Beta-ed by xenosaiyan and MasterPrince713
Blake could not beat Yang.
That may have been a strange thought to hear from the woman who'd chopped off the blonde's arm, but there had been many mitigating circumstances to that incident that did not apply to their current battle. Back at Beacon, Yang had been trying to coax Blake out of her Grimm Soul, only to get blindsided by the raw power of the Full Body Take-Over. Now, Blake couldn't use that Full Body Take-Over without risking killing her partner. Aiming Seram's Madness didn't exactly have a nonlethal setting.
"Fire Devil's Twin Horn Rush!"
Of course the other problem was that 'nonlethal' was the furthest thing from Yang's mind!
The blonde Devil Slayer leapt through the air, her black and purple arms unleashing twin pink infernos as she bore down on her teammates. The obsidian walls and floor churned and melted from the sheer heat of the huntress, her crimson eyes blazingly visible even behind the sheet of flames as she dared her partner to stand in her way.
Blake whipped around and snatched Weiss up in her Griffon claws, promptly answering that dare by charging straight towards the demonic conflagration. She would not run away. She would fight!
Yang's scarlet eyes widened slightly in shock, Blake rushing both herself and her auraless protectorate straight into the blaze… which she then promptly allowed to burn up the shadow clones of her and Weiss as the real huntresses were blurred behind the Devil Slayer by the cat faunus's semblance. She then ran down the hall as fast as her Grimm talons could carry her and her charge.
She may not have been willing to stand aside, but she wasn't stupid enough to fight her partner! Yang was in Full Demon Form! She was stronger than she was at Haven, and she'd forced Mercury to use his Eclipse Etherious Form then! Meanwhile Tyrian had subdued Blake's mindless Full Body Take-Over without breaking a sweat. Now without access to that Take-Over if she wasn't willing to kill her friend? Nope! Fortunately, all she needed to do was get Weiss away from her until whatever mad plan Ruby had in store was ready.
She would not run away. But she would fight by running away!
"Fire Devil Requiem Phoenix!"
Blake barely had time to leap to the side before a bird of living pink fire sheared through where she'd stood before, the blazing eagle shrieking as the cat faunus rolled with Weiss in her grip. The bird then turned in midair and sped after the huntresses as if it were a living creature, corralling them back towards its mistress.
"Since when does Yang fight like Lyon?" Blake hissed under her breath.
Blake's head whipped around, the phoenix's interference having given Yang enough time to turn around and close the distance. Two more wicked Purple Flare arms had shot out from the blonde's sides, rapidly tearing down the hall like a flaming buggy. The Devil Slayer peeled back her black demon arm, pink fire blooming over her claw as she readied to attack.
Only for an explosion to sound off behind Blake instead.
Perhaps it was intentional. Perhaps Yang making the spell up on the spot had left the sorcery unstable. But for whatever reason, the phoenix bearing down on Blake's back had exploded when she'd moved to dodge its mistress, throwing the cat faunus down the hall and sending Weiss shooting from her arms.
The Ice God Slayer threw up two slides of black ice to keep them from cracking against the floor, but Yang smashed through hers before she could even get halfway.
"No!" Blake screamed, thrown to the opposite side of the hall as Yang's flaming fist careened for Weiss's skull.
She was too far away. She wasn't fast enough to run over, and her limbs couldn't reach. Maybe the Deathstalker's tail fully extended, but she'd need the specialized muscles of the rest of its body to give it the necessary force.
She couldn't run. She didn't have Gambol Shroud and she couldn't conjure a Regulus blast or the Sea Feilong's lightning beam fast enough. She could either let Weiss die or transform into a form that would do everything in its power to kill whatever she aimed it at, in this case Yang, who she'd already taken one arm from.
Let Weiss die or try to kill Yang again. Once again, just as Sienna had posited before, she was faced with the choice of standing back and doing nothing, or being a monster. Once again, neither was acceptable.
She would not let her friend die. But she would not be a monster, even if some elements of it were necessary. So what could she do? Where was the equilibrium?!
She didn't have the titanic well of willpower to overcome the Seram's Madness within like Salem did. And she couldn't make equilibrium with the Grimm like Mira could with demons to have control—
… No… not with Grimm… with Umbral Spirits. Umbral Spirits cursed with Seram's Madness just as much as she was whenever she accessed their forms. Cursed, for who knew how many eons.
A thousand thoughts flashed through Blake's mind in the barest fraction of a second. The Grimm had been slaughtering humans and faunus for thousands of years. The Umbral Spirit King didn't need the madness to want to kill them all, so who said the Deathstalker within her did? And even if it didn't, if her plan worked, she couldn't force it to do what she asked.
But she could give it a chance. After all, she didn't want to be a monster. Who said that it did?
"Are sure you don't want me to tell you anything about Pyrrha and Erza?" Ruby offered, shooting a precise cue ball shot that plunked another billiard sphere into the corner pocket. "This might be your only chance."
Jellal, leaning by the guildhall basement wall with a pool cue against his shoulder, looked away from her, desperate desire warring with responsible concern on his face. "I… don't know if that's wise."
"Damn if it's wise," Master Makarov gruffly spouted from his wheelchair, Mira by his side. "Tell me about my granddaughter."
Ruby cocked a smile at the Wizard Saints' starkly different responses. The four had the guild basement to themselves for the night (or the five of them if Mest, still hiding in the shadows, counted), with Master Makarov offering to do his best as a safe sounding board for ideas about Salem's plan even if he couldn't be allowed to remember anything afterward. By coincidence, Jellal's more pessimistic presence had done well as a sort of devil's advocate in the discussion.
Eventually, all the talk of logical fallacies and moral utilitarianism had gotten dull, so Ruby had picked up a pool cue and they'd started a game, the conversation shifting to what the Fiore natives really cared about: the fates of Team RWBY and the lost Strongest Team.
"I can just imagine Erza as a mother," Mira swooned. "I'm sure little Pyrrha knows how to lay down the law."
"Nah! Pyrrha isn't as authoritative as her mom," Ruby waved off, lining up another billiards shot. "Might have something to do with Erza not having her memories while she was growing up."
Master Makarov raised a bushy white eyebrow. "Erza didn't have her memories?"
"Yeah. She took the most punishment during the fight with the White Witch, so she got amnesia."
"Aww," Mira cooed, turning to Jellal. "You two really are the perfect couple!"
Jellal nervously glanced away with an embarrassed blush. "I hardly think both of us having amnesia is a qualifier for that."
"Hold up," Ruby said, actually missing her shot in shock. "You had amnesia too?"
"Huh. Wow. What're the odds?" Ruby dumbly remarked. "How'd you get your memories back?"
"They came back on their own over time. I had most of them by the time I saw The Strongest Team again after the Tenrou Incident," Jellal explained, coming over to line up his pool shot and deftly sinking a ball. "I suspect Erza's took a longer timeframe to return?"
"Nope. They weren't coming back on their own at all," Ruby revealed. "Irene had to teach Wendy a torture enchantment to get Erza to remember."
Jellal immediately scratched the pool table, him, Mira, and Makarov all staring at Ruby in shock.
"Irene?" the Heavenly Body Wizard repeated. "The Queen of Dragons? Erza's mother?"
"The Scarlet Despair?" Mira annunciated. "The woman who nearly tortured me to death?"
"The woman who reshaped the entire continent and stole the guildhall?" Makarov punctuated. "Wasn't she dead?"
Ruby gestured back towards the guildmaster, who had also lost his life during the Alvarez War.
"Heh. Touché," Makarov chuckled. "I take it Zeref and Mavis weren't responsible for her survival as well?"
"Nope. She just enchanted herself into Wendy before she died," Ruby said. "She doesn't have any control, but she's been teaching Wendy new spells."
Mira frowned. "Like a torture enchantment?"
Ruby winced, nervously chalking her pool stick. "It sounds worse than it was. I mean, it was pretty bad the first time, but Erza got through it and chose to try it again and it worked that time."
"Attagirl," Makarov smiled, full of fatherly pride. "I'll trust Wendy's judgement in the matter of Irene, but I wonder… would it be possible for us to say goodbye to them all?"
Mira frowned. "Master, we can't change the future."
"I'm not suggesting we should. But if we limit ourselves to what we know we can't do, we blind ourselves to the possibility of a new reality," Makarov responded, returning his gaze to Ruby. "Would it be possible for you to tell each of us everything, one at a time, so that we can write letters for our friends? Mest can erase our memories afterward or whenever the timeline starts to dissolve."
"That's…" Ruby began, only for her mouth to close and her brow to furrow in thought. "That… might work? I can't think of any reason it wouldn't."
"Eeee!" Mira squeed. "I know something else we can send!"
The bartender dashed upstairs so fast she left a trail of dust behind. Ruby glanced back at Makarov, her ever-present respect for her guildmaster tinged with awe at him and disappointment in herself.
"Why didn't I think of that?" she murmured. "With what we have, now that you've said it, it was obvious."
Makarov shot her a cheeky grin. "I'm old, wheelchair-bound, and I've tap-danced back and forth from the grave. If I'm not spouting words of wisdom, I'm not much use to you kids. Though I don't believe someone has to have a use to be worth having around. One doesn't need to have a purpose for living."
"Helps though," Ruby noted, picking up one of the billiard balls and tossing it up and down in her hand. "I wanted to be a huntress for so long. Maybe it was to be like the heroes in the books, maybe it was because my family was, maybe I just wanted to help people, but I wanted to be one. I thought that would be enough. And now… it isn't. Billiards isn't baseball, and there's nothing I can do to change that."
Jellal cocked an eyebrow. "Billiards isn't base… what?"
Makarov, more experienced with Natsu's eccentric fusion of the two games, merely smiled fondly. "It isn't. But how would Natsu have known that if he didn't try?"
Ruby shrugged. "The names? Because people told him? Common knowledge?"
"That which is accepted as 'common knowledge' is not often so common nor as truly knowledgeable as many like to believe. After all, even if it was once ironclad truth, that does not mean the world has not changed or evolved since it was," the old master sagely said. "Magic is alive. And importantly, so are all who live."
"And that means the impossible is possible?"
"Ha! Do you know how many times I've seen you youngsters do things that I thought were 'impossible'?" Makarov laughed. "Why, Natsu alone has chowed down on Etherion that should have killed him, devoured God Slayer flames that should have roasted him alive, and even tried to eat his own uncle alive!"
"Natsu tried to eat his uncle?" Ruby inquired. "Natsu has an uncle?"
"He had an uncle. A fire dragon who was brought through the Eclipse Gate named Atlas Flame. And our Salamander would have eaten him alive if he hadn't mentioned Igneel. Ha! Would have been interesting to see what form he got from that," Makarov remarked, before his face turned serious. "Ruby, you cannot judge yourself based only on what has come before, no matter how those experiences have shaped you. Fairy Tail was founded on the idea of seeking the unknown or never experienced. You must never be afraid to ask 'why?'."
"Do fairies have tails? Do they even exist?" Ruby muttered, unsure even as those stories of Natsu sparked an idle engine of ideas in her mind. "But what if there isn't time to search? There wasn't any at Haven, but Wendy's torture enchantment, the only thing we thought was possible, worked."
"So what's the difference?"
Ruby shifted her gaze to Jellal, the younger Wizard Saint's voice soft and sure despite its query. "What do you mean?"
"Between what Wendy did at Haven, and what Salem is proposing with conquering Remnant, what is the difference?" he asked. "Why is the latter giving you so much pause when the former didn't?"
"I… I don't know," Ruby admitted. "I guess… Wendy gave Erza a choice?"
"Not a small thing," Jellal nodded. "Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it, no matter the cost. Such is a logical fallacy of fear that has led to many horrible tragedies."
"Fear is not the enemy," Makarov added. "But like any medicine, in overabundance, it is a deadly drug."
Ruby looked down to the billiard ball in her hand and set the sphere back on the table. She managed a small smirk to Jellal. "You scratched. My ball."
The Heavenly Body Wizard replied in kind. "That it is. Perhaps… perhaps you can tell us a little more about Erza… and Pyrrha."
"Oh, where to begin?! Okay, to start, during initiation, she pinned her partner to a tree…"
"So? Can you feel anything?"
Bisca fired off a shot from her rifle before turning to Ruby and shaking her head. "Nothing. Not even a hint of ethernano. How're you doing that?"
"Not quite sure yet. But it'll be awesome when I figure it out," Ruby replied, dousing the glow of her maiden eyes and taking in a deep breath as ethernano flooded out of her once more. She then knelt down and looked through her spotter binoculars. "And bullseye."
Bisca fist-pumped. "Your shot."
The two sharpshooters had taken the opportunity to finally settle which of them was the best shot in the guild. Using the same rifle and shooting at targets that started at a mile out and only got farther away, the snipers had taken turns getting bullseye after bullseye, with Ruby taking to testing the phenomenon she'd discovered during her physical therapy with Porlyusica when she was spotting to spice things up.
"What's that? A hundred and fifty each?" Ruby queried. "Maybe we should call it in?"
"That sounds like quitter talk!"
"I am not 'quitting'!" Ruby shouted back to Asuka before snatching the rifle from Bisca and taking aim. "I'll show that seven-year-old who's a quitter."
Bisca smiled. "She is incorrigible. I wonder if she and Pyrrha might have been friends if they'd grown up together."
"Aside from Cinder, I'm not sure there's anyone Pyrrha couldn't be friends with. She's as incredible, just like her mom," Ruby replied, a frown dropping her lips. "Meanwhile, I tried to erase her. Honestly, I'm still not sure I wouldn't if I had a way."
"I can't say I'm unhappy that you don't," Bisca admitted. "Kagura too, given she'll have repaired your armor for nothing then."
Ruby shuddered. "She is definitely someone time and space resetting may or may not protect me from."
The huntress fired off her shot and netted herself another bullseye, the firing range's magic switching out the target and backing up the new one ten more yards.
Ruby handed Bisca back the rifle, but the green-haired woman didn't take her position, staring melancholically at her guildmate.
"You're going back after you pick them up, aren't you?" she asked. "After you get back from Mermaid Heel."
"I'll come back to the guildhall first," Ruby reassured the older woman. "I'm not leaving without saying goodbye again."
"That's good to hear," Bisca replied, lining up her shot. "Still, not being able to do anything, but send you back alone… it rankles me. It's not in any of us to let a friend go into battle alone."
Ruby twitched a small smirk, trying to look cocky but restrained by the morose fact of her friend's analysis.
"Well, there is one thing you can do," she mentioned. "You still have that Jupiter Cannon, right?"
Cresting over the hilltop overlooking Mermaid Heel's hometown, Ruby stopped.
She just stopped. With the soft breeze flowing through her hair, the warm sun on her skin, the idyllic meadows reaching to the city below, it was as picture perfect a scene could be, one she gladly stopped to simply bask in the tranquility of.
Of course, such a scene reminded her of home, of Patch. Of better days with Yang. With dad and Uncle Qrow. With mom.
She loved the scene before her. She was legitimately enjoying it. But that didn't stop the tremor jittering her hand, or the echoes of Summer and Torchwick's denouncements whispering in her mind. It was a strange contrast, the joy of living and the pain of tragedy. She didn't think she could have one without the other anymore. And, that was alright. She could still live.
Though she'd prefer if it wasn't alone.
"Hey, Mest," she called in a teasing tone. "Care to stop creeping for a sec?"
Her only company for several long moments after that was the wind, brushing up leaves and twig around the young girl. Then, her guild-assigned watchdog appeared by her side.
"I wasn't 'creeping'," Mest protested. "I was surveilling you."
Ruby shot back a jaunty smirk. "Stalking."
"I'm sure Mermaid Heel will agree with how you've been shadowing a girl half your age."
Mest grumbled to the side as Ruby broke out in laughter. They weren't the two closest guildmates by any stretch of the imagination, but they were guildmates nonetheless. That counted for something, even if not for everything.
"Alright, out with it," the silver-eyed woman chuckled. "You've heard literally all my problems over the last few weeks. Or did you erase your own memories again?"
The memory mage pouted, nervously rubbing his scarred head. "I haven't done that… again… yet…"
"It made sense at the time," Mest argued. "And I'm supposed to erase everyone's memories as needed after you go. My own included."
Ruby sighed. "No, I get it. You can't let me try to reset the timeline. Though, what're you going to do if I stay until the White Witch shows up?"
"If you don't get mind controlled along with us?" he responded. "Alter your memories to think that you're a nun at Cardia Cathedral until we get back."
"Dang. All that and you can teleport too?" Ruby whistled. "You're scary, Mest."
"So I've been told," Mest replied, before letting out a resigned sigh. He turned away from Ruby and bit his lip. "… if you want… I can do something like that now. I can erase your memories of Remnant, even Fairy Tail if you need. I can give you any life you want on Earthland. A life free of any burden."
"A life without pain," Ruby remarked with a sad smile. "Almost sounds like paradise."
"But you won't take it?"
Ruby looked back over the picturesque valley. Singing birds, emerald grass, a rainbow of flowers, and not a Grimm in sight. She basked in what many from Remnant, herself included, would have called the best dream of their lives.
Then, she shook her head.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted," she admitted. "I mean, as far as giving up goes, it is less grand than timeline suicide and can't say I wouldn't still try that if I had a way without you or the others stopping me."
Mest raised an eyebrow. "Then why not take this? Once you pick up your armor and weapons, you'll be set. What's the difference?"
"The people I leave behind," Ruby ruefully stated. "If I reset the timeline, then they're at peace. They'll either have never existed, or they'll be sent back to before I met them. But if I run away… they'll be left to pick up the pieces. I won't remember it, but they'll be suffering because I abandoned them."
A small smile pricked up Mest's lips. "Admirable."
"Thanks," Ruby smirked. "So? What's the guild's black ops man got to say about what I'll be dealing with when I get back?"
Mest's smile disappeared, glancing down with shame. "I don't think I'm necessarily the best person to ask. I've never been the best at upholding the guild's ideals, even when I had my memories. I bungled Brandish's negotiations with August trying to kill the old man and all I did was lose the guild an ally and make one of our most dangerous enemies pissed."
"But your willingness to deal with Cobra and release the Oracion Seis in exchange for information on Tartarus let you find out about FACE's location before it went off. It let you save Wendy and Carla's lives," Ruby pointed out. "And because you trusted Jellal to take care of the Oracion Seis, Crime Sorciere more than doubled in size."
"It's a tightrope, to be sure," Mest remarked, not perked up at all. "But the failures of such actions are far more potent in memory."
"And if they succeed, no one is supposed to know about them," Ruby noted. "Dark deeds are meant to be done in the dark."
"But people are going to get hurt if they're done at all. So how do you make as sure as you can that it really is your only option?"
"I think… I have an idea," Ruby pondered, then smirked. "But first, mama needs a new sniper-scythe."
Fairy Tail excelled at parties as a rule. So farewell parties?
"Banzai!" Ruby howled, a strawberry in each hand as she ravenously downed an entire plate of her favorite fruit. "Feed me!"
They were incredible.
And like all farewell parties, over far too soon.
"Ruby, no!" Levy wailed. "That's not a strawberry!"
"Eh?" Ruby registered, only to continue reaching for the item without looking.
"It's not a cookie either!" Levy protested, wrenching the huntress's arm away from her mouth. "It's my farewell letter to Lucy."
"Huh? Oh," Ruby sheepishly said, actually opening her eyes before accepting the letter without trying to eat it. "Any sneak peeks?"
Levy nervously glanced at the inner circle of the guild that had remained at the end of the party among the wrecked guildhall. "Well, most of it is private, but I think… well, if Gajeel and I have a son, his name will be Luke."
Ruby pulled her hands off her ears, Mira's ecstatic squee reverberating through her ears. "That's nice. What if it's a girl?"
A mischievous smile lit up Levy's face. The bluenette slyly glanced at her boyfriend, Gajeel's cheeks suddenly growing red as he shuffled his gaze away.
"Come on," Levy goaded. "It was your idea."
"I don't wanna," Gajeel mumbled.
Laxus reached over and flicked the top of his fellow Dragon Slayer's head.
"Ow!" Gajeel yelped. "What the hell?!"
"This is your last chance to show him how you feel," Laxus scolded, stoic yet somehow still warm. "Take it."
Gajeel curled his lip and stared back at his girlfriend's cat-like smirk before deflating with a sigh. "If it's a girl, we'll name her Nashi."
Mira's squee could have shattered windows.
"Ah. That's very sweet," Ruby said, poking her pained eardrum as she flashed the farewell letter into her requip space. Only to turn into a sizable package being shoved in her space. "Juvia, you've already given me all your farewell letters. Including the half dozen for Weiss and the three dozen for Gray."
"This isn't a farewell letter!" Juvia grinned, popping her head out from behind her giant box. "It's a care package! Filled with goodies, and medical supplies, and—"
"How many body pillows of you?"
Ruby sighed in resignation and accepted the package before looking to the only non-Fairy Tail member present. "You have any scandalous pictures you want me to take to Erza?"
Jellal wilted into his hooded cloak as the guild fixed him with many impish stares. "I… think she'll be okay with my letter."
"And if not, she'll have her books," Mira chirped, pulling something from behind the bar counter. "And you, Ruby, will have this."
Ruby's eyes widened. "Is that… my cloak?"
Mira nodded, unfolding the repaired red hood, its scarlet sheen resplendent in the guildhall lighting. "The stitching was actually quite ingenious. It took me quite a while to figure out how to sew in my new addition after I reattached the hood."
Mira stroked the back of the cape, and a bright silver Fairy Tail emblem manifested over the cloak. "Wherever you go, whenever you go, even if we can't see you, no matter how far away you may be…"
"… you'll be watching over me," Ruby finished, tears pricking at her eyes.
She whirled around and took in all her guildmates. Juvia, Gajeel, Levy, Lily, Elfman, Lisanna, Laxus, Master Makarov, Bisca, Alzack, and everyone else, she took a moment to truly look at them. For the last time in real life… but one of many to come in her heart.
"A thousand miles or a thousand years, you'll all watch over me," the silver-eyed huntress reverently declared. "Over all of us."
In response, she received a chorus of smiles and fingers pointed to the sky.
Ruby turned back to Mira and shared a more private grin with the Take-Over Wizard. "Thank you… master."
Mira's eyebrows shot up. "Master?"
Ruby threw her a teasing smile as she took her cloak. "Spoilers."
The huntress threw her signature hood around her shoulders, feeling more at peace than she had in a very long time, as if she had finally put on clothes after spending a long time naked in a storm.
She strode over to the bar counter and plucked the book into her arms before turning back to the guild. She gulped and took a deep breath, clutching the cover of the tome. "Alright. No time like the past."
Ruby opened the book… and her fingers immediately began to disintegrate into familiar golden flecks.
"What?" she murmured, her silver eyes widening in shock and awe. "That's—"
"The heck is this?!"
"What's going on!?"
Ruby looked up to see the very same disintegration process going on across the guildhall. Discarded mugs, stains of alcohol, brawl-busted tables, even her friend's bodies had suddenly started breaking down into shimmering gold dust and floating away into nothingness.
Just like they had back on Patch all those years ago, when her mom had tried to return to them.
"This is just like what happened when the dragons disappeared after the Eclipse Gate was destroyed," Jellal quickly deduced, his hooded cloak already crumbled away. "The timeline is breaking down!"
"That doesn't make any sense!" Mira exclaimed. "None of us know anything we didn't know before, and Mest is going to erase everyone's memory anyway, so why—Ruby?"
Ruby didn't hear her. Or rather, she did, but she wasn't listening. All that she could think was that she'd done it. The salvation of oblivion, the thing she'd come back to the past to seek, was right there in front of her. She'd thought she was trapped, that she had to return Remnant alone with no way out, but she wasn't. She'd thought she'd failed, but she hadn't.
She could still save everyone.
She looked down at the open book and slid back down the hill she'd climbed during her time at the guild, dangling over the pit of despair once more as she stared at its tantalizing blank pages.
A burst of her eyes, instinctive and instantaneous, that's all it would take. All it would take to activate the book that had started it all one last time and snap the timeline in two was a spark of Silver Spirit Magic. Not even Mest was fast enough to intervene before she did that. Ruby could solve all her problems in a single stroke, and all she had to do was die like every other huntress in history. And then history would no more have need of huntresses.
She just needed to activate the book to erase it all…
Salem had learned to live with a constant undercurrent of fear in her life.
What if one of her friends was killed far beyond her reach? What if they were cut down by disease as Ozma once was? What if End's trauma consumed him and her dear friend was lost to her? What if today would be the day when the Umbral Spirit King finally managed to batter down the wall between worlds and lay waste to everything she had ever sought to protect? Even for an immortal, life was saturated with terror.
But it had been a long time since she had had reason to fear for all of those things and her own wellbeing. And the cause of that fear had come from the very last place she'd ever expected it.
Now, all she, Lucy, Leo, and Wendy could do was stare at the book where it had fallen to the floor of the ruined Neo-Hell's Core, jagged lines of gold and black crisscrossing the leatherbound cover.
"Wha… what do we do?" Lucy asked. "Do we follow her?"
"We have no Spirit Slayer. And the book cannot handle opening another portal even if we did," Salem surmised, clenching her fists. "How could she do this? All those millennia ago, she was the one who told me not to change the past under any circumstances!"
"She's only human," Leo glumly noted. "Even Ruby has her limits."
Lucy gulped. "Well, nothing's changed yet? Maybe she reconsidered when she got there?"
"Or maybe she didn't survive the trip," Wendy said. "When we were sent through the Eclipse Gate, we lost our memories. When Team RWBY travelled back, they fainted within minutes of arriving. And we were all perfectly healthy. She… wasn't."
Salem's heart clenched as she remembered the sight of Ruby's bloody and pulped form. Whatever her anger towards her old friend, she had never wanted to see her so broken. Even with the knowledge that Summer was not so lucky, that her left hand had been slain by another of her old comrades, she could not forget the shattered, frantic tears that fell from Ruby's face as she recounted her hopeless tale.
The Queen knew her fallen Gate would never have wanted to see one of her daughters like that.
"We have no way of knowing," Salem morosely observed. "Until such time as the world ends."
"In which case, we must act as if it intends to spin on," Wendy said, her face solemn, yet set.
The Sky Dragon Slayer marched across the wrecked laboratory… and knelt before The Queen.
Salem, Lucy, and Leo's eyes all widened, their confounded gazes locked on the supplicating Maiden of the Sky.
"Wendy?" Lucy shouted. "What are you doing?"
"What needs to be done," Wendy replied, her head bowed, but clearly focused on Salem. "I will help you."
Salem couldn't pale given her complexion, but even without that, her surprise and tentative, fearful hope dominated her features. "You mean…?"
"Readying Universe Omega, enchanting End and Acnologia's power into the Eclipse Etherious, even conquering the world to save it," Wendy confirmed without hesitation. "I'm with you."
"Wendy?" Leo worriedly spoke, his teeth grinding against each other. "Do you realize what you're saying—"
"Of course I do!" Wendy yelled. "We have to cross at least some lines! And I've chosen mine!"
Silence reigned over Hell's Core for several long moments after that shout, only Jaune's unconscious breathing filling the air. Slowly but surely, a glowing smile dawned over Salem's lips.
"Rise, my friend," she warmly said, guiding Wendy back up to her feet. "You are not my servant. You have no need to kneel."
After so many centuries searching for the Fairy Spheres, so many months infuriated by every setback to reuniting with her friends, and then the last hour of maddening hell after hell as everything that could go wrong had, to have one of her beloved comrades finally see sense… it was a balm like few others. It didn't banish the emotional hole growing in her chest from Summer and Virgo's horrid fate… but it was something. Better than almost anything else would have done in its place, a spark of hope that, perhaps, Fairy Tail would realize that her plan was the best path forward.
Wendy's eyes flickered over past the Queen, narrowing at the ground where the book laid. "It's activating."
The group all turned towards the eldritch tome, the device's distinctive energy beginning to build. The book, sparking and shivering as its cracks became larger and larger, rose into the air, wind and electricity swirling around its opening pages.
Salem's smile vanished. One way or another, they'd all discover the fate of time, and Ruby Rose, soon enough.
It was only one word, one bare thought. But as soon as it popped into Ruby's mind, she slammed the book shut.
"Why?" the silver-eyed huntress repeated out loud, looking up from the tome back to her guildmates, their disintegrated aspects returned to them. Mest flashed to her side, thrown-off when she idly shoved the book into his arms.
Mira cocked an eyebrow, now more confused than concerned as she was a second ago. "Um, what?"
"No! Not 'what'. Why?" Ruby insisted, stumbling forward into her crowd of friends with a new spark in her silver eyes. "I splurged everything I knew about the future to you guys the second I woke up, but the timeline didn't even budge then. But now I'm going back to Remnant without changing anything and suddenly it starts breaking down."
"Uh, Juvia does not understand," Juvia said, raising a questioning hand. "The timeline would only break apart if something changed now that would prevent your future from coming to be, right?"
"Precisely! So, why?" Ruby exclaimed, her mind working a mile a minute as her hands flailed about trying to organize her thoughts. "Why is it objecting to me leaving without changing anything unless… Oh… Ooohhhh…."
A radiant, hopeful smile blossomed over the Silver Spirit Slayer's mouth as she whirled around to face Mira. "Time loop shenanigans! You were afraid of her!"
The Take-Over Wizard's face twisted in befuddlement. "I was afraid of who?"
"Sitara! In Jinn's visions, Erza said you almost seemed afraid of Sitara!" Ruby concluded, ecstatically jumping up and down. "You knew! You knew what she would become!"
"Wait? So… I keep my memories?" Mira puzzled. "But how would I know that if you hadn't come back in the first place—"
"Time loop shenanigans! Seventeen years of superhero comicbooks have prepared me for this day!" Ruby grinned. "But you're right! If me coming back is part of my present's past, then me returning shouldn't cause it to break down unless… unless…" Her silver eyes widened, whipping around towards Juvia. "… you weren't there."
The water wizard's lips pursed, the guild members' all turning to her. "Uh… I wasn't where?"
"The battle! You weren't at the battle with the Strongest Team when everyone was mind-controlled! Wendy mentioned it and then Jinn confirmed it, and you didn't even have a gravestone with everyone else," Ruby rattled off, suddenly turning to Jellal. "And you! You would never have left here before the White Witch showed up!"
"That is true," Jellal answered, the cogs turning behind his eyes. "Are you saying…"
"… that we're not at this battle because we go to the future with you now?" Juvia finished, her face paled. "The future with Gray?"
"Yes!" Ruby screamed with joy, only to shrink back as she realized the full ramifications of what she'd said. "I mean… maybe? I don't want to make you think that you'll have to leave everyone you've ever known and loved—"
Juvia threw a table across the hall and reached under to a secret hatch from which she promptly pulled out a pair of near-bursting suitcases before zipping in front of Ruby. "I will need time to set my affairs in order and say goodbye."
"Oh," Ruby gulped. "Uh… okay?"
Juvia smiled and whirled around to Gajeel, clutching at his forearm. "My dearest friend, please understand—"
"Go get'em, blue," The Iron Dragon Slayer gave his oldest comrade a pat on the head followed by an encouraging smile. "Can't say I'm happy to see you go, but we both know those ice idiots won't last five minutes without you."
The water wizard pulled back a moment, touched, before racing in to hug him even tighter. "Thank you for understanding."
"Make sure to name your first kid after me," Gajeel smirked.
"Of course!" Juvia chirped. "Oh! Jewels are worthless on Remnant, so I can just give you and Levy my life savings to pay for a bigger house for your little one!"
"Yes!" Gajeel fist-pumped. "Now I can name a daughter after you instead of Salamander!"
"Yay!" Juvia cheered.
Lily's brow furrowed in thought. "What if you have twins?"
Gajeel paled. "No!"
Ruby smiled, turning away as Levy smacked her boyfriend's elbow before hugging Juvia, and looking to Jellal. "Well?"
Jellal immediately nodded. "I'll need a few days as well, I need to contact Meredy and the others, let them know what's going on, make sure they're alright, but… yes. I'll come. I owe Erza and Pyrrha that."
Cana nuzzled up to the Wizard Saint's side. "You 'owe' them that much? Is that what they're calling it now?"
Elfman, Lisanna, Bisca, and even Master Makarov backed her up, teasingly staring down the Heavenly Body Wizard.
Jellal blushed, awkwardly shifting away from his girlfriend's family. "I mean… I want to help the others too."
Ruby popped a grin at him. "We know. They're just having fun."
The red hooded reaper turned one final time, coming face-to-face with Mira. The She-Devil gazed upon her former rival's apprentice with a forlorn smile of pride and motherly concern.
"I'm sorry," Ruby said. "I came back trying to return the Strongest Team to you, and now I'm taking Juvia as well."
"You're hardly kidnapping her," Mira chuckled, pointing to where the water wizard was sharing a tearful hug with Lisanna and Cana. However, it was not long before she returned her worried gaze to Ruby. "Will you be okay?"
Considering what she'd been like when she'd arrived, Ruby could understand that question. Even just a moment before, she'd considered giving up and erasing herself and her timeline from history. Her nightmares of her mother hadn't stopped during her time at the guild, each one showing her blood red like roses. But still…
"I think… I think I will be," she confessed. She raised her hands, imagining the tremors that could run over her palms. "Nothing's ever going to take her place. Nothing did last time after all. But… I was alright last time and I have even more people by my side now. I don't know what I'll do about Yang, or even Cinder really… but I think I can figure it out. And even if I can't, Salem is right about one thing. We can only go forward."
"Very true," Mira nodded. "Have you figured out how?"
"How I must," Ruby answered. "Some lines must be crossed. But others must not."
Mira cocked a proud smirk, even as a tear slipped down from her eye. The white-haired wizard surged forward and engulfed Ruby in a tight, crushing hug, one that the younger woman gladly returned.
"Take care of them," Mira whispered. "They're strong, I know, I've grown alongside them all these years, but still…"
"I will. We'll protect each other," Ruby promised. "What are guildmates for?"
She thought she'd been trapped, left with no other choices but extinction. However, while her options could hardly be called good, it was not without hope. After all, she thought it'd be impossible to back any way but alone. Instead, while she did have to go back, she could still act within those restrictions, bringing two dear friends with her as backup. Even when she was boxed in, she could still find a way through if she kept looking.
The darkness was there. It was mighty and seductive, easy to fall into. Sometimes, when there truly was no time, it was even needed.
But the light was there as well.
And it was far from helpless.
When the vortex faded, Lucy had to rub her eyes to make sure she wasn't seeing things.
Ruby, unharmed, upright, and completely free of bloodstains, stood tall with her back to them all, her repaired crimson cloak flowing in the wind with a silver Fairy Tail emblem emblazoned on its back. The Scarlet Reaper clutched the book in her hand as it crumbled away to ash.
Oh, and she was flanked by Juvia and Jellal!
"Lucy! Wendy! Loke! Hi!" Juvia cheered, gleefully waving at her guildmates.
Lucy and Wendy numbly waved back at the water wizard, both of them gaping as they struggled to comprehend the miracle in front of them. Meanwhile, Loke grabbed at his forehead with a groan.
"Damn it, Mest," the Lion Spirit grumbled. "I may have agreed to it, but did you have to be so thorough?"
"He erased your memories of this?" Lucy asked.
"He erased everyone but Mira's exact memories of where Juvia disappeared to in order to preserve the timeline," Loke explained. "Mine were supposed to return when we saw Jinn's visions, but given the spell needed to last thousands of years…"
"Impressive work, if overcooked," Salem surmised, staring at the new arrivals in shock.
Juvia's face puckered when she spotted The Queen. "Oh. Sitara. You're looking… well?"
"Something to discuss later," Jellal insisted, his steady eyes looking towards the western tower. "That way?"
"That way," Ruby confirmed. "Good luck."
Jellal and Juvia both resolutely nodded, a plan obviously already in place. The Wizard Saint scooped up the Water Wizard and shot off west in a shining golden streak.
Ruby finally turned around, and Lucy was relieved to see that her previous physical wounds was not all that had healed. Her tears had dried, and her gaze was no longer crumbling with despair.
However, she was not the bubbly, excited girl that Lucy had first met back at the guild either. The weight of despair was still present in her features, her silver eyes firm like steel. As she reached around and tapped her cloak, the Fairy Tail emblem disappearing into the red sheen, the Celestial Spirit Wizard wondered just how far this new Ruby would be willing to go.
"The book is gone. No more shenanigans. The past is the past."
The Scarlet Reaper flashed her reforged Reaper's Rose Armor into existence around her and stared stalwartly into the dark eyes of the Queen of the Grimm.
"We need to talk about the future."
And here we have Part Two of Ruby's recovery mini-arc! Lots of crucial little bits dropped around the many character moments this chapter, but the build paired along with the present-day events was a lot of fun to showcase.
The book is gone. The past is set. Now, from the pits of despair, Ruby moves forward. To victory or defeat, but only forward.
Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!
Go Forth and Conquer!