AN: A comment on the tumblr dedicated to the twin paradox slayer theory spurred me into writing a fourth piece (like you haven't had enough of this, har har). This takes place after the end of the magic games, and is the conclusion to 'out of time', 'not yet, brave child' and 'brilliance of the sun'.
Warning: SHAMELESS ARTISTIC LIBERTIES TAKEN, not just with the storyline but also time-travel in general. Read at own risk.
Disclaimer: Fairy Tail and its characters belong to Hiro Mashima. I own nothing.
the time is now
by Miss Mungoe
When the gate is destroyed, Sting feels that his existence shatters with it, crumbling to the ground along with the pieces of the towering archway. All around them is the aftermath of war; a scattered battlefield of stone and sacrifices. They have fought, and they have won.
Though if feels less like victory than it does defeat.
Rogue is silent where he stands beside him; dark eyes trained on their closing chapter as it unfolds before them. Around them, the mages of Fairy Tail have already begun their celebration. The clamour of their cheer builds like a rolling wave; the din rising until it echoes through the halls and corridors of the palace. It is a roar of unashamed jubilation enough to lift the very spirit of the city up from the rubble around them. Yet on the sidelines they remain as watchers from afar; silently taking in the joy around them with sinking hearts.
"Where do we go from here, I wonder," Rogue murmurs then, and when Sting follows his gaze, it comes to rest on the shape of Gajeel Redfox, battered and bruised but standing straight with the proud set to his shoulders Sting has come to associate with Fairy Tail. He has despised it, once – that confidence. Hated it with a passion, though now, as he takes in the arrogantly raised chin and fanged grin, all that remains is a dull sense of defeat. Beside the iron dragonslayer, the little blue-haired mage lingers, and their linked hands seem to go unnoticed by the joyous mages surrounding them.
Rogue doesn't say it out loud, but Sting doesn't need to hear the words to know what he is thinking.
Is this the end for them?
His eyes travel across the expanse of the great hall, towards the other side where Natsu Dragneel–
–is already on his feet. He laughs and grins, and displays a barefaced exuberance that seems to infect everyone around him. Because they've won. They've succeeded. They've done the impossible – saved the present and secured the future.
Their future, at least.
A head of golden hair shifts in his direction then, and his eyes meet those of the stellar mage–
–and Sting feels rooted in place, and for a moment he can't look away. The expression on her face changes then; the smile fades as her brow dips down into a frown, and his breath catches in his throat as something passes between them. Recognition? But that's impossible. There are years yet before he will come into her life; before she will know him for who he is. Perhaps she never will – who knows what they changed by destroying the gate. Have they condemned their own existence – their lives and their future?
An arm is thrown over her shoulders then, and their gaze is broken – it snaps like a rubber band pulled too far and wound too tight – and Sting feels the backlash like a physical blow. The smile is back on her face in a second, and Natsu Dragneel spins her round and round–
"I wanna fly, Dad! Like a dragon!"
He grasps at his eyes, to stifle the unbidden tears or the image of a spinning world and a head of bright pink, Sting doesn't know. Laughter echoes in his mind – his own, and that of the father he knew once but will never know again.
"Was it worth it?"
It takes him a moment to realize the choking question came from his own mouth, and when Rogue looks at him, there are shadows behind his eyes that betray a turmoil equal to the one Sting can barely keep contained. And though Rogue is usually always so composed, Sting can plainly see the struggle he puts up.
"I don't know," he says, and the words fall like heavy weights between them, and Sting feels himself teeter on the breaking point. Rogue always has a plan – always. The fact that he doesn't, now, throws the remainder of his shambling reality off its axis, and then he's spinning – spinning out of control. And for the first time in his life, he feels truly and utterly lost. It's not like the restless solitude on the streets before Weisslogia found him. It's not even like the hollow emptiness he'd felt when the lifeless form of his patron dragon had struck the ground before him years later and the blood on his hands had stained his skin and branded his mind with cynicism and distrust. Never before have they been cast more adrift – two lost boys watching the beginning of the future they will never have; a celebration in which there is no room for them. From beside them, Lector and Frosch are silent, sensing their apprehension. The other cats – Exceed, Rogue had named them – are sharing in the enthusiasm of their fellow mages, and for the first time since the beginning of the games, Lector doesn't even scoff. Fro huddles close to Rogue, but says nothing.
Then something happens that takes him by surprise.
Before he can blink, there is a shape before them; an odd little woman looking up through a heavy fringe that covers eyes that seem to hold the entire universe in their depths. Sting recoils in surprise, but Rogue merely furrows his brows, seemingly unperturbed by the her sudden appearance, but wary of what it means.
"Language, please, Sting Dragneel," she says then, and the causal use of a name he's never heard but that has been a brand upon his mind these past few days slams against him with an almost tangible force, and a shudder of terror runs down his spine because how does she know?
He becomes aware of the silence that has fallen around them, but he doesn't raise his eyes from the strange little woman – the fairy-like creature who announces the secret closest to his heart like it's nothing. Not until Natsu Dragneel himself steps forward does Sting look up, but the expression he is met with does nothing to make the situation even remotely better. Confusion, he'd have understood. Disbelief, too. Revulsion, even, would have been understandable, because with everything he has said and done Natsu Dragneel should by reason alone hate his guts, and any association with Sting should have disgusted him.
But he has no explanation for the smile on the dragonslayer's face; the fond quirk of the lips that makes it seem like there's a joke Sting isn't privy to. And he doesn't understand–
The fairy speaks up them, interrupting his thoughts as she addresses him and Rogue. "The time is now, if you are ready," she says, her words cryptic, and if he could, Sting would tear his gaze away from those all-knowing eyes. He would demand she explain; who she is, how she knows, what she is doing, but he can't. He's rooted in place, held under the scrutiny of eyes that seem to look right into the marrow of his soul. She knows him, the realization strikes him then.
Rogue breaks the spell by stepping forward. "Whatever you have in store for us, we are ready," he says, bowing his head respectfully, as though addressing a superior and not a woman who looks more like a child than anything else. "Master Mavis."
She straightens at that, visibly flattered by the ceremony, and Sting doesn't know what makes him more angry; that Rogue clearly knows who he is dealing with, or that he hasn't bothered to share that particular piece of information.
...and Master Mavis?
"The hell, Rogue–"
"Language," she cuts him off again, casting him a quick, sidelong look that dares him to continue, and Sting is rendered utterly speechless. Several of the members of Fairy Tail that are watching share knowing smiles, and Sting wonders why the hell he is the only one seemingly left out of the loop.
But before he can utter his thoughts out loud, the fairy speaks again. "It is time. I ask again, are you ready?"
That's the last cryptic drop for him. "Ready for what?!" he explodes, and ignores the eyes of the room as they all turn to him. He steps up before her, but she doesn't even flinch at his anger. "What the hell are you talking about, huh?! Who the hell are you? And what–"
"So impulsive," she murmurs, suddenly miffed, before the smile is back like nothing ever happened, and she throws a look behind her at Natsu. "But then that isn't so surprising," she muses, before whipping her head back around, sending pale blonde waves of light dancing around her.
Sting's hands are shaking, but he can't make himself look at the man who will become his father. The man who, somewhere in the future, is his father. Nor can he look at his mother as she steps closer. His skull is throbbing with a steadily worsening headache, and he feels sick to his stomach. They can't know. If they know, they'll–
"Do not be afraid, Sting Dragneel," the little woman says then, tilting her head with a warm smile.
"Stop calling me that!" he shouts, hysteria creeping into his voice. She doesn't even twitch, and the infuriatingly knowing smile doesn't leave her face. She turns her eyes on Rogue, silent beside him.
"You are very calm, Rogue Redfox," she says then, amusement creeping into her tone, and when his friend only smiles, Sting feels the acidic taste of betrayal sharp on his tongue. Did Rogue know this would happen? Did he plan it?
"I'm awaiting your decision, First."
She seems pleased, and when she looks back, her eyes seek out the blue-haired mage and the looming form of the iron dragonslayer beside her. There is nothing on either face that suggests even an ounce of surprise, and Sting doesn't know what to do with this discovery; doesn't know how to react, because it strikes him then, in that very moment, that they know. All of them.
The only one who doesn't is him.
"Levy McGarden," the fairy says, and the girl nods. Her gaze isn't on the woman, though, Sting notices. It is centred solely on Rogue, and the smile on her face isn't hindered by disbelief or revulsion. At her back, Redfox lingers, an unreadable expression on his face, though there is a ghost of a smirk there which is so startlingly familiar, Sting almost has to look back at Rogue just to see if it's mirrored on his face.
"Did you do as I requested?"
She nods. "I wrote it down, along with the rest."
The fairy nods, visibly pleased, and her pale hair slips around her shoulders like liquid light when she moves. "And Lucy Heartfilia, have you made the necessary preparations?" she asks next, shifting her piercing gaze to the stellar mage, and this time, Sting can't stop himself from looking.
Brown eyes meet his, and he can't breathe, because they aren't just like the eyes from his memories; they are the exact same eyes. And there is a recognition in them that nearly breaks him, but he can't get so much as a word past his lips as she smiles at him over the distance that separates them.
"I've made sure she gets the heads up, when the time comes," she says, and though the words make no sense to Sting, there is something about them that has hope – burning warm and bright like molten fire – take root within him, reaching out to the very edges of his nerves and spreading through his weary, shaking limbs like sunlight eradicating the dark of night come morning.
"Good," the strange woman says, and without another word, turns back to them, and there is a resolve in her expression and a depth to her eyes that has both absolute terror and an odd sense of comfort unfurl within him, both warring for control. Then she raises her arms, and she seems to glow before them, enveloped by a bright, shining, glittering light. The brilliance of the sun itself, beckoning them close.
Sting recoils. "What are you doing?!"
When she opens her eyes, they glow even brighter than the light of which she is the centre, and her raised arms reach out towards them invitingly. When she speaks, there is a quality to her voice like that of a great echo, and it seems to reverberate in his heart rather than his ears.
"I am taking you home."
And the last Sting sees before the light wraps itself around him are the eyes of his memories; grey like the storm and brown like the earth, watching him from across a distance that feels like years more than feet. And a voice in his ear, melodic like a lullaby, brushing against the edge of his subconscious like soft hands against the side of his face and the scar on his brow.
See you on the other side...
When he opens his eyes, everything has changed.
Rogue groans as he sits up, blinking his eyes against the strange lethargy that seems to seep from him even as he becomes aware of it. Raising his eyes, he covers them with his hand, shielding his gaze from the bright light of the setting sun casting its rays through the palace's tall wind–
The thought screeches to a halt as his breath hitches in his throat, and his eyes fly open in realization just as Sting lets out a groan from beside him.
"What the hell..." Pushing himself up, Sting clutches at his brow, as though pressing against a searing headache. When he opens his eyes, it is with the tentative care of someone having spent a great deal of time in the dark, and who is just getting used to the light. "Rogue?"
He groans again. "...the hell did she do with us? Goddamn crazy bitch–"
But Rogue isn't listening, pushing himself to his feet as his eyes survey the room around them. Not a stone is out of place in the great domed chamber; and not a chair overturned. Lush and decorative curtains hang from the walls, and the marble floor beneath their feet is pristine and without so much as a scratch. He turns towards where the ashes of Eclipse should be, and finds nothing but empty space.
"What the hell is this place? Looks like the palace," Sting mutters as he follows him gingerly, rising to his feet unsteadily. "Oye, where's Lector and Frosch?"
Rogue doesn't answer him – doesn't even offer a question of his own, because something tell him they will be seeing their friends soon. Realization is quickly dawning on him, blossoming in his chest like a tangible thing, and he draws a shuddering breath. Excitement – foreign as the feeling is – leaps along the edges of his senses, and he feels a smile stretch across his face, wide and genuine in unabashed happiness. Turning to Sting, he catches the incredulous furrow of his friend's brows and a laugh escapes him that has his friend taking a step back in surprise and suspicion.
"We're home, Sting."
Sting shakes his head, but just as he is about to open his mouth, no doubt to question his sanity, the great doors at the far end of the room are pushed open, and their gazes are drawn towards the measured footsteps approaching them. Into the chamber walks a middle-aged woman with a proud set to her shoulders and a regally raised chin, and the fabric of her dress brushes soft as silk against the stone floor as she comes to stand before them. An odd smile stretches across her face at the sight of them, and it is then that Rogue recognizes her.
The princess. No, Queen now, by the looks of it. Her eyes crinkle at the corners with good humour, and her lips purse with the pleased smile of one privy to a great secret.
"Just on time," she says then, and it is in that moment that the doors are thrown fully open behind her, pushed apart by a great strength, and Rogue's heart leaps into his throat as seven figures materialize in the wide-open doorway. Two large and looming, walking at the far back, fanged grins wide in faces that look older than they did last time he saw them. Before them walk two smaller shapes, bearing the same warm smiles that had followed them in silent valediction upon their departure from the palace, shrouded in light.
And at their front, Mavis Vermilion, regal like the Queen before her, and at her sides the grinning faces of Frosch and Lector. Sting makes a noise at the back of his throat that even Rogue hasn't heard before, but he isn't one to point fingers, especially not when he can't seem to utter a single intelligent word himself.
The First Master of Fairy Tail stops before them, a wide smile stretched across her childlike face. She is still glowing, and though it is dimmer than before, it is no less brilliant, rivalling even the evening sun at their backs.
"Welcome home," she says, and something within Rogue breaks – unfurls with a force that nearly floors him; as though he's been desperately awaiting those words his entire life.
...and maybe he has.
His knees are threatening to give out when there are arms wrapping around him, and though the shape that embraces him is only half his size, he feels he could place the weight of his entire world on her shoulders and she would bear it without problem. And there's a scent in his nose he'd thought he'd never smell again, and tears come unbidden to his eyes for the first time that he can remember; pushing forth with almost violent urgency, and he is suddenly struck with the realization that the last time these arms were around him, she was the one crying–
"My heart," she murmurs then, and it is not the familiarity of the name that does it; it is the fervour with which she speaks it. And he can't stop the sob that tears from his throat.
She pulls away then, soft hands reaching up to cradle his head, and he shakes as he takes in the sight of her face; bearing the signs of age with grace, but not a single scar. She traces her thumbs along his cheeks, and brushes his fringe away from his eye. From behind her Rogue catches a sign of movement and heavy footfalls, and shifts his gaze to take in the approaching form of Gajeel Redfox.
"Pops," it slips out, quite without his consent, but it's familiar on his tongue, and the fanged grin stretches wider across the metal-studded face that he remembers so well. He towers above them, a pillar of strength that has seemingly never crumbled in the years that span then and now, though grey streaks the hair at his temples and there are scars on his face that Rogue doesn't remember.
"Hey, brat," he rumbles, fondness tugging at the skin at the corners of his eyes, and all of Rogue's words lodge in his throat until he feels like he might choke.
"Yo, Sting, kiddo! What's with the face?"
Their attentions are drawn by the gleeful bellow, and Rogue looks up at the approach of an older Natsu Dragneel, hands thrown open in a gesture of playful confusion. Age has played its part on his body and his eyes convey two decades of battle and sacrifice, but the smile on his face is the same boyish grin that promises nothing but mischief.
The stellar mage rolls her eyes as she walks up beside him. "I swear, you have no tact," she says, though the admonishment is fond after years of use. Nudging a grinning cheek with a slim finger, she turns her attention to Sting, who looks torn between wanting to turn tail and run and fall to his knees.
It's her smile that does it, Rogue can tell.
"How...?" the hoarse word pulls itself from Sting's lips.
The First steps forward then, hands on her hips. "Stubborn boy. Can't you believe what's in front of your eyes?"
"What did you do?" he rasps, the the anger that leaps off him is palpable.
She seems doubly pleased with herself; the secret smile bright against her already luminescent skin. "Time-loop," she declares then, with a wink. "It's been twenty years, if you must know. Don't think too much about it, or you'll get a headache."
Lucy shakes her head as she steps up beside her. "Not everyone can just accept everything with a smile, Master Mavis," she says wryly, but her gaze has never once left Sting, and her eyes soften as she reaches out a hand, imploringly.
"Sweetie," she says then, and even Rogue can tell the word is more than just an endearment. It rings with the weight of a promise and the staggering depth of a mother's lament. It's both an invitation and a plea, and the impact it has on Sting is a physical thing, and too many emotions pass over his face for Rogue to keep count of them all.
He expects him to explode; to refuse so much as to listen to these strangers before them that he only has vague memories of, so he is surprised when Sting falls to his knees, doubling over as though knocked down by a physical force. His body shakes as he leans his weight on his hands, clenched into fists on the floor before his bowed head.
Then Natsu is before him, fingers grasping the collar of his shirt as he pulls him back up. The grin on his face has changed to something Rogue can't recognize, though it is no less warm. "Hey. Reunions are supposed to be happy, you know. What're those tears for?"
Sting doesn't answer, only shakes his head stubbornly, but that is all the invitation his mother needs as she steps forward, and envelops him in a hug.
"Welcome home, Sting," Lucy whispers, and despite the low quality of the words, they seems to echo throughout the chamber, and it is this that is Sting's final undoing. And with a desperation that trumps even the one he showed Minerva upon her claiming of Lector, he wraps his arms around the stellar mage as he finally accepts the reality at his hands.
Small, soft fingers curl around his then, and Rogue's gaze follows the slim arm until he meets the smiling eyes of his mother. Before he can muster a verbal reply, though, another hand drops onto his head, tangling in his hair; warm and rough and familiar, and he anticipates the thorough ruffle his hair is given even before he receives it.
"Can't believe ya were ever bald, kiddo. The hell did ya do, light it all on fire or something?"
His mother makes a noise at the back of her throat, followed by an admonishing 'Gajeel!', but Rogue honestly doesn't care. And though he can't find the words, his laughter compensates for his speechelessness, rippling through him with an effortless ease as though he's been doing it all his life. Because with the sheer impossibility of their situation, it is his father's casual remark that drives the truth home. Out of all the evidence in front of him; the warmth of his mother's hand in his and the weight of his father's on his head, what proves to Rogue that he has indeed come home is a snide joke about his hair.
"Only your kid could ever do something that stupid, Gajeel," Natsu pipes up from his side of the room.
His father grins down at him, and suddenly Rogue feels years younger than he really is; feels the same, childlike awe for the man before him as he did when facing him in the arena for the first time. "My kid, huh?" Gajeel asks, and the grin widens until his fangs gleam in the light of the setting sun, and before Rogue has a chance to react, the hand on his head is gone, before it slaps his shoulder with enough force to knock the breath clean from his lungs.
"Damn straight he's my kid!" he announces as Rogue nearly chokes on his tongue. "...and you're one to talk, Salamander! Yer brat couldn't even figure out what was going on!"
"Hey! You weren't much better when we came through our time-loop, Metal-Face!"
"Oh yeah, wanna bet?"
"Don't strain yourself, old man – you'll break your hip!"
Rogue shares a look with Sting, who watches the spectacle with an expression on his face that tells him if anything convinced him they were two decades into the future...
...it was the fact that the years haven't changed a thing.
"Time to go, Shorty."
"Just a minute," she calls back, even as her eyes narrows in concentration. Tongue caught between her teeth, she lets the scissors slide through the lock of dark hair between her fingers, before pulling back to observe her handiwork.
"We're gonna be late," Gajeel rumbles, as he leaned his weight against the wall.
"I'm trying to make it even." She throws him a look, attempting to convey what she thinks of their son's insistence on growing his hair long, when Natsu appears in the doorway; a whirlwind of movement and with his scarf whipping about his grinning face. Small arms are wound tight around his neck, and a small head of tousled blonde hair peeks up from behind a shoulder. "Dad, why'd ya stop?" comes the petulant query, muffled by the fabric of the scarf.
"You guys ready to go yet?" he asks, hoisting his son further up on his back with a grin.
Gajeel snorts. "I've been ready to go for the past fifteen minutes."
"Moooooom, aren't you done yet?" the whine comes from below, and she turns her gaze back to the fidgeting boy on the chair before her.
"It'll take longer if you don't sit still, sweetie."
"But I don't wanna sit still – I wanna fly!"
"We're not getting anywhere at this rate," Gajeel mutters, and Natsu's grin widens as he's about to open his mouth–
"There you are! I was wondering if you were ever going to come outside. The parade's about to start," Lucy's voice drifts into the room as she appears in the doorway, and Levy takes her eyes away just long enough for her boy to slip away and make a run for it. Gajeel catches him before he gets too far, though, and throws him over one shoulder, eliciting a yell that dissolves into a fit of laughter.
Levy throws her hands up, still holding on to the scissors. "I give up."
Gajeel grins down at her, amused by his son's enthusiasm. "C'mon, Shorty, Fantasia won't stop because the kid's hair's too long, but it'll be over if we don't get moving soon."
She raises a brow as she puts the scissors down, walking up to give her son a kiss on the cheek where he dangles over his father's shoulder. "Well I don't see you running for the door," she quips as she reached her hands towards the boy's sides, giving him a well-aimed pinch that has him wiggling and choking with laughter.
"Run for the door! Dad, let's race 'em!" comes the excited shout from just over Natsu's shoulder, but the man is already one step ahead, and on his way down towards the guild hall before Lucy can even open her mouth to protest.
"Pops, don't let 'em get away! C'mon! Go, go!"
But he is gone even before his name has fully left her lips, hollering after Natsu about cheating and getting a head-start, and she shakes her head, a fond smile on her face. From beside her, Lucy sighs, and crosses her arms over her chest.
"Boys," she says, simply, turning to Levy with a smile that betrays her feigned annoyance. Levy grins, and adjusts the belt of her kimono as she walks towards the doorway.
"Boys," she agrees, linking an arm with her friend as they walk through the guild and into the celebrating streets of Mongolia...
...fearless under the naked expanse of the open sky.
AN: So basically, Mavis put them into the same kind of time-loop that Fairy Tail was caught in for seven years after Tenrou, effectively sending them twenty years into the future. The parents they meet there aren't the ones that sent them back in 'out of time', but the ones they got to know during the magic games. Okay so far? When they changed the future (by destroying Eclipse and somehow avoiding the attack of the dragon army), their present shifted onto a different "path" to accommodate for the changes (because how could the events in 'out of time' happen without an attacking dragon army?). Sting and Rogue were then not born to the parents who were waiting for them twenty years later.
Also, imagine that time exists on several layers in this universe, and that a choice made in the past might create different paths and thus different alternate future dimensions. The ending is then an alternate future to the one in 'out of time' and the future Sting and Rogue are sent to by Mavis, and in which Natsu, Lucy, Gajeel and Levy never send their children back to the past (it's also a mirror to 'out of time', if you noticed, fufu.)