sting's hand; the one that is still cradling his cheek.
His gaze drops to his lap, then he releases a shuddering breath.
“I... ah, well, I don't really know, to be honest. It's just- there's been so much happening lately, it kinda makes you wonder about the future.
I'm just really afraid, that now, after we've been given an actual chance to rebuilt our guild and ourselves, I just kinda screw up. I...”
There are tremors coursing through his weakened body now, and the hold of Sting's hand tightens.
“I wanna become a man, who cherishes his friends, who lives his life to the fullest, but what if I somehow loose my path? Guess, living with my kind of magic somehow makes you afraid of someday getting...
I don't know- swallowed up by the shadows?”
His already low voice is faltering, a treacherous, tear-heavy strain having wormed its way in between the words. Still, after a moment Rogue manages a watery laugh.
“This sounds silly, ha? “ He whispers.
Then he remains silent and his eyes never leave a spot on the wall somewhere above Sting's shoulder.
It is as close to the truth as he is willing to admit right now. To his friend. And to himself. There was still the possibility, that the whole ordeal was nothing more than a nightmarish illusion created by Levia to weaken his resolve to fight, right?
He already feels panic rising in his throat, vile and choking, when Sting leans in and bumps their foreheads together, a shimmer of warm understanding lighting up his eyes.

“No, Rogue, it isn't. If anything, it shows much you worry about the people close to you. Believe me, there's nothing wrong with being afraid of what's to come; actually I'm scared shitless right now myself.
And if you ever feel like going astray, heck, if any of us notices, we'll make sure to guide you back to the light.”
A second gloved hand, that had lain abandoned on Sting's thigh, now comes to cup the other side of Rogue's face, until all of his senses are drowning in the presence of the Holy Dragon Slayer.
“I'll never leave you all alone in the dark. Never again. Ever.”
Something painful seeps into his tone and his hands threaten to relinquish the gentle grasp again, as he adds a frail:
“Please, forgive me!”
The smile that blossoms on Rogue's lips seems to dare the faint blush, creeping over his cheeks, to a race to his eyes at the tender action, and the tight knot in his chest loosens.
His fingers are suddenly threading through the blond strands, effectively stopping the other from withdrawing, and like that - sharing the same air and noses brushing- both find, they can actually breath again.
For the longest time, neither moves, each drinking up the comfort so warmly offered, until their heartbeats come as one and their nerves refrain from buzzing wildly after even the tiniest of touches.

They only break apart an eternity later, when Lektor coughs pointedly and hops off the bed with a roll of his eyes and a mumble that sounds suspiciously like “So mushy, gross... get a room...”.
In a huff of laughter, Sting reaches for the antiseptic and the towels again to take care of the bruises and cuts littering Rogue's face.

It isn't but much later, when he shifts his attention to his friend's chest, that the White Dragon Slayer's eyes widen in disbelieve. Due to Rogue carrying his hoodie earlier and Frosch's form cuddling against his torso, this is the first glimpse he gets at the damage, and it has him freaking out within a second.

Sternum, midriff and ribs are stained by wicked bruises, dark as stormclouds on a sultry summer evening.
The stark contrast makes the pristine skin nearly translucent, and wherever an attack managed to draw blood, angry red trails complete the chaotic pattern of violence.
How could Rogue even move around with that kind of wound, let alone fight?
Why didn't HE notice sooner? He suddenly remembers the awkward way the other boy had clutched the shirt to his chest, nearly as if trying to... Sting starts to feel faint.

“Goddammit, Rogue!!” He grinds out, “Where the hell did you get these wounds? This... this isn't from our fight with the dragons... Nor from the tournament... so...”
He forcefully lowers his voice; the fierce shaking, however, just won't subside. “Who did this to you?”

Sting nearly snaps when silence seems to be his only answer, but reigns himself in, as he witnesses Rogue chewing insecurely at his bottom lip, obviously searching for words.
It still takes a warm hand settling gently on his forearm to coax the Shadow Dragon Slayer into talking, and when he eventually does, even Sting's exceptionally keen ears nearly miss out on it at first.
“'m afraid I don't really know. I ran into Gajeel during the last round of the tournament, but I don't remember getting THIS hurt... I know we fought and he was winning, and suddenly...”
Rogue shakes his head jerkily, eyes squeezed shut.
“I really can't remember. There was... pain... my head, something was wrong with it... and next thing I knew, I was down on the ground, and I nearly couldn't... I...” His voice fails him with a pathetic hoarse sob, but before he can even begin to recollect his bearings, a small voices pipes in.
“ Rogue had stopped fighting with Gajeel, but suddenly Rogue started yelling at someone, Frosch couldn't see. And then Rogue screamed very loudly and pressed his hands to his head. Then the shadows came out and Rogue was fighting again. The shadows, they were swirly and very black and Frosch was very afraid, because Rogue looked like a very bad person and didn't answer to Frosch.
Rogue said, he wanted to kill Gajeel and Frosch was very afraid that Gajeel would want to kill Rogue, too. That's why Frosch had to protect Rogue from Gajeel.”
The sweet little thing is trying her best to explain the situation, although, since she's hiccuping miserably, and snot flows down her face in streams, some of her words are lost to sniffles and mewls.
But it is more than enough for both of their faces to freeze and crumble at the same time- Rogue's in plain terror, Sting's in utter confusion and sorrow.
“Frosch was so afraid, that Rogue was dead. Rogue didn't move and Gajeel looked so scary.”
The shaking Exceed wriggles into the small space between their bodies in anguish and curls into a firm, sobbing ball. Both Dragon Slayers start petting her simultaneously, but their eyes search one another.

“Sting, listen...”
Either sucks in a sharp breath, all color draining from their faces, before the almost blueish lips of the dark haired mage tremble and he starts anew. This time, Sting doesn't interrupt.
“Sting, listen, there actually IS something else. I'd hoped it was only my imagination, a trick my mind played on me, because I was just too afraid or something. But, if what Frosch said is true, it means that... I.... God dammit, Nooo!!....” He cries out in frustration, his voice a staggering crescendo of despair, hands yanking at his hair, hard enough to bruise.
It takes Sting a single heartbeat, to get the tightly clenched fists to release their death grip on the black strands and another one to guide their joined hands back into his lap.
He threads their fingers together and lets his thumbs run soothing little circles over the cracked and scarred knuckles, always minding to keep his touches light and non-restraining.
“Means what, Rogue?” He coaxes. “You don't have to tell me, if you don't wanna, obviously, but, c'mon man, this sounds like some serious issues. And you're my best friend...”
He hesitates briefly, because he can't even remember, when he'd openly called Rogue that the last time, but- for the love of god- it feels good, like coming home after a long, long day, so he just says it again.
Firmer, this time. So that Rogue can believe him.
“You're my best friend and I'll be right here no matter what. But, you need to let me help.... Please....”
The confidence is already waning in his words, but Rogue simply nods, and then he tells him.
His voice is flat and rough as he recounts Levia's revelations, but cracks, when talking about the Shadow and his cruel previsions.

“Sting... Do you even know what that means?!” he finally finishes and raw emotions flood his tone.
“Everything that has happened last night, everyone who'd been injured or's practically all my fault....”
The tears are falling now, thick and hot and painful to watch, drawing sob after sob from Rogue's already hoarse throat as they tumble down his cheeks.

Sting is shell-shocked by the horrible unveiling that just came crushing down onto him, but even with his mind reeling, he realizes, that now wasn't the time for him to cave to despair.
The only thing that matters at this very moment is Rogue, whose tears seem to be destroying the world, what with the heavy rain-fall that had started pounding against their window, the second the first silent tears spilled from eyes filled to the brim.
And since Sting can't really think of anything else to do – he had always been lacking in the comfort department- he pulls Rogue's trembling form into his arms, one hand cradling the back of his head, keeping it securely tucked into the crook of his neck, the other one roaming – once again – carefully over his back and shoulders.
He doesn't even bother crooning meaningless words of comfort, just sinks back onto the mattress, gently easing Rogue down with him, until his head comes to rest on Sting's chest.
The blonde fastens his hold, until the tremor-ridden form in his arms is half sprawled on top of him, limbs entangled as much as their wounds would allow, and nuzzles needily into the tuft of black hair. This close he shares every quiver and choke wracking Rogue's body, so he deepens his breathing, even tries to mellow his thundering heartbeat, to create a counterbalance of calmness, that he hopes, might provide some relief for his friend.

At first he doesn't know if it's working, if this way of comfort – the only way he even knows how to give in a rudimentary way- helps Rogue at all, but the longer his hands trail over taut muscles and trembling shoulders, the quieter the cries and the sobbing become.
And when eons later, as he feels the body in his arms relaxing, the fit has died to a mere sniffling, Sting finally dares to rise his voice.
“Hey, Rogue... look at me, please.”
The shadow mage shakes his head lightly and buries his face deeper in the broad chest, but Sting grips his chin lovingly and tilts his head up.
“Please!” he repeats, his plead even gentler.
The stray tears that still cling to his lashes shine in the soft light of the bedside lamp and Rogue's eyes had never looked more like rubies than in this very second. The impression, however, is tarnished, for they seem blank, dead- glazed over with terror and pain. Sting swallows hard, before continuing.

“You've said it yourself, it's only ONE possible future! This isn't written in stone or anything.
I still can't see this happening! You're the most kindhearted, bravest person I know- you're strong, and honest and I know you'd do anything for your loved ones, so... I really can't imagine you falling into darkness.”
“But... what if the Shadow's right? I mean, there is a darkness dwelling within me. We both can tell... So..”
“So what?” Sting interrupts the uncertain rambling with passion.
“So what, if it's not only sugar and spice and everything nice with you. Show me a single human being, that doesn't carry a certain “darkness” within its soul. Every one does so.
And it's okay, because in life it doesn't matter, whether your heart is free from evil or not. It's only about the way you deal with your demons, if you let them get to you.
Besides, now that I know, do you honestly think, I'd let something like that ever happen to you?
Do you really think, I'd hand you over to some disembodied creature?”
He doesn't really expect an answer, doesn't even need one, for within the hauntingly hollow gaze a light reignites, mere embers first, but Sting is already kindling the sparks.
“Me, and every last one downstairs, would never, ever let it come this far, do you hear me?
We will fight to protect you, just as you'd fight for us.
You're my partner, there's no way I'd let anything snatch you away. “
Sting really has no idea, where exactly all those words are coming from, but now, that he has opened this particular chest, there is no way of stopping anymore. He doesn't want to, either, for somehow he feels like he should have said those things many many years earlier, back within the little safe haven of their bonfire under the stars, for example.
Anywhere but here, on a foreign bed, in a destroyed city with Rogue falling apart in his arms, death and despair still clinging to them like a second skin.
But the terrors of the previous night had taught him about the vanity and frailty of human life and the bitter regrets of words left unsaid, actions left defaulted.
So, with his heart in his eyes, he combs back the long bangs from the painridden eyes and gently captures Rogue's face again in the safe cradle of his hands.
The Shadow Dragon Slayer looks up at him in wonder, once again at a complete loss for words, as Sting leans in even closer, bringing their foreheads together once again.
The tears have finally subsided and the ragged breathing has quietened down; only the salty trails criss-crossing pale skin remain, waiting to be erased by a loving touch.
It doesn't take very long.
“I need you here by my side. That's what I understood last night, at long last. You're my partner, my best friend.” After a short nervous exhale, Sting presses his lips to the bandaged forehead and continues.
“You're... you're important to me-
So don't forget- if your shadows try to swallow you whole, this the only thing they'll get out of it.”

His last few words are whispered against soft layers of gauze and smooth dark strands, and before Rogue can give any other reaction than a small, surprised gasp, Sting lets a soothing, albeit powerful burst of his magic wash over their entwined forms.
The light is pure, pristine and comfortingly warm, thus, as wave after wave floods around them, Rogue can feel the turmoil in his mind subsiding.
With every flash of light, every promise of succour whispered against his brow, every ardent caress ghosting through his hair, a sensation of relief and hope spreads throughout his whole body. His muscles unwind as warmth seeps back into his very core and he becomes aware of just how incredibly CLOSE Sting is.
Proximity like this might have left him blushing and blabbering any other time, but right now it simply grounds him, makes him feel beloved and accepted as he basks quietly in the still of Sting's embrace. Eventually he pulls back, wants to utter words of grace, but it all fails him, when he's met with Sting's tender, hooded gaze.
No one had ever looked at him like that, he's sure. Admiration and longing, commitment, trust and a deep gratefulness all mingled and yet clearly visible. This is something he's never experienced before, but Rogue doesn't really need guidance for what's to follow.
Without hesitation he leans in, hands finding their way to thread through blond hair, and he brushes his lips cautiously against Sting's, the action small enough, to be abandoned and ignored, should the other recoil.
He doesn't.
There is the ghost of a sigh wafting over Rogue's skin, before he finds Sting's nose brushing past his jawline, followed by probing lips capturing his own. And though the touch is nearly non-existent, both of them unsure where to take it from here, a smile sparks to life between them, as dazzling and beautiful as the sun itself.
The aura of light still swirling around them brightens and brims with every gentle kiss exchanged.