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The Keeper of the Grove

Chapter Text

The wind that takes your last breath.

The blur you see before your eyes close for the last time.

The caretaker of Nature’s delicate balance, the whisperer in the ear of all great mortals who thought themselves divine, the death knell of all that ever lived:

The Keeper of the Grove.

Weiss had heard all of the stories, seen the art, the plays inspired by her--it was impossible not to, seeing as the twin peaks of the Viridian Valley always loomed over the horizon. Candela may have prided itself as the realm’s capital of Science, Technology, and Reason, but it would seem that even the most faithless and coldly logical people of Avalon could not resist the allure of a good yarn.

She had always thought the Keeper moronic, the stuff of fireside tales told to gullible children, fiction invented by hunters and adventurers returning to town with no game and wounded egos.

Now, with her cadre of elite bodyguards all lying on the ground unconscious, holding bleeding gashes, or nursing slashed wrists; their weapons sliced apart or rendered useless; and her back to a copse of trees perfectly shaped for cornering prey, Weiss realized that the Keeper was real.

All too real.

With nothing else to do except await her inevitable execution, Weiss decided to get a good look at her.

She was smaller than she expected.

Much smaller.

The stories always depicted her as looming several times larger than that of a fully-grown man, the shadow she cast stretching far past the fools and fortune seekers who dared trespass her land, a wicked figure with long, gnarled limbs, perfect for bounding after prey and catching them just before they broke out of the trees and to safety.

But the figure in front of her? She looked more like a little girl, barely older than 10, if she went by human standards.

And she did not look nearly as terrifying. The artists and tapestry weavers always made sure to pay special, loving attention to the Keeper’s visage, a hideous creature, like the bastard child of a rat, a deer, and a wolf; she had jaws perpetually slavering, fangs dripping with fresh blood and the remains of her latest victim, and yet more viscera proudly hanging from her twisted horns if they were feeling particularly gruesome. And if there was one thing they always made sure to keep, however simplified and caricatured the image, it was her eyes:

Glowing red orbs that pierced into your own, into your soul.

Weiss could see nothing even remotely suggesting something as vicious, even if the hood pulled over her face and the angle of the moonlight hid her features.

The one thing that they did get right was her scythe: a massive, ancient branch, gnarled and twisted, yet also meticulously sanded and shaped, stretching far above the Keeper’s head, with a wicked curved blade that glinted in the moonlight, looking not unlike a serial killer about to enjoy killing you for a long, long time.

Weiss wasn’t looking forward to knowing how exactly it felt like to get killed by it--if the stories were anything to go by, it only hurt if you were hit by a glancing blow or the Keeper intentionally missed.

That it felt like “having a piece of your soul ripped apart, little by little” was not a comforting thought, however.

The Keeper raised her weapon up into the air, the blade catching the light of the moon, glowing so brightly Weiss had to shield her eyes.

In that moment, she prayed to whatever deities were listening, hoping that they would find some way to tell Winter how much she loved her, how thankful she was for everything she’s done, and also that their father was an asshole and she would never, ever love him, even in death.

Thunk.

Weiss waited for the whoosh through the air, the brief pain of cold steel on warm flesh, whatever waited for her in the Aether, if it really did exist.

“Hi!” she heard a young, chipper voice say. “I realize this is going to sound really weird and make you super suspicious, since I just creamed your guards and all, but: could you open your eyes? It feels really weird talking to you while you’ve got them squeezed shut like that.”

Weiss reluctantly obeyed. The scythe was no longer raised up in the air; instead, it was planted firmly on the ground, blunt-end first. The Keeper was still looming in front of her, but her hood was down. She looked as young as she sounded, and infinitely more harmless and friendly than even the most sympathetic depictions Weiss had seen.

“Thanks~” the Keeper said, the deer ears sprouting from her almost-completely human head twitching happily. “Look, I understand that you humans are always looking for more resources and power to grow even bigger, make more cool stuff, and feed your kids and keep the lights on in your cities on...”

“... But we Fae also REALLY like not being killed, not having our home set on fire or flattened, not having our entire culture and history erased just like that--you know, things you humans don’t like having done to you, too.

“So, if you could just promise you’ll leave, and tell whoever started this expedition to never come back, I won’t have to kill every single one of you.”

The Keeper smiled and held out her free hand.

Fleshy, soft, and with four fingers and a thumb.

Nothing even remotely close to the wicked, razor sharp claws of legend.

And really, just like Weiss’ own hand.

“Deal?” the Keeper asked, still smiling.

Weiss stared at her hand for a long, long time. Her eyes strayed to the guards--gathered around her crashed carriage, unarmed or crippled, looking helplessly at her and the Keeper.

“Some of the best of the best,” her father had told her as they walked in between their two lines, every soldier standing at attention in perfect, precise angles. “Few can stand against their might, and in the unlikely event that they face a foe they can not crush like a bug, know that they are more than ready to lay their lives down to ensure your safety.”

Her father saw them as tools, assets, numbers on a spending report, certainly a bother if they happened to be killed, but not an amount he couldn’t recoup in time, and for sure there was another elite guard waiting to replace them.

Weiss saw them for what they were: men and women who earned their living through bloodshed and violence, some with families, some with lovers, all of them with plenty more fight left in them, if they didn’t throw it away for some stupid cause--or someone else sealed their fate for them.

She was hesitant to shake her hand, partly because of the events that had just transpired, mostly because it was also covered in mud, sap, grass, and fresh blood.

But it was either needing to wash her hands for hours after she got back to civilization, or forfeiting all of their lives for her father’s escapades, and her own foolishness.

“Deal,” Weiss said as she took it.

The Keeper smiled as they shook. “Great!” She pulled her hand back, stuck her fingers into her mouth, and whistled. “Get them out of here, everyone!” she cried.

Weiss and her guards flinched as the nearby bushes and the branches all rustled and shook. Some of them screamed as more humanoid creatures like the Keeper swarmed around the carriage, pushed it back upright from sheer force of numbers before some of them went to work on the engine and the chassis, and the rest loomed intimidatingly over the guards, as if they were daring them to just try and make one final stand, see how well that works out for them.

Mere minutes later, Weiss was back in the carriage, now much less roomy and spacious that she was sharing it with the worst injured of the guards--thankfully still alive, even if their futures as mercenaries dubious if they didn’t get proper medical attention soon. The rest rode on the roof or walked alongside it, making notes to themselves to never accept a job in the Viridian Valley ever again, and to demand vastly increased hazard pay.

In the stories, anyone foolish enough to make a deal with the Keeper of the Grove was only delaying the inevitable and dragging more unfortunate souls down with them when their time came, making an already bad situation worse through their own greed and self-interest.

But then again, those same stories also assumed that the Keeper was fiction, a myth, and probably some vicious pack of wolves than an actual, living, breathing being.

Weiss dearly hoped that wasn’t the only thing they’d gotten wrong.

Chapter Text

As the sole uninjured member of the ill-fated expedition, Weiss had the dubious honour of being in the meeting between her father and her guards’ negotiator and leader.

She wasn’t too surprised to see the calm, stately manner he liked to keep just barely holding up, his boiling rage clear in his eyes, every movement of his mechanical and careful as if he were preventing himself from spontaneously exploding right there and then.

She wouldn’t be too surprised either if most of that anger was from the loss of his investment and the new figure the mercenaries were demanding.

And really, she was expecting that he wouldn’t even stop to check and see if she was okay the moment he met personally met them at the gates of their mansion, instead heading straight to the guards and telling them to get to his special, private meeting room and explain to him what exactly had gone wrong.

“I thought you advertised yourselves as some of the best mercenaries in the business, professionals who would guarantee success, absolute security and peace of mind for all their clients,” her father said, strangling a special reinforced cognac glass in his hand.

“We did, and still do,” the negotiator “Snaggletooth” said.

“Then why are we all here, with most of your personnel being treated in one of the most advanced hospitals in all of Avalon, all on my bill?” her father asked slowly, and ominously so.

“Unforeseen threats, sir,” the captain “Striker” replied.

“Please, do elaborate, Captain,” her father said as he took a sip of his drink, glaring daggers at the both of them over the rim of crystal goblet.

“We were ambushed by a guerilla group. With the element of surprise, our unfamiliarity of the territory, and their channeling us into the perfect location to get flanked on all sides, we were quickly overwhelmed and decided it more prudent to negotiate a surrender, than to put up a futile resistance.”

Her father slowly, methodically put his goblet down. In the dead silence of the room, the “thunk” of the base on the black marble table echoed like a cannon blast.

“Are you telling me that I’m supposed to believe there’s a paramilitary group living in the middle of one the most dangerous and inhospitable wilderness in all of Avalon capable of subjugating one of Candela’s ‘finest’...?!”

“What could they possibly have--!?”

“IT WAS THE KEEPER OF THE GROVE!” Weiss screamed.

One of the earliest, most popular, and oft-repeated stories about the Keeper was “The Sole Survivor,” an extremely unlucky noble who’s sense of self-preservation spared him death by the Keeper’s scythe, at the cost of eventually losing his sanity.

Horrified by the effortless slaughter of his beloved cousins and siblings, and traumatized at the glee with which the Keeper did so, the noble fled from town to town, raving and ranting about the horror that lurked in the Viridian Valley. His intention was to warn as many people as possible, so they would never make the same ill-fated journey as his late companions.

Ironically, driven by greed, fame-seeking, and morbid curiosity, many adventurers, hunters, and villagers did the exact opposite, seeking what riches and luxuries the party had loaded their carriage with, the head of the horror, or just to see what could drive a man so far off the brink.

The stories either stated the obvious, or went into gruesome, gory detail about what befell each party, but all had the same ending:

The noble resting in his tragically lonely castle, making peace with his fate, and honouring his fallen relatives.

A maid, coming along with drink and idle gossip about the fools tromping to their end in some lush valley at the end of a barren expanse of rock and craggy mountains.

The noble screaming, running for nights and days on foot till to the border of the forest before carving an ancient symbol of death and disease on as many rocks and tree trunks as he could find, until he perished, from starvation, exhaustion, or the Keeper putting him out of his misery in a dubious act of mercy.

The story was ostensibly a tale warning against such similarly foolish adventures driven by all the wrong reasons.

As her father stared at her in a mix of disbelief and disappointment, and Striker and Snaggletooth looked at her like she had just spoiled a massive surprise party for the Council, she was starting to realize it was also a warning to the few that survived an encounter with the Keeper:

Shut your mouth, or invent a damn good story.


 

The company of mercenaries formally departed the meeting room not fifteen minutes after Weiss was kindly asked to leave. From what Striker would tell her later, her father had insisted on 2/3rds of the hazard pay they demanded.

“We want all of it, if you want us to ever work for you again,” Snaggletooth had calmly replied.

“Then it was a pleasure doing business with you,” her father replied coolly. “Such a shame it had to end this way.”

“The feeling isn’t mutual, Mr. Schnee” Striker said just as calmly.

Contracts were signed, but no hands were shaken this time.

Weiss herself fled to her room. There was no shortage of servants and handmaidens waiting to offer her all manner of luxury, words of comfort, and sympathetic ears to the horrific plight she had just experienced, but she ignored them all and walked past them, too tired to politely decline them or even wave her hand in dismissal.

A robotic messenger drone floated over to her, the “wings” on either side of its circular body flapping happily. “Ms. Schnee, Dr. du Pont has cleared her whole schedule just for you!” it trilled.

Weiss walked even faster, not stopping until she had stepped into her bedroom, shut the door behind her, and activated all the locks and automated features that would shut the curtains, stop broadcasting (if not recording) of the camera feed, and make the whole place more secure than most bank vaults.

Then, she braced herself against the wall, hugged her arms, and finally let the tears she’d been holding back burst out in a flood, her whole body shaking violently with each sob, her legs giving way and sending her slowly sliding to the floor.

She didn’t know how long it was she spent curled up on the floor, crying, shaking, unwillingly reliving the scene over and over again:

Sitting in the carriage, putting away her comm-crystal, reluctantly admitting to herself that she wasn’t going to be free of her father’s reach still.

The first screams, the gunfire, the panic that swept through the whole cadre of guards in seconds.

Lungs burning, heart pounding, feet pounding on the grass, running away from the overturned carriage she had just fled from, away from the scene of so many elite soldiers being picked off one after the other in the blink of an eye, slamming into a tree trunk, turning round and finding herself trapped on all corners, before she spun around and saw an ominous, horned figure looming just in front of her.

She didn’t know when exactly Winter had gotten back from her mysterious assignments all over Avalon, burst through like a woman possessed through the secret tunnel Weiss used to take to break into her room, knelt down and pulled her head into her chest, squeezing the air out of her lungs, whispering words so fast and through so many tears of her own neither of them could understand what they were saying.

And she definitely didn’t know what sort of sick fates and twisted deities would birth her into such an objectively terrible life yet give her this wonderful, saintly angel for an older sister.

Chapter Text

Eventually, the tears and the shaking stopped, Weiss recovered enough to get up off the floor and sit on the much more comfortable tea table in one corner of her room, and their father (or more likely, the staff he kept specifically on-hand for child-raising duties) had thought to send her and Winter dinner, plus most of the delicious treats and comfort foods that they had offered earlier.

Winter stood at Weiss door, waving away the concerned guards and servants trying to coax her into letting them in. “My sister and I would like some time just to ourselves, thank you,” she said as she gently wrenched the serving tray from a maid’s hands.

The solid contents shook and rolled and the liquids swayed in their glasses and pitchers, but the magical field that kept them at optimum serving temperatures also kept anything from spilling, and gently nudged everything back into their precise, perfect placements.

“Are you certain, Ms. Schnee?” one persistent butler asked.

“Very much so!” Winter replied, before she calmly slammed the door in his face. She smiled. “Ah, I forgot how much I loved doing that...” she muttered as she wheeled it to Weiss.

The two of them ate and drank, having their first meal in nearly half-a-day, or erasing the taste of the military rations Avalon's supersonic jets were forced to use. The decades of dining etiquette and temperance that had been instilled in them were forgotten for the moment—the only witness was the head of security watching the camera, and they couldn’t have given a damn about their table manners.

Weiss pushed away her plate, wiped away the crumbs, chocolate smears, and excess frosting off her mouth with her hand, before she licked them off.

Winter put the straw of her chocolate shake out of her mouth. “Feeling better?”

“Mhmm,” Weiss said as she licked off some cream between her fingers. “Still traumatized for life, but better.”

Winter chuckled. “You’re being sarcastic and snide again, that’s a great sign. Sure you don’t want to cry some more?”

Weiss shook her head. “No.”

“Need another hug?”

Weiss thought about it. “Later.”

“Another slice of cake, an eclair, a cookie, maybe?” Winter asked, gesturing to the half-emptied but still generously loaded serving tray.

Weiss looked down at herself in mild disgust. “Definitely later.”

Winter nodded. “So can I yell at you now?”

Weiss opened her arms and gestured towards Winter, wordlessly saying, “Lay it on me, sister.”

Winter smiled. “Thank you.”

She took a long, deep breath.

“WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?! DID YOU SOMEHOW MISS ALL OF THE STORIES AND ACTUAL, VERIFIED REPORTS OF PEOPLE GOING INTO THE VIRIDIAN VALLEY AND NEVER RETURNING? THAT EVEN IF THE KEEPER OF THE GROVE IS A FAIRY TALE, THERE’S DEFINITELY SOMETHING IN THERE THAT’S PERFECTLY CAPABLE OF DECKING THE FLOOR WITH AN ENTIRE COMPANY OF RANK 6 QUEENSGUARD NOMINEES?!”

Weiss sighed heavily. “I wanted to get away from Father—somewhere he couldn’t keep an eye on me or control my life unless it was absolutely necessary.”

“Oh, and you thought that the answer to that was throwing yourself headlong into mortal danger?!” Winter spat. She sighed heavily, shoulders slumping as she sank into the back of her chair. “Though I do suppose that’s my fault, for setting the precedent...”

Winter sat back up. “So since official details are sparse and rumours are aplenty, could you tell me what actually happened there and why's it got Father so pissed? You know, aside from the fact that he lost his initial investment and has to have all his projected earnings reports redone,” she said as she sipped some more of her shake.

Weiss paused. “We got attacked by the Keeper of the Grove,” she said quietly.

Winter made a sound like “AGHFRLKK!” Liquefied chocolate sputtered and dribbled out of her lips and nostrils as she violently beat her chest, her eyes wide open. “I’m sorry,” she said in between coughs, “but this is the name of some terrorist group with a mythology bent, right? Or a crazed, human serial killer lurking in the Valley? It can’t possibly be the Keeper of the Grove, as in, the Keeper of the Grove.”

Weiss shook her head. “She’s real. We all saw her.”

The blood drained from Winter’s face, her skin even paler than usual. After a long moment of silence, she slowly put her violently shaking hands on the table, her fingers weaved tightly together. “O-Okay, so, ASSUMING THAT I WASN’T AS SAFE FROM THE FACE OF MY NIGHTMARES AS I THOUGHT I WAS:

“How’d you escape?”

Weiss shrugged. “She spared me, we talked, and we struck a deal--”

Winter held her hand up. “I’m sorry, are you saying that you made a deal with the Keeper of the Grove?

Weiss nodded.

Winter slowly nodded back. “Weiss, before you continue, let me take this moment to tell you that I love you so much, and nothing will ever change that, even if you do indirectly get me killed by the thing I repeatedly convince myself doesn’t exist so I can sleep at night.

“Now please, do go on.”

Weiss paused for a moment. “...We struck a deal: I and my guards would turn back, never return, and tell everyone else not to try and make the trip in the first place.”

“’Everyone else’ including father and his drilling teams, I’m assuming?”

Weiss nodded.

Winter sucked in a breath, and let it go. “Well, we’re screwed!” she cried, throwing her arms in the air.You know, I always did think that father reminded me so much of the antagonistic figures in all the stories warning against excess desire, dooming themselves and the other unlucky victims to the Keeper’s scythe through their greed and lust for power, and now here we are proving that the line between fiction and reality is very thin indeed!”

“She actually wasn’t as scary as the stories make her out to be,” Weiss said. “A lot nicer, too.”

Winter put her arms back down on the table. “I’m definitely going to regret asking this, but what makes you say that?”

Weiss looked down. “She was short. Young—just a few years younger than me, or more. And she had the cloak, but her face didn’t look anything like anything anyone’s ever imagined her with—if it weren’t for the horns and the deer ears, I would have thought she was just a girl like me.

She looked back up. “She didn’t even have the glowing red eyes.”

“Were they just a reflective but non-radioactive red?”

Weiss shook her head. “I didn’t get a good look at them to know the exact colour, but definitely not red. And then there’s the fact that she spared all of the guards, took the extra effort just to cripple them or hurt them badly enough to stop them from fighting back, even if she could have just slaughtered the whole bunch of them and spared me anyway.

“You know all the stories, right?”

Winter nodded. “I do, and I agree this is strange behaviour on the Keeper’s part—for once, in the good sense of the phrase.”

Weiss smiled.

But, it is with great regret that I inform that there have been stories of the Keeper assuming friendlier forms, sparing people, and earning their trust to infiltrate their secure villages, or shake things up a little, serial killer style.

“They’re very much the minority, and the dates between the earliest known sources of each unique story are very long indeed. However, the latest account is little less than two decades old, and allegedly happened here in the Acropolis region.

“Within a few miles of this city, actually, since apparently Fate decided that I needed to be thoroughly creeped out AND terrified out of my mind!” Winter chirped.

Weiss looked at her strangely. “You’re still doing research about the Keeper?”

“Yes, actually,” Winter replied. “My consistently ill-fated quest for knowledge is as never-ending as the stories. I liked to keep it as a form of perspective, when something or someone terrified me and I’d remind myself that there was something much worse to be scared of, and she was fictional!”

She paused. “Well, I thought she was fictional, anyway...”

Weiss frowned. “So the Keeper could have just been lying and toying with me...” she muttered.

“If the stories are anything to go by—which they probably, definitely are now—yes.”

Weiss looked down at the table, silent.

Winter reached over and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll be right here when you finally wrap your head around the deep, existential terror. Word of warning: it might take a few days, and always strikes without unexpectedly.”

“Won’t your boss be mad?” Weiss asked.

Winter snorted. “Weiss, Weiss, Weiss—General Ironwood can have me court-martialed for all I care, NOTHING is more important to me than being here for you in your time of need. Besides, the Keeper will probably ensure I’ll never have to worry about him ever again!

“Or everything else, for that matter!”

“You’re taking this whole ‘The Keeper is Real’ business a LOT better than I thought you would,” Weiss said.

Winter laughed. “Oh, Weiss, I’m only keeping it together for your sake! Soon as I crawl back into my room, I’m going to order then imbibe large amounts of alcohol, before sobbing, weeping, and wailing in complete, absolute despair!”

Weiss laughed—she wasn't sure why, but she did. “I'll leave you to it, then.”

Winter nodded, walked around to Weiss, pulling her into another hug. “Thank you. I love you, sis.”

Weiss hugged back. “I love you too, sis.”

Winter pulled away. “Sure you don’t need me to keep it together a little while longer? We could have a sleepover, like we used to! I'll definitely skip the 'sleep' part, though.”

Weiss shook her head. “You go have your breakdown.”

Winter nodded, kissed her on the cheek goodnight, and crawled back into the secret tunnel she had come from, back to her bedroom.

Weiss disengaged her bedroom's lockdown soon after, the curtains pulling back, the steel barriers receding back into the walls, and the windows swinging open to bring in some fresh air that hadn’t been meticulously recycled and scrubbed clean over and over again.

She stepped out to one of her balconies, took in the excellent view of Candela her father had been so willing to pay top-Uroch for decades ago.

The city’s lights burned bright, from the street lights, the glow of the floating markers for flying vehicles, the windows of its skyscrapers, the equipment of their innumerable laboratories and research facilities, and the gaudiest, flashiest, most complex video advertisements to be seen anywhere in Avalon, all of them taking advantage of the nigh-limitless power source humming just underneath them, the dirt cheap rates, and how limited the amounts of energy the city could export (for now) and the rest it had to expend somehow.

“Candela: the city that burns brighter than all the minds that made it, shining long after they have passed onto the Aether,” Weiss recited.

She smiled.

Whenever the Keeper was coming for her, she was going to make sure that she was ready for her—an easy task, with the most cutting edge of technology literally just a few minutes away.

“Hey there~!” she heard a very familiar voice say. “Man, I am SO glad you finally opened your windows, I was afraid I was going to have to wait here all night!”

Chapter Text

There were many ways to react to unexpectedly hearing the voice of your future executioner right beside you.

There was refusing to turn to see them, waiting for them to either finish you off, or for them to leave, if they were planning on delaying the inevitable just a bit longer.

There was screaming and panicking, possibly accidentally throwing you off the railing of your balcony too fast for the emergency systems to catch you, plummeting down several stories, and maybe landing into one of the floating planters, or the hard, unforgiving stone that necessitated their use in the first place.

There was turning to face them, to go out with dignity—though, from the few stories Weiss had read or Winter had shared on nights when she couldn't sleep after a particularly traumatizing research session, looking right into the Keeper's eyes was a surefire way to to die of either shock or her scythe, and leave behind a very disgraced, ugly corpse permanently frozen in a twisted, horrific configuration, to be forever burned in the minds of whoever was unlucky enough to find you.

Weiss chose to continue staring off into Candela in the distance, the light at the end of the tunnel—one she probably wasn't going to get to see the end of, all things considered.

She probably would have had a much more energetic, dramatic response if she wasn't so tired. The intense fear she was feeling and the massive reminder of her mortality standing right beside her be damned, she was still human, and definitely no Tinman, those incredibly resilient and powerful soldiers that the combat androids of the same name were based off of.

She had also definitely stuffed herself with far too much cake, chocolate, and sweets, too soon for anything, much more meeting your fate.

“Shocked that I'm here?” the Keeper asked. “I am too, actually! I was really worried that my gear wouldn't stand a chance with your security systems, but it turns out they're actually really terrible!” She paused. “I mean, uh, no offense, you humans have some pretty great stuff that I can only wish we had, and I know they probably weren't designing it with keeping a Fae like me out--”

“What are you doing here?” Weiss whispered, still looking out to the city.

“Oh! Right! Sorry, I get kinda caught up talking and explaining things sometimes; cons of living with a Chronicler!” the Keeper chuckled. “Anyway… how's the 'stay out of the Valley forever' thing going…?”

Even if Weiss couldn't see her, she could tell that the Keeper was leaning towards her and waggling her eyebrows.

“I'm never going back there, and neither are my guards...” Weiss replied flatly.

“That's great!” the Keeper said.

“… But, my Father is likely to just hire a new batch of mercenaries and send them in, instead.”

“That's…” the Keeper paused. “… Not great. Not great at all! Can't you convince him to, you know, not send more guys in? I really don't want to kill them, and you and I both got lucky that we managed to get the hunting party together just as you guys were entering The Gallows; anywhere else, I would have been forced to use definitely lethal tactics.

“Speaking of which, how are your guards?”

“All of them in the hospital,” Weiss replied. “Some crippled and due for immediate prosthetic installation, but all still alive and traumatized for life. Why do you ask? Want to make sure that you don't leave anyone alive after you're done with me?”

The Keeper groaned. “Talos' Stinky Beard! Why does EVERYONE think I'm going to kill them?!”

Weiss found herself getting angry, her hands clenching into fists and shaking. “Isn't that what you do?! Kill everyone stupid enough to walk into your territory?!”

“Some of them, yeah. But not all of them. You must be thinking of the other Keepers!”

Weiss blinked. “There's more of you…?!” she squeaked.

The Keeper chuckled. “Lots and lots!”

Weiss gripped the balcony railing in front of her, suddenly feeling very faint. Her vision began to spin as she tipped over.

“Woah there!”

She felt someone grip her around the chest, holding her up and pulling her back. Her head jerked downwards; she saw an imprint on her dress where an arm should have been.

“Easy, easy… falling down from this high is going to really suck, trust me...” she heard the Keeper whisper, just a little bit away from her ear.

Weiss felt herself pulled against a body. She could vaguely feel something cloth like pressing up against her skin and her clothes, but it wasn't the texture of any sort of fabric she had ever felt, or described anywhere.

She felt the Keeper gently laying her down on the floor on her back. “There we go, safe and sound on the floor...” she whispered.

Weiss looked up, at the bottom of her balcony's roof; she still couldn't see the Keeper, hear her moving or breathing, but she could feel her kneeling over her, looking right into her eyes.

“You okay?” the Keeper asked.

Weiss made an affirmative noise, not really able to do much else.

“Whew! Good. It'd really suck if you died like that, because I really need you not-dead. Alive, I meant. Sorry, I'm still learning Nivian...”

Weiss stared blankly up at where she assumed the Keeper was. It was rather difficult to tell, what with her being invisible.

“So, uh… what's your name?”

“Weiss,” Weiss said flatly. “Weiss Schnee.”

“That's a really pretty name, Weiss!” the Keeper said.

“My mother gave it to me,” Weiss added sadly.

“Then tell her I said she's got great taste in names! Or maybe not, since any time I tell anyone to send a message from me they all freak out… anyway: Weiss, I need you to go and tell your Father to stay out of the Viridian Valley, forever, and do whatever he can to keep other people out of it, okay?”

“Otherwise I'm going to be forced to use… uh, force, I guess.” She cursed under her breath in a tongue Weiss had never heard, or was even remotely close to any language she knew of.

“I mean, he can do that, right? I mean, I assume you are part of the human version of the Eldan Council since you live in this HUUUGE mansion, and have all these guys working for you, right?”

“He's a businessman, but he's got a lot of politicians in his back pocket,” Weiss explained.

“Huh. That's a weird place to put them, but I guess if he wants to keep them around all the time...”

Weiss sighed. “It's a metaphor. It means that he's bribing a lot of politicians.”

“Oh! Back pocket, as in, where you'd keep your money...” she chuckled. “Now I get it!”

“Was there anything else you wanted to do tonight?” Weiss asked. “You know, aside from confuse and terrorize me?”

“Nope! That was all I got. You humans just stay out of the Viridian Valley, and we'll be good!”

Weiss put her hand on the floor and pushed herself up to a sitting position. “That's not likely,” she said, “more so than my Father loves making a profit, he hates someone getting the best of him. He's not going to just give up because you told him to.”

“Well just try and talk to him for me, okay? I mean, he IS your dad and you ARE his daughter, right?”

Weiss winced. “Just go.”

“Okay! See you, Weiss!” the Keeper said. Again, Weiss felt her doing a salute or some similar gesture, before the sensation of someone standing with her in the balcony disappeared.

Weiss let out a long sigh, slowly pulling herself up from the floor on shaky legs. She had just put both hands on the railing for support when the Keeper's familiar presence came back.

“Hey, sorry for bothering you again, but I didn't realize I'd have to wait outside your window for hours so I didn't have any dinner before I left the Valley, and whatever you have in there smells REALLY--”

“JUST TAKE IT!” Weiss screamed. “JUST TAKE ALL OF IT, WHATEVER YOU WANT, JUST PLEASE, LEAVE ME ALONE!” she wailed, feeling her eyes sting with tears once more.

A pause.

“Okay. I'll… go do that, I guess!”

Weiss turned around, leaned back on the railing for support; she watched as the contents of the dinner tray floated up in mid-air before suddenly disappearing, or a gradually growing chocolate smear hovered in the general area of where a particularly small person's lips would be. She had never heard of the Keeper eating all of someone's food after paying them a personal visit, but then again, the people that witnessed it were probably dead after she left, or decided to omit that detail lest someone doubt the authenticity of their story.

The chocolate smear hanging in the air walked back to Weiss, before being wiped off by what she assumed was an invisible sleeve. “Oh, Eluna, that was SO good. I'm sorry if you wanted like, any of those in the morning, but--”

Weiss just stared at where she assumed the Keeper was.

“--Right. Going for real, now!”

Again, no sound or obvious signs that the Keeper had departed, only the unease in the air disappearing.

Weiss walked back into her room, stepping around the trail of crumbs and half-eaten pastry bits leading outside her balcony, past the ransacked dinner cart, and to the secret tunnel leading into Winter's room.

Winter herself was sprawled out in the furthest corner from any of the doors or windows, beside several empty wine bottles, and nursing an empty glass in her hand.

“Winter…?” Weiss whispered as she crawled out of the tunnel.

“Yes, Weiss...?” Winter slurred.

“Can I not sleep with you tonight?”

Winter clumsily moved some bottles over or knocked them aside, clearing a space for her. Weiss padded over, sat beside her, before letting her head fall in Winter's lap. Winter started slowly, clumsily stroking her hair.

“The Keeper was in my room just now...” Weiss mumbled.

Winter hiccuped. “Really now...?” she mumbled. “What'd she want this time?”

“She wanted me to tell Father not to send any more people into the Valley.”

“Ah… so we're still definitely screwed.”

“Mhm...” Weiss mumbled. “Also, apparently there's more than one Keeper, too...”

Winter's eyes widened. “You don't say…” she said, putting her hand away as it started shaking uncontrollably. “Weiss…?” she hiccuped, tears pooling in her eyes. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Winter,” Weiss said, tears already streaming down from hers.

Chapter Text

Morning brought with it a blisteringly hot and unbearably bright wave of sunlight all over Candela and the still unnamed expanse of mountains and bedrock it stood on, made tolerable and more importantly, nonlethal to pretty much any biological creature by the magical barrier now covering the city.

Vehicles outside of the borders rushed to the loading bays or the few outposts and smaller settlements scattered in the wasteland, trying to outrun the sunlight, keep themselves from being stranded till nightfall, where they’d have to pray they wouldn’t die from a failure in their heat shielding, boredom, or their fellow passengers.

Machines within the city started powering on and rolling out: construction bots ready to work at incredible speed and efficiency so long as the sun was up, dirigibles that sprayed condensation and precipitation to mimic clouds and water the city’s greenery, the many forms of public transportation to deliver the vast majority of daytime-preferring citizens to wherever they needed to go.

Drones, appliances, and human workers began to brew gallons upon gallons of coffee, tea, hot chocolate and other breakfast beverages of choice. Young children were being rushed along by their parents and guardians to make it to their classes on time, and their own jobs and obligations afterward. People enjoying leisurely breakfasts, exercising in the plazas and the gardens, or standing in jam-packed trams or sitting in (supposedly) ergonomically designed seats mostly listened to the tunes of “Good Morning Avalon,” or the daytime segments of their news station of choice.

The artificial lights of the city turned off and the flashier video ads turned to much less complex versions, their power being redirected to more important systems, the ones that kept its constantly growing population from dying of solar radiation, overheating, and in a handful of locations, being instantaneously vaporized by a slowly traveling beam of concentrated sunlight.

The view from Manor Schnee turned from a grossly incandescent beacon in pitch-black darkness, to a radiant monument of life, culture, and technology amid a barren wasteland, broken only by the tops of the tallest trees in the Viridian Valley.

It would have been a comforting sight, if both Weiss and Winter didn’t know that the Keeper was perfectly capable of terrorizing and slaying her victims in broad daylight, she just preferred to do it in the cover of night.

There was a knocking on Winter’s bedroom door.

The both of them flinched and screamed, jittery, nervous, and all too aware of every last bump, creak, thump, and other suspicious noise in the vicinity. Weiss whimpered, and buried her face back in her sister’s chest; Winter picked up one of the empty wine bottles beside her, ready to smash it into the wall and use it as a weapon.

The intercom crackled to life.

“Mses. Schnee,” a butler said, “your father wishes to see you both at the dining hall for breakfast in an hour. He understands that recent events have… err… weighed heavily on the both of you and caused a not insignificant amount of distress, and he consequently he wishes to discuss them with you.

“He has also asked me to emphasize that this is not a request.”

“Should the both of you require any assistance, we, your servants, are standing by, ready to help with anything you should want or need!”

“On a related note: Ms. Weiss, Chief Tov wishes to see you in their office as soon as possible. They wish to speak with you about a… unexpected visitor they detected in your bedroom as of a few hours ago. They have asked me to tell you that they’ve ‘Not a bleedin’ clue whatever THAT was, but I’m pretty bloody sure it’s VERY bad.’”

The intercom shut off. Winter slowly put down the bottle, ignored it when it tipped over and rolled off somewhere.

Weiss pulled her head out of her chest and looked up at her, eyes puffy and red from crying, dark circles underneath. “What do we do, sis?” she whimpered.

Winter sighed. “What else?: We get ready for breakfast with Father.”

Weiss balked. “You can’t be serious!”

Winter sighed. “I really wish I wasn’t, sis.”

“Can’t we find some way to get out of this?” Weiss asked.

“Not without making things worse. The way I see it, we’ve got two choices:

“One, we can go to breakfast like he asked, and hope that we can convince him to abandon any plans of revenge and/or trying to be the first human to settle the Valley, and more so, that the Keeper will keep her word.

“Or Two, we can stay here, wait to pass out from exhaustion, have Father become incredibly angry at being stood up, be forced to show up to lunch or dinner instead, then try to convince him not to anger the Keeper more than he already has while he will most definitely feel MUCH less inclined to agree with us.”

Weiss sighed. “So either way, we lose.”

Winter patted her on the shoulder. “If there’s anything the Queensguard have taught me, it’s that more often than not your only choices are ‘Bad’ and ‘Worse,’ and you better get used to choosing Bad,” she said as she started to get up. “Come on, sis, let’s go get ready for breakfast...”

Weiss sighed and reluctantly obeyed, pulling her head out of Winter’s lap.

“Is Jordan still on staff?” Winter said as she braced herself against the wall.

“Father won’t let anyone else do his make-up,” Weiss replied as she stretched out her legs, winced at the sensation pins and needles.


 “Good,” Winter mumbled, “because she’s going to be integral to what I’ve got planned...”

In her letters and their rare live video chats with one another, Winter had always talked about how many tactics and shortcuts the Queensguard had for looking presentable and agreeable even if you had just come back from a sleepless, 72-hour-straight mission in the most dangerous and unstable regions of Avalon.

Make-up tricks to hide even the worst signs of fatigue and distress, and even make you look like you weren’t long past the end of your rope, if not exactly fully-charged and ready for anything. Recipes for concoctions meant to temporarily cure hangovers or dull the worst of its effects, make you completely awake and your thoughts coherent enough until you could crash for a good long time, or even improvised perfumes to hide the fact that you hadn’t spent nearly enough time in the shower. Quick and dirty meditation, psychological tricks, and specific tactics and guidelines for how to do the least amount of social interaction, with the least amount of effort or willpower, while looking the least rude and cranky possible.

They were so incredibly effective that the servants that hadn’t them earlier didn’t even seem to notice that anything was wrong with either of them, much more that their whole worlds were rapidly falling apart before their very eyes, and their lives ending much sooner, more suddenly, and more violently than either of them had ever imagined.

Even their Father seemed clueless or didn’t see anything too bad to merit specific notice, and Jacques Schnee prided himself on his ability to read people, deftly pushing all the right buttons, bringing out the strengths of his allies and employees, and mercilessly attacking the weaknesses of his enemies and competitors.

(To be fair, though, he never did devote as much time nor energy to his daughters as he did them.)

“Weiss, Winter,” he said, looking up from his tablet long enough to nod at them before he returned to it and whatever was on the surface.

In spite of the luxurious, tempting spread of oven-fresh breads, perfectly smoked and fried meats, and freshly picked and perfectly sliced fruits and vegetables before him and arranged specifically for his view at the head of the table, his plate was empty, and his customary mug of coffee untouched and still in its protective bubble.

“Father,” Winter said as she took her old seat, the one just to the left of him.

Weiss said nothing as she sat in the one next to her, a distance of at least one chair between her and her father as always.

Servants came to offer them refreshment and recommendations about which particular offerings they would do well to start their breakfast with, but they both refused and waved them off—they weren’t feeling very hungry, either. Both human and robotic staff lingered for a while longer, until they decided their presence was unneeded, or they automatically returned to their docks from lack of input.  

Silence lingered for a few moments more, until Jacques finally put his tablet down. “I’m going to be sending another prospecting team in three days time,” he said. “Weiss, you are no longer allowed to join it or any other expedition outside of this city—not until you are 18, and without a serious discussion between you and I once more.”

No courtesies, such as asking they partake of some food first.

No inquiries about how they were feeling.

No polite conversation about the weather, a topic to lead-in the heart of the matter, or a vague hook to test the waters.

Just a firm, clear declaration of what he was going to do, without hesitation nor doubt, the trait experts said his investors found most appealing about him.

“You can’t be serious,” Weiss said flatly.

“It’s for your own safety, Weiss,” her Father replied. “I was vastly mistaken in how effective your guards would be, and I’d rather not risk your life again; you may entertain this newfound adventuring spirit of yours when you are of legal age.”

“This isn’t about me, this is about the Keeper!” Weiss screamed.

Jacques looked at her in a mixture of annoyance and contempt. “Not you too...” he muttered, his gaze wandering over to Winter.

“Father, you need to stay out of the Viridian Valley, as with everyone else in Avalon! Haven’t you lost enough money on this venture? Weren’t you there to see the injuries those mercenaries sustained? Doesn’t the fact that Weiss almost got killed there bother you in the slightest?!”

Slam!

“ENOUGH OF THIS!” Jacques roared, his closed fist shaking on the table. “Winter, I had thought these delusions of of a mythological creature--”

“She’s NOT a myth!” Weiss screeched. “I’ve SEEN her! I’ve TALKED to her! And she’s going to KILL US ALL if your ego is more precious than you and your family’s lives!”

“Father, PLEASE!” Winter cried, absolute terror in her eyes. “Just this once, just this once, can’t you please just find it in your heart to just believe us?!”

Jacques Schnee gritted his teeth, his whole body shaking, his eyes glaring icy cold daggers at his daughters. He slammed his palms on the table and rocketed off his seat, sending his sturdy, wooden chair crashing to the floor.

All the human servants winced as the sound echoed throughout the dining hall. Then, all was deathly silent, the tension in the air so thick the weaker-willed among them suddenly found it hard to breath.

“Whatever is lurking in that valley, I will annihilate them, and show the survivors why you do not antagonize the Schnee Power Company,” Jacques growled, before he turned around, and left.

Ruin was coming, alright—just not for the Valley.

Chapter Text

Chief Tov's office was expansive and messy, holographic displays of information covering the walls, an incredibly large amount of locked and encrypted technomagical devices strewn anywhere they could be put, and no shortage of physical paper schematics and handwritten notes posted, stacked, or hanging off every available surface they could be attached to, like the space between crystal display monitors, on the rims of the screens, or even on their own back sometimes.

In spite of no shortage of complaints from their subordinates, they refused to ever clean it up or implement some sort of order or arrangement, claiming that the mess just “Reminded me of how much shite I've still got to worry about.”

They kept their position because of how effective they were at their job, stopping all manner of digital and physical intrusions on the Schnee Power Company's servers, its corporate headquarters in Candela, and of course, its owner's mansion just outside of the city limits.

And they kept working for the Schnees and refused the numerous lucrative offers they received because Jacques was more than content to “Shut up, stay out, and let me do my damned job.”

Weiss had never seen Tov outside of their office. Now, as her escorts were struggling to clear a path through to one specific bevy of screens on the wall where Tov was—moving aside stacks of nondescript boxes, waste bags filled to near bursting, and even a portable resistance training field generator—she wondered if the cyborg ever left their office.

At the very least, it didn't smell of anything particularly foul or suspect, nor were there any sticky or gooey surprises for Weiss to find out only after she had stepped on or touched them.

Tov was sitting down when she reached them—or rather, they were being supported by the braces attached to the back of their legs, the ones that gave them some place to rest the still organic parts of their body.

“'Bout damn time you made it here, Ms. Schnee,” they muttered as she walked up beside them.

Weiss gritted her teeth, seething, before she decided it wasn't worth it. She leaned on the floating desk Tov was using and asked, “What did you need me for?”

“Oh, I don't know—tellin' me whatever the bleedin' hell it was that was by our room last night, missy?”

Weiss sighed. “It was the Keeper of the Grove. She got through all the security systems to my balcony because she was invisible—among other tricks, I assume.”

Tov grumbled under their breath, probably the language of wherever they had originally come from. “Figured as much; heard from the warm bodies patrolling the halls that they could have sworn someone or something was sneakin' around, but they couldn't see shite.

“And speakin' of seein': you wouldn't happen to know whatever fuckery she did to our cameras, do you?”

An increasingly too familiar sensation of dread gripped Weiss, wrapping its icy fingers around her chest. “What do you mean…?” she whispered, suddenly finding it hard to breath.

“Normally, this'd be the point that I'd happily show you, but seein' as it makes people's EYES BLEED, and part of my job description is to keep you and yer sister safe, I won't, because that'd be the definition of 'fuckin' up royally.'”

Weiss world started to spin once more. Tov's prosthetic arm shot out, sections of it unfolding and creating a force field that held her upright. “Easy, now, missy,” they hummed, “the lass actually just THOUGHT their eyes turned into fountains straight from yer nightmares.”

“That is NOT comforting news!” Weiss cried, her whole body shaking violently. “W-what—do I even WANT to know what happened...?”

“Depends: are you willin' to sign this release form that says I warned you that it'd suck arse, to say the least?” Tov asked, using their organic arm to slide a tablet over to Weiss. A release form was on its surface, a hardlight pen floating just above it.

Her father had always warned her about signing anything under duress, emotional highs or lows, and especially when when you were less than 100% clear-headed and rational. There was also a part of her mind that was telling her it was best to just walk away and leave this particular mystery unsolved—almost exactly like so many victims in the Keeper's legends.

Weiss picked up the pen and signed her name on the line.

She was already doomed by the Keeper's scythe as it was, and she never did like obeying her father's orders.

Tov grunted, shoved the tablet somewhere where there was space, and took their arm back. She watched as they waved it over the screens, the live feeds of Manor Schnee turning into recorded footage from earlier last night. They all looked normal, nothing particularly notable about them except some off-duty guards slacking off, and one in particular picking her nose.

Then Tov unpaused them, and the horror show started.

It began with the Eastern Border Wall, the one part of the mountain range that hadn't been leveled or carved out to provide natural shade for the construction workers during the brightest, hottest hours of the day, and about the most difficult, arduous place to even attempt to infiltrate Manor Schnee, let alone stealthily, undetected, and without a vehicle.

So of course, that was the side the Keeper had broken in from.

The camera feed started to break and distort, static at first, before they started ominous glowing lines started streaking across the screen, forming alien shapes, and what Weiss could swear looked like vaguely like faces.

Then just as quickly as the distortion had started, it stopped.

Tov gestured to the monitor next to the one she had been looking at, the inside of the eastern wall which her father relegated to storage and the bare minimum of living quarter standards for non-essential or the bottom rungs of staff. It was the least guarded area in the entire mansion, mostly robotic drones patrolling the area with a few human handlers to guard against cyber attacks or accidental mishaps.

Weiss watched as every single one of the drones started to go insane, spinning around with their alert lights flashing bright red, handlers panicking as the machines began to fidget and jerk like crazy, all while the same nightmarish distortion happened on the feed once more.

“If robots could scream and piss themselves in terror, I think this'd be what they'd look like,” Tov commented.

Weiss eyes continued switching from monitor to monitor, following as the Keeper dashed through the halls of Manor Schnee, human guards flinching, jumping, looking confused and terrified as they felt the same uneasy presence Weiss did, but saw nothing but empty air.

The series ended with the camera on the balcony where the Keeper was waiting for her last night. The lockdown was still on at the time, three inches of neosteel shuttered over the entrance and a magical “intruder deterrent field” glowing just over it.

The distortions started once again, getting worse and worse with each second. Weiss felt her eyes throbbing from sudden strain, a pounding in her head that was quickly growing into a head-splitting migraine, her heart racing quickening as she found herself paralyzed, unable to do anything but gaze as images began to form on the screen, staying for only a split-second each and searing themselves in her mind even faster.

Faces screaming. People wrenched over with agony. A skull—a creature, the face artists throughout the centuries had been repeating over and over again, the face of the Keeper with her glowing red eyes boring into her--

The feed cut out, replaced by the calm, familiar “screen of death” of Aurelia OS.

Weiss gasped for breath, cold sweat pouring down her skin. She suddenly realized that Tov was holding her up again, using both limbs this time.

“The reports says that that particular camera 'suffered from an unknown fatal error, or some form of anti-surveillance technology we are not familiar with.' In my personal opinion, it decided it couldn't take any more of that shite and killed itself.”

Weiss swallowed, her mouth painfully dry. “D-Do you know whatever it is that can cause this…?” she whispered.

“Nope!” Tov replied calmly. “I intend to find out. Most of my team, and a whole lotta the guards that were on duty that night intend to get the fuck outta here. So word of warning: yer father might be a wee bit more unpleasant than he usually is.”

Weiss nodded slowly. “I'm going to leave now...”

Tov grunted, and switched the monitors back to their live feeds.

Weiss staggered back to her escorts, both of them looking just as shaken as her. “Where's Winter…?” she asked.

“Her room,” one of them whispered. The other nodded to confirm it, temporarily unable to speak.

“Take me there, please” Weiss said, just before she fainted.


When she came to, she was in Winter's bed, her sister's arms protectively wrapped around her and hugging her—although that could have also been her using her as a surrogate for her old plush toys, the fuzzy guardians of her childhood long given away to charities.

“Winter…?” Weiss asked.

Winter's eyes shot open in an instant, fully alert and still red from crying.

Weiss let out a strangled noise.

“Sorry!” Winter whispered. “Queensguard training; gotta be ready for action in the shortest possible time. Was there something you wanted?”

Air…!” Weiss choked.

Winter yelped and let go. Weiss gasped for breath, scrambled to the side of Winter's bed. She sat up, caught her breath and looked around.

The room was dark, quiet and, cool, not a living soul except for the two of them.

“How long were we out...?” Weiss asked.

Winter turned over to the other side, where a clock was glowing in the darkness. “Hmm. 12 hours, more or less.”

Which meant it was night again, passage to and from the city was possible once more, and knowing their father and the speed of the Continental Communication Network, preparations to invade the Valley once more and earn even more of the Keeper's ire were well under way.

Weiss frowned.

Winter crawled over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Want to go get some dinner, head over to Candela, and forget about our impending doom for a while?”

Weiss hummed. “Yes please. What'd you have in mind?”

“I was thinking we could go to the Plushie Palace, get myself some new toys,” Winter explained.

Weiss nodded. “Can we get some triple chocolate cake shakes afterward?”

Winter smiled. “Weiss, we're probably going to die in the next couple of days—I say you can have anything your little doomed heart so desires~” she chirped.

Then, she stared off into the distance. “Yep. Losing my mind.”

Chapter Text

The dinner Weiss and Winter had was a simple affair, quick flame roasts and brief plunges into boiling oil, salads tossed together with whatever ingredients were available, and bread the two of them recognized from earlier in the morning, testing how long the fields could keep them oven fresh and warm.

It was hard not to notice that instead of the small army of maids and butlers eager to serve them, it was just the one butler handling drinks, with drones floating about serving plates, carving meats, and putting portions onto their plates.

As a matter of fact, there were a lot more drones than people everywhere else, too.

“Short on staff tonight?” Weiss asked as said butler poured her a glass of juice.

“Unfortunately so, Ms. Schnee,” he replied as he expertly twisted the bottle, spilling not a drop. “Chef Naomi wishes to beg your forgiveness; her more elaborate creations require a not insignificant amount of support and assistance, two things she did not have tonight.”

Winter daintily picked up a slice of meat with her fork, put it into her mouth and chewed. She hummed with pleasure, smiling. “Please tell her not to worry,” she said after she swallowed. “It's as excellent as I remember.”

The butler smiled, if a little nervously. “She will be very pleased to hear that. Do you require anything else, Mses. Schnee?”

“Just one more thing: had Father ever requested our presence again, after breakfast?” Winter asked.

The butler shook his head. “No, Ms. Schnee. Mr. Schnee has been incredibly busy in his office since he left the dining room earlier this morning; he's even had his own meals sent there. I assume it might have to do with Ms. Weiss'… adventure.”

He paused. “It's the talk of Candela—all of Avalon, even.”

Winter nodded. “Thank you, you're dismissed,” she said.

The butler bowed, before leaving the room as fast as professional decorum would let him. The drones and the cameras aside, it was essentially just the two of them alone in the dining room. They looked around just to be sure, waited a few moments, then dropped their polite smiles and amiable looking expresisons.

“Oh damn it, I hadn't thought about the press!” Weiss mumbled, angrily stabbing a slice of meat on her plate.

Winter sighed. “Neither did I; I'd suggest disguises and decoys, but they have the manpower to watch every last transport going to and from here like hawks, and we don't.”

“They're going to be all over this…” Weiss grumbeld. “Why couldn't Father be satisfied with a nice penthouse in Asgard?”

“Because every other trillionaire in Candela has a penthouse there,” Winter replied flatly.

“Are we still going out tonight?” Weiss asked, before shoved food into her mouth and chewed without pleasure.

“Definitely,” Winter said. “I say, let the media hound us: keep us trained on their cameras all night if they want, we'll just ignore their questions as we shop for plushies! And if the Keeper happens to come for us both while they're recording? Then that's what they get for wanting footage so badly!”

She chuckled. “Wouldn't that be quite the headline? 'Schnees Slain By Supposedly Mythological Being!'” she said, spreading her hands apart in the air. “Footage withdrawn for causing permanent mental scarring and psychological trauma in all who view it.”

Weiss nodded slowly. “Hey Winter?” she asked.

“Yes, Weiss?”

“Why are you suddenly, constantly making jokes about our impending doom?”

Winter smiled at her. “It's the only way I can think or talk about it without bursting into tears,she whispered.


Weiss and Winter stepped out from the elevator and into the manor's garage, fed, bathed, and dressed in fresh clothes. It was easy to tell from a glance that a large number of rovers and even one of their father's private jets were missing, which wasn't too surprising.

What was was one of the traffic coordinators coming to meet them personally.

“Good evening, Mses. Schnee,” the cyborg said. “Planning to leave the premises?”

“We are, actually,” Winter replied. “Just a spontaneous shopping trip to Candela! We'll be back before morning.”

The coordinator nodded. “Mr. Schnee has actually requested that you both stay in the manor for the time being; he has asked us to clarify that this goes for all residents and staff, not just you two.”

“As if that makes it any better...” Weiss grumbled under her breath.

The two of them ignored her.

“'Requested' you say?” Winter asked she said as she stepped up closer to him. “As in, it's not a formal lockdown?”

“Yes,” they replied. “In my opinion though, Ms. Schnee, it would still be best if you delayed this trip until further notice--”

Too fast for anyone but the most observant and alert eyes could notice, Winter pressed a sizable amount of Uroch bills into the coordinator's hands.

“--However, I can not stop you from doing as you please,” they continued, discretely tightening their fingers around the money. “Do you have an estimated return time? Mr. Schnee does not appreciate vehicles being checked out 'Indefinitely,' more so with recent events.”

“I'm sure he's got more important things on his mind to think about than one more measly rover,” Winter replied. “It's not like we won't be back, right?”

The coordinator nodded. “As you wish, Ms. Schnee” they said, before a holographic screen appeared before their eyes—a visual marker for those without the same implants as them that they were busy communicating with others or the manor's various systems.

“Since when did you learn to do that?” Weiss asked as continued onto the loading dock.

Winter smirked. “Queensguard. The Uroch may not be the most valuable commodity these days, but it's certainly the most versatile.”

“What else did they teach you?”

“I'm not allowed to say,” Winter replied. “But I can say they really meant 'ready for anything.'”

Less than a minute later, they were off, strapped securely to their seats, listening to the quiet hum of the engine and the crunch of rock underneath the tank treads as they were gently jostled about. Schnee Company rovers may have been a serious step up from the stock models, but there was only so much you could do to compensate for terrain this rocky, battered, and beaten by the elements on a daily basis.

“Any other business you want to get out of the way, hopefully before the Keeper comes for us?” Winter asked. “Friends you'd like to hang out with one last time, or just say goodbye to? Places you want to see? Things you want to experience before it's all over?”

“No,” Weiss replied, “I'll just tag along with whatever you have in mind after you get your plushies and I get my cake shake,”

“You sure?”

“Very,” Weiss replied.

After all, it was hard to do any of those, when you didn't have any friends, and all you've ever wanted to do is leave here, see what it'd be like to start anew somewhere else.


As expected, the media knew exactly which loading bay they were entering the city from, and were prepared to mob and rain questions down upon them, physically fighting with one another for the prized “First Footage.”

Through a mix of the security teams and drones that were obliged to keep the area free of obstruction and especially dense human traffic, Winter's knowledge of hand-to-hand combat, and timely mentions of the Keeper of the Grove granting her a speed and strength Weiss never knew she was capable of, the sisters cut through the crowds like a missile, straight into the waiting backseat of a VIP hover-cab that had been waiting for them.

The vehicle's “crash bubble” activated, a wave of energy repelling any reporters and their camera-bots who had decided to take a desperate last shot at an interview. Weiss looked out the window and smiled as they flew off, knocking down several of their fellow journalists like haphazardly placed bowling pins.

As the cab began to rise up into the air, its AI appeared before them, a holographic bust of a young attractive woman of Oriental descent. “Welcome back to Candela, Mses. Winter and Weiss Schnee! We of the MTC sincerely apologize for not being able to assist you in circumvent the media--”

“Slash Command, AI Personality Switch: 'Antonio Perrero.'” Weiss said.

The hologram shifted and shimmered, before turning into that of an Italian-American man in his late 40's to early 50's, balding hair, a wrinkled face, friendly face with a big, round nose, bright eyes, and a bushy handlebar mustache.

Eeeey, it's Weiss and Winter!” he said with a thick, comically exaggerated accent. “Been too long since I saw you two together—ain't right for family to ever be apart for so long like that... anyway, where to, gals?”

Winter sat up and smiled. “To the Plushie Palace as fast as you legally can, Tony!” she replied. “I've got a collection of toys to rebuild and return to their rightful places on my bed!”

“Hah! Told you you'd be back there one of these days!” Tony said as the cab began to move through Candela's skyline. “And here were my handlers, telling me I'm wasting space, saving routes people haven't taken in a while. I tell 'em right back--”

“--If you didn't want me saving so many shortcuts, then why'd you give me so many petabytes worth of memory, huh?!” Weiss and Winter playfully griped alongside Tony, before they all devolved into giggles or loud, bellowing laughter.

“And speaking of memory…” Tony asked, “… jeez, how long HAS it been since I took you gals there?”

Winter and Weiss mirth quickly faded away, the joyful mood gone.

“Oh. Oooh… way to go, Tony…” Tony said, his face looking remorseful and a little angry at himself. “So much for the 'most highly advanced and adaptive artificial intelligences in the market today'… look, gals, I'm sorry--”

“It's fine, Tony,” Winter said, “it's been a really, really long time—I'm not surprised even a supercomputer like you would forget.”

“I don't ever forget, especially somethin' as important as that!” Tony snapped. “Just that some geniuses in Programming decided that I need to be a little slower at pulling up some kinds of info from the ol' database than others...” he grumbled.

“We'll put in another formal complaint for you, Tony” Weiss muttered.

Tony smiled. “Thanks, gals, the two of you are little angels. Well, maybe not so little no more, but still angels.”

They drove around for a little while longer until distinct sight of the Plushie Palace came into view—a giant, thirty-story shopping complex that was specifically designed after and the stone and mortal palaces of yore, a giant teddy bear with a modest crown sitting in its highest tower.

“Sure you want to take the front gates to this place?” Tony asked as the cab began to slow down. “They still got those secret entrances and showrooms for doing deals all discrete like, and I know two of 'em, at least.”

“No thank you, Tony,” Winter said she looked out the window, pressed her right up to the glass. “This is my first time back here in a long while—I want to make it special.”

“Then I'll call 'em and make 'em roll out the red carpet like the first time I took you here!” Tony said, chuckling.

Winter teared up. “That'd be great, Tony, thank you.”

Chapter Text

From the foot of the double doors of the Plushie Palace's main doors and past its massive neosteel gates of the Plushie Palace, two security guards dressed like medieval knights rolled out a red carpet, before an employee dressed as a royal herald ran out, who was followed shortly by a cadre of flying drones with fancy hats like the handmaidens, squires, and scribes of yore.

Tony set the cab down right at the edge of the carpet. “Enjoy yourself in there!” he grinned and laughed, before his projector deactivated, and the door swung open.

The herald put her trumpet/megaphone to her lips. “Hear ye, hear ye! Returning to the Plushie Palace, these Hallowed Halls of Imagination, the Fortress of Fun, the Place of Furry Friends for everyone:

Lady Winter Schnee, and her sister, Lady Weiss Schnee!”

Winter daintily stepped out onto the red carpet, trying and failing to keep composed and dignified as she waved and smiled at the welcoming party and the small crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk. A Handmaiden-Bot floated up to her head, and daintily put a modest white crown on her head, its points shaped like the fractals of a snowflake.

It was made out of sturdy, visually striking, but otherwise cheap polymers, but Winter still squealed and jumped with delight, eyes bright and smile as radiant as the first time she was first there at the age of 3.

A different Handmaiden-Bot hovered over to Weiss, with her own personal crown. She tried to wave it off, but it insistently hovered and beeped beside her, so she sighed, and let it put it on her own head, too.

The other “Servant” Bots floated in formation beside them, flapping their “wings” in unison, the “face” panels on their round bodies all looking as dignified as two dots and a single line could be. Winter took it in stride, holding her head up high in appropriately regal fashion before she sashayed down the red carpet.

Weiss looked at the pedestrians laughing, smiling, shaking their heads, or recording the whole spectacle with their phone, then she turned to her sister, happily soaking up the attention. She sighed playfully, and hurried on after her—in the dignified and proper manner of a fellow Lady of the Court, of course!

The herald put her trumpet/megaphone under her arm and fell in step with them. “Know that even with your long absence, milady, the Plushie Palace still welcomes you as warmly and heartily as it always did!” she said. “The halls may expand and rearrange themselves, the faces of the staff and the guard may change, but all your perks and privileges are forever, as per your lifetime membership and the graces granted by the Lady Scarlatina and her predecessors.”

“Wonderful to hear, my good woman!” Winter said in an exaggeratedly “proper” voice.

Weiss resisted the urge to snicker.

“Are there any orders and requests you wish done for this visit, milady?”

“Yes,” Winter said, “I want every single plushie I have ever ordered from your company or had been gifted to me to be remade, exactly as I got them the day they came off the fabricators, errors and all. Flubber Butter is not Flubber Butter without his one slightly larger than the other eye, and don’t you think that I don’t remember exactly which side it was on!”

The herald put her hand to her chest. “We would never dare, milady! Then, now, and forevermore, we take great pains to make all of our creations exactly to how our loyal patrons wish them to be. I must warn you though, that due to legal constrictions, company policy, and the inevitable passing of some of our artisans, we are unable to reproduce most of the limited edition and/or handmade plushies, for obvious reasons.”

Winter sighed. “It’s no trouble; I’ve made peace with the fact that Dr. Blep belongs to another now...”

The herald nodded sympathetically. “Tis tragic, but take heart: we have far more friends to make new memories with than ever before,” she said, smiling. “Would you like me to lead you to our newest additions, milady?”

“Later,” Winter said as they passed under the gate and into the massive front gardens/courtyard.

She grinned as she watched patrons old and young spread out all over the tables, benches, and gazebos, having tea parties and spirited discussions with their beloved inanimate friends occupying the other seats, all persons and plushies dressed in all manner of outfits and of course, fancy hats.

“I want to explore with just my sister for a while,” she finished as they came to the massive double doors leading into the palace proper.

“Enjoy yourselves, milady,” the herald said. “And if you need any assistance, there is as many willing hands as ever, just waiting to rush to your aid!” she said before bowed out, and disappeared.

Two guards at either side of the door greeted her and pushed open the massive double doors; Weiss and Winter had to shield their eyes as they stepped into the Palace's foyer, with its marble floors and silken banners, the portraits of the Plushie Palace’s former and current CEO’s lining the walls, and the massive, elaborate, and antique chandelier hovering far above their heads, casting it all in a bright, wondrous light.

Just a few centuries ago, the Plushie Palace would have probably just been a massive showcase for PR purposes, with the actual store being in a more discrete area of shelves upon shelves of boxed plushies ready to be plucked and brought to the counter, or a large and expansive warehouse that was kept out of sight and access but to the employees.

But advances in telecommunication, logistics, and automated manufacturing had made it so that comm-crystal shopping made physical stores all but obsolete, if all you needed was the products they offered; C-Commerce was just much faster, infinitely more convenient, and offered a whole host of luxuries and advantages that its counterpart could not.

So the physical stores and locations adapted, offered something their technomagical counterpart could not:

An experience.

Winter and Weiss wandered through elaborate show rooms: grand dining halls, palatial sets, and famous landmarks from Avalon's numerous cultures, both real and fictional; lovingly recreated scenes from pop culture and timeless tales; exciting displays such as plushie pilots flying through the air, trying to gun each other down with harmless balls of charged air, collecting the other team's aviator's caps and scarves for trophies as they flew off their owners' heads and fluttered to the ground.

They marveled at museums that chronicled the history of the company, the evolution of their trademark fabrics that became the de facto choice for premium plush toys, famous owners, interesting anecdotes, lovingly preserved examples of the works of their deceased masters and mistresses of the needle and thread, generously donated items from collectors who wished to inspire and delight a new generation of plush toy lovers.

(Winter sighed as she passed by Leela Lucavi, her limited edition Jasper Lamia toy with actual jasper gems for eyes from an earlier, long-over run of the Monsters and Mythology line. She cast a longing look over her shoulder at her beloved companion now floating in the center of a protective crystal case, until Weiss tugged at her sleeve and they continued on.)

And most importantly, Winter got to handle and see the toys with her own eyes and hands than a virtual simulator, dress them up in all manner of elaborate outfits herself, be the one to rigorously test whatever topper suited her fancy for that particular toy's visage, before finally sitting down with them in tea tables, dens, and meeting rooms, seeing if she would enjoy their presence after she had “a brief chat” with them over actual, excellently brewed tea and freshly baked goods, provided by their food-and-beverage lessees.

(Weiss joined in with her sister's screening process, getting less and less patient with her thorough standards, until she learned that among said lessees was a Fiorina's, and she could enjoy a triple chocolate cake shake in lieu of tea.)

All the while, childhood companions were lovingly recreated, lopsided ears, misshapen eyes, and miscoulored patterns and all, the extremely rare hiccups in an otherwise flawless fabrication process that one could only experience after being so unlucky, or ordering an extremely large number of plushies over a very long period of time.

As the numbers for Winter's bill kept on rising, gaining more commas, and going even further to the left, Weiss suddenly understood why their father had not been as enamored with these ridiculously adorable, soft, and cuddly toys as she, her sister, and their mother were.

Many hours later, Winter visited the last location on her list: the always shifting “Special of the Month” wings. As it was Autumn everywhere else in Avalon (Candela and the Viridian Valley only experienced two seasons: “The Fury and The Flood”), and the Eve of the Ether was coming up in little over a month, the theme was:

“Fun and Frights!”

Winter and Weiss both had second thoughts as they came up to the display at the entrance, showing off the annual return of the Plushie Palace's Keeper of the Grove plushies. In spite of their reputation for making ANYTHING cute, they were still a popular component in mean-spirited pranks this time of the year, if just their glowing red button-eyes in light or darkness. The two of them decided to give it a wide berth as they entered the area and checked out the much less terrifying offerings—Winter casting glances over her shoulder every now and then.

She added a few more plushies, outfits, and hats to her growing collection, until they reached a room-wide set piece, for just one item at the center of it all:

“Eluna, the White Wolf, the Moonlight Huntress, the Protector of the City of Solaris—the Limited Edition version!” Winter cried as she rushed up to its stand, a miniature mountain. “I thought you couldn't see these anymore outside of private collections!”

Weiss stopped. She looked at the plush toy inside the protective crystal casing: a white wolf, with a long, flowing mane that glowed like pale moonlight. Where had she heard that before…?

“She’s the guardian deity of the city, back when it was still a struggling port town, their symbolism for the incredibly dangerous swamp creatures that protected them from foreign invaders and each other alike,” Winter said, seemingly reading her mind as she skirted around the display, leaning down and standing up on the balls of her feet, admiring the toy from every angle. “Kind of like the Keeper of the Grove, except benevolent and infinitely less terrifying!”

Winter stopped at the front of it, leaning forward and gazing into the plush toy's face, admiring the incredibly intricate detail in the stitching and the fabric. “In the promotional cartoon, she was the mentor figure and overall leader of the group, the source of the other Lunar Warriors' powers, their defender from threats both from without and within, striking down foes with her Starlight Spear, and helping her wards overcome their personal demons with her boundless compassion and wisdom.”

Thunk. Winter squished her face into the glass.

“I had the BIGGEST crush on her when I was a kid!” she cried. “Still do, actually! I mean, yes, she’s fictional and a wolf, but her voice actress gives me SHIVERS when she says her battle cry, and when she cosplays humanoid Ellie at cons and public appearances--” she made a noise that made Weiss rather uncomfortable.

She slowly stepped up some distance behind Winter, still thinking. Where had she heard that before…? She blinked. “Wait, didn't you keep talking for like a year about how you mom was getting you one?”

“8 months and 23 days!” Winter replied. “I forgot how much I wanted her...” she said as she put her hand to the glass. “And now I remember just how badly...” she whispered, tearing up. “The review sites that got exclusive copies said it really was objectively the softest, fluffiest, cuddliest plush toy the company has ever produced, and every single lucky person who managed to get one themselves say it's even better than they said!

“They haven't produced a single plushie that's been able to match it in terms of pure softness and cuddling experience—even less likely now that the special secret fabric blend they used died with its inventor...” she moped.

“Why didn't you get it?” Weiss asked.

Winter sighed, slowly pulling away from the crystal case. The smudge mark she'd left disappeared in a wave of energy pulsing up and down the surface. “Mom said we we'd buy it after we got back from our trip...” she frowned. “… You know, that trip.”

Weiss' own face fell. “Ah...”

Winter cast one last longing look at the Eluna plushie, before she turned around. “I suppose that's life: some things just pass you by...”

“… Or maybe they were just waiting for you to come back,” said a third voice.

Winter and Weiss looked up, smiled as they saw a familiar face with the same iconic bunny ears atop her headband:

Velvet Scarlatina, latest of the Scarlatina family and heiress of the Plushie Palace, smiled and bowed.

“Welcome back, Miladies Schnee~!”

Chapter Text

“Velvet!” Winter cried, brightening up once more. “Still wearing those same bunny ears, I see” she said as she came over to hug her. “I thought you said you hated them.”

Velvet smiled and returned the hug. “You could say they grew on me,” she replied.

Winter hummed as she pulled away. “Can I touch them?” she asked as she reached up to the tall, fluffy ears atop Velvet’s head.

Velvet kept on smiling. “The answer’s still NO,” she snapped, her rabbit ears pulling back. “If anything, the biofeedback mechanisms have gotten more sensitive than ever!”

Winter sighed in disappointment as she took her hand back. “I said it before, I'll say it again: you should REALLY get those removed.”

“I like them! They make them more than just an accessory,” Velvet said, her ears pulling back up straight.

“And a safety hazard!” Winter cried. “I’ve heard of suffering for fashion, but putting foot tall antennas constantly at risk of getting caught in things and ripped right off your head is just asking for trouble!”

Velvet winced. “You haven’t changed one bit since you were last here, Winter,” she said, shaking her head. She turned to Weiss, and looked surprised for a moment. “And you’ve changed a LOT, Weiss.”

Weiss huffed. “Why wouldn’t I have? I was 5!

Velvet nodded. “I know, I know, it’s just… strange to see you two here again after all this time. And after what just happened to you, Weiss…” she shuddered. “The press releases and your father said you're fine, but are you really...?”

The two sisters cast each other brief looks, before they turned back to Velvet.

“Physically, yes, healthy as can be!” Weiss replied. “Mentally, traumatized for life, which is why we're here.”

Velvet nodded. “I was thinking as much...” She sighed. “I don’t get why people still think they can settle the Viridian Valley—people from here especially! Hasn't all the failed expeditions and deaths stretching back hundreds of years been enough?”

“Honestly, I think they're just taking it as incentive, be the first to civilize the Valley after all others have failed—especially people from this city,” Winter replied. “After all, just two generations ago, the very idea of Candela would have been a ridiculous fantasy, if not for all those breakthroughs that changed everything.”

Velvet nodded. “‘As technology advances, so we expand our domain and leave the sky further and further below us,” she flatly quoted from one of the city’s founders.

“Probably because of all that hot air in their heads,” Weiss added.

Velvet chuckled. “’Good thing there’s a gadget for that!’” she said playfully. “But enough about these awful things—I see you’ve been busy rebuilding your collection, after you gave it all away! Mind if I ask what changed your mind?”

Winter smiled nervously. “Uh… let’s just say recent events have shown me that life’s FAR too short to care about what total strangers think of my hobbies,” she replied.

Velvet smiled. “Gram-Gram always did say you’d be back.” She frowned. “Even on her deathbed.”

Winter and Weiss gave her sympathetic looks. “May she be at peace, wherever she is in the Great Beyond,” Winter said.

“Praise be to that,” Velvet replied. “And speaking of which—do you still want the Eluna plushie? I mean, I figured you still do because I saw you earlier just, uh… fawning... over it.” She paused. “I’m sorry for not saying anything, I didn’t know if I should have interrupted,” she whispered quickly.

Winter stared at her. “What do you mean, do I still want the Elena plush? This is a display, isn’t it?”

“It is for now, unless you decide to let us keep it.”

Winter's eyes widened. “I-I thought you weren't selling these anymore! Isn't it against company policy to do that after the final auctions, ruin the point of the Limited Edition toys?”

Velvet smiled. “Winter: it's already yours. Gram-Gram pulled out the money from her personal accounts to pay for it, if only so the other shareholders wouldn’t throw a fit about the one unsold Eluna.”

“But that was--!” Winter looked at the doll, back at Velvet, her eyes widening in horror, realization, then, regret. “… She… she... was waiting for me to come back, so she could give it to me herself, wasn’t she...?”

Velvet nodded sadly.

Winter teared up. “Why didn’t you tell me...?” she asked, her voice cracking.

Velvet sheepishly grabbed her elbow. “She wanted it to be a surprise, said she had a special message for you when she gave it, for your and her ears only. Before you ask: she died with it. Never told anyone about it, not her lawyer, her family—not even me.”

Winter blinked. “O-Oh.”

Velvet nodded and looked away to the side. “Yeah… we were REALLY surprised at how literally she meant it.” She looked back at Winter. “So”--she pointed at the Eluna plushie--“still want it?”

“Won't that mean having to turn off all the security features?” Winter asked. “I can’t remember the last time someone brought the system into action, but I do remember the aftermath was ugly.

Velvet cringed at the memory. “Yes, normally, it would be a long, drawn-out process to remove any of our displays, more so for such a rare, highly valued product...” she walked over and put her hand on the display. Energy pulsed out from her hand, the whole crystal case glowed, then disappeared in as shower of dust, leaving the Eluna plushie floating in mid-air.

“… But good thing I have executive override,” Velvet said a she turned around and smiled proudly.

Winter stared at the freed Eluna doll, as if she couldn't quite process what just happened.

“You use handprint recognition for security?” Weiss asked. “I thought they stopped using that a long time ago, when they discovered you could grow dummy hands and just put a little cooking gel on them to fool the system.”

“We don’t,” Velvet replied. “You could say my hand’s just the interface, the whole of me is the actual password. You'd have to go through the trouble of making a perfect clone of myself just to hack  it, and even then it locks down if it knows I'm being forced to do it.”

“Never heard of wetware that advanced yet simple to use—not even in this city,” Weiss mumbled.

Velvet smiled. “You know companies, their patents, and their trade secrets...”

Weiss groaned. “Do I ever...”

All was quiet for a few moments as Winter just continued to just stand and stare at the floating plushie.

“Aren’t you going to take it…?” Velvet asked.

“I… I’m not sure if I can, after everything I just learned...” Winter mumbled.

“Then let me help you,” Velvet said. She walked over to the Eluna plushie, grabbed it, and walked back over to Winter.

She stared at Velvet like she was the Head of the Sacred Stewards, and the toy was one of the Holy Armaments of the Shepherd herself.

Weiss sighed, took the plushie from Velvet, and pressed it right up to Winter’s face.

She burst into tears.

Velvet flinched. “A-Are you alright…?” she asked.

Winter nodded as she carefully, happily took the plushie into her own hands, and nuzzled her face into it. “She’s even fluffier than I could have ever imagined...” she sobbed.


Winter spent some personal time with the Eluna plushie, before they finalized her purchases and headed back to the front entrance of the Plushie Palace; daybreak was coming soon, and with it risking being trapped in Candela for the next 12 hours or so, and worse yet, leaving her beloved plushies at the mercy of their father.

(While he was never as mean-spirited as to “unfortunately” lose them, he wasn’t above holding them hostage in his private vault, to be released only after Winter sat through yet another long lecture about how much he hated those “damned toys.”)

Winter would have loved nothing more than to be able to cart all of those toys behind her in a long, long, long train of cargo lifters behind her, but due to the sheer size of her order, they were forced to send most of it to the post office for long-range teleportation.

So it was that the sisters carried three overstuffed bags between them, the Eluna plushie comfortably nestled in the crook of the Winter's arm. Velvet personally saw them to the exit, chatting and catching up with them.

“… I’m scared of what’ll happen when I finally take over the company,” Velvet said as they neared the front. “The day-to-day operations, the products, that I know can handle; it’s the press releases, the events, the talking to all those people...” she shuddered.

“You could have avoided this if you actually stepped foot outside of the Palace more often, you know!” Winter replied. “Maybe stay at one of those socials of yours for longer, actually talk to the guests instead of just going around saying hi to a handful of VIPs and taking a few pictures before you leave.”

“True, but it’s really hard to do when you don’t know… anyone, really,” Velvet mumbled. “Unless you guys want to come help me be less of an awkward mess.”

The sisters smiled politely. “Uh, yeah... normally this would be when we’d be delighted to help, but, uh… our schedules don’t seem to have much space for socializing right now...” Weiss replied.

Velvet’s ears fell. “Oh. Both of you going to be very busy?”

“Yes, and neither of us are sure when it’ll end,” Winter replied. “Going to have LOTS of free time afterward, though...”

Velvet smiled, her ears perking up. “Here’s to hoping it’s soon!”

Neither sister commented.

They exited into the gardens once more, now mostly deserted but for a few patrons and their plush companions waiting to watch sun and the barrier come up once more. The red carpet had long been pulled back in (Candela’s streets were prisitine through constant street cleaner bot sweeps, not through any discipline or consideration of its pedestrians) and a flying cab was already waiting at the curb, its door open.

“Hey hey!” Tony called out. “Lookit what you got there, Lady Schnee! Gonna be takin’ back some bet money from some guys in Maintenance later, thanks!”

“Don’t spend it all on one place, now, Tony!” Winter replied, giggling. She turned to Velvet. “Your doing?”

Velvet beamed. “The Plushie Palace prides itself on treating every patron like they were family.” She was going to see them to their cab, but was stopped by an assistant. She frowned and excused herself, going off to the side for some urgent, private business.

Winter and Weiss said their farewells (sans the promise to return soon, for obvious reasons), before heading off to Tony and letting his drones load up their bags in the trunk.

“Except you,” Winter said as she slipped into the cab, the Eluna plushie still in her hands. You are staying right her with me,” she hummed as she nuzzled it once more.

“Careful,” Weiss said as she climbed in after her, “the others might get jealous!”

“No they won’t,” Winter replied matter-of-fact. “I happen to pride myself on my ability to gauge a plushie’s psyche from the first meeting alone—no narcissists, codependents, or toys with dangerous self-esteem issues in my collection, I assure you!”

The two sisters paused for a moment, then fell back laughing.

Tony was about to close the door and take-off when a human employee from the Plushie Palace came running out, holding a gift-wrapped box in her hands. “Wait, wait!” she cried. “Lady Schnee, Lady Schnee, you forgot something!”

The sisters looked at each other, before Winter shrugged, left Eluna with Weiss, and stepped out of the cab to meet her.

The employee stopped before her, took a moment to catch her breath, before she handed the box over. “Your continued patronage to the Palace has earned you this month's special Loyalty Program Plushie!”

Winter brightened up. “Oh! Who is it?”

“Open the box and find out, milady!” the servant replied cheerfully. “It's half the fun!”

“I suppose so!” Winter chirped as she started to unwrap it.

Velvet stepped out of the doors of the Plushie Palace, waving farewell to some assistants inside. She turned around, saw Winter, the employee in front of her, and most importantly, the box in her hand.

Her eyes widened.

“WINTER! NO!”

Chapter Text

Winter was curled up in a tiny, shivering ball on the backseat of the cab, her Eluna plushie nestled right up to her face. The rest of the toys she had on her were arranged around her body like a wall, or sitting on top of her like sentries. For lack of space to fit all of them, Weiss sat on the front-side seats, spun around to face her sister.

The special edition Keeper of the Grove plushie—the one with much more intricate detailing and real, malevolently glowing rubies for eyes—was in the trunk, back in its box, face and lid down. They could swear they could feel her evil stare boring through Tony's hull, the authentic leather seats, and into their souls, but neither commented on it.

On the shelf behind Weiss' head was Tony, his face turned outside to the city skyline outside, talking as he drove.

“This is why I don't like big businesses,” he grumbled. “Back then in the old days, you walked into a store, everyone in the place knew you by your first name, and you knew theirs, too! I mean, sure, corporations have changed the world for the better, and I'm just an AI talking based on subjective experiences, and personality parameters and memories encoded into me, but still! You gotta ask:

“Is it all really worth HUGE slip-ups like this happenin'?”

When the sisters didn't respond, Tony looked back at them. “Hey, you two been awfully quiet—everythin' alright back there?”

Just peachy!” Winter replied. “So long as I've got Eluna with me, everything's going to be just fine, because when the Keeper breaks out of the trunk and comes to get us, she's going to come to life, use her Starlight Spear, and save us all~!”

She laughed, then cried, then buried her face into her plushie once more.

Tony and Weiss looked at each other as her muffled sobbing filled the cab.

He turned back to Winter, his projector generating a holographic arm to rest on the top of the front seats. “Look, Winter, I'm a firm believer in face your fears and all that jazz, but isn't it a little, I don't know, too much to be haulin' your nightmares around with you like this?”

Winter pulled her face out of the Eluna plushie. “I prefer it this way,” she sobbed. “I'd rather a constant reminder that the Keeper is always just around the corner than being surprised like that ever again,” she continued, before she buried her face into her toy once more.

“Oh Ellie, your fur is so soft, and warm, and fluffy… and so good at absorbing my tears and snot, too!”

Tony looked at Weiss, unamused. “Okay, something is definitely up! And don't you lie to me, little ladies—I've known you both since you two were just bumps in your mama's belly! Plus, the bio-sensors in this cab just got updated!”

Weiss tried to remain silent, but Tony's incessant staring broke her down. “The Keeper's after us...” she mumbled.

Tony grimaced. “And I guess it ain't the doll in my trunk, huh?”

Weiss shook her head.

“Aw, phooey!” Tony snapped as he turned back to the skyline. “I wish they never got rid of those lines of code that let me talk bad about people...”

“Cursing my father isn't going to change anything,” Weiss muttered. “Believe me, I've tried plenty of times...”

“It'd make me feel a whole lot better, though!” Tony replied.

They were reaching the loading bay closest to Manor Schnee once more, and the cab slowed down.

Tony sighed, and looked back at the sisters. “Look… girls, if'n the next time I see you two is in the news about how the Keeper got you… you two have been some of the best damn passengers I've ever had, alright? Even if your old man keeps trying to lobby me outta the personality roster...”

Weiss looked down as her eyes moistened, Winter burst into another round of tears.

“We love you too, Tony,” Weiss muttered as she wiped her tears with the back of her hand.

Tony's hologram shimmered and broke. “Go on, get on outta here, you two!” he sobbed. “You enjoy however much time you got left here! Oh, and say hi to your mama for me—your fratellino, too, if he ain't already someone else's kid.”

“We will, Tony,” Winter blubbered. “We will.”


Eluna remained in Winter's arms, and the Keeper stayed in her box for the ride home, the latter suspended in a stasis field on the dashboard. Both sisters couldn't help but flinch every time the rover hit a particularly bumpy patch of road, and the container jostled about slightly until the stabilizers kicked in.

They made it back into the garage a little before sunrise. The missing rovers and the jet were all back, but there were more drones than ever flying about and a suspicious absence of human or cyborg personnel, even for there.

“Good morning, Mses. Schnee!” a drone greeted them as they stepped back out of the rover. “Ms. Winter Schnee, you have an extremely large shipment from The Plushie Palace awaiting teleport confirmation. We regret to inform you that it cannot be handled by human staff due to a large number of absences, but a more than adequate amount of cargo lifters and worker drones have been prepared in their stead!

“How should we proceed?” the drone asked.

“Confirm the teleport, take the ones from the rover, and bring them all to my room,” Winter replied flatly as she walked past, Eluna under one arm and the Keeper in its box under the other. “Keep them in their crates, I'll handle the unpacking and organizing myself; I need a long, time-consuming distraction right now...”

The drone beeped, humming as it followed them it beeped with a different noise. “Teleport successful! Would the Mses. Schnee like breakfast? However, we also regret to inform you that your father, Mr. Schnee, is unable to join for sudden, important business.”

“No thank you, we're not hungry,” Weiss replied as she followed after Winter.

“Response logged—have a nice day, Mses. Schnee!” the drone chirped happily.

As Winter and Weiss stepped back onto the elevator, they remembered just why exactly human personnel were still a popular hiring decision many managers insisted on, in spite of the low costs and ease of acquiring AI drones that could do the same job.

They stepped out of the elevator and back into the halls of Manor Schnee, bright and flooded with warm sunlight.

The healthy glow only made the lack of people all the more stark and ominous, the cheerfulness of the bots' voice modules more unnerving than pleasant. It didn't help that the remaining human staff were either nervous and wary, couldn't care less as they went about their duties, or were chipper and happy, wondering out loud on why exactly everyone else passed on the generous sums Jacques Schnee had boosted their salaries to.

Winter and Weiss met with a train of cargo lifters and worker drones just heading out from her room, one of them reminding her that she could summon them at any time, especially since they had to leave several of the crates them stacked outside her door lest her bedroom become a crowded storeroom.

“You really sure you want to tackle this all by yourself?” Weiss asked as she and Winter stepped back into her room.

“I'll manage,” Winter replied, skirting around the perfectly stacked and balanced towers to her bed. “I've been trained for and handled much more complex logistical problems in even worse conditions.

“Though all that's going to be after I sleep the day away again, with the Moonlight Huntress herself watching over me!” She looked affectionately at the Eluna plushie still nestled in her arm. “But first, I need to decide what to do with her...” she muttered, looking at the boxed Keeper in her other arm.

Ugh—just throw it away!” Weiss cried as she sat on the side of Winter's bed and took her shoes off. “That thing's just going to give the both of us nightmares, Eluna or no.”

Winter nodded as she carefully set Eluna down on her bed. “Right… might as well have some sweet dreams while we still can,” she muttered as she opened the box.

Unlike earlier, she didn't scream, accidentally throw it into an unfortunate victim's face so hard that it made their nose bleed, before falling to the sidewalk wailing hysterically whilst clutching her Eluna plushie, but she still flinched and felt a chill run down her spine.

Not helping was the morning sun making the ruby eyes of the Keeper plushie glow even brighter and more menacingly than they did at night and under artificial lights.

Winter pulled her out, throwing the box to the side. “Not sorry to say I'm not going to miss you in the slightest,” she growled to her face, before she threw the plushie right out the open door of her balcony.

She turned to watch it sail over the railing, then disappear to the floating gardens below.

Instead, she saw it stop in mid-air, invisible hands turn the toy around to face their owner.

“Oh hey! I never knew they made Keeper dolls that looked like this!” a too familiar voice said. “Oooh, man, these eyes are SO much cooler than the buttons...” the Keeper plushie was lowered, the actual Keeper gasped. “Oh Eluna! Is that an actual, limited edition Eluna plushie?”

Weiss and Winter felt their blood run cold as the plushie moved into the room, and stopped at the foot of Winter's bed, just between the two sisters. “Ooohh… these are SO rare, I never thought I'd be able to see one of them up close!”

The voice paused.

“Why does it smell like tears, snot, and despair…?”

Winter blinked. “Can you please hand me my Eluna plushie?”

The Keeper toy was put down on the bed, and the Eluna plushie floated over to Winter. “Here you go!”

Winter took it and nodded. “Thank you.”

She began to make a long, continuous noise, starting as a quiet whine, gradually growing louder and louder to a wail of pure anguish, occasionally broken by hysterical sobbing.

Weiss felt the Keeper wince. “… Uh… she scared of me, too?”

“To put it lightly...” Weiss replied flatly.

Winter let out another wail of distress. “Could you please not just talk like that while you're invisible? It's freaking me out even more than you already are!”

“Oh, okay”--the Keeper plushie was picked up once more, the toy's face turned to Winter--”how about this?”

Winter started crying even harder. “No! It's even worse now!”

“What if I move the head around while I'm talking, like this?” the Keeper asked, doing just that.

Nope! No! No, no, no, no, no, nooooo... you know what? You just tell us whatever it is you were going to tell us, just let me curl up on the floor,” Winter blubbered.

The Keeper politely kept quiet while she did.

“Okay!” Winter sobbed, as she hugged the Eluna plushie to her chest, “you can talk now!”

The Keeper plushie “nodded.” “Alright! First up: your security still really sucks, especially now that all the cyborg and human guards are gone.

“Second: we're getting a LOT of comms-chatter and seeing a lot of recruitment advertisements on the Grid for more expeditions into the Valley, which also really sucks.

“And third: I was prepared this time and had dinner before I left home, but do you have any food on you? I didn't think you were going to be gone all night this time, and now I missed breakfast...”

Silence.

“It's okay if you don't have any!” the Keeper added. “I'll manage.”

Winter whimpered.

Weiss groaned. “Okay, first of all: how are you able to listen to our networks and access the Grid?”

“Uhh… with the terminal I have back at the Valley?” the Keeper replied. “We're a lot more advanced than mud huts and spears, you know. Well, actually we still do technically have mud huts and spears, but they've got Grid access, power, and HoloVision, just like you guys.”

Winter made a little choked dying noise. “Sorry,” she whispered, “please, continue.”

Weiss stared at the Keeper plushie, unsure of how to react. “… Second: we both tried to talk to my father, but he refuses to believe you exist, or that the threat you're making is very real.”

The Keeper sighed. “Ugh, yeah, I noticed! I broke into his office earlier last night, and he wouldn't believe I was actually there, just kept calling me a 'stress-induced hallucination' or something. I even pulled the hood of my cloak to show him my face, but he just threw a paperweight at me and thought I was one of your drones when I yelled 'Ow!'”

Winter balked. “Father SURVIVED looking at your face...?”

“I didn't have the mask on at the time,” the Keeper said, pointing at the skull-like face of her plushie self. “It makes actually talking to people really hard, you know? Have you ever tried to talk to someone who just peed and popped himself? It's pretty much impossible, not to mention really, really gross...”

Both sisters just stared at the Keeper plushie.

“Anyway, could you keep trying to find some way to get him to stop all these expeditions? Even if we see just one rover heading over to the Valley, there's going to be--”

CONSEQUENCES.”

The Keeper coughed and cleared her throat. “Sorry, had to use my Scary Voice for that... kind of an unspoken rule amongst Keepers…”

Silence.

“… Soooo… I'm just going to go now...” the Keeper started to place the plushie of herself back on the bed.

Winter yelped, the plushie stopped in mid-air. “Keep it!” she blubbered, tears streaming down her face, “so at least I know where you are when you come to visit!”

“You sure?” the Keeper asked, holding the plushie out to Winter, its ruby red eyes looming ominously over her, glinting from the sunlight.

Her eyes widened.

As a special, limited edition Keeper of the Grove plushie and a hysterically screaming Winter zipped through the halls of the manor, leaving a trail of spooked humans and malfunctioning drones in its wake, so hastened the Ruin of the family Schnee.

Chapter Text

Auerelia F. du Pont, “MD and PhD, thank you!” was Manor Schnee's in-house psychologist. Her official title and her doctorate was in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, but her true passion was in Psychiatry.

Unfortunately, she was much better at catching potential problem employees and gems overlooked by hiring algorithms, than in actually helping people with their personal problems—something Weiss and Winter would have happily attested to, if they could.

So instead, the two sisters refused to take her on her numerous offers for personal counseling, only ever using her if they were forced to, or they needed a mental health professional to certify something, mostly because she was, as their mother warned them long ago, “astoundingly easy to fool and too happy to believe in her own skill, whether or not it was actually her doing.”

Jacques Schnee was well aware of these problems, but he kept her regardless. The reasons were numerous:

First, his employees were content with making the effort to see much more competent psychiatrists elsewhere, as it was less than a half-hour's trip from the manor to the many nocturnal practices in Candela, or telecommunicating with any other professional of their choice all over Avalon.

Two, she was really actually very competent at her job, second only to Jacques' wife who had personally overseen and interviewed the staff until her death, and had even found the ever-mysterious and enigmatic Tov.

And finally she was more than willing to stay with her current employer because of numerous debts and astoundingly bad financial decisions, of which she had relied far too much on extremely idealistic predictions of the success of her private counseling practices over the years.

“So why for the Shepherd's sake are you going to her?!” Weiss yelled. “Can't we find a different psychiatrist in Candela?”

(They were in a private room in the Manor's infirmary—a small, but well-funded-and-equipped hospital from all the cutting-edge technology, the quality of the Doc-Drones, and their stores of pharmaceuticals.)

“We could, but I've got a plan, little sister, and it can only work with du Pont!” Winter replied as she laid in a hospital bed, dressed in a paper gown, Eluna in her arms. “Father may be unwilling to listen to us, but we both know that he's willing to hear out the doctor at least once!”

“So what: you want her to tell father that, in her professional opinion, you've gone completely insane?”

“Quite the opposite, Weiss!” Winter chirped. “I'm going to use her to prove that every reaction I've had so far is perfectly reasonable and sane, considering our rather unique and extraordinary circumstances!

“When father learns than one of his—well, just trusted—associates vouches that I'm mentally sound and most likely telling the truth, and alongside all the evidence Tov has been gathering, then we have a strong case for stopping these expeditions back to the Valley!

“We're still going to be doomed, of course, but at least he isn't going to send more poor souls on a one-way trip to the Aether!”

Weiss sighed. “I think this is a terrible idea, Winter. Even worse than the last time I came to her for advice!”

“Well we don't really have much choice, do we?” Winter replied. “Look on the bright side: if I get institutionalized, and the Keeper visits and/or slays me there, the whole of Candela is going to be forced to ask themselves, 'What's more likely? That the Keeper actually exists, or that an entire facility of mental health professionals has gone collectively insane?'

“That's how all the settlements and cities that fear the Keeper believe she exists, you know! After they saw with her with their own two eyes, murdering their fellow citizens in horrific, unspeakable ways they will never, ever forget!”

Winter put her Eluna plushie to her face, slowly rubbing it up and down on her skin, reminding herself of how soft, and warm, and fluffy she was.

Weiss frowned. “Winterrr...” she whined.

Winter put her Eluna plushie down and smiled. “You're just going to have to trust me on this, sis,” she said as she reached out and affectionately patted Weiss on the head. “You can borrow Eluna if you'd like,” she said as held the plushie out.

“No thanks, sis,” Weiss replied, waving her hand in the air. “You can keep her.”

Winter was undeterred. “It's fine, Weiss—and besides, I think you need her more than I do!”

Weiss grimaced. “No, seriously, you can keep her—I can smell the tears, snot, and despair now,she said, pinching her nose.

Winter took her back and frowned. “Guess I'm going to have to be very liberal with the cleaning spray later...” she muttered.

Her bedside intercom piped up, the cheerful, feminine voice of the medical systems AI. “Ms. Winter Schnee, Dr. du Pont is ready to see you!” she hummed, small group of Doc-Drones coming in with a wheelchair soon after.

Winter let them help her into it. “Wish me luck, Weiss!” she cried as they wheeled her off.

Weiss watched her go, frowning, unable to shake the ill feeling in the pit of her stomach.


 Du Pont's office was a warm and friendly place, with cream walls, vibrant plants, hand-knitted throw pillows, and holographic posters that changed depending on her latest client's personality, issues, and religious beliefs, if any.

Winter's were telling her there was no shame in seeking professional help, that her illness was not her fault, and giving her infographics about recent, incredible advances in mental health. She didn't much appreciate them or du Pont's attempt at a maternal, caring smile, but both the Queensguard and her father had trained her to fake it with the best of them.

“Winter!” du Pont trilled. “How good to see you again, even with the circumstances… oh, pardon me, can I call you Winter?”

Winter kept on smiling. “If you wish, I don't mind.”

She did, but du Pont never suspected a thing.

“Would you mind if we just skip the pleasantries and go straight to business?” Winter asked as she sat down on the easy chair opposite du Pont, Eluna nestled in her lap.

“Of course, of course!” du Pont replied. “And you can keep your little furry friend with you, too, if you'd like,” she continued as she pulled up her tablet.

Winter's smile got a little bit tighter. “Her name's Eluna, and thank you.”

Du Pont began to read her file. “So, as I understand it, you've been suffering from constant hallucinations about a... 'Keeper of the Grove'?”

Winter clutched Eluna a lot tighter. “Yes, I have been suffering from her, but she's not a hallucination. She's real—very, very real.”

Du Pont smiled politely. “From my research, she's a very popular mythological being, the personification of the dangerous wildlife within the Viridian Valley...”

Winter nodded. “That's what I thought, too! Until I met her in person, that is.”

“And when was that?”

Winter looked at the clock behind her head. “6 hours and 32 minutes ago! Forgive me if my estimates are wrong, I was unconscious for most of that time, what with having been shot by tranquilizer darts and all.”

Du Pont forced herself to keep smiling. “Yes, the guards were… rather extreme with their measures to, er, calm you down.”

“I'm not surprised,” Winter hummed, “Queensguard nominees are legally registered as lethal weapons upon reaching rank 2, what does that say about an inducted rank 7 like myself?” she chuckled.

Du Pont gulped. “S-So this… visit, by the Keeper was very recent, just before you were seen running through the halls, chasing a plushie of her in a… state of extreme distress, before you spent some time at the edge of the Eastern Border Wall crying a, err, very strongly worded parting message, towards the 'Keeper,' until the guards... intervened.”

Winter chuckled, now hugging her Eluna plushie as tightly as she could. “Well, that's certainly one way to put it!”

“Why were you chasing that toy, if I may ask…?”

“Wasn't it obvious? I was chasing her—the Keeper—out of the manor, because she didn't want to take the plushie of her.”

“… And why would you want her to do that?”

“So I would know where she is the next time she comes visiting!” Winter replied. “She was wearing a cloak of invisibility, you know. Ask my father and my sister, they've seen her too!” she paused. “Actually, I take that back, don't ask my father, but Weiss will back me up, guaranteed!”

Du Pont looked at her, back at her tablet, then spent a good minute furiously typing and making memos. Winter calmly released her death grip on Eluna, stroking her silky soft, faintly glowing mane to apologize for hugging her so hard.

“This is just a rough start, I'm still going to convince her I'm not crazy!” Winter thought.

“Oh, Sacred Stewards, it's even worse than I could have ever imagined...” du Pont thought.

Du Pont took a long drink of water from a bottle she had nearby. She put it down, and said, “I'm well aware that you have a… very strong phobia of the Keeper--”

“It's not exactly a phobia if it's a rational fear is it not?” Winter interrupted. “A phobia is an irrational fear of something or someone, regardless of the threat it actually poses to my safety!” Her eyes took on a haunted look. “And believe me, the Keeper is coming for me and my sister.

“Probably you, too, and everyone else in this manor, because she's like that. So sorry in advance for your possible premature death!”

Du Pont was starting to have serious second thoughts about her lifelong devotion to helping the mentally ill and suffering, no matter what.

“And why would you think that?” she asked.

“It's a common thread in the stories of the Keeper,” Winter hummed. “She really enjoys making very vivid warnings for all to keep out of the Viridian Valley. Not that that's ever stopped invaders completely, but oh well, you're always going to have extremely stubborn people determined to learn it the hard way!”

Du Pont nodded. “I noticed you had have a lot of articles, documentaries, and books regarding the Keeper in your Info-Grid browsing history, stretching back quite a long time—almost two decades, I believe?”

Winter nodded. “Yes. As the saying goes, 'know thy enemy.'”

“And how has that worked out for you?”

Terribly!” Winter chirped. “If anything, every single new piece of information I receive about the Keeper only makes her even more terrifying—the most recent of which is that she's actually real!”

“And when did you learn that?”

“Two days ago, the night of Weiss' trip into the Grove and my subsequent return home! I learned it from Weiss; the Keeper had just visited her, you see, just after I left her room earlier.”

“Didn't you also order a large amount of alcohol that same night…?”

“Drank most of it, too!” Winter replied. “It didn't help much, but any relief is welcome when you discover that the face of your childhood nightmares is in fact real~!”

Du Pont stared at her, looked at the wealth of alarmed, hastily typed notes on the surface of her tablet. “When did this fear of the Keeper start, exactly?”

Winter got a far off look in her eyes.

“I was 6. Mom and myself were attending the annual Eve of the Ether fair in Candela, just the two of us, because father had chosen to stay in the office and work that evening, and Weiss hadn't even been conceived yet...”

Chapter Text

Though Candela was always grossly incandescent at night, it was never brighter than during the Eve of the Ether, the pinnacle of Avalon’s annual, realm-wide power surge; not even the incredibly festive, religiously celebrated, and much more profitable Feast of the Shepherd could match.

All manner of displays, hologram generators, and sound emitters littered every street corner, the source of the “hauntings” in storefronts, buildings, and residences, visited for that night by giggling and grinning “Shades” and other ghastly apparitions. Drones and salespeople hawked spooky specials and eerie events just for the night for the citizens and swarms of tourists trotting about in costumes, looking for candy and other delights, or victims for pranks and frights. The street lamps had been changed to shades of oranges, pinks, and greens in keeping with the season, bathing everything in an unnerving glow.

Far above them, the dirigibles were working overtime, spraying a cool fog over the city to add to the atmosphere and keep everyone cool.

Those who wore particularly elaborate costumes, and had been unable to afford or unwilling to install internal cooling systems were especially grateful, like a full-scale, 14-foot tall and several hundred-pounds heavy replica of the iconic Shepherd Suit MK II, constructed and piloted by one ambitious history buff and engineer who should have really sprung for better heat sinks.

Young Winter didn’t have the same problem as she pranced about dressed like the Holy Shepherd herself, Captain Piorina “Piper” Nikos. Her “leather” jacket wasn’t real, and her energy lance didn’t fire plasma-blasts, just harmless bursts of energy, but her hat was an actual, Starfarer Captain’s Cap, worn, aged, and still holding on even through the centuries, even if it did smell more that a little funny.

Nevermind that it was too large for her tiny head, that the visor kept falling over her eyes, and that she kept blindly running into things, lamp posts, and other people’s ankles because seeing required a free hand and holding her prop-rifle required both—she was Captain Piper, the Holy Shepherd, and she wouldn’t let being unable to see in front of her (or in any other direction, for that matter) slow her down!

“Winter, no!” her mother cried.

“Captain Piper” felt a shepherd’s crook catch her around her neck and gently pull her backwards, just in time to stop her from taking one more step off the curb and into the land-bound cars plying the streets.

“Mission Control to Captain Piper: we strongly advise you don’t go running off like that again,” Silsa “Snowy” Schnee said as she scooped her daughter up into her arm, the crook of her Sacred Steward costume tucked in the other. “We don’t know what might be lurking out there, and I don’t intend to have you finding out firsthand, my little snowbunny!” she scolded playfully.

Winter looked at her mother.

“Little more to the left,” Snowy said.

Winter looked at where her mother actually was. “But moooommm…!” she whined. “I’m Captain Piper! I go forth, into the Brave Unknown, even if it’s dark, scary, and/or dangerous!”

Snowy sighed. “You forgot she almost never left without her trusty crew if she could help it—just don’t go running off like that again, okay?”

“But there could be treasure, people who need my help, or even a whole new Avalon out there, waiting to be found!”

“How about TWO new plushies if you stay in orbit around me, Captain?”

Winter paused. “Treasure, people who need my help, and those other Avalons can wait!” she cried triumphantly.

That’s more like it, Captain,” Snowy chuckled, before she pulled Winter’s hat off and nuzzled her on the cheek. She yelped and giggled, before she nuzzled her right on back.

Snowy moved them to someplace less crowded and less laden with tempting distractions and attractive storefronts; she found a bench to sit on, and rested their props beside them. “So, Captain,” she asked as she hoisted Winter onto her lap, “where do we set sail to next?”

Winter pulled out her mother’s comm-crystal, a 3D hologram of Candela’s commercial district popping out before their eyes. She hummed and put her hand on her chin, trying to figure out where they hadn’t gone to yet that evening. Snowy gently lifted her cap up above the level of her eyes, and she began to actually read and decide on the points of interest on the map.

“Oooh, oooh!” Winter bounced in her lap. “Can we go to the Candy Kingdom?”

Snowy glared at her. “Captain, you both know we definitely won’t be able to control ourselves in there; we might be able to resist for a while, but it’s all over once we either of us get a Flicker Stick in our mouths.”

“The Haunted Halls?”

Snowy snorted and rolled her eyes. “You've seen it once, you’ve seen it all, and it wasn’t even that good in the first place! They won’t even let you stay if you want to make fun of how bad all the effects are! Horror and comedy both live and die by timing, people!”

Winter looked at the model once more, squinting her eyes in serious thought, until she realized that made it impossible to read the text. As she opened her eyes again, she found the answer right in front of her.

“I got it! I got it!” she said, bouncing and pointing excitedly at a theater in the hologram.

Snowy gently pulled Winter’s hand back to stop the info-box from popping up then resetting over and over again. “The Shadow Friends Theater Company presents: ‘Into The Woods: The Terrible Tale of the Keeper of the Grove’ at the Golden Days Theater...” she read.

“You love history and culture, right?” Winter chirped.

“Yes, I do,” Snowy replied, “which is exactly why I’m having second thoughts about this...”

“What’s wrong?” Winter asked. “Is it because it’s the Keeper? She’s not even that creepy!” she said.

As if on cue, a whole group of Keepers of the Grove came walking past; it was hard to feel intimidated in the slightest when their costumes were clearly mass-produced from barely modified templates, and more so that there was a Fat Keeper, a Tall Keeper, a Short Keeper, and a Really-Didn’t-Want-To-Do-This-But-Had-No-Choice-In-The-Matter Keeper all walking right next to each other.

“She will be if the Shadow Friends make good on their promise to be ‘loyal to the legend’...” Snowy muttered as she looked at the group in a mixture of disappointment and annoyance.

Winter turned off the hologram and faced her mother. “Come on, mom!” she whined. “Can we go see it, pleeeassseeee…?”

Even with the antique cap obscuring her face, Snowy could still feel those adorable eyes looking right into her own, melting her heart and her resolve—if anything, it probably made them even more effective than usual.

She sighed, defeated. “Are you sure you can handle it? It’ll probably be SUPER scary.”

Winter puffed her cheeks up. “Captain Piper is not scared of anything! She’s the bravest human who ever lived!”

Snowy smiled and tilted her cap up so she could actually look her in the eyes. “Bravery is being scared, but going on anyway, Winter.”

Whatever!” Winter replied. “So can we go there? Please?”

Snowy sighed playfully. “Well, you ARE the Captain, and I am only your humble Steward...”

Winter beamed. “Yay!” she wrapped her arms around her mother, her hat falling off her head. “I love you, mom!”

Snowy snatched it out of the air with one hand, and hugged her back with the other. “I love you too, Winter...” she hummed as she put the cap back on.


As streaming and home entertainment systems became more and more advanced, cheap, and readily available to the population, lovers of theater had lamented and spokespeople of AV equipment companies had bragged about how one day, the age of people wanting to take the effort to dress up and leave home to go watch a play or a movie would end.

Everyone—from the average audience member to the most discerning critics—would be enjoying productions and shows broadcasted live to their HoloVision receivers in their homes, or accessed through their comm-crystals and tablets, anywhere and anytime they wanted, at the fraction of the cost and with infinitely more convenience.

And just like with the Plushie Palace, the theaters, auditoriums, and stages did not all die out, they simply adapted and gave their audiences what their technomagical counterparts could not.

The interior of the Golden Days Theater harked back to times long, long past, with authentic hardwood walls, red velvet carpeting, and soft, warm “gas lamps” on the walls supported by brass sconces.

Suited men and finely dressed women greeted them and took their coats, sashes, crooks, guns, and hats from them; Winter wasn’t too happy about losing any part of her costume, to say the least, but the employee in charge of the coat closet assured her that their antique feel didn’t extend to the security of their patrons’ belongings.

“See?” he said as Winter’s antique cap was surrounded by a protective bubble, before being carefully hanged on a stand with many others.

Winter grumbled, still upset at her new favourite hat being treated that way, but Snowy just thanked them and coaxed her further in.

A tall, gaunt man wearing a crooked top-hat, a black jacket with coattails, and long, white gloves greeted them. “Good evening, madams,” he said as he bowed politely, pulling his hat off his head and pressing it to his chest. “My name is Dino, and on behalf of the Shadow Friends Theater Company, I welcome you, to what we hope will be a tantalizing, enchanting, and terrifying evening with us, as we bring back from the mists of time and right before your eyes the art of Shadow Puppetry, to the Terrible Tale of the Keeper of the Grove...” he hummed in a low, melodious voice.

“For legal purposes, we must tell you that children and their parents sit separately, with the young ones seated just before the stage, the adults some distance back, but still within sight of your dear ones; this is to allow space for us to let our productions truly…” he smiled “… jump at you.”

“I don’t like the sound of that one bit,” Snowy muttered.

“What do you mean?” Winter asked, fascinated.

Dino dropped the theatrics in his voice. “A costumed member of our company will prowl either section at the climax of our play, and give one member of the audience a scare. Nothing violent, sudden, or particularly mean-spirited mind you--” he smiled again, returning to his old voice “--but when you are under the spell of theater, it can give you quite the fright.”

Snowy frowned. “Winter, I don’t think we should do this...”

Dino hummed. “Your mother makes a fair point, little one; the Terrible Tale of the Keeper of the Grove is not for the faint of heart, nor for children under the age of 5, especially those not accompanied by their parents.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m six now, and my mom’s here with me!” Winter chirped, smiling proudly.

“Winterrrr...” Snowy started.

Dino walked over to her and knelt down, bringing himself down to just a little above her head. “Not afraid to be scared?” he asked.

Winter shook her head. “I’m brave—like Captain Piper! I go on even if I’m scared!”

Dino smiled, and chuckled. “And where would we all be, had our Holy Shepherd not been so? But still, the decision rests with your mother,” he said as he stood back up to his full height.

He turned back to Snowy, and bowed slightly. “Madam..?”

She sighed heavily. “She is my Captain for tonight...” she said, smiling.

Dino put his hands together. “Wonderful. Now, I’m sure you are aware of the fees we must charge, to keep this ancient art alive…?” he asked.

Snowy laughed and pulled out one of her credit cards. “That won’t be a problem at all, believe you me...”

Dino smiled. “Wonderful.”


“I thought I was going to be just fine, so long as mom was there with me,” Winter said, shaking hands clutching Eluna tightly. “I was wrong.

“So VERY wrong...”

Chapter Text

The Golden Days had a proscenium stage, a hardwood semi-circle on the far end of the auditorium, framed by luxurious red curtains and with three columns of plush velvet seats radiating out from it. As Dino had said, the adults took the proper seats while the children were just before the screen, on a semi-circle of fluffy pillows and plush rugs, perfect for sitting down on, or laying on your stomach with your head propped up by your elbows.

There was no small amount of dismay from both parties—children and adults who wanted to be right next to each other, or who would have rather been as close to or as far-away from the show as possible—but the ushers quickly quelled them.

Winter happily plopped down right down in the center of the kid's seating section, on a cushion she had all to herself. The other kids didn't mind and respected the rule of “First!”, or weren't nearly as enthusiastic about the show as she was.

“Did your folks drag you here too?” asked a fairy princess who sat down beside her.

“Nope!” Winter replied happily. “I wanted to be here, actually.”

The fairy wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Why would you want anything to do with all this old stuff?”

Winter was unfazed. “'Because the present rests on the back of the past, it is our duty to honour and remember those that have brought us so high,'” she quoted from Valentino, one of the first Sacred Stewards.

The fairy rolled her eyes. “Whatever! New stuff is always better, anyway! I bet your parents don't buy you the new ayGems right when they come out...”

“Didn't they pull out the latest models because they exploded when people used them too much, so they paid and begged everyone to give them back and get one of the earlier models instead?” Winter asked, curious and without a hint of malice.

The fairy turned red. “They fixed that problem already!”

Dino sauntered in and gently shushed them, putting a gloved finger to his lips and eying the particularly restless of the kids; his fellow thespians handled the adults. “Quiet now, quiet now, dear audience! Turn off your technology, seal those lips, and turn your eyes now to the stage, for the Terrible Tale of the Keeper of the Grove is beginning right about...”

The lights gently dimmed, pair by pair, until the whole theater was plunged in darkness. The screen lit up, actual paper with a soft, orange light behind it.

“Now...~” Dino said, as he calmly waltzed off to the side and began to narrate.

“Our Terrible Tale begins in a lush valley not too far from here, a grove of green, nestled between two tall mountains: the Viridian Valley.”

The puppets for the Valley popped up in bits and pieces, first the mountains, then the grass, and finally several of its taller trees.

“The Valley was a special place, one reason being where it was: in the middle of a vast wasteland filled with nothing but rocks, rocks, and even more rocks.”

The rest of the area popped up—spiky, cruel looking spires and vast, empty plains filled with just rocks, rocks, and even more rocks.

“The place had no name, for you see, it was hard for people to stay there long enough to give it one—and before you ask, this was LONG before Candela was even a vision in the founders' dreams...”

Settlers with horses and carts began to wander in, trotting merrily through the plains.

“For half the year, the Stars vent their Fury on this patch of land, scorching it and everything unfortunate enough to be there when they do.”

The settlers, their horses, and their carts all burst into flames, tiny screaming and panicking as they ran around with their flailing arms in the air.

“And for the other half, when the Stars had calmed down, they apologize, and bring in rains to soothe the land...”

Clouds appeared, and it started “raining.” The settlers and their horses cheered and calmed down as they were all put out.

“… Quite a lot of rain...”

The rain grew harder. The settlers and horses began to turn to each other, uneasy and worried.

“… So much that the whole land Floods.”

The settlers and their horses began to float upwards, slowly and gently spinning around like they were underwater and being nudged by invisible currents; from their carts, barrels and boxes floated up to the surface, while the lighter of the vehicles bobbed on the surface like boats.

“So the people left, returned to their homes, or found other lands, for they simply decided this particular patch of wilderness was NOT worth it.”

The settlers climbed aboard on whatever floated, fished out their horses, and paddled their way off-screen, back from whence they came.

“But still, they wondered: what lay in that Valley just on the horizon? What riches were hidden between those two peaks? What sort of life could they make, in a place so wondrous in a land so awful?”

The Valley and the mountains disappeared, replaced by silhouettes of fantastic animals, of mysterious and tempting treasures, of a vibrant, thriving city built between tall, ancient trees.

“Time passed, other lands were found, and most people were content for it to forever remain a mystery... however, three adventurous souls were not.”

Three puppets sprung up, two men, and one woman.

“These were Gus, Abner, and Tessa.”

Gus raised and flexed his arms, Abner tipped his top hat to the audience, Tessa waved demurely.

“Gus was a hunter, proud and strong, living to provide the biggest animals at the feasts, and take the heads of the most ferocious of beasts.

“Abner was an inventor, with big ideas, big dreams, even bigger debts, with what he had in smarts he he sorely lacked in self-control.

“Tessa was just a farmer's daughter, from a little tiny settlement, who dreamed of more to life than the dreary days of tilling the soil, feeding the animals, and maintaining their tools and their wells, her reward a full belly and a place to sleep at night.

“So these three and a whole host of other like-minded souls banded together, and made the treacherous trip.”

The three protagonists and a small army of figures all boarded carriages—motorized, not horse-drawn this time. The caravan began to chug across the screen, the suns and the moons passing arcing over them screen numerous times, rainclouds and perilous winds harassing them all the way.

“The journey was long, perilous, and at times, tedious, especially because they could only travel to the Valley itself just after the Fury ends and shortly before the Flood begins—a week, at most, and a few days, at the least.

“But driven by glory, dreams, and debtors waiting to take everything Abner had and then some, they made it to the Valley.”

The caravan stopped, and the puppets began to cheer and unload their equipment.

“Triumphant but tired, the adventurers set camp at the foot of the Valley and within the shade of the mountains; as they drifted off to sleep, they dreamed of what lay beyond those tall trees, what strange plants, weird creatures, and great discoveries awaited them inside!

“… Little did they know someone was watching them right back…”

A familiar image popped up, the Keeper of the Grove. She had been exaggerated greatly, her skull-like head a size too large for the rest of her body, her mouth full of sharp fangs operated by three separate strings for the size, her scythe's blade waving up and down as if it would come flying off at any moment.

Winter had laughed, then, young and innocent.

“… The Keeper of the Grove.

“She wasn't known by that name then—in fact, no one even knew she existed, not yet. But all that would change soon…

“Gus was the first to venture forth into the Valley, to hunt the animals and gather food for his companions; the Valley held creatures none of them had ever seen before, had ever dreamed could exist, and had never known the likes of humans like them.”

Gus and his hunters marched single file, armed and ready, until they met what looked like a giant feline of some sort.

They readied their weapons.

“… Unfortunately for them, this ALSO meant that they did not know what they were capable of, how to fight them, and more importantly, that there were to be feared, not feasted upon.”

One by one, his hunting party dwindled, pounced on by giant canines and felines, taken from above by tentacled creatures, swallowed whole by massive toads, the whole nightmarish business represented by the steadily dwindling number of puppets running back and forth across the screen, to some new horror at either end.

“Who once were many, were now down to Gus and three others; injured, starved, and with repeatedly soiled underwear, he and his fellow hunters sought shelter in a cave. Gus, being the bravest, the strongest, and the fiercest of them all took the duty of guarding them, standing armed and ready at the mouth.

“Once the others were asleep, a visitor came forth.”

The Gus puppet raised his weapon warily, both the Keeper and her scythe raised their arms and blades in surrender.

“'Be not wary, strange one,' the Keeper said, 'I only wish to offer you a deal: do you wish to leave this Valley alive?'”

Gus lowered his weapon.

“'It seemed like an obvious question with an even more obvious answer. But Gus had not become the great hunter he was without developing a healthy sense of skepticism.'”

“'What's the catch?' he asked.

“'No catch!' the Keeper replied, 'I will lead you all out of here myself—the creatures in this grove fear my scythe, respect their keeper.'

“Without much choice, Gus was about to agree. However, the Keeper spoke once more:

“'Unless… you want to fight your way out of the Valley yourself?'

“Gus paused, curious.

“'As you may see, great weapons, my people have forged—greater than the beasts that lurk in this Valley, greater than anything your kind has, greater than anything they could ever make...'

“Gus frowned. 'Why should I believe you?'

“And so the Keeper produced a sword, a ruby red blade like nothing he had ever seen before. 'Why don't you try it out for yourself?'

“And so he did.

“With the aid of the Keeper, she summoned beast after beast to the mouth of the cave, each more ferocious than the last, each slain by Gus' hand with the help of his new sword.”

The beasts from earlier returned, one after the other; Gus merely waved his sword through the air and each creature was sliced neatly in half or in neatly sectioned parts, some flying past his head or every which way from the momentum of their pounces and charges, killed so fast they hadn't realized they were already dead.

“He had never seen a blade cut its foes down so swiftly, felt such power in his hands, strength that only seemed to grow with each new beast he slew! Woken up from the commotion going on at the mouth of the cave, and fearing for their lives, his companions fled deeper into the cavern—

“--So deep they were unable to hear Gus nor the Keeper, witness what transpired next.

“'This sword is amazing!' Gus cried, having barely broken a sweat as he gathered himself new trophies with but a flick of his wrist and a light touch of his sword on the beast's neck. 'I must have it!'

“The Keeper smiled. 'And so you shall! If you will pay my price.'

“Gus turned to her, eyes gleaming. 'Tell me.'

“'The lives of all your other companions—three in this cave, and many more at the foot of the Valley, I believe?' the Keeper replied.

“Gus thought about it—for all of a second, before he ventured into the cave, and fetched his companions. All the while, the Keeper waited just above the mouth of the cave, hidden from sight.

“His companions were scared and concerned as he arrived with his strange, new blade, but as they ventured back out to the entrance and saw the remains of Gus' great battle, they were enamored and impressed!

“Never had they seen a blade so swift, so powerful, so shiny before, either! They asked him, begged him, cajoled him into showing them a taste of its power!

“And so he did.”

Gus swung his cursed sword.

The first hunter's arm fell off.

The second hunter's head fell off from their neck.

The third' hunter's legs fell off from the rest of their body, leaving them a floating torso in mid-air.

Then, all three of them fell down, dead.

“Gus grinned, he cooned, he giggled; never before had he wielded so lethal a weapon, one that could bring victory so easily, one that would make him the most famous, the most feared, the most powerful human in existence!

“He turned around, ready to face the Keeper, slay her, and take her head, for surely this weapon was no match for her?”

Gus raised his sword, execution style. The Keeper casually swung her scythe.

The sword and Gus separated into two neat halves, which then slowly fell apart.

“… It was, though not in the way Gus had thought.”

The scene returned to the camp, now less a significant amount of puppets.

“As the hours grew with no sight nor sound of Gus with and his party, the rest of the travelers grew hungry and anxious; no stranger to risking everything on dubious pursuits, Abner went next...”

Chapter Text

“The Viridian Valley held many wonders for a scientist like Abner—even if he didn't understand the implications, the potential uses, the great things he could invent with such new and exotic materials and specimens, just being able to bring them back to the rest of Avalon would heartily pay off all his debts, if not more!”

Abner waltzed through the grove, stopping and taking in the alien plants, strange critters, and weird wonders that lay within.

“… Of course, all of that came with the assumption that he would be able to make it out alive.”

The same creatures that had terrorized and/or eaten the hunters returned.

“Though he was no warrior like Gus or his party, Abner fared much better, dodging and hiding from every beast that came for him, thanks to his many years of experience with a similarly determined, ruthless, and cunning foe:

The Valentinian Debt Collector.

“Unlike them, however, these hunters tired and went after much easier prey to satisfy their hunger, and so he found himself at a relatively peaceful clearing thriving with edible plants.”

The beasts gave up and disappeared, Abner continued running back and forth across the stage with his hands flailing in the air until tripped and fell headfirst into a field of flowers and vegetables.

“Tired, scared, and starving, Abner did not think twice about feasting on whatever he could reasonably determine was edible. Lucky for him, the food was delicious, and none of it poisonous to other creatures--”

“--Though the Keeper added that she wasn't entirely sure if that extended to humans.”

The Keeper suddenly appeared behind him. Abner screamed and ran with his hands pointing skyward once more, foraged plants flying in his wake.

“'Stop!' the Keeper cried. 'You have others starving at your camp, do you not?'

“Most would have kept running, but Abner was no stranger to making friends in unusual places and even more unusual circumstances. He stopped, turned around, and replied, 'Y-Yes—why do you ask?'”

“'Take these plants,' she said, 'they shall satisfy your hunger. Keep some for the trip home, and guard all the seeds, then see what will grow where you come from; if nothing else, your kind will pay for such rare things, will they not?'

“Abner had to admit she had a point. Should even one of these new, exotic plants thrive outside of the Valley, he would be able to sell them with ease, possibly enough to wipe away his debts completely, if not more than that. He began to gather them in his arms, as many as he thought he could safely return with.

Abner began to leave with his haul.

“'Stop!' the Keeper cried once more.”

Abner threw his foraged berries and vegetables into the air once more.

“'Do you wish to have something more valuable to return to your people? Say, the bark that my scythe is made of? It is strong as steel, yet lighter than air.'”

The Keeper puppet began to make impressive, acrobatic tricks with her scythe, Abner watched, transfixed.

“As a scientist, Abner was more than intrigued; he followed her, deeper into the Valley, to a grove of strange trees he had never heard before, whose name he could not pronounce.”

The clearing of plants disappeared, turned into a thicket of trees full of sharp, pointed branches.

“'These trees are what my people make their weapons of,' the Keeper explained, 'we leave them to grow here in the wild, letting the weak ones die out, tending to the strongest of them all, until we hew them into even stronger weapons.'”

“'I shall call them Ironbark,' Abner said, marveling at them, wondering what new things he could make from such miraculous material! 'Oh, if only I could find some way to bring some home for study!'

He pawed at the Ironbark before he flinched, as if he cut himself.

“The Keeper handed him some seeds. 'Plant them in soil near mountains and rock, where the sun shines brightest, and water, they need little of. Keep the strongest ones, prune the tiniest branches and let the largest ones grow till they bear fruit, and more Ironbark you will have,' she said.

“Abner grinned. Not only had he made the discovery of a lifetime, here he had someone willing to share all of its secrets so he need not suss them out himself! Now he was sure he would not just wipe away his debt, he would thrive, and become a very rich man indeed.

“He stuffed his pockets to bursting with seeds, dropping the food he no longer had need for—the others could starve for all he could care, he would make penance by paying their families some of the generous sums he was sure to gain from his future endeavours.”

Abner turned around to leave once more.

“'Stop!' the Keeper cried a third time.”

Having learned the other two times, Abner did not flinch, and carefully turned around to face her.

“'Do you wish to be free of ills, of hunger, of aches for the rest of your life?” the Keeper asked.

“'Do I ever?!' Abner replied. 'Please, take me to whatever it is!'

“And so the Keeper took him out of the thicket of Ironbark, to a lake that ran crystal clear and glowed with its own light.”

The scene changed to that of a “waterfall” with “waves” gently moving about on its surface.

“'Is this…?' Abner asked.

“'A fountain of eternal youth?' the Keeper replied. 'Yes, yes it is—keep drinking from these waters, and you shall live forevermore, unable to die of anything but blade or unnatural fate.'

“Abner did not hesitate.”

He jumped into the lake, began to swim in it, even dove down and spat out a fountain of the miraculous waters.

“'This is amazing!' Abner cried as he climbed out of the water. 'I shall fill all our flasks and barrels with this wondrous water—there is no price my people will not pay for eternal life!'

The Keeper laughed, her grotesque jaws yawning up and down.

“'Not even their freedom?' the Keeper asked.

“Abner paled. 'What do you mean...?'

“'Those who drink of this water must continue to partake of it; three days without a drop, they drop dead.'

Abner stared at the Keeper; the puppet's mouth could not move, but you could tell he was slack-jawed.

“'I DID say you would be unable to die of anything but blade or unnatural fate! Now, shall I show you to your new home? It's quite close by here, fret not~'

“And so Abner went off with his new Keeper, to live the rest of his eternal life a slave to her people.”

The scenery changed, back to the entrance of the Valley, with all the figures huddled around the carriage and Tessa sitting mournfully at the top of it.

“Back at camp, hunger grew as did fear, hope dwindled as did their numbers; the ill-fated party was out of fuel, out of food, and out of choices. Desperate, they gathered whatever supplies and weapons Gus' hunting party and Abner had left them, and made trekked inside.

“They were no hunters, they were no artful dodgers of debt collectors, they were adventurous spirits, and the other children of farmers and other commoners; the poor souls were barely a mile in when their meager party quickly dwindled to just one.”

Tessa lead the group of ragtag individuals, armed with all of two guns, shovels, and tools for repairing the carriage. As they carefully made their way inside, everyone from the very back up until the poor sap just before Tessa were taken away by giant birds, hooked off by snakes and tentacles, disappeared into the ground by grasping claws, and even one was accidentally shot by the person in front of them before they, too, were taken.

“It would have been the end of their tragic tale, and this sordid story you would not be hearing now, if the Keeper did not take pity on her.

“For as humans were as new to the Keeper as she was to them, she drove back the beasts, gave her food and non-cursed water, even helped her refuel a carriage, and sent her a parting gift—the same wonders and treasures she had gifted Gus and Abner, with warnings of their potential downfalls.

“Tessa was thankful, glad to have met this kind stranger in this stranger land; so grateful was she, that she invited the Keeper to ride with her, back to her home—terrifying as she was to look at and be in the presence of, she had saved her.”

“So Tessa and the Keeper set off, out of the Viridian Valley and back to her village, where they told this tale to the people there.”

A village popped up. Farmers and the other residents welcomed Tessa with open arms, screamed and raised their pitchforks and rakes as the Keeper stepped out. They relaxed as Tessa explained and more so, when they showed the fantastic gifts the Keeper had given them.

“A feast was held! Thanks were given for this new, strange friend of them all! The humans all slept peacefully, drunk, fed, and dreaming of what good fortunes awaited their futures...”

“… And now that the Keeper knew where these 'humans' lived, she killed them all where they slept, left this tale in a scroll for the pour souls that found them in the coming days, this message written a the very end:

KEEP OUT OF THE VIRIDIAN VALLEY

“So ends The Terrible Tale of the Keeper of the Grove...” Dino hummed as the puppets disappeared, just the warm glow of the lamp at the back of the screen in the still-dark theater. “Take its lessons to heart, dear audience:

Fear the corruption that comes with great power!

Temper your greed, your desire, so that they may not be your undoing!

“Be careful who you trust, especially those that come to you in times of great distress!

“But above all, stay away from the Viridian Valley, leave its many mysteries unsolved forevermore, do not attempt to find out these terrible things for yourself…

“… For if you do, you might find yourself visited by a most terrible guest.”

Winter felt two bony hands gently place themselves on her shoulders.

Up until that point, she had been enjoying the play greatly, enchanted by Dino's story telling; intrigued by the new details she was learning about the Keeper after all the adaptations made her so much less creepy, cunning, and cruel; even laughing at the some of the attempts at extremely dark comedy.

She had felt a chill run down her spine after he growled the Keeper's warning, but it had disappeared just as quickly, like every other time she had watched something scary.

Now, however, as the bony fingers squeezed her lightly; warm, moist breath caressed the back of her neck; their owner made it very clear to Winter's senses that she was right behind her, the chill returned and spread through her whole body, freezing every last bone till she was completely unable to move.

The jumpier kids beside her screamed and panicked. “It's the Keeper!” they yelled as they scrambled.

The braver or the fearless among them turned around in interest, surprised by the sudden appearance of the costumed thespian behind Winter, but nothing more.

“Turn around, kid!” someone from the adult's section called out.

“Winter--!” Snowy started, but the other adults quickly drowned her out, chanting for her to turn around, look back, the Keeper was waiting.

Winter refused, her breathing growing shallow, her heart pounding in her chest, her skin breaking in a cold sweat.

“If I don't turn around, I won't see her, if I don't see her, she doesn't exists...” she chanted over and over again in her head.

It worked for the ones in HoloVision, when her mother turned off the receiver and it turned into a blank slate once more. It worked for the ones on the Grid, when she closed the video and she saw her wallpaper, latest plushie she was gunning for on her next visit to the Palace. It worked for the ones in the books, where she simply had to pull it shut, or switch to another work on her tablet or her comm-crystal.

If you didn't see the monsters, they stopped existing—simple as that.

The Keeper of the Grove pulled her bony fingers back, her hot breath on her neck disappeared.

Winter gasped, taking her first breath for what seemed like forever.

Just as she was about to take a second breath, one to laugh triumphantly with, the Keeper leaned over her, using her height to look her in the face.

Winter stared at that upside-down, skull-like head, its ruby red eyes glowing in the darkness.

“Boo~!”

Chapter Text

Winter was curled up in a ball on her easy chair, her head resting on one of the arms, and her Eluna plushie pressed right up to her face as she sobbed and shook from fear.

Du Pont didn't know what was more disturbing: the fact that she was alone with an incredibly dangerous human weapon in an extremely vulnerable, unpredictable state, or that something or someone could be so traumatic as to reduce one of the infamously unflappable Queensguard into a weeping wreck.

She offered Winter a box of tissues, before she gingerly, carefully left it on the opposite arm of her easy chair, taking great pains not to do any sudden movements. She spent a good long time trying to review her notes, do some refresher research on possible diagnoses, or think and reflect on everything that had just happened, but the sound of Winter's muffled cries of absolute despair made it exceptionally difficult.

Eventually, Winter sat back up properly, and wiped her eyes and nose off on her Eluna plushie. “It was one of the worst nights of my life,” she blubbered, before she blew her nose on her toy. “Mom picked me up and didn't let go, Tony hacked his speed limiters to drive us to the Plushie Palace, then Granny Scar let me and her sleep in one of the beds in the employee's lounge with every single plushie they could spare.

“Mom bought all of them afterward; father was pissed, but she didn't care.”

Du Pont hummed. “What was the time after the incident like, if you would mind telling me?”

“Flinching and screaming at every last sound or creepy noise,” Winter muttered. “Didn't go back to school for a while. Only fell asleep because I was so tired I couldn't keep my eyes open, and I had all of my plushies and mom with me in bed.

“So, you know, most everything I've been doing these past two days, except substitute mom with Weiss, I only got most of my plushies back, and now I have Eluna!”

She held up the now soggy, gross, and astoundingly absorbent plushie.

Du Pont nodded slowly. “So, these plushies, they are very important to you?”

Winter nodded. “Super. Mom bought me my first one when I was three; she was leaving on one of her personal trips, and I didn't want her to leave. So she took me to the Palace, bought me Idun—she's an arctic fox, mom's favourite animal—and told me I could hug her and hold her and pretend it was her, then and whenever she wasn't around...”

Du Pont's eyebrows rose as she made a note of that. “I noticed that you began to slowly rid yourself of your original collection sometime after your mother passed away...”

Winter sighed. “Yeah. I was in denial for a few weeks, kept telling myself she's going to come home one of these days, and when she did, we'd go to the Plushie Palace together, like we always had...”

“And this is why you have only recently returned?”

Winter nodded. “The plushies, the Palace, the people there—they reminded me too much of her, everything we had together, everything we couldn't do anymore, I couldn't take it. And at the time, father convinced me that the best way to cope was to rid myself of everything that did that.”

Du Pont frowned; Jacques hadn't seen her for therapy or even spoken to her about his wife's passing, but those who had been working before and after the Mses. Schnee and her unborn son's passing had definitely noticed the sudden lack of portraits of her, and the resignation or the firing of her favourite employees like her favourite butler, Mr. Sieben.

“But here's the Keeper coming back to haunt me, and showing me how wrong I was!” Winter chirped. “Funny how we often don't try to solve massive problems until something catastrophic happens and we can't ignore it any longer.”

“Change is inherently terrifying, even if it is positive,” du Pont said. “But back on topic: I hope you don't mind, but I had a program calculate the estimated cost of all of the purchases you recently made at the Plushie Palace, based on the transport logs.

“It came to… an extremely large sum of Uroch, Winter.”

Winter nodded. “It was almost all of my life savings, actually. Good thing I won't be needing it anytime soon!”

“And why is that?” du Pont asked uneasily.

Winter balked. “Didn't I already tell you? The Keeper's coming for me and my sister!” Her voice suddenly dropped to a low, ominous tone. “No one survives the Keeper. She reaps you with her scythe, she terrorizes you until you go insane and do the deed yourself, or on very rare occasions she steals you away and forces you into slavery, usually till the end of your life, sometimes for forever.”

“Such as the characters in the story?” du Pont asked. “Winter, these are fictional--”

“They're real,” Winter muttered. “All of them. I did the research, verified and made sure there were historical records backing up the legends. The names may have been changed to make them catchier, they were actually hundreds of years apart from each other, events were changed and melded with other stories, but they were all real.

“Guillermo Aguirre: 200 or so years ago, went off on a quest to hunt down the Keeper of the Grove, prove she did exist, or that she was just one exceptionally lethal mutant reindeer and her descendants.

“From what they could piece together of the two survivors' stories, he found a weapon of some sort and began slaughtering everything in sight—beast or his fellow man. They couldn't give many more details, presumably from trauma-induced memory loss, dehydration, and starvation from when they fled the Valley.

“Abner Jordan Ignatius: 547 years ago, on hastily borrowed loans, stolen goods, and money from confidence scams, hired an expedition into the Viridian Valley with the intent to either hide out from his debtors where they wouldn't want to chase him, or to find something to bring back and wipe away his massive debts.

“The man was in fact a genius, potentially one of the greatest minds Lumania had ever had, if not for his weakness for alcohol, leisure, and both women or men as the mood struck him. No one quite knows how he became associated with a cursed fountain of youth, because unlike Guillermo, none of his party made it back.

“And finally, 'Comtessa,' the earliest known record of the Keeper of the Grove, about 100 years after the Shepherd brought the First Settlers here to Avalon—the Info-Grid still hadn't stretched that far, and the records they did have were bad, corrupted, or lost entirely. Actually the daughter of a rich land baron who made his fortune going out into the dangerous wilds, attempting to find natural resources to exploit them to hell before anyone else could, turned into a farmer's daughter from a small town to make her more sympathetic to audiences...”

She suddenly fell silent, staring off into the distance with an expression of sudden realization, followed by ever growing terror.

“Winter…?” du Pont asked. “Are you okay…?”

Her breathing suddenly got shallow. Her whole body began to shake violently.

“I-I'm fine…” she squeaked as her world began to spin, her fingers tightened on Eluna. “Just… just...”


“… It was one of the most vicious panic attacks I had ever seen,” du Pont mumbled as she sat across Jacques' desk. “Thank goodness I made sure to keep sedatives in my office, I don't even want to think of how she would have fared if she had to ride it out for its full duration.”

Jacques frowned and put his hands to his temples, trying to stave off yet another headache. “So this phobia of hers is even worse than I feared...”

Du Pont nodded. “It's very clear to me that almost losing Weiss in that expedition has brought back decades worth of unsolved issues from the traumatic loss of their mother and their unborn brother—my apologies for bringing it up, Mr. Schnee, but it's really the best explanation for her recent episodes. With the connection between the Valley and this 'Keeper of the Grove,' a childhood phobia from a traumatic experience strongly associated her mother, and her experiences in the Queensguard…

“… Well, it's all just been too much, all at once.”

“How bad is this situation, exactly?” Jacques asked carefully.

Du Pont paused. “Mr. Schnee… I fear she might be suicidal. She's exhibiting so many of the warning signs: suddenly abandoning her responsibilities in the Queensguard; a blatant disregard for the future with her spending nearly all of her money on those plushies; regressing to behaviours from an earlier, happier stage in her life just before the tragedy—not to mention how sure she is that this 'Keeper' is going to slay her and her sister in the near future...”

Jacques looked up at her, alarmed, before he lowered his head and thumped his fist on his desk. “Oh no...”

“'Oh no' doesn't begin to describe the half of it!” du Pont cried. “Mr. Schnee, Winter requires an intervention of the highest caliber, as soon as possible—right this moment, in fact!”

Jacques nodded his head gravely. “Rest assured, Dr. du Pont, I will have the best in psychiatric care flown in as soon as possible, and pour every resource I have at my disposal in guarding Winter and making sure she does not do anything drastic.”

Du Pont blinked. “Mr. Schnee, forgive me, but I don't think you grasp the full gravity of this situation: Winter requires far, far, far more than anything you can provide. She needs an urgent stay at Candela General, where they will have both the manpower, the expertise, and the equipment to deal with her properly, not to mention a change of scenery certainly wouldn't hurt--”

“Is it because of the recent rash of absences because of these invasions and security breaches, this terrorizing of my house?” Jacques interrupted.

Exactly!” du Pont said. “Whether or not you believe this 'Keeper of the Grove' is real, you can't deny that this place isn't exactly the safest in all of Avalon as of the moment, let alone for someone with such rapidly decaying mental health as your daughter!”

“And I agree, Dr. du Pont!” Jacques shot back, his voice growing louder. “But I can assure you, I can provide my daughters everything they could want or need right here in their home!”

Du Pont was about to fire a heated reply, before realization hit her. Her lip curled in disgust. “This is about the media, isn't it?” she spat.

“Yes,” Jacques said gravely. “I fear that those opportunistic 'journalists' and those lunatics spreading the rumours of this 'Keeper' will haunt her night and day, if she is anywhere less secure than this manor.”

Don't you lie to me, Jacques!” du Pont cried, putting her hands on the desk as she shot out of her seat. “You're just trying to save face! I happen to live here and read the news, you know—your staff running away terrified out of their wits en masse, the footage of these mysterious invaders that are foiling every security measure you've put up, investors pulling out for fear of the 'Keeper' or whichever group is targeting you and everything associated with you, like your own daughters--”

Jacques shot out of his seat. “Dr. du Pont--”

No. You listen to me, Jacques Schnee: I have spent decades, helping you grow this empire of yours, convincing hesitant prospective employees that you are not nearly as bad as your detractors make you seem, even defending some of the most reprehensible decisions you have made, like that damned drilling operation in Sekhmet!

“But this? This is the last straw, Jacques!”

Jacques gritted his teeth. “Du Pont, may I remind you of the terms of your contract, the things I have done for you?”

Du Pont threw her hand out. “Go ahead! Ruin me! I'd rather die broke with a clean conscience, than be an accomplice to a devil like you any longer! And don't even try to have me detained, Jacques—I'm sure that'll make for an even better headline:

“'Power Baron Holds Suicidal Daughter, Psychologist Hostage In His Mansion!

Goodbye, Mr. Schnee,” du Pont spat. “In its own twisted way, I'm delighted we part company in circumstances as poor as this.”

What will it take, du Pont?” Jacques growled. “Name your price.”

“Check Winter in Candela General, and she better be on Suicide Watch the moment she's admitted. And go see if you and Weiss can't live somewhere safer and more secure than this madhouse.

“Done,” Jacques said.

Du Pont nodded. “Good. I'll be watching the news, Mr. Schnee,” she said as she turned around and left.

Jacques' eyes burst into flame. “Where are you going?!”

“Out of here!” she replied as she went out. “You know, Jacques? I was always under the impression that your wife was scared of me, paranoid that I was going to take her place in the heirarchy of this house.

Now I realize she was trying to warn me.”

The antique wooden door of Jacques' private office shut with a thunderous SLAM!

He winced, before he pressed the button on his intercom.

“Yes, Mr. Schnee?” hummed the voice of the garage's automated systems.

“Prepare a rover for du Pont, take her wherever she wants to go; and tell she can keep the damned thing, so long as she never returns here.”

“Yes, Mr. Schnee.”


The rumours did not lie: the wrath of Jacques Schnee was swift and all-encompassing.

Thank the Shepherd she had the foresight to put some money away in a private account, one that wasn't legally under Jacques control or that of the banks he may as well have owned. It wasn't much, granted, but she doubted she could justify ever using his money ever again—who knows what had been done to earn it.

The room she had rented was really just one sleeping pod of many set in a wall, the most basic of quarters for visitors who had already blown most of their budget on the fare flying into the city, or residents who hadn't gotten a share of Candela's famed “prosperity for all.”

All she needed was a reasonably private communications line, though.

“Queensguard Anonymous Tip Line,” a curt, professional female voice said, no doubt an AI.

“H-Hello? My name is Dr. Aurelia du Pont, I used to work for Jacques--”

“One moment, please.”

Du Pont sighed. She waited for a few moments, before she saw the holo display before her change, the hotel's logo change into the distinctive red and gold of the Queensguard.

“Dr. du Pont, General Ironwood,” said a distinctive, unmistakable voice on the other line. “We've been hoping to speak with you for a quite a while...”

Chapter Text

Queensguard HQ, somewhere deep underground in the Nexus.

General Ironwood sat in one of the many briefing rooms, two field agents sitting on either side of him, Kajiki and Gwendolyn. The three of them listened to du Pont talking about her examination with Winter, sitting silently with the frowns on their faces steadily growing, asking questions from time to time.

The mood was grimmer than usual, the consensus among all four of them that this was bad.

Very bad.

“… Jacques did agree to my terms, but after I stormed out like that, I doubt he will honour them…” du Pont was saying. “Please, forgive me for only informing you when the situation had already deteriorated so much, the first sleepless night she spent with her sister should have been--”

“Don't feel guilty, Dr. du Pont,” Ironwood said. “We can't catch every red flag the moment they go up, either.”

Du Pont sighed. “A most unfortunate truth… can you promise me that Winter will be properly taken care of?”

“On my word as General, Specialist Schnee will get the care she needs.”

Du Pont hummed. “Thank you, General.”

“No, doctor, thank you—this situation likely would have gotten much worse, if you hadn't called when you did. Is there anymore you'd like to add?”

“Just to be wary of Jacques; the man is even more hard-headed and determined than they make him out to be.”

“We'll manage, Dr. du Pont.”

They said their farewells, along with the canned speech about how the citizens' tips were vital to the Queensguard—and for this particular time, Ironwood meant it. The holographic screen faded away, and all was quiet in the room as they let the new knowledge sink in.

“Agent Kajiki,” Ironwood said, nodding towards them.

The cyborg sighed. “Winter has lost it/ Reason slips through her fingers/ What do we do, sir?”

Ironwood sighed. “Let's review the situation, shall we?”

“We have one of our most dangerous and skilled covert ops specialists suddenly going insane, after she abandoned her post, stole a jet to return home to her family, and had been terrorized by a group who are still almost literally and repeatedly walking right through some of the best security to be found anywhere, let alone a private home.

“From what we know—that is to say, almost nothing—said group is based in the Viridian Valley, a location that Jacques Schnee is currently organizing a large number of armed expeditions into, in retaliation for the first one where they were so kind as to let his second daughter and her escorts come home alive.

“What do you think we do?”

Gwen frowned. “The Knight does not like where this is going...”

“Since when have we ever, Gwendolyn?” Ironwood replied as he got up. “Get ready to move out to Manor Schnee immediately; I want the both of you in Shepherd Suits, locked, loaded, and lethal.”

Gwen's eyes opened, alarmed, before she sighed. “The Knight sincerely hopes neither she nor her companion will have to use them.”

“As do I,” Ironwood grunted. “I expect all of you to do your damndest to take her in peacefully, but if it begins to look like it's going to be ugly...”

“Better one body/ Than two, three, or so much more/ Choose 'Bad' over 'Worse,'” Kajiki recited.

“Precisely,” Ironwood said as he got up. “Don't deploy without me, I'm handling this situation personally.”


Back at Manor Schnee, Weiss busied herself cleaning and drying Winter's Eluna plushie in one of the many bathrooms.

With the specially formulated spray sold by the Plushie Palace, she got it back to feeling soft, warm, and fluffy, but the faint smell of tears, snot, and despair was here to stay until she could find something better.

Winter herself was back in the infirmary, her private room completely closed off but to the constant watch of Doc-Drones and the few human or cyborg security guards who were brave enough—or desperate enough for their salaries—to stay in the manor. By her request, she was cut-off from all forms of telecommunication, and especially the Info-Grid.

Her explanation was that she needed “a LOT of time to wrap my head around the new, horrific implications that elevate the Keeper of the Grove coming for us to a whole new plain of terrible I had never thought possible until now.”

So here Weiss was, idly flipping through incredibly detailed, thorough, and sometimes heated discussions on how to properly celan your limited edition Eluna plushie, if you were so lucky to have one. She was in the middle of reading a particularly lively debate about whether or not you should just throw your Eluna plushie in the washing machine on “Gentle,” as one father had with her daughter's toy, when a comm-request from the garage popped up on her screen.

The ill feeling in her stomach returned as she pressed the “Accept” button.

“Ms. Schnee, your sister has a visitor: General Ironwood,” said one of the few remaining coordinators.

Weiss frowned. “Tell him she's not feeling well,” she said.

“He knows—it is why he is here. He is already on his way to the infirmary. I thought you might like to know.”

The ill feeling grew. “Thank you.”

She left Eluna somewhere safe, then rushed down the halls. She made it just in time to see Ironwood and his escort presenting their warrants and clearance to the guards. The two agents were using the seven-foot tall Sheperd Suit MK III power armour, and equipped with assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, and even a grenade launcher on one of them.

Yet somehow, Ironwood wearing his usual formal suit in the Queensguard's colours, with a holster around his waist holding a stun gun worried her more.

“Weiss,” he said, nodding politely.

“General Ironwood,” Weiss replied automatically. “Why are you here...?”

“To see your sister about official Queensguard business,” Ironwood replied. “Nothing to concern yourself about.”

Weiss frowned. “What are you going to do to her?”

Before Ironwood could reply, the door opened, revealing Winter still in her paper gown. Her eyes glimmered, her grin was just a little too wide, and her hair was out of its usual prim and proper bun, left to fly out in every direction behind her head and around her shoulders.

“General Ironwood!” she trilled. “Great timing! I assume you've come here after hearing about the Keeper situation?”

“Yes, actually,” Ironwood replied.

“Well, I'm afraid to say sir that it's going to be impossible to stop her even with the firepower all of you are packing, but I've got some very important revelations to share with you—ones that change everything!”

“You can tell us back at base, Schnee,” Ironwood replied.

Winter nodded. “Okay, let's go.” She looked around shiftily. “Don't know if she could be right here listening on this conversation this very moment...” she said as she walked out of the room.

Ironwood held out his hand to stop her, and pulled out his stun gun with the other. “Schnee, I'm sorry to say, but I'm under strict orders to take you in incapacitated.”

Winter blinked, then laughed. “I never pinned you as one for jokes, sir!”

Ironwood got into a shooting position, as did his escort.

Winter stopped laughing. “Seriously? I'm cooperating! I'll go with you! You're not really going to shock me and haul me away in front of my own sister, are you?”


“Winter Schnee Shocked And Hauled Away In Front Of Her Own Sister!” read the Avalon New Network's headline after the incident made its way to the public knowledge; below it was “Jacques Schnee Wages War On The Viridian Valley!”, and below that, “Military Presence Rises In Candela, Nearby Territories Amid Security Concerns.”

All Weiss really needed or wanted to know was:

  • Winter was hauled off back to Queensguard HQ to be treated, under concerns for her and others' safety given her combat skill and her mental state;
  • The Avalonian Military was setting up shop in Manor Schnee both as a base of operations and as the most frequent target of the “New, Unidentified Threat” getting the rest of the realm in a tizzy, and as a result, she and her father were to be confined there for their own safety;
  • Her father still refused to call off the new expeditions into the Valley, and for a variety of reasons, some of them in the Queensguard's operations manual, and some of them unofficial but no less binding and sacrosanct, no one could supercede his authority and stop them from going off, presumably to their deaths; and,
  • She couldn't sleep in Winter's room, as it was still too clogged with all those crates, and thus “an unnecessary security risk and potential safety hazard.”

So she lay on her side in her own bed, hugging the Eluna plushie to her chest, eyes closed, trying to pretend that it was actually Winter, and not just a soft, warm, and fluffy ball of fabric that smelled of her tears, snot, and despair.

Winter had always claimed it worked for her, back when their mother was still alive.

And like after she died, the trick never quite worked.

She probably should have cried, gotten angry at her father all over again, maybe even relieved some stress on holo-dummies in the training room, put all those fencing lessons to good use. She just couldn't work up the effort to do much of anything, though, especially in the wake of Tov and his new, unwanted partner from the military briefing her on the new protocols and changes coming to the manor—mostly about the soldiers and androids now patrolling the halls in an attempt to stop any intruders.

“Emotional exhaustion,” one of her therapists had called it.

“Running out of fucks to give,” Winter had explained to her later in private, and which Weiss found a much more appropriate term.

Both her balcony doors were open. The military had kindly suggested she put the lockdown on full-time—Shepherd knew that Candela could use the extra load on their power reserves, avoid the dreaded “overflow discharge” flaw of the technology her grandfather had pioneered—but since she knew it would just delay the Keeper, possibly force her to be less polite and peaceful with her visits, she didn't.

“Hey!” she heard a familiar voice whisper. “Weiss, you awake?”

Weiss turned on her side, looked at the floating Keeper of the Grove plushie right at the edg of her bed. It only sent a little chill in her bones this time, as she had gotten somewhat used to the sight of it and its owner—or alternatively, she was far too dead inside for even her most primal of instincts to kick in.

“What do you want?” Weiss asked flatly.

“Well, you know, we expected to see a lot of civilian and paramilitary carriers flying in, but now there's all these actual military--”

“They're for here, not the Valley. Unlike my father or the poor saps he's hiring, they understand it's better to leave you alone. This is more for PR than anything else, say they're doing something about your visits, at least.”

“Oh. Well. That's good!”

“For you, maybe,” Weiss muttered.

The Keeper plushie floated lower in the air. “Yeah... speaking of which: I heard what happened to your sister, Winter...”

Weiss looked the plushie in the eyes, the red rubies glinting evilly as they always did.

“I'm sorry. I didn't realize this would happen, and as little as it means, I never wanted things to end up this bad.

Weiss felt a rage flare up inside of her, before it died just as quickly.

“Is there anything I can do?” the Keeper asked.

“Can you convince the Queensguard to release her?”

“Ah, yeah… no. I don't even know where they took her, and neither does anyone else. 'Not our business,' they said.”

“Then go away,” Weiss replied, before she turned back to the other side.

“Okay,” the Keeper said, before she left.

Weiss fell asleep to the sounds of radio chatter, soldiers yelling questions at each other, drones and automated security complaining about unknown errors.

Chapter Text

The second round of expeditions to the Valley started of with a massive party paid for by Jacques Schnee himself, and attended by the ragtag collection of mercenary groups, adventure seekers, and random hired guns who needed or wanted the money, and didn’t mind or were woefully ignorant of the Keeper’s reputation.

The military at Manor Schnee were concerned about the Keeper’s casually breaking into the premises and foiling the security, but they assumed that it was nothing that couldn’t be stopped with a large number of human/cyborg patrols and some experimental detection technologies fresh from Candela’s skunkworks.

In the following days, rovers from those same groups charged back to Candela in droves, spilling out countless traumatized, crying, and screaming mercenaries and adventurers nursing horrific wounds, and speaking of even more terrible things that mere mortals were simply never meant to know.

Even more disturbing was the ever growing number of corpses on the trail leading to the Valley—unfortunate souls that had decided escaping on foot and trying to outrun the daylight was a better alternative to hiding out in the Valley until rescue vehicles could come.

Some time after the last of the expedition had returned grievously wounded, insane, or assumed dead, the Keeper came visiting once more, almost completely bypassing the security as usual.

She pulled out the plushie of herself, and then a large, loaded sack made of plant fibers.

Weiss took notice; Winter had spoken about the Keeper’s “gifts” to her victims and the survivors of her attacks, and they were rarely pleasant.

“Hi Weiss!” the Keeper said.

“What IS that?” Weiss asked, pointing at the sack.

“Something I thought you might want,” the Keeper said quickly. “I gotta go, they still need me back at the Valley!”

She dropped the sack, the plushie “waved” goodbye, and was gone before Weiss could yell at her to stop.

She held Winter’s Eluna plushie as she sat on the side of her bed, staring at the bulging bag, wondering what in the world was in it.

Her bedroom door slammed open soon after, soldiers swarming in, barking orders and talking over their radios, rifles and shotguns at the ready as they looked for any sign of the Keeper.

Someone noticed the sack laying on the floor, looked to Weiss. “The Keeper,” she replied.

A sense of extreme unease washed over the troops. “Ma’am, please evacuate immediately,” said one of the squad leaders as they prepared to quarantine her room.

Normally, a suspicious, bulky package like this would have been detonated, either with conventional explosives or an anti-matter charge. Given the unique source, and the whole host of unpleasant unknowns it implied, they were left with little choice but to open it.

Weiss and Jacques stood with Tov in the security room, watching the remote feed as a drone carefully undid the string holding the bag closed, while a whole firing squad of soldiers prepared to blast it and anything that came out of it with enough firepower to level a building and the ones next to it.

The mouth of the sack widened. Everyone tensed up. The drone’s camera slipped in, trying to get a visual of what was inside.

“Dog tags, sir!” one of the on-site soldiers said over the radio. “It’s full of dog tags!”

Specifically, Queensguard nominee dog tags. It wasn’t unusual for those who’d failed to make the cut to keep them as a badge of honour; even just being a rank 1 who had “washed out” got you a great deal of respect, given the exclusivity and high standards of being selected, let alone the brutality of the actual training.

There were other mementos inside: printed photographs, good luck charms, and a letter on a napkin, unsent.

Dear Hali, Mama knows she’s messed up before, but now she’s going going to...” it read, before the rest of it was too smudged and blotted by stains to read.

With what, Weiss didn’t want to know.

The third, smaller round of expeditions was a much more somber, quiet affair than the second, a handful of survivors from the last group warning the newcomers that they could turn back now before it was far too late.

The next day, there were no survivors from the third expedition, the makeshift base and the rovers at the entrance left completely, ominously abandoned.

Back at the manor, and with their high-tech methods to foil the Keeper a complete, absolute bust, the military decided on much more low-tech methods or sniffing her out: paint sprayers, trip wires, pressure pads, and even buckets of dyed water hanging precariously over partially open doors and points of entry. As night descended once more, the whole of the manor was left pitch black, every soldier turning on the infrared or night vision of their visors.

Weiss’ room was ordered on lockdown, two Tinmen equipped with fully automatic “Rolling Thunder” shotguns and blind-fire protocols in the room with her, her bed was surrounded by high-powered shields to prevent her from getting caught in the inevitable crossfire.

In spite of the vastly increased security, she was completely unsurprised to see a flash of rose petals suddenly appear just inside the doors of her balcony.

“Hey Weiss!” the Keeper greeted, about to pull out the plushie.

The two Tinmen turned to her. “Intruder detected: commencing blind-fire,” they said in their deep, monotone voices.

Eeep!”

Deafening blasts filled the room as electromagnetically charged shrapnel ripped through the air and annihilated the Keeper plushie. As the sound faded into echoes, one side of her bedroom was now decorated with numerous deep craters and bullet-holes, thin clouds of wood, concrete, and other debris gently raining down to the floor.

WOAH!” the Keeper said from somewhere atop her dresser. “That was close!”

The Tinmen turned to the sound of her voice. “Intruder detected: commencing blind-fire.”

Weiss made a note to go shopping for new clothes in the morning. “WHAT ARE YOU HERE FOR?!” she yelled, temporarily hard of hearing.

“I WAS JUST GOING TO ASK--”

Weiss' printed high school, fencing school, and preparatory school diplomas evaporated.

“--IF YOU GUYS COULD NOT--”

The wall separating Weiss’ bedroom and her bathroom disappeared.

“--ATTACK THE VALLEY BETWEEN THE HOURS OF--”

One side of windows were blown out, before the walls surrounding them followed.

“--7 TO 8 PM ON MONDAYS THROUGH--”

Moonlight poured in from the new holes in the ceiling.

“--FRIDAYS? I WOULD REALLY--

Drones were turned into scrap, soldiers outside in the hall screamed and just barely avoided being turned into a thin, pink mist by friendly fire.

“--APPRECIATE THAT!”

The barrier around her bed glowed and solidified as it stopped several pounds worth of white-hot metal from reaching Weiss.

“WHY? WHAT’S GOING ON THEN?!” Weiss yelled, curious.

“RUNE RANGERS: LIGHTNING LEGION!”

The wall behind her bed all but disappeared.

“I MEAN I KNOW I CAN WATCH IT ON--”

She could see one balcony through the new holes in the wall.

“--HV-ON-DEMAND BUT--”

More of the ceiling disappeared, Avalon’s two moons smiled upon Weiss.

“--IT’S NOT THE SAME, YOU KNOW!”

One balcony had several new holes blown through its floor, before it broke off from the wall and took several planters with it.

“PLUS EVERYONE’S TALKING--”

She could see her second balcony now.

“--ABOUT THE NEW EPISODE--”

The second balcony disappeared.

“--ON FLITTER AND DECANTR--”

The secret entrance to Winter’s room was no longer much of a secret.

“--AND IT REALLY SUCKS TO--

The secret entrance collapsed, as did a good deal of the wall around it.

“--NOT KNOW WHAT THEY’RE--

What remained of the ceiling creaked and groaned ominously.

“--TALKING ABOUT, YOU KNOW?”

The ceiling collapsed, as did most of the walls around her room. Weiss was spared by the shields; the Tinmen were buried underneath several feet and pounds worth of rubble.

A refreshing breeze from outside flew in, gently taking away all the fine clouds of dust floating about.

Weiss scowled. “GET OUT!”

“OKAY!” the Keeper said, before she fled.

The Tinmen dug themselves free. “Intruder detected: commencing blind-fire. Error: ammo stores expended. Resupply required.”

The Tinmen were deactivated, and Weiss was escorted to a room that hadn’t become a giant, missing chunk of mansion to spend the rest of the night in. It was hard not to notice that the lights were all turned back on, and almost all of the soldiers were sporting bright, neon splatters of paint all over their usually pristine, platinum white armour.

The fourth expedition into the Valley was by air—a single scouting ship flying over the treetops, dropping transmitters, all of them disappearing from radar soon as they floated under the canopy. Before the scouts manning high-powered telescopes from Candela watched it get dragged out of the sky through unknown, mysterious means, they received this transmission:

“Still nothing, HQ. Going to turn back now, we’re just wasting time and equipment at this point. Wait, we’re getting something—what the--” Sounds of the instruments going crazy. “--HQ, we have lost control and are going down! I’m going to try to--!”

Then, nothing.

Back in the manor, desperation, public humiliation, and an incredibly irate Jacques Schnee had forced the military to use one of the oldest tactics in the book: excessive firepower. Tanks had been set up outside, loaded with every variety of shell they had, while others were used as mobile platforms for blanket missile launchers. Every last corner had a turret emplacement, trigger-happy soldiers behind flamethrowers, grenade launchers, and miniguns. Ready and waiting to reinforce them at a moment’s notice were soldiers wearing Shepherd Suits, armed with more of those same turrets in their hands or atop their armoured shoulders, with an escort of other well-armed infantry and combat drones, just to be sure.

“Let’s see her try to break through THIS!” one soldier said.

Tov smacked them. “YA JINXED IT ALL, YOU FUCKIN’ IDIOT!”

The escorts in Weiss’ temporary room this time were four Queensguard nominees, rank 4, led by one Cardin Winchester with his men—just in regular equipment, for the sheer cost of manufacturing the Shepherd Suits, and their confidence in their own skills. She was pretty sure that they had only been assigned to her room because if the Keeper finally decided to get violent, they wouldn’t be missed, but she still couldn’t be bothered to care, and especially listen to the machismo they were spouting, bragging about how they were going to show the Keeper that you “didn’t mess with the Cardinals.”

There was no lockdown this time, since the guest rooms were not considered important enough for such serious security measures.

“I’m telling you, Schnee, that Keeper is going to be sorry she ever crossed us,” Cardin may or may not have been saying—Weiss was busy brushing Winter’s Eluna plushie. “She may have fooled the Tinmen, but she’s not going to fool me, or any of u--”

His words were cut short with a sharp gasp of pain, Weiss began to pay attention.

She watched as, in less than a minute, the still invisible Keeper took them all down, knocking Cardin down to his knees, stole his pistol, and proceeded to twist limbs, cripple arms, and smash stocks into heads until all four of them were unable to fight, unconscious or too busy trying to wrap their heads around what the hell just happened.

Cardinals?” crackled from the fallen guard’s comm-crystals. “Cardinals! Report!”

Weiss gently put down the brush. “Have you finally come to kill me?” she asked.

“Nope! I’ve got a plan instead: how about you and I go talk to your dad together so we can prove to him that I exist?” the Keeper asked cheerfully.

Weiss blinked. The rage from before flared up, and this time, it kept on burning. “Take off your hood,” she growled as she slipped out of her bed, Eluna secured tightly in her arm.

“Uh, I kinda can’t, because that’d make it easier for people to shoot me, and I like not being exploded meat chunks, or full of bullet holes—

“JUST LONG ENOUGH FOR ME TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE, YOU DOLT!” Weiss yelled as she marched to where her voice was.

The Keeper obeyed. Without the hood, she looked a whole lot younger, especially with that baffled expression on her face.

Weiss poked her in her invisible chest. “You are going to kidnap me, and use me as ransom to get my father to stop these invasions into the valley, understand?!”

The Keeper frowned. “Uh, are you sure about this?”

They could hear footsteps and yelling coming closer, the steady thumps of armoured feet pounding on the floors.

Just take me anywhere but this hellhole...” Weiss growled, tears stinging her eyes before she squeezed them shut.

She felt invisible arms wrap securely around her, the Eluna plushie pressed between their chests.

“Hold on tight!” the Keeper said.

Weiss did, burying her face in her shoulder.

The door exploded into splinters. Green energy surrounded the both of them, shimmering and whirling around them like leaves caught in a fierce gust. Soldiers yelling were the last thing she heard when she and the Keeper disappeared.

Weiss had never been teleported before, and most every human before her either disappeared entirely, or didn’t make it through to the other side safe and sound. For the few seconds that she and the Keeper were surging through the realm as pure energy, she felt her very being split apart and thrown over miles and miles of barren wasteland and wilderness, flashes of distorted landscapes and sensations from so much stimuli on so many receptors simultaneously, her mind struggling, confused, and screaming at the alien sensation of being in hundreds of thousands of places all at once.

Then, all the many pieces of her were put back together at one specific location, like so many little scraps of metal under the force of an industrial-sized magnet.

Weiss gasped for breath, inhaling musty air, feet stepping on cold, mossy stone, her body still being squeezed tightly by the Keeper. She opened her just reformed eyes, saw two foreign figures—both female, one scrambling to her feet and pulling out a sword, the other calmly releasing what looked like several floating blades from her back.

<RUBY, WHAT THE HELL?!> one of them yelled in a language Weiss couldn’t understand.

She threw up, then passed out.

Chapter Text

Weiss woke up in a hospital bed, warm sunlight beaming down on her face, the Eluna plushie nestled in her arm. She scowled, thinking that her plan was a bust, until she heard a bird on a post just above her head start calling out:

<Mender to Patient Schnee! Mender to Patient Schnee!>

The only thing she understood was her name, but even that was so heavily accented she had to struggle for a moment.

Weiss sat up, finally took notice of her surroundings. It looked like any other non-private patient room in Avalon, rows of similar looking beds separated only by privacy curtains, except almost everything was clearly made of wood—the frames of the beds, the posts for the curtains, even the walls and the floor seemed to be constructed entirely out of it, complete with the swirls and spots of the grain.

As she looked up and noticed the natural, asymmetrical curves of the ceiling, the shadows of leaves covering the holes in the windows, she realized the hospital wasn't made out of wood—it was the carved out inside of a giant tree.

She looked down at herself. The gown she was wearing was completely made out of natural fibers, as were the sheets, something she could tell after her mother and Mr. Sieben had personally taught her the exact feel of anything synthetic, or supposedly all-natural blends. The IV tube attached to her wrist was definitely organic, something she could tell because it was green, and gently pulsing as it fed her nutrients from what looked like a giant plant sac.

Weiss screamed, Eluna flew off to the side. She gripped the edge of the vine, about to rip it off, when a hand was put on her wrist—one made out of many pieces of warm, intricately carved rock, no joints, just green energy floating between where knuckles, tendons, and a wrist would be.

“I would strongly advise you not to do that,” said a young, female voice in perfect, unaccented Nivian. “Aside from the fact that disconnecting yourself prematurely will be extremely painful and cause yourself unnecessary harm, thanks to the vine already having taken root in your veins, it is also busy gathering much-needed data about your health, and any potential issues or allergies you may have.”

Weiss pulled her hand away. She looked up at the source, felt an unease wash over her like the first time she saw the Keeper—the unique feeling of seeing something like a human, but not quite.

The cyborg or android—she didn't know what she was exactly—smiled, the mouse ears atop her head twitching happily. She felt a pang of recognition, realized this was one of the two figures that had been there with her and the Keeper when she teleported in.

“Hello, my name is”--she said something in the same language as the parrot, with syllables and sounds that she wasn't even sure she could make with her own voice--”but you may call me 'Penny.' I will be your mender for today!”

Weiss blinked.

“Do you have any questions? I must warn you that, thanks to protocols installed within me, and the orders of Elder Goodwitch—not her real name nor title, but as close a translation from Actaeon to Nivian as I could manage—I may not be allowed to answer every inquiry you have, or in as much detail as you would like.”

“Where AM I...?” Weiss asked.

“In the hospital of the Bastion, one of the many settlements in the Viridian Valley!”

“And where exactly is the Bastion?”

“I'm sorry, I am not allowed to answer that question,” Penny replied, still smiling.

Weiss groaned. “Figures…” she muttered. “What happened to me?”

“You suffered from a case of 'Teleportation Sickness': nausea, disorientation, and temporarily altered perceptions from having been transmuted into pure energy, transported to a different location, then transmuted back into a physical being.

“Do not worry: even the most frequent users of teleportation magics oftentimes have to invest heavily in pharmaceuticals and other precautions to avoid suffering it.”

Weiss nodded. “What is this thing?” she asked, gesturing to the vine still attached to her arm.

“That is a”--another unpronounceable, alien name--”or, roughly translated, a 'Vitality Vine.' It is analogous to the intravenous devices you humans use to inject nutrients, drugs, and solutions straight to a patient's bloodstream, if they are unable to take them through other means.”

Weiss looked at where the vine and her hand met, saw bumps under her skin that weren't there before. “And you say it's taken root inside me?”

“Yes!” Penny replied cheerfully. “Do not worry; with the proper procedures, it will unroot and leave almost no scarring, and if it does, there are methods to heal them quickly and efficiently!”

Weiss looked at where the vine went into her wrist, at the sac that was the Fae version of an IV bag, then back at Penny. She wisely decided to leave it alone and sat back on her bed.

She scooted a LOT further back as Penny's arm stretched out, over her bed, and off the side, the tendrils of green energy holding her together arcing longer and longer from each end as she picked up the Eluna plushie from the floor. She reached out with her other arm and gently dusted her off, more of that energy doing the actual brushing and picking off than her “fingers” themselves.

“There,” Penny hummed as she placed her back on Weiss' lap. “Good as new~”

Weiss looked at her, then back at Eluna. She slowly, carefully wrapped her hands around the plushie before she squeezed it tightly to her chest. “… Thanks.”

“You're welcome!” Penny hummed. One section of her “wrist” split and flipped open, symbols and images appearing on its inner side like a tablet. “Do you feel well enough to answer some questions?”

“What kind of questions?” Weiss asked warily.

“How you are feeling at the moment, inquiries to your medical history for any allergies or conditions we may not find through the Vitality Vine, and any requests to make your stay more comfortable! However, we may not be able to honour some or all of them.”

Weiss agreed, and Penny began. She didn't know what bothered her more; that she was being interview by a mouse robot/cyborg nurse, or that it felt almost exactly like any sort of interview she'd have back at Candela, if her digital records were somehow inaccessible.

Penny maintained that cheerful voice and disposition the whole time, what she assumed to be written Actaeon glowing on the surface of her arm-tablet; probably for other people's benefit, much like the holographic screens of many cyborgs.

“Thank you very much, Ms. Schnee!” Penny said as the section of her arm closed. “This is extremely helpful data that will go a long way to improving your care, and the Fae's understanding of human biology.”

“Weiss,” Weiss muttered. “Just call me Weiss. No more Ms. Schnee, alright?”

Penny nodded. “As you wish, Weiss. And speaking of wishes: would you like to rest more, or speak with Elder Goodwitch? She has asked me to tell you that this 'Plan of yours better be good..' or something to that effect.”

“What, they didn't install an Actaeon to Nivian dictionary in you?” Weiss asked sarcastically.

Penny shook her head. “My creator did, actually! It's just that Actaeon to Nivian is not a clear, precise process, mostly because of the vast wealth of highly specific and contextual alternatives to words, as Fae are not as fond of adjectives or adverbs as you humans are, and prefer emphasis to be easily understood by sound alone.

“As an old, roughly translated saying goes, 'There is a world of difference between “Big Spider” and “BIG FUCKING SPIDER, RUN!”, and you better be able to communicate that as fast and as clearly as possible.'”

Weiss blinked, unsure on how to react to the failure of her sarcasm, and more so the implications of the Fae needing a single word to describe spiders of extremely worrying size.

She shook her head. “Take me to her,” she said.

“Are you sure, Weiss?” Penny asked.

“The sooner I can get out of here, the better,” she said.

“As you wish, then, Weiss,” Penny said as she put her hand to the sac of the Vitality Vine.

Weiss watched with a mixture of interest and unease as the roots within her wrist receded, before the vine itself snaked all the way back into the sac on its own. She felt something warm and sticky spread over her skin as pulled away, looked at the organic bandage of sort that had formed over the entry-wound.

She put it up to her nose and sniffed; it had a faint smell like hospital-grade disinfectant.

“The seal will naturally be absorbed into your body within a few hours to a few days, at the worst,” Penny explained. “Do not worry: it is merely being broken down into proteins, carbohydrates, and other organic materials to accelerate your body's natural healing process.”

Weiss wasn't sure how she felt about that.

Penny helped her out of bed, and lead her off to a changing room off to the side.

As they walked, it was hard not to notice that every patient and mender in the ward was looking at Weiss, quite a lot of them cold and hostile.


The nightgown Weiss had teleported in was cleaned and pressed, smelling faintly of sweet flowers, ones she couldn't pin down, if she even knew what they were. Because it was definitely not made for being outside of the bedroom, or being decent and comfortable out in public, she ended up wearing a simple white dress, with a blue diamond-shaped patch sewn just a little bit above her rear.

Where a tail would have gone, she realized, as she looked at the segmented series of floating blocks that made up Penny's own “tail” poking out from the back of her clothes.

It was comfortable; loose, soft, airy, almost like she was wearing nothing at all! And the moment she thought that, she suddenly felt very, very naked, even if the fabric wasn't transparent in the slightest and quite conservative in design.

“Can I get a jacket or something?” Weiss said as she looked at herself in a mirror, unconsciously tugging the knee-length skirt lower.

Penny handed her one that looked like the skinned fur of a wolf, if a wolf was several times the size of a fully grown-man and could glare vicious daggers at you even in death, its hollowed out eyes vowing swift, brutal vengeance at you and your loved ones.

“… You know what, nevermind,” Weiss said, suddenly fine with the almost weightless clothes she wore.

She and Penny stepped out to what Weiss assumed to be a side entrance, going down one of the tree-hospital's hollowed out roots and to an underground chamber. Two familiar figures were waiting for them, both armed:

One was the other figure beside Penny, dressed in lightweight leather armour and cloth, her cat ears warily pulled back as she put a hand to the sword around her belt.

The other was the Keeper, wearing a different hooded cloak in shades of red and black, but the same scythe resting on her shoulder. “Hey Weiss!” she waved with her free hand. “Great timing: me and Blake here just finished discussing our super awesome idea for your 'Kidnap You and Hold You Ransom' idea!”

“What is it?” Weiss asked.

Ruby beamed. “We're going to kill you!”

Chapter Text

Weiss blinked. “You're going to what?”

“Kill you!” Ruby repeated. “If there's anything that's going to stop your dad from attacking the Valley anymore, it's going to be that.”

Weiss nodded, before she gripped Eluna to her chest, stared blankly off into the distance, and reminisced about the series of bad decisions that had led to this point.

The most immediate that came to mind was her spontaneously telling her father that she wanted to join his newest venture: an expedition into the Viridian Valley. Like her maternal grandfather and his father-in-law, Nicholas Schnee, he wanted to find a new wellspring of mana to tap, ones similar to if not even greater than the gigantic concentrations of energy that rested under the Nexus, Valentino, Lumania, Zeal, or Solaris—possibly even the unprecedented titan that powered Candela.

“Uh, Weiss?” Ruby asked, before she waved her hand before her unseeing eyes.

She didn't know what it was that set her off about his droning on about all the failed expeditions, the rumours of the Keeper being responsible for it and thousands of other incidents, the new incredible advances in technology that made possible to thrive in a barren hellhole like the one surrounding both Candela and the Valley itself, but the moment she blurted out that she wanted to be a part of the scouting team, personally overseeing the operations like her grandfather before her, she never once thought of taking it back.

Now, she really wished that her father had vetoed that plan as he usually did.

With no response, Ruby turned to Penny. <What's wrong with her?> she asked in Actaeon.

<I believe she's experiencing what humans call 'thinking about where they went wrong.'> Penny replied.

<Why? What happened?> Ruby asked.

Perhaps it was how she reacted to Winter's leaving for the Avalonian Armed Forces six years ago. She should have sympathized more with her decision, understood she would have done the same thing if she could, not held it up as a massive betrayal, put a wedge between them until just before she was selected for Queensguard training, and become so surly, cold, and hostile to everyone, “projecting” her anger and hurt as du Pont had said.

She was eleven, yes, and it was a confusing time for her with puberty and all these new, confusing feelings and new responsibilities thrust upon her by society just because her age was now in the double digits, and the fact that her mother was long dead, that she had few close friends, and that her father was a hands-off parent (at best) certainly didn't help, but she probably should have done like Winter had, when she was twelve, had been old enough to fully understand their mother's death:

Grow the fuck up.

<It's probably when you said you were going to murder her,> Penny replied.

Ruby's eyes widened, her ears pulled back in alarm. <What?! I said I was going to 'fake her death' not 'put her to death!' Isn't that what I said in Nivian?>

Penny shook her head.

<But it's the same word…!> Ruby whined.

<It is, but humans add additional words to clarify that it's going to be a faked killing, not a real one.>

Or maybe it stretched even further back, to the one point in life she could clearly, confidently point to as the moment her already less than ideal life went to a constant, ever accelerating downhill slide leading to this moment: the day they got the call from the emergency response teams in Sekhmet, that their mother and her unborn child had succumbed to the plague ravaging the desert, that they couldn't even receive their bodies as they were needed to figure out how the hell they were going to stop the new disease from ravaging the rest of Avalon, and their ashes would likely be mixed with the masses of other dead.

Maybe, just maybe, she shouldn't have agreed with her father, and especially Winter's question, the tie-breaker to her decision to start giving away her beloved collection of plushies, the one thing that reminded them of their mother after her father had every portrait and image of her put into storage or hidden away where he'd never have to be reminded of who they'd lost, what died with them.

On the bright side of things, she'd be meeting her again soon, if the Aether really was real. Winter would probably join them soon enough, though she wasn't looking forward to meeting their father again, even if the Stewards always emphasized that they would be a completely different type of being upon reaching it, “stripped away of all that which divided us, our boundless desires and prejudices, the mortal things we clung to so desperately in life.”

Ruby sighed. <This is why I hate Nivian...> she muttered before she turned to Weiss, still zoned out. “Weiss? Weiiisss…?” she snapped her fingers in front of her face.

Blake turned to Ruby. <May I?>

Ruby sighed. <Go ahead...>

Blake stepped up, and slapped Weiss across the cheek.

Smack!

Weiss reeled from the strike, a new bright red print glowing on her skin. “Ow! Just kill me and get it over with, why don't you?!”

Blake sighed. <Believe me, princess, I would if I could.>

Weiss glared at her. “I don't know what you just said, but I know I didn't like it.”

Blake narrowed her eyes. <Feeling's mutual.>

“Okay!” Ruby cried as she stepped between them. “Blake: calm down! Weiss: what I said earlier didn't come out right!”

“Oh, so you're going to torture me instead, is that it?” Weiss spat.

Ruby frowned. “It's--”

“Ruby actually meant to say that we were going to fake your death,” Penny interrupted. “I believe the confusion came from the fact that Actaeon has very specific variations on the word 'kill'—that of killing an opponent; killing prey; killing predator; killing the enemy's morale or desire to fight; or in this particular case, faking a killing, for purposes of demoralization or manipulation.”

Weiss blinked, letting the realization sink in for a moment. “Can we all agree that, from now on, anything anyone tries to say to me in Nivian goes through Penny first?”

Blake and Ruby nodded.

Penny beamed. “I will try my best to make sure that no more misunderstandings will occur!”

“Good,” Weiss said as she headed out to the exit. “Now let's go make my ransom video! And let's be clear that I'm writing the script—the last thing I want my father to think is that this is all a terrible prank!”


Almost as long as people had been speculating and theorizing about what could be found in the Viridian Valley, they had been dreaming and fantasizing about what they would make of it, the grand cities they would build, the new lives they would lead in a place like nothing that had ever been seen in all of Avalon.

There was no shortage of artistic interpretations and depictions in all manner of fiction throughout the years: grand castles and cities built out of the blackened rock surrounding the area; elaborate wooden mansions dotting the trees and the vibrant vegetation, dirt roads thriving with flowers and herbs, animals left to roam and roost wherever they pleased; sometimes even a modern city like Candela or Lumania, glass skyscrapers, neosteel infrastructure, paved roads and carefully controlled and cultivated patches of nature amidst all the artificial construction, the ultimate symbolism of mankind's domination and control over the surroundings their ancestors were slaves to for so long.

They were all wrong, if only because no human had ever attempted anything like what the Fae had done.

The Bastion was the trees, the mountains, and the vegetation—their homes, infrastructure, and even their transportation built in their hollowed out cores, resting on top of them as foundations, or grown in such specific, intentional patterns and directions, it couldn't have gotten that way by itself. Weiss felt her attention dragged every which way as they walked through the streets of the city—or rather, its many hanging bridges, the giant walkways carved out of even bigger branches, the tunnels and pathways going into and around the rocks and mountains.

She saw Fae in specially made robes and protective gear tending over saplings, fungus, and even living creatures, magic flowing from their hands as they tended to their wards, guiding and accelerating their growth into their desired shapes, grafting and inducing features and details they wouldn't have in the wild.

Water poured out from the faces of rocks and mountains, being piped in by pulsing vines to their crop planters and their homes, spraying out from fountains and intricately carved statues and memorials, adding beauty to the surroundings and a place for citizens of all ages to play and enjoy themselves.

Fae of every shape and size going about their days, tending to all manner of weird and strange animals, giving packages to birds and sending them off, leading their lumbering pack-beasts through the walkways, training ferocious looking predators to attack certain target dummies and not others; going about the various stores and workshops trading, working, or just chatting with one another; strolling about enjoying the scenery, if they weren't immersed in their own version of tablets and comm-crystals, looking not unlike the citizens of Candela when they blogged, caught up on each other on social media, and enjoyed funny holos of cats.

And all the while, Weiss couldn't help but notice the sheer number of eyes looking back at her, the heads doing double takes, the people stopping to take pictures of her before sending it to others.

She didn't understand a word of what they were saying, but regardless of language barriers, you could always tell when everyone was talking about you.

The various “Watchers” posted almost everywhere were particularly wary of her, their eyes trained on her, their weapons at the ready, and their animals heeled, if only for the moment. Some of them were only pulling back just hard enough on their attack wolves' leashes to keep them from getting away, not slashing their paws at the air, barking and slavering at Weiss with their powerful jaws full of massive fangs, their fur bristling and crackling with what looked like electricity.

Ruby, Blake, and Penny surrounded her in a triangle, casting glares and barking warnings at others to stay back.

“I'm not very popular here, am I?” Weiss muttered under her breath.

“Your father's expeditions into the Valley have caused very serious disruption to the peace we usually enjoy here, causing a significant amount of panic, unease, and diversion of time, resources, and labour that would have otherwise gone to different projects,” Penny explained. “And this is not even going into all the casualties.”

Weiss blinked, feeling the pit of her stomach drop. “… Ah. Right.”

Weiss feet were aching by the time they finally made it to the tallest, biggest tree in the very center of the Bastion; she realized she really should have thought of packing at least a pair of bedroom slippers, because apparently the Fae were not fans of footwear of any sort, just straps around part of their feet, or bands of leather, metal, and bone strapped to their toes or heels, obviously meant for combat.

The inside of the “Tree of Life” was not unlike a tower, its circular floors built with giant open ring in the center to let you stare up, marvel at how massive the structure was, see the thick canopy at the very top, the sunlight peeking through the leaves.

“How tall is this tree…?” Weiss asked, dumbstruck.

Pretty fucking tall,” an unknown, ominous voice said.

Weiss turned, and found herself staring into the face of her nightmares, the terror that haunted the dreams of Avalonians for centuries, like the bastard child of of a rat, a deer, and a wolf, with glowing red eyes that pierced into your soul.

The physical manifestation of fear itself waved. <Hey Ruby.>

<Uncle Qrow!> Ruby cheered, before she pounced and hugged him.

Chapter Text

Your heart pounding so fast, liable to stop dead at any moment from sheer terror. Icy claws wrapping themselves around your chest, piercing your lungs, making it impossible to breath. Every muscle in your body paralyzed, your eyes affixed to that nightmarish face, feeling those red orbs plunge into your very being, killing you little by little from the inside.

Weiss clutched Eluna in a death-grip, cold sweat pouring down every inch of her skin, her mind screaming at her to look away, away from the face of her impending doom, her body unable to do anything but stare.

“Weiss...?” Ruby asked. <Oh crap--!>

She grabbed the mask on Qrow’s face, pulled it off, and shoved it underneath her cloak and out of sight.

Then, just as suddenly as the most vicious, visceral panic attack Weiss had ever experienced started, it stooped.

She gasped for breath, still shaking. “W-What was that?!” she whispered, her eyes throbbing, a piercing, awful pain slowly spreading in her head.

“That would be the Mask of the Keeper,” Qrow replied. “Specially carved, designed, and improved over the centuries to induce screaming, paralyzing terror, and sudden bowel evacuation in 9 out of 10 humans.”

“How…?” Weiss muttered.

“Magic,” Ruby said as she was lowered back onto the floor. “Don’t know how it works, but it works! Anyway... Weiss: this is my Uncle Qrow!” she said, gesturing to him.

Qrow waved. “Sup. Qrow Branwen, but just call me Qrow,” he said as he walked over and offered his hand—or talon, as the case may have been, as his human shaped hand was covered with a rough and bony layer on both sides, and his “fingers” ended in black claws.

Weiss very carefully took it and got a good look at him as they shook.

What she assumed to be messy, spiky black hair was actually a head of sharp feathers sweeping back from his forehead. His eyes were aquiline, and the skin around his nose and mouth was covered in the same material as his hands, like a beak. Where ears would have been on a human, he only had two holes on the side of his head, covered over by more of his feathers and some fluffy down.

“You’re here to record your ransom video, right?” Qrow asked as he took his talon back. “Studio’s all set, even got a script all written up for you.” He smirked.

Weiss scowled. “There better not be what I think you put in there!”

“What do you think is in there, Weiss?” Ruby asked innocently.

“It’s not important,” Qrow said, still smirking. “Come on, this way,” he said, beckoning with his arm.

Weiss stayed put. “Does you have to be with us?”

“Yes,” Qrow replied. “It’s part of my duties as a senior Watcher, Chronicler, and part-time Keeper for all the Keeper-stuff Ruby can’t do.”

“Keeper-stuff?”


Earlier, in the underground jails of the Bastion.

Qrow was dressed up in a larger version of Ruby’s cloak, the mask on his face, and a pair of fake reindeer antlers on his head. In front of him and backed up against the wall were the survivors of the ill-fated third and fourth expeditions into the Valley.

WHAT DID I TELL YOU DUMB FUCKS ABOUT GOING INTO THE VALLEY?!” Qrow yelled.

“AAHHHH! NOOOOO...!”

“PLEASE! I’LL DO ANYTHING! JUST LET ME GO...!”

“MOMMY! MOMMY! MOOOMMMMYYY-YYY-YYY...!”

Underneath the mask, Qrow cringed as his nose was assaulted with a fresh wave of the unmistakable scent of fear and repeatedly soiled underwear.


“Ah,” Weiss replied.

“It’s hard to believe a story where the Keeper is barely 5 feet tall without antlers,” Qrow replied.

“Hey!” Ruby cried. “I’m still growing!”

“Just keep on drinking your milk, and eating vegetables instead of cookies every once in a while, and you’ll be fine in a couple of years,” Qrow replied.

Ruby grumbled under her breath in Actaeon.

“So how many Keepers are there?” Weiss asked.

“Not including part-timers like me?” Qrow replied. “One.”

Weiss blinked, then looked at Ruby. “I thought you said there were other Keepers!”

“Yeah!” Ruby replied. “There was my mom, and her mom, and her mom—stretching all the way back to my great-great-great...” she continued on for about a minute or two “… great-grandma, Gabija!”

Weiss glared at Ruby.

“What...?” Ruby asked.

Weiss groaned. “Nevermind...” she muttered.

Ruby looked at the others, they shrugged, smirked, or showed that they couldn’t really have cared, and the group finally went on their way to the studio.

Weiss supposed she shouldn’t have been too surprised to see that it was just like any other set; the building materials and equipment may have been made out of enchanted rock, wood, or a specially-grown plant, and instead of AV drones it was birds and other small animals, but everything looked the same, from the cameras and the lighting, the sound equipment, and even what she assumed to be a green screen.

In the center of it all, directing everything through a mix of barking orders and moving things around with magic was who Weiss assumed to be Elder Glynda Goodwitch.

She was dressed differently from the other Fae, wearing especially vibrant robes with intricate designs, the patterns of vines, roses, and animals pulsing with bright magic, sometimes even moving by themselves. But even without the outfit, the aura of confidence, authority, and power she exuded would have told you she was the one in charge.

… However, Weiss found herself incredibly distracted by her animal features: a pair of large, floppy bunny ears, and a poofy, cotton-ball tail poking out from the back of her robes.

Glynda turned around, her mouth a hard line, her eyes narrowed just slightly enough to be the right mix of intimidating and cool. “You’re late,” she said, her tone level, but with an edge that warned you not to annoy her ever again.

<Our sincerest apologies, Elder Goodwitch,> Blake said cutting through between them. <We had a delay back at the hospital.>

Glynda raised her eyebrows, silently asking them to explain.

“Just a normal case of miscommunication, Elder Goodwitch!” Penny explained. “Ruby accidentally told Weiss we were going to kill her, not fake her death.”

Glynda’s expression remained neutral, but you could just feel how hard she was resisting the urge to put her palm to her face.

“And I assume this has been cleared up?” she asked.

“Yes,” Weiss said as she stepped up, “alongside the fact that I’ll be writing the script to my ransom video.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Qrow cried. “Can’t we just use mine? I worked hard on that—legitimately this time!”

Glynda ignored him. “Give me one good reason to let you do this.”

“I know my father better than any of you, and know just what to say to press his buttons,” Weiss replied.

Glynda smiled. “Good reason,” she said, before she turned around to the crews and animals awaiting filming, and shouted something in Actaeon. They soon abandoned their posts and went to a buffet table on the side or formed their own little groups to the side.

She turned back to Weiss. “Can you do it in an hour? I would like these attacks to stop before your father can mobilize another expedition.”

“Deal.”


Little under an hour later, the studio crew was back to work, getting the lighting and sound calibrated, meticulously putting make-up on Weiss to make her look the part of “poor, innocent hostage scared out of her wits,” and double-checking that her new script had been transcribed properly in the teleprompter.

They were only getting one chance to do this, since Jacques had unintentionally given them the perfect opportunity: a press conference in one of Candela’s largest auditoriums, broadcasting through all of Avalon on unsecured channels that the Fae could easily hack into.

Ruby was wearing a mask identical to the original, only without the nightmare-inducing magic. “It tends to mess up cameras of any kind,” she explained, her voice talking on a deep, ominous tone from the modulator inside.

She still looked unnerving to look with the still glowing red eyes, but at least she wasn’t inciting panic attacks from a mere glance like Qrow had earlier.

“Got the bleeder bandages and your fake scythe!” Penny said as she came up with container with green strips of plant matter and a scythe that looked almost identical to real thing.

“’Bleeder bandages’?” Weiss asked.

“An extremely common prop in both live and recorded productions!” Penny explained. “It simulates grievous wounds and other types of injuries while leaving the wearer completely unharmed. It’s filled with fake blood, you see, and the membrane is thin and sensitive; even with a dull prop like this, just a little bit of pressure is enough to break it.”

Weiss looked at the strips dubiously. “I doubt these are going to trick anyone...”

That’s because you haven’t put them on, silly!” Ruby said as she took one of the strips and put it on her arm. Weiss watched with a mixture of interest and unease as the bleeder bandage instantly, perfectly mimicked the colour of her skin. “See?” she said, holding it up.

If she hadn’t seen it come on, she wouldn’t have had the slightest clue where it was.

The small crew manning the jury-rigged and salvaged communications tech from the expedition gave Glynda the thumbs up. “We’re ready to broadcast on your command—make it soon, that press conference isn’t going to last all day.”

“I know how long the average Avalonian’s attention span is, don’t worry,” Weiss said as she put a bleeder strip around the front of her neck. “Just one more thing—Ruby! Penny!”

Yeah Weiss?” Ruby asked as the two of them came over.

She pointed at Ruby. “Just in case my father refuses to surrender, I want you to practice ‘slitting’ my throat.” She pointed at Penny. “You go see if she does anything that's going to make someone reviewing the footage suspicious.”

Penny nodded. “As you wish, Weiss.”

Ruby balked. Wait, what?!”

“Wasn’t it you and Blake’s idea to fake my own death?” Weiss asked.

Well, yeah! But like in the, in the...” Underneath the mask, Ruby's face scrunched up struggled to find the right word.

“Threatening to kill her way, but not actually going through with it?” Penny offered.

Yes! That! Thanks, Penny.” Ruby turned back to Weiss. Are you sure about this, Weiss...? He's your dad, he's probably--”

Weiss scowled. “Just do it,” she growled before she knelt down to the floor.

Ruby reluctantly guided her prop knife to her neck, where the bleeder strip was.

“Ruby!” Weiss yelled.

Ruby pulled away. “What?”

“Your hands are shaking!” Weiss cried. “Who's going to believe you've actually killed me if it looks like you've got stage-fright?”

Ruby whined. “This is really messed up, Weiss! Your dad can’t possibly think that we’re not serious, right?”

Weiss didn’t reply.

Right…?”

“How about Weiss pretends to grab the handle, hold her steady whilst pretending that she’s trying to stop her?” Penny suggested.

“Let’s try it,” Weiss said.

Ruby frowned. “Weiss--”

Weiss stood up, and looked Ruby in the eyes. “Ruby?” she asked calmly.

Yeah...?”

“You want these expeditions in the Valley to stop, right? You don’t want any more people to get hurt or killed? Or for anyone else to come sending another expedition for a good, long time?”

Ruby nodded meekly.

“Then I need you to act as cold, bloodthirsty, and cruel as you possibly can—leave absolutely no doubt in my father’s mind that you’re serious, that you’ll kill me if he doesn’t agree to a complete surrender. Can you do this for me…?”

Ruby looked down.

Weiss expression softened as tilted her head back up, gently removed her mask and looked her in the eyes. “Ruby: can you do this for me? Please?”

Ruby sighed. “… If I have to ‘kill’ you, can you do all the work? I don’t think I can get my hands to stop shaking.”

Weiss nodded.

“We're running out of time here!” Glynda called out.

“Coming!” Ruby called out. She turned back to Weiss. “Are you sure you can’t get my Uncle Qrow to do it instead?”

Weiss shook her head. “It’s going to be very suspicious if the female Keeper of the Grove suddenly sounds like a man.” She paused, casting a glare at Qrow standing in the corner. “Plus, I have this sneaking suspicion he'll probably make a stupid joke that’ll ruin everything...

“Sorry, Ruby!” Qrow called out. “She’s definitely right on that one!”

Ruby sighed. “Okay...” She put the mask back on. Let’s do this.

Chapter Text

There was nothing more Jacques Schnee would have loved to do than to rip into the entirety of the AAF, call them out as the incompetent, overconfident, poorly prepared fools they really were.

First they haul away his eldest like she were a dangerous, unstable criminal. Next, they hold him and his one remaining child prisoner in their own home, and not only did they completely fail at stopping the invader that had been terrorizing them constantly, they managed to completely destroy Weiss’ room and leave a permanent scar on the face of a grand masterpiece of architecture that should have lasted till the end of time. And to top off the ever-escalating series of blunders and PR disasters that plagued him, Weiss had been kidnapped, too, and no one had a damn clue who had done it, how they had apparently managed to solve the problem of human teleportation when Candela’s brightest minds were estimating “significant progress within the next few centuries” at the most ideal, or how they were going to track them down.

Unfortunately, business required no shortage of compromise, of keeping ugly and rickety bridges standing, of sacrificing the fleeting pleasures of the now for the greater, lasting rewards of the future.

“… Rest assured, the AAF will find out who these kidnappers are, rescue Ms. Schnee, and stop them from ever doing so despicable a crime as this ever again,” the AAF’s current camera-friendly General was saying.

Camera drones flashed and zoomed about, trying to get the best shots within their prescribed fly-zones. Journalists took notes and began to refine the questions that they had ready long before they even got word of the event. Jacques continued to look morose and somber, rather than the burning, explosive fury he actually felt.

There were times when his temper was to be unleashed, and this was not one of them.

“We now open the floor to questions,” one of his many PR spokespeople said.

Reporters all shouted and physically fought each other, as if a selection system hadn’t been instated for the sake of sanity; old habits truly died hard.

It the draw fell on the Avalon News Network. “Mr. Schnee! Mr. Schnee!” their reporter cried out. “Should these terrorists contact you to attempt to arrange for your daughter’s release, will you negotiate with them?”

Jacques put his hand to his face, to hide the way his face always contorted whenever he was told that someone was threatening him into action. The moment passed, he calmly put his mouth to the microphone, and said:

“As my predecessor Nicholas Schnee has always done, I will not bow to anyone who thinks that force is the way to get what you want. Then, now, and forever, the Schnee Power Company and I myself do not negotiate with terrorists.”

And with those tempting words, Fate could no longer resist.

All over Avalon, the feed broke and flickered until a new image appeared on HoloVision screens, comm-crystal projections, and the surfaces of tablets everywhere:

The Keeper of the Grove.

Panic washed over the crowded auditorium, and all over Avalon. “I’ll believe her when I see her,” was a common saying in Candela, and that moment, the whole city became believers.

Hello, Jacques,” the Keeper said. “You’re a stubborn, stubborn man, aren’t you? You just don’t know when to quit, just like when you had that drilling operation in Sekhmet.”

Jacques gritted his teeth.

The locals warned you. Your own experts told you there was something very unusual about the core you were trying to reach, that you should have postponed the excavation until they knew more. Even your own family could feel that trouble was coming, but of course, you know best, don’t you, Jacques…~?

So you kept drilling, and drilling, and drilling, until you finally reached paydirt, and we all found out just what was down there.

And it only cost tens of thousands of lives, two of them your own wife and your unborn son—I do so hope he’s been reborn to a much better father than you ever were.”

Jacques looked back to the IT teams and AAF cybersecurity crews on the side. Faces were hunched over devices, but it didn't look like any of them were tracking the signal down soon. One of them motioned for him to keep talking.

Jacques he turned back to the mic. “What do you want…?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level.

You should have died in that outbreak, Jacques. You should have just left your lovely family at home, but no—you insisted that you all be there, for your newest, biggest breakthrough, like a family. Though the pictures that did get published, the articles they made weren’t exactly what you wanted...”

Jacques gritted his teeth. “I'll ask you again: what do you want?”

I want you to stop going into the Viridian Valley, Jacques. I was in a good mood that night of your first little expedition—even thought I might spare your daughter and her guards, shake things up a little! Apparently murdering every trespasser that comes through can get boring…

“… But now, thanks to you—yes, you, you power-hungry egomaniac—I’ve changed my mind.”

Back in the studio, the camera zoomed out, to show Ruby putting the blade of her prop scythe up to Weiss' neck.

You’ve already lost wife, your unborn son, your eldest daughter—all because your silly little ego was more important than their lives. Shall we add your second born to to the list? I’ll give you some time to think it over...”

You’re bluffing!” Jacques yelled.

The Keeper giggled. She pulled the scythe away from Weiss, “slashed” the inside of her arm. She showed off the “wound” to the camera, let it stay there for a good while, letting everyone see the “blood” pouring down from it.

I assure you, Jacques, I am very, very, very serious. Do you think I won’t do it? Think of it, Jacques—you’re a smart man who’s always right, and never wrong, aren’t you? What do we have to lose if we kill our one and only hostage, hmm?”

She put the scythe back to Weiss neck, she whimpered.

You don’t know who we are. You don’t know where we are. But you do know that if you don't stop, there’s no stopping us from doing this all over again either—hope your senior staff have told their families they loved them recently!”

Jacques slammed his fists on the table. “YOU MONSTER!”

The Keeper giggled. Funny: who's the one who keeps sacrificing other people’s lives for all that power you seek? Whose blood keeps the lights on in your cities? Whose corpses did you build that empire of yours over?

It’s just two words, Jacques:

I. Surrender.

See? Simple. Why don’t you try it with me?”

Fuck you!”

The Keeper giggled. “Wrong answer.”

Ruby gently tilted the scythe closer to Weiss neck, she grabbed the handle and the weapon began to shake from their “struggle.”

“Father! Please! Just do it!she screamed.

Jacques stared at the screen, shaking and trembling with fury.

Say it with me now: ‘I surrender.’”

What do you want?! Money?! Technology?! Land?!”

The Keeper shook her head. “That’s not how you say ‘I surrender,’ Jacques. And Nivian is my second language! For shame.

He surrenders! He surrenders!” yelled one of the PR reps Jacques had brought.

Doesn’t count if it’s not him, sorry,” the Keeper hummed. “One last chance, Jacques. Come on now, I know you can do it! Say it:

I surrender.”

The crowd was in a panicked frenzy now, people were shouting into their HV receivers, their comm-crystals, their tablets, if they hadn’t already stopped watching, anticipated the worst.

And still, Jacques remained silent.

Weiss pulled the prop scythe across her neck, breaking a neat, clean line over the bleeder bandage.

Ruby dropped it in surprise. Weiss stared at the screen with eyes full of betrayal and hurt, keeping herself on camera for a few moments, letting them watch the “blood” run down from her neck, before she let herself fall to the side.

It was so quiet in the auditorium everyone heard the sound of her head hitting the floor.

Ruby stared at the camera, frozen. With the mask on, she betrayed no emotion, looked like she was just silently staring at the audience.

Glynda cut the feed.

The face of the Keeper disappeared, replaced with the stunned face of Jacques Schnee.

An aide carefully reached out to him. “Sir…?”

“I’LL KILL THEM!” Jacques roared.

Guards rushed to calm him down, he struck one across the face so hard they dropped to the floor. The other tackled him to the table.

“I’LL BURN THAT FORSAKEN VALLEY TO THE GROUND…!” Jacques roared, his voice echoing through the microphones and all of Avalon before he was hauled away.


Back at the Valley, Ruby tore off her mask, knelt down, and picked Weiss up from the floor. “Oh, crap—Weiss, are you okay? You didn’t hit your head too hard, did you? These wood floors are really--”

She stopped as she noticed the tears welling up in her eyes.

Ruby frowned. “Weiss…?”

She lunged forward, buried her face in Ruby’s shoulder, wrapping her arms around her as tightly as she could before she began to cry.

Ruby slowly, gingerly hugged her back.

Glynda began to quietly usher everyone else out.

Chapter Text

“Day 7 of my imprisonment:

“From what little news of the outside world I've been allowed, the expeditions in the Valley have officially stopped. Regardless of if the people thought that Ruby was real, or she was just a new terrorist group using the monicker, no one is planning on returning any time soon, for superstitious beliefs, or the massive damage my father has caused to the SCP's coffers and the company's already poor reputation.

“Speaking of whom, the official story is that his removal as CEO of the Schnee Power Company and the corporate boards he sat on is temporary, that the vacation he's taking to some far-off, isolated resort is to give him time to mourn and relax, escape the stress and the ugly aftermath of my 'death.'

“But I'm pretty sure anyone can read the writing on the wall, know that his thrones won't be waiting for him when gets back, if ever.

“There's already rumours of plans to buy Manor Schnee via eminent domain and renovate it into a proper military base—the personnel and the equipment are already well-established there, the location is very secure and has numerous important facilities already constructed, and the troops rather enjoy the horde of servant drones, and are more than willing to put up a fund to keep them around.

“Meanwhile, here in the Bastion, the Eldan Council are still busy discussing what exactly to do now—apparently all the equipment they'd salvaged, and the information they gotten from their numerous 'interrogations' into the survivors from previous expeditions has created a gigantic backlog of paperwork, unforeseen issues, and new research projects.

“And though it pains me to admit it, I am very, very low on their list of priorities.”

She heard footsteps from outside her cell; she paused and sat up, until they passed by and faded away. She laid back down, shifted a while to get comfortable again on her cot, then continued to speak.

“No one had expected that I would make it impossible—or at least, very, very difficult—to return to human society, least of all myself. No one wants me around, and those that do are either Ruby, or 'Makers' who are far too eager to study me for mysterious, undisclosed reasons. And no one has the heart to throw me out out of the walls and leave me to the wildlife, as befitting the Fae's rather humane and charitable philosophy towards governance.

“Hope is fading ever faster, but I'm slowing down its decay by looking at the bright side of things:

“I have a very nice prison cell!

“It's high up in one of the tallest trees of the Bastion, a window to let sunshine and fresh air in, a curtain I can pull down at any time, a comfortable cot, bright light for when it gets dark, even indoor plumbing! Though it's limited to a sink, a toilet, and a bucket with a dipper in it, the nigh unlimited supply of hot water makes up for it.

“Whatever minerals are in the hot springs, they are doing wonders for my feet, skin, and sanity.

“The Watchers were nice enough to let me keep Eluna, treat me with respect and never use more force than is strictly necessary, and feed me regularly with a decent variety of food—nothing gourmet, for sure, but a far cry from the nutriblocks and protein paste some jails in Avalon use!

“I tasted one when Winter got it mixed up with her luggage. It was terrible, and I doubt they've gotten any better over the years.

“Ruby has even been kind enough to use her influence in Fae society to get me this very recorder I'm using, and some copies of books in Nivian to occupy myself with, the originals used by the thriving black market of unofficial Actaeon translations.

“They're mostly incredibly trashy romance novels or painfully predictable and simplistic 'adventure' stories, and reading them makes me feel like my brain cells are slowly committing suicide, one by one, but the thought is much appreciated.”

A voice echoed from her cell’s PA system—a series of hollowed out wooden tubes. “Schnee, you’ve got a visitor,” one of the watchers said.

Weiss turned on her other side, to the receiver beside her bed. “Let her in,” she said.

To the recorder, she quietly added, “I actually have no control about who enters my cell and when, but it's nice to feel like I have some control over my life, after my attempt to be free of external influences went horribly, horribly wrong.”

She stopped recording and sat up as the door opened. One bulky Fae guard walked in, her giant axe clearly on display as came over and cuffed Weiss’ hands. She was a political prisoner and no one thought for a moment that she could be dangerous, but the Fae liked to err on the side of caution.

A second guard came in, ushering in a familiar guest.

Ruby waved with her free hand, the other carrying a small sack. “Hi Weiss!”

“Did the Eldan Council decide already?” Weiss asked, feeling Hope stir in her chest.

Ruby's smile turned uneasy. “Uh, yeah, no. They’re still talking, and it doesn't look like they're going to be done soon.”

Weiss felt Hope get brutally crushed once more. “Oh.”

“I’m sure they’ll finish soon! It’s been like, what, a week? They’ve got to be reaching a decision about you soon!”

Weiss decided not point out that this was almost exactly what she’d said the other six visits.

“Anyway, I've got great news: Uncle Qrow finally got permission to try and contact your sister!”

Weiss blinked, then beamed. “Really?!”

“Yup! He knows some people who owe him big favours! You, uh, owe him a 'fuck-ton of favours’ now, however many that is.”

Weiss nodded. “Fine with me! I can’t believe he actually managed to find an in with the Queensguard!”

Silence.

Weiss smile slowly faded. “… He’s just going to call the Anonymous Tip Line, isn’t he?”

“Yeeep… BUT!” Ruby pulled out a data-stick—human design, not Fae, complete with an adapter. “He can pass on a message from you. The Watchers will have to approve it for sending, and you’ll have to be careful not to mention anything like where you are, exactly, or that our cities are totally a thing, but they agreed to let you tell her that your death was totally fake, so long as the details never reach your dad!”

Weiss snorted. “That won’t be a problem.”

“Great! So, you want to go think up something, or just go full improper with this?”

“'Impromptu,' you mean?”

“Yeah!” Ruby paused. “What did I say?”

Weiss shook her head. “Just ask Penny. Hand me my recorder, please?”

She made her message. It took a few tries, from either the Watchers telling her she put in too much info, or her bursting into tears and spilling everything, but eventually, they got something that both parties were happy with.

“Can he make sure it’s going to make it to her?” Weiss asked as her guard kindly mopped up her tears and snot for her with a tissue.

Ruby shrugged. “We’re shamans, craftsmen, and scientists, Weiss, not miracle workers.” She smiled. “But knowing my Uncle Qrow, he’ll find a way—he always does.”

They stuck around for some idle chatter—it was impromptu hunting season again, as the wild animals were getting too populous, too daring, and too close to the walls for comfort—until Ruby's visiting hours were over.

“See you, Weiss!” she said as she waved goodbye as she dropped off the sack.

“Bye Ruby,” Weiss replied.

The Watchers were obliged to check thoroughly check it again—like humans, smuggling contraband in new and interesting ways was nothing new to them. It had contained the same thing as always, though:

Chocolate chip cookies, and a big container of milk from the local “cows.”


The trick was to go in a crowd.

Face recognition technology had advanced so much that they could pick out individual faces in a densely packed sea of people spanning several miles, but that was only if you knew the exact face you were looking for, and Qrow took great pains to make sure that the ones he put on was one wanted to remember and would avoid recognizing in a high-definition holograph.

It helped that it was easy to switch out his prostheses—new pair of fake ears, different nose, all new made-up skin condition, “alternative gene-modification,” or horrific lab accident to tell anyone who bothered to ask.

But in the end, it all boiled down to merging into the right groups of people, taking care to never be caught alone in the middle of the street, leaving some other guy to catch the Peackeeper's attention—“just like a herd animal,” he thought, smiling to himself.

Eventually, he dropped off a bus and to his destination—the “Dark Side” of Candela, home of the people that had been left behind, wanted to be left the fuck alone, or were on the left side of the tracks. He sighed happily as he could finally walk down the streets freely; no one was going to bother remembering his face, and he would do the same for them.

All the gaudy neon signs and chintzy advertising made it difficult to see anything properly, anyway.

He continued onto the Null Set—an illegal bar, didn’t officially exist in the city records, with an owner that had a love for programming humour. It wasn't his scene—too many hackers, “modding” enthusiasts, and would-be revolutionaries for his taste—but it was the best place for discrete exchanges of information, legal or otherwise, business or pleasure.

Qrow headed up to the bar, ordered a drink that was a far too colourful and named weird, tried to enjoy it for a while until he finally found an opportunity to talk to the tall, lithe cyborg beside him. “Hey, Fish, I got a question: why is it that every single one of you I meet is fucked up in the head in some way?” he asked.

“We are forged in strife./ Broken. Fixed. Broken again./ Powerful, but scarred.” Kajiki replied.

“Huh. That explains a whole lot actually.”

“Indeed.”

Qrow discretely passed on the data stick with Weiss’ message. “Sure it’s going to make it to her?”

Kajiki loooked at him disdainfully. “If you can’t trust me/ The shady ‘borg at the bar/ Then who can you trust…?” they said as they downloaded the info, before they crushed the stick in their hand.

Qrow smirked. “Ain’t that always the million Uroch question...?”

They sat there for a while, Qrow drinking and Kajiki “trancing” for a while, before Qrow left the bar and rented one of the heavily encrypted lines on the side.

“Queensguard Anonymous Tip Line,” a curt, professional female voice said, slightly distorted and broken up.

“Got a message for one Winter Schnee: your little sister says you shouldn't do anything drastic. If you do, she's going to be real pissed, believe me,” he said, before he hung up.

He left and went to find a much better bar to spend the Urochs he'd been lent as he'd called the Queensguard Tip Line, just like he told the other Watchers.


Elsewhere, in a section of the Bastion few knew about, and even fewer could access, the Eldan Council continued their meeting, Glynda sitting alone at a table with projections of her fellows before her.

<… Well, I think we’ve discussed this matter to death—shall we all take a vote on it, or give it another day of reflection?> Ozpin asked.

<My decision is as firm as the day I made it: she stays!> Port cried. <There’s no question she can prove herself a very valuable asset indeed. After all, one does not slaughter the pups of a killer wolf, one takes them in, raises them with love and care, so they may grow up to lend you their power, their majesty, brothers in tooth and claw!

<Especially if her lineage has proved very formidable indeed...>

<I concur!> Oobleck added. <There’s simply too much valuable data at stake, and many future opportunities that would be lost without her—no to mention the leverage she can provide us with, ahem, certain individuals.>

Glynda sighed. <And for what it’s worth, I still vote 'No.' There’s too many unknowns in this decision, much potential for catastrophe, not to mention the eerie parallels...>

Ozpin nodded gravely. <Indeed.> He smiled. <All the more reason to monitor her very carefully. Second thoughts, anyone?>

There were none.

Ozpin hummed. <Then it’s settled: Weiss Schnee will be released to the Viridian Valley on parole, and trained accordingly under Glynda’s guidance.>

<May I speak freely, Archon?> Glynda asked, keeping her voice level.

<But of course!>

<I would just like to say that it’s extremely easy to agree on something when you yourself are not personally responsible for it.>

<Oh, come now, Glynda; we both know that there’s no joy in any endeavour without a bit of challenge and uncertainty!> Port cried.

<Maybe you’ll even find a valuable ally in her—stranger things have happened.> Oobleck added.

<Maybe,> Glynda said. <But for the moment, she’s just a load that most everyone would rather see locked up than walking the streets as a fellow citizen.>

<And that’s where care and nurture comes in. The Valley was once just a patch of fertile land, rife with potential, was it not?> Ozpin asked, smiling.

Glynda's nose twitched. <I’ll begin drafting the terms of her release immediately.>

Ozpin smiled. <Excellent. Meeting dismissed, back to the day to day grind, everyone.>

Glynda watched the projections of her fellow council members disappear, finally letting her lips curl into a scowl. She sat there brooding for a few moments, before she magicked a scroll into her hand and started thinking.

There was going to be a lot of precaution to make it work this time, and the precedents were not encouraging in the slightest...

Chapter Text

The terms of Weiss’ parole were surprisingly simple:

One, she could only freely move around in the Bastion, and could not exit the walls of the city or travel to any of the many other settlements in the Viridian Valley without Ruby and an additional escort consisting of Penny and Blake, or just Qrow.

Two, she’d have to get a job, or at the very least, prove that she was being useful to the Fae in some way. Glynda recommended joining the Watchers—the “Order” that was a combination police force, army, and forest rangers—but Weiss was going to take her chances with other work that didn’t involve putting life and limb at risk, and whose legitimate claims for hazard pay included “Partially Eaten By Predators.”

And three, she’d have to live with Ruby and Qrow at their home, where Blake and Penny also happened to be staying.

There were other small details and nuances such as the fact that like most citizens, she had restricted access to “the Codex”--the Fae’s storage for every single piece of data and information they’ve ever collected since they first became sentient and organized—being forced to learn Actaeon for everyone’s benefit, and being tested for something Penny translated as “the Gift” after a month's time or so.

“This is… actually a whole lot less than I was expecting!” Weiss said as she sat in Glynda’s office.

“What were you expecting?” Glynda replied from behind her desk. “Tracker collars? Constant watcher escorts? Being forced to have a Governor installed and all your thoughts and memories regularly uploaded to the Codex? You’re a hostage, Schnee, not Public Enemy #1.”

Weiss nodded. “It’s just with who my father was and all...”

“That was your father,” Glynda said. “If we based all of our decisions and judgments entirely on your lineage and the actions of your ancestors, then the Fae would have extincted themselves long ago from nepotism, incompetency, and old grudges.

“Though I must warn you that there’s always an element of it in many organizations and social interactions.”

Weiss sighed. “I’m not surprised...”

“Fae and human society are not that different, Schnee. When you really get down to it, we’re all just animals working together to make better lives for ourselves, and the ones we love and care about.”

“I figured when I saw someone forwarding funny cat videos to their kids on Storybook.”

Glynda nodded. “Indeed. Do you have any other pressing questions? If it's anything regarding Fae society in general, specific terms, or cultural attitudes—'the ropes,' so to speak— you can just ask Qrow or Penny; its their job as Chroniclers.”

“Just one: how do you know Nivian so well?” Weiss asked.

“I did as those that are keeping your Old World's Tongues alive: I studied it, I immersed myself in it, and I used it frequently with others who spoke Nivian better than I. I suggest you find something entertaining to enjoy; our industries may not be as robust or prolific as you humans, but it's still there.”

“You learned Nivian through cartoons?”

“Yes. I'm particularly fond of the one with the rabbit who keeps outsmarting his human hunter, among other antagonists,” Glynda said with a straight face.

Weiss sniggered. “I'll just be going now, Elder Goodwitch,” she said as she slipped out of her chair.

Glynda's nose twitched. “Please, try your best to make the reasons of our next meeting much more positive,” she said coolly.

Weiss nodded before she turned around and made haste to leave.

A little after the door was shut behind her, Glynda sighed. “Should of turned left at Albuquerque...” she muttered to herself.


Outside, Weiss finally burst into laughter, clutching her sides as her eyes watered with tears. Glynda's small army of secretaries and assistants mostly ignored her, but their supervisor glared at her. Weiss gave them an apologetic look, got some tissues to clean up, and made for the waiting room.

Blake was on one of the benches, quietly reading a book. Qrow sat beside her nursing a wooden container of locally produced alcohol, discretely sipping from it when the avian “security camera” wasn't looking at him. Penny was standing and smiling, the glow of her eyes and arms dimmed to show that she was on standby mode.

Ruby stopped pacing around the area and ran up to her, almost crashing into Weiss. She tilted forward for a moment, Weiss leaned way back to avoid getting poked by her antlers. Ruby quickly fell back on the balls of her feet and asked:

“Well? How'd it go?”

“If I understand it correctly…” Weiss smiled. “I'm mostly free!”

Ruby cheered. “Yay! Congratulations, Weiss!”

Weiss yelped as she suddenly hugged her, dodged her head to the side and just narrowly avoided getting butted with her horns.

Ruby quickly pulled away and looked sheepishly at her. “Sorry...” she muttered.

Weiss sighed. “Just warn me the next time, alright?”

Ruby nodded. “I will!”

“Got any more business here, Princess?” Qrow asked as he got up. “I mean, we're all on the clock and getting paid to guard you until you get out of the Tree, but babysitting duty doesn't have the best time/profit investment compared to everything else we could be doing.”

Weiss shook her head. “Are you all seriously going to leave me alone as soon as I'm out the door, just like that?”

“Yep!” Ruby replied. “Because I, your Parole Watcher, trust you,” she hummed

<Try not to get eaten by a guard wolf, or fall out of a tree and to your death while we're not around,> Blake said with a straight face.

Weiss frowned and looked to Penny.

“Do you want a rough translation of her exact words, or the essence of what she said?” Penny asked. “The latter is much faster.”

“Gist,” Weiss replied.

“Blake confirmed your suspicion, and wishes for you to stay safe,” Penny hummed.

The both of them could tell that wasn't exactly what she meant, but they let it slide.

“I would like to add that the Bastion may be the safest city in all of the Viridian Valley, but the Valley is not exactly the safest place in general, so please, always be on your guard for the numerous dangers that lurk here!”

Weiss frowned. “Like what, exactly?”

“Mutated wildlife and plants, mostly,” Qrow replied. “All that raw magic just floating around, escaped Maker experiments and work animals getting freaky with the natives, plus the unforeseen long-term consequences of science projects from the past tend to have some pretty interesting effects.”

“Don't worry though, Weiss!” Ruby said. “If there's one part of my job I'm great at, it's making sure the populations are in check, so no one gets killed and/or eaten by wild animals—so long as they stay within the border walls, at least, because otherwise I'd never have time for anything else!”

“So in case it wasn't obvious, you'd best stay in until you've toughened up a lot and got yourself some decent gear,” Qrow added. “The critters lurking out there will fuck anyone's shit up.”

“And that's terrifying, along with being really gross and confusing!” Ruby added.

Weiss shuddered. “Relax: I'm never going to step foot outside the gates if I can help it. I'm a city girl, anyway.”

“Yeah, but you're not in Candela anymore,” Qrow murmured.

<Hey, sorry for butting in, but can we please go now?> Blake asked. <Some of us have to work to eat.>

They made their way out of the Tree of Life, stopping only to pick up a care package for Weiss.


 True to their word, Qrow and Blake split from the group the moment Weiss had both feet out of the entrance.

She didn't mind; not having them around made the sweet feeling of finally being (mostly) free all the better. She stepped into a less shaded patch of sunlight and felt its warmth on her skin, sucked in a deep breath of fresh air, before she gagged and choked on the cumulative scent of so many citizens and animals who spent more time outdoors and working than in the hot springs.

“Don't worry, Weiss!” Penny said. “I can say with confidence that your biology will eventually get used to the unique aroma of Fae cities—in time, you won't even notice it!”

Weiss pulled the fabric of her dress up to her nose, then pulled it back down when the breathable fabric did nothing to hide the smell. “Let's just go to wherever my new home is...” she grumbled. “Where do you live, anyway?”

“Pretty far from here!” Ruby replied. “But don't worry: since you're no longer a hostage, you can use the Tubes like we do!”

“The Tubes?” Weiss asked.

“It's--” Penny started, before Ruby grabbed her and stopped her.

“It's better if you see it for yourself,” Ruby said, smiling.

Weiss had a sinking feeling about it, but it wasn't like she had much of a choice.

They walked to the nearest “station,” an extremely short distance away considering the Tree of Life was the Bastion's version of a city hall, among other things. As they walked up to it, Weiss noticed that they were getting closer and closer to some of the massive aqueducts, to a joint that exited in multiple directions. The center of it had three workers, one monitoring a terminal, the other two helping passengers in and out of what looked like wooden tubes with unfolding covers.

Her eyes widened as the pit of her stomach fell. “We're not seriously going to...”

“Yep!” Ruby chirped. “Don't worry, Weiss, it's super safe and such a rush, too! Oh, and just so you know, never take the Tubes if you've just eaten, and especially if you're still eating. Trust me on this, neither of them are good combinations.”

Weiss turned to Penny. “What are the chances of me dying in a freak Tubing accident?”

“Almost completely zero!” Penny chirped. “Not including the first few months of its implementation several hundred years ago, the Tubes are the safest mode of transportation in any Fae settlement. It's been 5 years since the last accident, but even then, the passengers were physically unharmed if traumatized, and the cause was a sudden earthquake that also interfered with many other parts of the Bastion's infrastructure.”

“We build our cities with the intention of making them last forever and stand against almost anything you can throw at them, Weiss,” Ruby said as they fell in line. “You'll be fine.”

Weiss didn't reply, and quietly wondered that if the Keeper of the Grove was real, was the Holy Shepherd's supposedly divine powers true, too?

She didn't reach a conclusion by the time the made it to the front of the line—the Tubes were also very efficient, it seemed. Ruby had gone first to demonstrate how it was done, and Penny had allowed herself to be partially disassembled to show just how secure the cargo hold for a “Log” was.

The both of them smiled at her before the lid was closed, but fact that Penny's head had been detached from the rest of her body rather ruined any reassurance they intended.

<First time, kid?> one of the workers asked, holding up a clawed finger.

Weiss nodded meekly.

<Just close your eyes and keep your mouth shut,> he said and mimed as his companion secured her care package into the cargo hold.

“Thanks,” Weiss whispered.

She was loaded into the tube, ramrod straight on her back. It felt like she was being put in a particularly spacious coffin, and the fact that they were strapping five belts over her body—on her feet, her knees, her waist, her chest, and finally across her forehead—didn't help.

The worker smiled, gave her a two-finger salute, and closed the lid. She heard it click securely shut, the grates above her head and by her feet open, and the sound of gently trickling water turn into a deafening roar.

And then, she was off.

Chapter Text

The problem of all safety instructions was that they were very difficult to follow while you were in the midst of trying not to soil yourself in sheer terror.

Weiss managed to follow the handler's instructions of keeping her eyes closed and her mouth shut up until the first hard turn five seconds in, when her log went from going at swift but constant downhill slant, to a 90 degree angle drop straight down.

As some of her internal organs began to shift upwards, Weiss opened her eyes and started screaming.

The ride was less than a minute long, her log only ever slowing down to safely maneuver more hard turns and sheer drops, climbing up the vertical pipes, or waiting for a different log to pass through a junction before she rocketed on through, but the path was full of more twists, turns, climbs, and drops than most roller coaster designer's wildest, most improbable fantasies.

Up, down, to the left, to the right, round the bend, over a hill, under the ground, through a mountain, and once through a loop-d-loop—the Tubes seemed to make it a point to use every single direction possible in three-dimensional space, all in the name of getting their passengers from point A to point B as swiftly as possible.

Her log finally reached its stop, the roar of water quieted down to a steady thrum, Weiss hoarse scream's finally ceased from lack of oxygen. The cover was opened, the handlers at this station unstrapped her, and were kind enough to gently pull her out when they realized she was paralyzed with fear.

Weiss stepped onto the wooden platform of the dock, one shaking, bare foot at a time. Ruby and Penny rushed over to her, the two of them taking over for the handlers.

“You okay, Weiss?” Ruby asked as she held her from the front.

Weiss threw up.

“… Probably should have seen that coming!”

Weiss went off with Penny to the side, to retch and heave into the water than on the floors. Ruby got her clothes cleaned up—to none of Weiss' surprise, every station was well-stocked with cleaning equipment for both the logs and the passengers, going so far as to offer spare clothes at a pittance.

Weiss' stopped shaking, Penny handed her a bottle of water--”Purified and mostly removed of any sort of microbial organism, beneficial or otherwise, until your body fully adjusts,” she explained.

Weiss thanked her and took a slow sips of it. It tasted weird, and having drank water sourced from all over Avalon, that was really saying something. But, she forced herself to swallow it all; no Aquarius Industries deliveries or machines out here.

She recovered, looked around at her surroundings.

When Ruby had said that she lived far away from the city center, she'd imagined something along the lines of a cul-de-sac, a Fae version of the miniature agricultural communes that existed in some of the cities, or maybe even something like Manor Schnee, a few miles out of Candela and connected to its power grid, but otherwise completely independent.

What she saw was wilderness—untamed and unnerving, trees and their massive roots rising up from the ground and above the water, rivaling Candela's skyscrapers in size; vegetation growing uncontrolled on the grass and the mud, just barely hewed back from the road; and the sounds of hundreds if not thousands of frogs, birds, and insects humming and going about their days.

From what she could see, the docks, the aqueduct, and the dirt road leading outwards were the only signs of civilization.

Weiss turned back to the others. “Why does it look like you live in a swamp?” she asked.

“Because I do!” Ruby replied cheerfully.

Weiss turned back to the wilds around them, feeling her stomach begin to sink than rise up into her throat.

“It's not THAT bad!” Ruby continued. “The really dangerous swamp critters aren't don't live even remotely close, and you only ever need a boat to get around when the Flood comes! That's like, what, four or five months from now?”

Weiss didn't reply.

“Come on!” Ruby said as she made her way out. “My house is just a little further out!”

Weiss collected her care package, squeezed her eyes shut, and then began to trek into the swamp, barefoot.


Keeper's Hollow—“or as my Uncle Qrow likes to call it, 'The Bastion's Butthole'”--was a patch of protected wetland, used to help the city combat the intense sun as a heat-sink, and the pouring rains as a storm-drain.

In theory, it was excellent land: spacious, close to a massive source of unpolluted freshwater, with incredibly fertile ground that would have been ideal for large-scale agriculture or a decently sized farming community during the Fury, and nutrient-rich water for aquaculture during the Flood.

In practice, it was dirt cheap real estate in a highly undesirable location, since the Fae had long ago mastered the art of urban agriculture and efficiently housing and moving around densely packed populations.

There were really only two places of interest:

Ruby's personal training grounds, a large collection of rocks, trees, and artificial obstacles that held scars from years if not decades of intense, frequent exercises and drills; and her home proper, a giant crooked tree that sloped to the side, looking not unlike the head of her scythe, if you ignored all the stairs, ladders, and platforms held up by nails, rope, and blatant disregard for the laws of physics.

The rest of it was just more swamp, growing around the long-reclaimed ruins of some ancient village, vines poking out of rotten cabins, fish making their homes among the broken planks of a dock, and what might have been a barn long ago, before a tree inside grew right through its roof.

“I'll get the elevator!” Ruby called out as she dashed up to the base of the tree, climbing up footholds, planks, and rope ladders; Weiss figured she could manage the whole gauntlet in her sleep, literally. She fiddled around for a while before said elevator came down, a fishing boat that had been tied to a motorized pulley system.

Penny climbed in without hesitation, Weiss stopped at the cut-out sides that were its entrance and exit. “Is this thing safe?” she yelled.

“Absolutely!” Ruby replied. “I always keep the system working at 100%! If I didn't, Uncle Qrow would be spending a lot more nights passed out on the ground than on the living room floor!”

Weiss reluctantly climbed aboard. She gripped the bottom of her seat as the boat began to rise back up, the crank creaking, the sides gently rocking, her knuckles turning white. She only let go when it had come to a complete stop, and Penny had climbed out of it.

“Want me to get your bag?” Ruby asked as she pointed at the care package.

“I'll handle it myself,” Weiss replied as she got out. “Is there anywhere I can wash my feet before I head inside?”

Ruby looked at her, confused. “Why would you want do that?”

“Humans generally dislike tracking mud, dirt, and other related stains inside their homes and buildings; they like to keep a strict separation of 'indoors' and 'outdoors,'” Penny replied.

“Well, that explains a lot...” Ruby mumbled. “Anyway, bathroom's to your left, past the kitchen. Heads up: we don't really do showers or tubs at home in Fae cities, we just use our bathhouses or the rivers.”

“Seriously?!” Weiss cried.

Ruby chuckled. “Weiss, we're outdoors outdoors like 90% of the time, and our home aren't as sealed off from the rest of the world like you humans are! If we had to take a bath every time we got mud on ourselves, we'd have a huge time and water shortage for everything else—especially considering we only ever get rain half the year here!”

Weiss looked at her muddy, gras- stained feet, and sighed. “At least tell me you have soap and hot water like my prison cell did...”

Ruby nodded. “We have plenty!”

“Good enough...” Weiss muttered as she headed to the door.

“The bath house is a great place to hang out, catch up with folks you haven't talked to in a while, and just let off some steam, Weiss!” Ruby said as she hurried over to open it. “My friends Ren and Nora work at one of the restaurants there, and they make these amazing pancakes!

“I'll take you there some time! Not all the time, though. Baths are expensive.”

Ruby unlocked the door—instead of a key and a physical or magical mechanism for locks, tough roots had spread out all over its face and receded only after she pressed her palm to their clumped up center. “Remind me to get you into the gen-mem later!” she said as she stepped in.

Genetic memory, the door's list of approved DNA signatures for access,” Penny explained.

“I won't have to get any vines growing inside my body again, do I?” Weiss asked warily.

Penny smiled. “Of course not! A reasonably sized saliva sample will do just fine.”

“...”

“Weiss! You coming?” Ruby called out from inside.

Weiss braced herself, and headed in.

It wasn't nearly as bad as she'd been expecting. Aside from the fact that there was a thin layer of mud and dirt packed into the wooden floors, the rest of the house was clean and orderly, everything put away and organized according to a system, much less armour and clothes hanging off chairs and laying on the ground than she expected, and the various containers for alcohol that Qrow consumed on a regular basis were all collected in regularly spaced bins.

As for decorations, she'd describe it as “Simple.”

The home of someone who didn't need or want for much in the way of material things, or couldn't afford it. The living room was essentially just a couch and a few throw pillows for company, all centered around a giant slab of carved rock she assumed to be their HV receiver. The walls were either bare, or covered in post it notes and reminders in a mix of Actaeon and Nivian, with a consistent handwriting style—“Uncle Qrow forgets important things a lot, so he either puts it on the wall before he forgets, or so he'll find it when he's struggling to remember what it was,” Ruby explained.

The rest of it were photos, printed. There were images commemorating particularly memorable hunts for both Qrow and Ruby, one or the both of them goofing off with a trophy body part, or the carcass of their kill. There were images of the two of them having fun in the city and other settlements, sometimes with other Fae Weiss didn't know—Nora and Ren, she guessed the two most frequently recurring duo were. Much more personal photos, like Qrow holding his hands out to a much younger Ruby playing with her scythe, blowing out the candles on a gigantic chocolate chip cookie with ice cream on top of it, and a teary eyed but proud looking Ruby holding up her cut and bleeding hands.

One in particular caught her eye:

Ruby, she thought, until she realized she was much older, and that it was probably her mother—the family resemblance was extremely strong, almost like her daughter was a perfect, younger clone of her. She had a little bundle in her arms, two tiny nubs sticking out from the white cloth.

There was Qrow, a surly looking woman beside her with the same head of black feathers and the avian traits, and to her surprise, two humans on the other side: both blond, father and daughter, wearing the same goofy grins.

“Oh hey, you found my family photo!” Ruby chirped as she walked over. “It's really special, you know; it's the only one I have of all of us together.”

“Do they live in another city, or something?” Weiss asked.

“Nope! Mom's dead, my aunt's dead, too, and my sister and dad are permanently exiled from the Valley—and every other Fae settlement for that matter!” Ruby replied calmly.

Weiss blinked, stunned. “I—I'm sorry, I...”

Ruby shrugged. “It's cool. I was barely a year old when it all happened, don't remember a thing! Anyway, you hungry?”

Weiss' stomach growled; it had been a long while since her last meal in prison, and losing all of it from the Tube ride hadn't helped matters any. “Sure, what're we having?”

“Same thing as always: chocolate chip cookies and milk!”

“What else could I be having…?”

“Just that!” Ruby replied. “Uncle Qrow takes home whatever he can from the hunts, and buys some fruits and vegetables every other day; cookies and alcohol are about the only two things we have all the time, guaranteed.”

What is the Eldan Council paying you?!

“Ingredients for baking cookies and milk!” Ruby replied, beaming.

Weiss stared at her, trying to see if that was a joke, before she realized she was completely serious. “So you've been working all this time, for cookies?”

Ruby nodded. “If I need Shinies—that's our version of the Uroch, by the way—I just go on hunts and take cash than food.”

How is this even legal?”

“The same way any other contract would in the human world: via the agreement of two mutually consenting parties!” Penny chimed in.

“… So you've just been surviving on cookies and milk all this time?”

“Not JUST cookies and milk!” Ruby replied. “There's vegetables, fruit, meat, and restaurant food. But mostly, yeah, cookies and milk for every meal since I was like a year old.”

Weiss paused. “… How are you still alive? Seriously, how?”

Ruby shrugged. “Same reason my mom, her mom, and her mom, and every other Keeper stretching back to Gabija did, I guess! It's her recipe, by the way; completely unchanged for nearly a thousand years and still delicious!”

Weiss stared at her, before her stomach growled. “You know what, nevermind… cookies and milk it is...”

Thinking and fretting over her new living arrangements could wait until after she had gotten food in her.

Chapter Text

Ruby’s kitchen should have been massive, more than enough space for a crew of four or five with their own work stations, if nearly half of it hadn’t been taken up by two giant refrigerators (one standing, the other a deep freezer), a massive tank of milk, and the biggest cookie jar Weiss had ever seen, so large even someone as tall as Qrow would need a ladder to access it, and a second person to open the whole lid than the smaller inner section.

The other half was where a small table for six had been wedged in, along with a counter, some cabinets, a sink, and a massive clay oven powered by natural gas.

Save for the water filtration unit in the corner—a device that was one of Penny’s many “backpacks,” she learned—everything was scarred and aged from hundreds if not thousands of years worth of use, cleaning, and accidents, along with faintly smelling of freshly baked cookies.

Weiss was no stranger to antiques—ironically, the market for treasures of times long past was never more thriving, competitive, and prolific than in ‘the city of the future’ Candela—but this was a whole new level.

Ruby served Weiss cookies and milk on a plate and a glass—both made out of clay, both with lovingly, intricately carved detailing of plants and animals that had to have taken days of hard work and decades of constant, intense practice beforehand.

“Bone appetite, Weiss!” Ruby said as she sat across her with her own dinner.

“It’s pronounced ‘Bon appetit,’ Ruby,” Weiss replied, reaching out for her glass, before she hesitated.

“What’s wrong?” Ruby asked as she dipped a cookie into her milk. “Weren’t you hungry?” she continued as the cookie disappeared into her mouth.

Weiss’ stomach growled. “I still am...” she muttered.

“Then why don’t you dig in?” Ruby asked as she chewed.

“I’m afraid of breaking these,” Weiss replied, gesturing to the plate and the glass.

Ruby snorted, wet, half-chewed crumbs spilling out of her mouth. Seriously?”

“Yes! They're obviously antiques! How old are these? How old is everything in here? And for that matter, how old is the tree this house is inside of?”

Ruby swallowed and shrugged. “Dunno, should probably ask Penny when she’s done with her maintenance, or Uncle Qrow when he gets back,” she replied as she dipped another cookie and shoved it into her mouth. “What does it even matter?” she continued as she chewed.

Weiss frowned. “You’re not afraid of me accidentally breaking a valuable piece of your history and culture?”

Ruby smirked. “Go on,” she said through a mouthful of cookies. “Get one of the plates from the cupboard, drop it, and see what happens—watch your feet, though!”

Weiss got up out of her seat and did. She held the plate for a few moments, feeling the intricacy in the carving, how light it was for something made of clay, before she dropped it a good distance from herself.

Thunk.

Nothing.

No shatter, no crack, not even a scratch. Weiss picked it up, brushed off some of the fine powder that the kitchen floor was littered with. “How did you make these?” Weiss asked as she put it in the sink. “Where do you even get the materials for this?”

“Ask a Maker who does plates and stuff in town, and from the Valley, where else?” Ruby replied as she drank some milk. “Why all the interest in plates all of a sudden?”

“Because they're amazing, that’s why,” Weiss replied as she walked back to the table.

Ruby looked at Weiss in amusement.

“What...?” Weiss asked as she sat back down.

Ruby chuckled. “Weiss, I get that you’re not from here, but this just what we eat our meals on or drink from, and sometimes use to play with my dog—nothing more,” she said as she picked up another cookie.

“First of all, fair point,” Weiss said as she finally took a cookie. “Second, you have a dog?” she continued before she took a dainty bite out of it.

“His name’s Zwei!” Ruby replied as she chewed. “And he’s not really a ‘dog’ but I don’t know what he is in Nivian, and Penny still can’t find a ‘reasonable translation to accurately encompass what Zwei is exactly,’ whatever that means.”

Weiss swallowed. “Why haven’t I seen him?”

“We rent him out a lot of the time with the Watchers on hunts, or at the Pits, usually to help save someone who took on something or someone way past their league,” Ruby explained before she swallowed. “We have to, since he eats a LOT, and we can’t support him with just our salaries, even if Blake pitched in!”

Weiss nodded. “What’s the Pits?” she asked before she took another bite.

“It’s a bunch of big arenas, where we fight each other or animals for practice, tournaments, and some festivals.” Ruby said as she grabbed another cookie. “I used to want to be a professional Pit Fighter, but it turns out there’s SO much going around meeting people, shooting commercials, meetings with agents and stuff, and I just like the killing things and getting paid to do it part!” she said before said cookie disappeared into her mouth.

Weiss shook her head. “Sounds barbaric,” she said after she swallowed.

“Is it really that far off from when humans put two guys in a ring and watch them beat the crap out of each other with just their fists?” Ruby asked while she chewed. She swallowed. “Besides, it’s got like one of the best names in Actaeon.”

“What’s it really called, then?” Weiss asked as she took drink of her milk.

<The Pits!> Ruby said, words that were supposed to sound like a threatening growl from one animal challenging another.

Weiss snorted, milk shooting out of her nostrils. She started half-coughing, half-laughing as she hurriedly wiped her nose with her sleeve.

Ruby frowned. “What’s so funny...?”

What did you just say?” Weiss asked, her eyes tearing up.

<The Pits…?!> Ruby repeated.

Weiss burst out laughing all over again. Her clutched her sides, and began to tilt to the side.

“Wait, Weiss--!”

She fell out of her chair, reached out for the table but only ended up taking her glass of milk with her. She landed on the floor with a soft thud, followed by a splash as some of it spilled all over her face.

Ruby hopped out of her chair and rushed over to her. “You okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” Weiss replied.

Ruby sighed in relief. “That’s good! I’m going to laugh at you while I help you up now, okay?”

Weiss scowled at her, but took her hand still.


Qrow sent a message asking for help hauling his and Blake’s share of the day’s hunt--”We ran into a herd of not-so-little pigs that had just too few visits from the big bad wolves,” read the parts of his message in Nivian.

As it was still too early to turn in for the night, Weiss headed out along with Ruby and Penny back to the Tube station, where they would be arriving with Zwei. She spent the walk looking around at the swamp as the sun set and night began to creep in, marveled at the dancing lights in the water and in the trees, bugs and plants of all manner of hues providing a beautiful spectacle, and more than enough light to make your way on the road.

“That solves the problem of getting back here at night,” she thought to herself.

They had to wait at the platform for the others to arrive, as the handlers had to coordinate and adjust the flow of water and all other trips.

A log came in—Zwei’s, by Ruby’s request. The handlers opened it as they usually would, before they all stepped well back. At first, Weiss assumed that there was a mistake, as it was filled with what looked like a giant mass of black fur that occupied all available space in the log.

Then it started moving.

A gigantic, monstrous paw reached out to the docks, found purchase and began to pull the rest of himself out. A head followed—the fanged, slavering face of the Queen of the Damned's favourite dog breed. Then a second head popped out, identical and attached to the body by a different neck. They both looked around, saw Ruby, and began to pant happily, thick, viscous trails of drool dripping from the two sets of jaws.

Weiss eyes widened and her pupils shrank as a massive, two-headed beast stepped out onto dock, about the size of a tank, if not larger, with a proportionately-sized bobbed tail wagging happily atop his rear-end.

Ruby threw her arms in the air. “Zwei!”

The hellhound barked in what Weiss assumed to be delight before he took a dainty step towards Ruby, and both heads leaned down to lick her, his tongues so large and powerful he covered every inch of her body on both sides and lifted her a good few feet off the ground.

The now slobber-coated Ruby laughed. <I missed you too, boy! Zwei, this is Weiss!> She switched languages as she gestured to Weiss. “Weiss, this is Zwei!”

Weiss became very, very still as both of Zwei’s heads loomed over her and started sniffing. Then, they both opened, and she found herself looking into two hot, moist, smelly abysses lined with titanic fangs, before two giant tongues darted out to meet her.

<NO! ZWEI! DON’T--!>

Too late.

Whatever dirt, grime, mud, and grass Weiss had on her skin disappeared, replaced with an inch thick coating of thick, hot, two-headed mutant hound slobber. After her feet were back on the ground once more, she let out a tiny, strangled whimper.

Ruby frowned. “… Sorry about that, he’s, uh… really affectionate.”

Another log arrived, containing Qrow and several bloodied sacks. “Let’s get all this meat loaded on Zwei ASAP, folks!” he called out as he climbed out. “Zwei hasn’t done his business yet and I’d rather not have to haul all that back home, too!”

Weiss’ eyes slowly turned to Ruby.

“It’s where we get most of our fuel for cooking and heating...” Ruby explained sheepishly.

Weiss turned back to Zwei, then at Qrow who was coming over with the sacks. The two of them spent a few moments staring at each other, unsure of how to react.

“… Weiss, you can sit this one out, Ruby, help me out here,” he said as he handed the sacks over to her.

Blake arrived with yet more meat. She skirted around Zwei to get to Weiss, giving him a wide, wide berth, before she pressed a large jar of ointment and a cloth into her hands. “Dry bath,” she said in Nivian with some trouble, miming rubbing it into her skin before wiping it off with an invisible rag.

Weiss opened it and began to liberally began to coat herself with it, weeping silently all the while.


The “dry bath” did its best, handily soaking up all the slobber on Weiss, but it and a special odour-eating bacteria solution Ruby kept around because of him were just no match for the amount of affection that Zwei had shown her.

If it was any comfort, the scent of “dog” slobber also had to compete with the more pleasant (if still funky) smell of the others and the freshly killed boar they were butchering in the kitchen. More importantly, Ruby promised she’d pay for a private bath at the hot springs the next morning.

In the meanwhile, distracted herself by sorting through her care package with Penny and Ruby in the living room. Among other useful items, she found a new Fae-made comm-crystal, a printed copy of her parole agreement, a Nivian-Actaeon primer on some helpful words and phrases she should know, a list of areas of interest and public services in the Bastion, several pairs of clean underwear and clothes for most occasions, a small stipend of “Shinies,” and several bottles of a milky fluid kept in an insulated bag.

“Live Gut Bacteria Culture,” Penny read for her. “Consume once daily for improved gastrointestinal health, or to aid in acclimation to Viridian Valley food and water. Keep chilled. Do not consume if contents turn blue.”

“Do I HAVE to drink this...?” Weiss asked.

“Though it will definitely cause distress to your gut flora in the short term, in the long term, it will greatly reduce the chances of your getting sick from ingesting the local water or food, along with allowing you to safely expand your culinary choices,” Penny explained. “As you are now, anything boiled, stewed, or served with a sauce is out of the question, and some oils may be suspect, which is unfortunate considering a number of Fae staple foods and commonly offered fare belong in those categories.”

“Does that include the pancakes at the hot springs?” Ruby asked.

Penny nodded. “Even if they are not made with the water there, the sheer amount of exposure the cookware receive might be enough to trigger a negative reaction.”

Ruby's eyes widened, horrified at the prospect. “Take it, Weiss! The pancakes will be worth it, I promise.”

Weiss sighed. “Fine…” she muttered as she uncapped it, and knocked down in one gulp. She preemptively cringed, before she found that save for the sour, yoghurt-like taste, it wasn’t that bad!

Then it actually made it to her stomach, and she could feel the war between her local gut flora and the foreign bacteria kick off to a violent, terrible start.

Weiss groaned, curling up on her side and clutching her stomach.

“I’ll go fetch a bucket!” Penny chimed as she went off, taking the cultures with her to store in the fridge.

“Want to turn in for the night, Weiss?” Ruby asked as she put a hand on her shoulder.

She whimpered and nodded her head.


For lack of space, Weiss had to sleep in Ruby’s room.

The neatness of the house didn’t extend there, as it was a giant mess of discarded clothes, toys, and mementos all arranged around a pile of pillows, blankets, and cushions in the center, with an Info-Grid terminal on one side, and a hammock on the other.

“The hammock’s yours, unless you want to sleep together,” Ruby explained as she helped Weiss in, an arm around her shoulder and the other holding the bucket Penny had fetched.

“I’ll manage on my own, thanks,” Weiss muttered.

She crawled into the hammock, curled up on her side with the Eluna plushie hugged to her chest. Ruby offered her a pillow and a blanket from her collection, but Weiss was already shutting her eyes and trying to will herself to sleep, so the day would finally be over.

“Good night, Weiss,” Ruby whispered, leaving the bucket by her side before she left—the nocturnal animals were coming out of their dens, and needed as much culling and surveillance as their diurnal counterparts, if not more.

As the gentle rocking of her hammock helped negotiate a temporary truce in her stomach, Weiss realized something: her plan to go into the Valley, to be free of her father, to start a new life somewhere else, and to see what it’d be like to just be her, than “the daughter of Jacques Schnee” had in fact worked.

… Just not in the way she expected.

Chapter Text

Weiss had a dream.

The sun was shining; Ruby's room was messier, largely because Weiss' belongings had joined the piles of stuff scattered all around; and her mother was gently shaking her awake.

She was older—much older; even more wrinkles on her face, her platinum blonde hair looking more grey than white, but she looked happy. “Time to get up, my littler snowbunny!” she hummed. “There aren't any servants to do everything for you out here, you know!”

Weiss got up, playfully glared at her, and climbed out of her hammock, moving through her dream in that foggy way where details were sparse, time was flexible, and she suddenly found herself seated at the kitchen table.

It was crowded, every single chair taken by Ruby, Qrow, Blake, Winter, and others she didn't recognize, Fae and human. Penny was standing to the side, busy feeding Zwei using a “backpack” that looked like a giant toaster complete with spring mechanism to fire the bread straight into both his waiting jaws.

Everyone was happy to see her, greeting her warmly like she was an old friend or a member of the family. Ruby pushed a plate of milk and cookies to her—one that had already been set out and just waiting for her.

She smiled, thanked her, and reached out for one of them.

“Weiss, what in the world are you doing?” her father asked.

Everything changed.

She was back in the dining hall of Manor Schnee, seated one chair away from her father, Winter and her mother's seats empty, as they had been for years. At his perennial place at the head of the table, her father looked at her disdainfully as he cut into the meat of his dinner.

Roast beef. Not venison or the head of anything, thankfully.

Weiss looked down. No more cookies and milk. A familiar set of priceless china that could only be handled by the servants or one of the drones, worst comes to worst. Food sourced from all over Avalon, kept at their absolute freshest by magitechnology, prepared by the skillful hands of a chef who worked with anyone who paid for her to always make the best, strive to innovate, and challenge herself.

The cold, cavernous hall of carved stone. The army of faceless servants and maids all around her. The ceiling looming far above her head and the monolithic walls that stood silently all around her, reminding her of just how little she was, just how trapped she was in this gilded cage.

Weiss began to cry.

“Weiss…?” Ruby whispered. “Weiss…? You alright?” She paused. “Okay! Stupid question, you're definitely not alright...”

Weiss blinked, her eyes blurry and stinging from tears, the Eluna plushie being strangled in her arms. “Ruby…?” she blubbered as she turned in her hammock and looked up at her.

The room was dark, but her eyes glowed; not the infamous blood red of her mask, but a calming silver.

“Sorry,” she whispered, “I just came back from night shift, and it looked like you were having a really bad dream, so...”

Ruby trailed off, the ensuing silence filled with Weiss sniffling and hiccuping.

“… What is it you do when you're feeling sad?”

Weiss took a deep, calming breath. “Winter used to sleep with me in her bed,” she muttered. “Sometimes we'd have her plushies out as 'guards.''”

“Want to do that?” Ruby asked. “Definitely won't be able to do it in your hammock, since it's only really just made for one—or two who don't mind sleeping REALLY close to each other.”

Weiss debated it for a moment. “Help me out, please?” she mumbled.

Ruby did.

Weiss stomach started stirring all over again, both residents upset at her doing absolutely anything except lie down on her side, but they settled down after she got comfortable in Ruby's little nest of pillows and blankets—or was it a den, since she was a reindeer Fae?

She decided it wasn't more important than sleep and curled up on her side, buried her face in one of Ruby's pillows. Everything smelled of her—earth, mud, numerous traces of wild animals and Zwei especially, chocolate chip cookies—but they were warm, and luxuriously soft.

“Anything else?” Ruby asked as she laid down next to her.

Weiss paused for a moment, before she muttered, “She used to hold me until I fell asleep...”

“Like this…?” Ruby asked as she wrapped her arms around Weiss' chest.

She had a very strong, firm grip. Stronger than she would expect someone of her size to be. But then again, she wasn't human, and she was capable of wiping the floor with four soldiers twice her size and several times her weight.

“… Y-Yeah, like that...” she murmured after a long pause—longer than it should have been.

She felt something gently poke into the back of her head.

“Woops! Sorry, about that,” Ruby whispered, shifting about behind her.

Now her head was level with hers, her warm breath on the back of Weiss' neck, her horns angled outwards and above their heads.

“Better?”

Weiss felt her cheeks begin to heat up as she gently tilted her head back. No poking, no rubbing up against anything hard and smooth, just her hair rubbing up against Ruby's face.

She sniffed a few times and let out a low, pleased hum.

Weiss quickly tilted her head back. “What was that all about…?”

“Your hair smells really nice,” Ruby replied.

Weiss face started to feel like it was burning. “… Oh.”

Ruby yawned and nuzzled up to her again. “Goodnight again, Weiss...” she muttered.

Weiss gently curled up against her. She felt different from Winter. Height, species, and scent aside, Ruby was a lot harder, her body's muscles tensing and relaxing even in her sleep, so densely packed and tightly woven together she could feel them moving.

She didn't mind, though.

It wasn't bad...

… Just… different.

“Goodnight, Ruby,” Weiss whispered back.

She got a quiet snore in response.

Weiss smiled, and closed her eyes, drifting back to sleep.


Qrow rapped his knuckles twice on the door, before he threw it open and strode on in. “Alright, Princess! It's been more than eight hours, and you've got plenty of shit to do today, that's enou--”

Ruby shot up in an instant, her ears perked and alert, turning every which way for signs of danger.

Weiss groaned and slowly picked her head up from Ruby's nest. (Or den—whatever.) She cringed and squinted as the bright morning sun hit her eyes. Ugh...” she muttered, “what time is it…?”

“Time for me to get the fuck out of here!” Qrow said as he hastily backpedaled right back out.

Thunk. The door to Ruby's bedroom was closed once more.

“What was that all about…?” Weiss asked, idly rubbing at the side of her face she'd been sleeping on. She stopped. “Ruby… why is my face all sticky…?”

“Oh! That's probably just my drool; don't worry, it washes right off!”

Weiss slowly turned to her.

“Did I mention I drool when I sleep...?” Ruby asked.

Weiss stared.

“I... probably should have mentioned I drool in my sleep...”

Weiss' face slowly fell in ever growing horror. “Where was the bathroom again…?” she whispered.

“Through the kitchen,” Ruby replied sheepishly

Weiss had rarely ever moved so fast as she did that morning, slowing down only to safely nestle the Eluna plushie into her hammock before she rushed out the door, leaving it swinging in her wake.

Qrow and Penny were cooking the boar they hauled in last night, the flames of the oven roaring as they both tended to boiling pots filled with bones and meat being turned into stocks or stew, several hunks being roasted over an open flame, strips of meat being smoked above those, and three separate pans frying and sizzling all at once—not to mention guarded them all from Zwei, who had one head sticking in through a window from outside, and the other chewing on a large amount of bones wrapped inside a raw hide. Blake was sitting at the table, using her comm-crystal to read a magical copy of a book in Nivian and its unofficial Actaeon translation side-by-side, a language learning guide running below it.

All four of them looked up and watched Weiss zoom past them and straight into the bathroom, where she proceeded to lock herself in. The faint sound of constantly running water and vigorous scrubbing began to come from inside.

Ruby waltzed in soon after. <Morning everyone!> she said as she grabbed a plate and headed over to the giant cookie jar.

Zwei barked, Blake nodded, Penny waved with her tail before she lifted the lid of a pot with it, and Qrow saluted with the hand holding his morning beer before he took a sip.

<Is Weiss okay?> Ruby asked as she climbed up the ladder. <She seemed in a real rush just now,> she continued as she lifted the lid and started putting cookies on her plate.

<You tell me!> Qrow replied as he flipped over several cuts of frying meat. <You were the one that was with her most of the night, I just walked in on the both of you.>

Ruby looked at him and blinked. <Wait, what…?>

<Qrow was using a Nivian slang term in Actaeon: 'Walking in on (someone)',> Penny explained. <It refers to unintentionally being witness to and/or interrupting an intimate moment you are not involved in, usually that of sexual intercourse.>

Blake cringed, her ears pulling back, Ruby dropped her plate into the jar.

<Wait, what?!> Ruby cried, her face burning red. <We just slept together!>

<I noticed,> Qrow said before he took another sip of his beer.

Ruby balked. <No, just sleeping sleeping! She was--!>

Everyone stopped as Weiss stepped out, repeatedly pressing a towel to her face. “You're running low on soap...” she muttered as she slowly walked to a free chair beside the wall, sat down at the table, and proceeded to hang her head, the hand holding her towel hiding her face.

Everyone, including Zwei, turned to look at her, then at Ruby.

She shot them all disgusted looks, turning around to fish her plate and her cookies out of the jar, and also hide her reddened face.

Penny turned to Weiss. “Noted! I'll refill it before we leave for our trip to the hot springs, then the Trader's Guild.”

Weiss nodded. “So that's where I get a job?”

“All the shitty ones, at least,” Qrow replied as he took two of the pans off the stove, started plating freshly cooked meat. “Don't worry, though: every one goes through the Job Gauntlet at least once in their life; just be glad it'll be shorter for you.”

“As you are not literate in Actaeon and require a translator for even the most basic written or spoken communication, have no skills or education of note or that which would prove useful to Fae society at large, and your status as an outsider barring you from any careers of a religious nature, your choices are greatly limited to that of manual labour, apprenticeships with some types of Makers, or basic training with the Watchers,” Penny explained as she brought the plates over to Weiss and Blake. “Though, the third also requires that you pass a test to ensure that you are at least capable of independently surviving outside of the walls for a reasonable length of time.”

“It doesn't do anyone any favours if the wildlife gets a taste for humanoid beings as an 'every other day' food,” Qrow muttered. “Except Soul Eaters, but those are Soul Eaters.”

Weiss put down her towel. “What's a Soul Eater…?”

“A giant, walking collection of claws, teeth, and hate you pray you'll never meet,” Qrow replied. “For now, let's just say they're one of the biggest reasons we're so strict on ethics here in the Valley...”

Weiss decided to not to ask any further. She picked up what looked like strips of bacon with her hands—Fae weren't big on utensils, outside of cooking—and took a bite out of it. Her eyes widened as all the fat inside out burst onto her tongue, greasy as all get-out and even more flavourful.

“Wow! These are REALLY good!” Weiss said as she chewed, before she stopped and mopped up the grease dribbling down her lips with her towel.

“Enjoy it while it lasts!” Qrow said as he lowered the fires, set the pots to a simmer, the roasts to a slower rotation, and the jerky to dry more slowly. “Me, Blake, and Zwei here NEED meat to survive, so no griping when we get the lion's share,” he said as he held up a spit that held several kilos worth of freshly cooked pork to Zwei.

Zwei ate it in one bite, metal and all, before he spat out the now empty and slobber-coated metal straight into the sink with no ill-effects.

Weiss chuckled. “Believe me, there's nothing more I want than to stop being a load on all of you.”

<Good,> Blake said, smiling at her before she attacked her food like an actual animal, holding it up with her hands, tearing hunks of meat out with her teeth, and purring happily as she chewed.

They finished up breakfast, and everyone but Qrow and Zwei headed back to the Tube station to head to the hot springs, carrying changes of clothes, some of Weiss' care package, and Penny's water filtration “backpack” between them. The sun was shining, the birds and the frogs were singing, the temperature in the swamp was comfortably warm, and the rest of the Bastion not too hot so long as you didn't stay outside of the shade for more than an hour.

It was a beautiful start to Weiss' day, before it all went downhill once more.

Chapter Text

For the volume of both clients and water that went through the hot springs on a daily basis, they had several Tube stations scattered all over the place, to keep backlogs from occurring and incidentally, giving the very elderly or less mobile, time-starved, or those who just didn't want to walk a convenient, fast way to get around the place.

And frankly, Weiss couldn't blame the third because of how massive it was.

It was everything she imagined: steaming hot pools of mineral-rich water, inside an open-air cave in one of the mountains that surrounded the valley. Wooden structures that sectioned it off, provided walkways, planters, and the aforementioned private baths if clients were willing to pay extra. A large army of uniformed attendants offering towels, body care products like shampoo, lotions, and ointments, and even someone to talk with you or wash your back and tail, if you couldn't get your hands or the brushes to the really hard to reach spots.

But there was also what looked like an incredibly expansive series of restaurants, miniature farms, and bars all set up in one alcove, clients enjoying delicious food and drink at the tables provided, or sent floating to them on trays as they soaked in the water. There was what looked like a giant book club and/or a language learning class, a meditation/yoga session, and “Weavers” practicing their magics, guiding floating masses of water or air with their hands and tails as they slowly progressed through a series of poses. There was even a full stage for live plays or a movie showing (the latter of which was going on at the moment—Weiss recognized it as “Sound and Fury XXXVIII”); a temperate swimming pool for doing laps, goofing off, or just laying about on a raft; and even a section coated with non-slip flooring for land-bound activities like basketball, running laps, or most of your sports of choice.

It was a hot springs, a well-equipped spa, a library, a school, a foodie's paradise, a temple, a recreation center, a gym, a movie theater, and many more, stretching on for miles underground, sunshine beaming in from the mouth of the cave through a wall of protective tree canopy and giant thriving plants providing more shade and privacy, very few walls higher than your waist, an open, airy place where the Fae could all get clean, chat, and relax as a whole community.

It was beautiful, a sight she would have loved to share with the whole of Avalon if she could, if not for one big, glaring detail that she just could not ignore:

WHY IS EVERYONE NAKED...?!” Weiss whispered, her face burning bright red.

“Uh, because we're here to take baths...?” Ruby explained. “I don't get it: don't you humans take off all your clothes when you bathe, too?”

“YES!” she hissed. “GENERALLY IN PRIVATE, AND NOT WITH OTHER PEOPLE AROUND!”

“Well, I'm sorry to say, Weiss, but you're going to have to get used to it unless you never want to take a bath ever again,” Ruby said. “Well, unless you want to go outside the walls and find a spring out in the wilds, but that's dangerous and pretty inconvenient.”

Weiss was about to reply when a group of elderly Fae ambled on past. She didn't know what bothered her more: that she had just seen several old people completely naked, or that Fae aged very well indeed. She quickly wrenched her face back to Ruby, and whispered, “Don't you have private baths anywhere but here?”

Ruby shook her head. “Not even Elder Goodwitch. We do have them in hospitals, but that's only for the patients who really shouldn't be going anywhere in the first place.”

“Regular visits to the hot springs are actually a very common and important part of the recovery process,” Penny added. “The magic and mineral-content that seeps into the water is very conducive to physical health and the treatment of many illnesses and injuries, not to mention the relaxed, leisurely atmosphere, and opportunities for social interaction and bonding is excellent for mental and emotional health.

“On a related note, said magic and mineral-content is also great for my systems, helping maintain structural integrity and full efficiency.”

Weiss groaned. “Do I HAVE to get naked…?” she muttered as she pointedly looked down at her feet.

“You could wear a towel around you, but you'll look really out of place,” Ruby replied.

“Any more out of place than being the only human in a sea of Fae?”

Ruby paused. “Good point! Towel it is.”

They went through to the entrance, where there was surprisingly tight and serious security, a sizable amount of Watchers and Menders making sure all heads were paid for, you weren't bringing in any contraband, infectious disease, or parasites, and you were briefed on all the rules—very basic things, like no running, no fighting, and no having sex or other intimate acts in the public areas.

After feeling like she was about to be thrown into prison again, much friendlier, gentler staff took their clothes before they put them through a brief hosing down to remove the worst of the dirt and the grime, a walk through and under a running stream for a little extra insurance, until they were given a towel and a basket of complementary toiletries as the doors to the hot springs proper were opened to them.

Weiss didn't protest, but she didn't enjoy the process, either, spending most of it with her eyes closed, trying not to think about how many bodies had been through this same process, of the Fae behind and in front of her in the line, and as Penny reminded her beforehand, doing her damnedest not to swallow any of the water.

“You're not going to spend this whole trip with your eyes closed, are you, Weiss?” Ruby asked as she and the others toweled off from the dip.

“I'm going to damn well try,” Weiss grumbled, her face burning red.

Ruby sighed, she heard her padding over to her. “Weiss, is it really that big of a deal for you?”

“Yes...” she muttered.

She felt Ruby take her hand into her own. “I'll go slow and tell you when you can open your eyes again, alright?”

Weiss tightly wrapped her fingers around hand. “Okay.”

<You're making an awfully big fuss about this,> Blake said. <It's just being naked, what's so wrong about it?>

“Blake is expressing concern and confusion about your distress because of the hot springs allowing complete nudity,” Penny translated.

“It's just a human thing, alright?” Weiss said.

Blake shrugged, and the group got going, Ruby and Weiss trailing behind.

Sounds of conversation, laughter, and activity poured in from all around; the hot springs looked busy and lively from a distance, and was even more animated and noisy when you were right in the thick of it. How the Fae ever managed to ever relax in such a chaoitc place like this, especially with their superb hearing, she didn't know.

She couldn't understand anything they were saying, but she could get the gist of it from tone and the sounds of the syllables—if she had to guess, it was just catching up on each others' lives, talking about recent events, or lively debate about whatever. She thought back on what Penny had said about the Fae being adverse to adjectives and adverbs, and preferring single words to describe things than tacking on more; did they really have a term for everything, to cover every single description and situation possible?

Just as she was thinking that, someone called out at her specifically—some things were universal, language barriers be damned.

<Hey, soft-skin! Why don't you take that towel off and show us what you got, huh?> yelled a teenage Fae, before he and his friends began laughing raucously.

Weiss gritted her teeth and kept on walking.

<Hey, bark-bite! Why don't you get out of the water and show us what you're compensating for first, huh?!> Blake yelled back.

The teenage boy was stunned, before his friends quickly started laughing at him. A fight ensued, and whistles were blown as security came in.

Weiss opened her eyes just long enough to see the boys getting hauled out of the water, before she turned to Blake and smiled. "Thanks," she said.

<Don't mention it,> Blake replied coolly.

Weiss closed her eyes again and continued walking.

After what seemed like an eternity, they finally made it to their private bath, stepping through a door, the sounds of the public areas outside all but muted the moment it was closed behind them.

“You can open your eyes now, Weiss,” Ruby said.

Weiss did. Then, she squinted, trying to adjust to the low light from the glowing rocks set into the wall.

The private baths were set deep within the springs, spacious, carved out niches with a large steaming pool in the center, miniatures of most of the amenities the rest of the springs offered all around: a table with food and drink already set out, a nook for reading and study, even what looked like a bed to lounge on after your bath, among others.

“No wonder these were so expensive,” Weiss thought, remembering the simple characters beside “Public Entrance” and the much more complex calligraphy beside “Private Bath.”

“See you in the water, Weiss!” Ruby said as she let go and skipped off.

Weiss blinked. “Wait, what?”

<You didn't think this was going to be just for you, did you?> Blake asked as she sauntered past her.

“Blake is expressing surprise at your surprise that we're going to be sharing this bath,” Penny explained as she passed by her other side.

“Wait, wait, wait—HOLD UP!” Weiss cried.

All three of them turned around to look at her. Except for Penny, who's “body” was a larger collection of intricately carved rocks and gems held together by a layer of green energy, Blake and Ruby were completely naked, doing nothing to cover themselves up, and not caring in the slightest.

The comfortably warm room suddenly got excruciatingly hot.

Weiss squeezed her eyes shut but that particular image wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Ruby frowned. “Weiss, what's…?”

Ding.

Ruby smiled. “Weiss… do you like girls?”

Weiss bit her lip.

“Are you—what do you humans call it—a less-bean?”

“A lesbian,” Weiss corrected her. She tilted her head down. “… And yes.”

She may as well have said it outright, since she was being so obvious she may as well have had a giant sign behind her, the word “GAY” blinking on and off, while three arrows pointing towards her lit up in turn.

Ruby chuckled. “Relax, Weiss! I'm fine with it! I mean, it'd be pretty hypocra—hypocrey—hyporcry—really weird in the bad way if I was, since I'm one, too.”

Weiss paused. “Wait… you're gay...?”

“Is that what you humans also call girls who like other girls, and boys who like other boys?”

“It is,” Penny said. “Other terms may include 'queer,' and 'homosexual,' along with a surprisingly expansive list of derogatory slang, if you include Old World languages alongside Nivian.”

“Then yeah! I'm guess that means I'm gay, too,” Ruby said, nodding. “And Penny here is a robot so she doesn't really do… well… any of that stuff, and Blake here is… actually I don't really know what Blake is, but she doesn't mind! Right, Blake?”

<Yep, couldn't care less,> Blake replied, nodding.

“Blake confirmed what Ruby said, and assures you it's not a matter she puts too much attention to,” Penny translated.

Weiss slowly opened her eyes, her face still burning red. “Okay… that… makes me feel slightly better about this.”

Ruby beamed. “Great! Now that that's over, let's get in and get clean! We don't have this place for all day!” she turned around and padded over to the water.

Weiss nodded and made her way to the spring after her, before she stopped.

Because of the cloaks and long-sleeved hunting gear Ruby wore underneath, and Weiss being distracted by other things when she was wearing more revealing clothing, she'd never ever seen more bare skin than her hands, her face, and her feet.

Now, she got a full view of Ruby from the front and back, knew just how powerfully built and muscular she was in spite of her tiny frame, and the soft, fluffy, happily waggling reindeer tail sitting just atop her rear, black with red tips just like her hair.

Whatever goodwill Weiss had built up with Blake was completely erased when Ruby and Penny sided with her and cut their time short so Weiss could have the bath all to herself.

If it was any comfort to Blake, watching Weiss sitting in the corner, face hidden from the others, attempting to bore holes into the wall with her sight alone was pretty damn funny.

Chapter Text

The Trader’s Guild was a combination administration building, bank, trading post, and training center, set inside a tree smaller than the Tree of Life but even more heavily and blatantly guarded, Watchers, their animals, and surveillance birds everywhere you turned.

Compared to the hot springs, it was all business: Fae walked about briskly and with purpose; Shinies and other commodities changed hands constantly; and though cracking a joke wasn’t exactly illegal, the atmosphere didn’t encourage it, either.

Weiss wandered into the center, looked up at the circular opening in the middle of the floors; instead of being able to see all the way up into the canopy, she found herself getting dizzy by just how many animals, packages, and items were zipping on by through a large series of interconnected cables, guide rope, and streams of magic, like an intricate spider’s web.

Ruby held her steady and coaxed her eyes back to the ground floor.

Weiss thanked her before she put a hand to her head. “How the hell am I supposed to know how to get anywhere here?” she asked as she willed the world to stop spinning.

“Through the information desk!” Penny chirped, pointing to it. “It’s just in front of the Job Board.”

Weiss turned to look, found herself staring up at a three-story tower of desks and public terminals staffed by a small army of uniformed Fae, and behind that, a giant slab of enchanted rock whose surface constantly shifted and changed as job seekers pressed their hands on wanted ads and work notices, signing up for duties and taking on commission work.

“Please tell me I won’t have to use that every time I need a job...” Weiss muttered as she worriedly eyed the scaffolding and the stairs for people to reach the higher postings.

Penny shook her head. “Transactions and communications are mostly through comm-crystal or terminal for centuries now; most of the folks that use the Wall either prefer to use it, or are legally obligated to physically show up to the Guild and sign here, much like yourself.”

“Finding people willing to sign up is the easy part, getting them to actually show up is the hard part,” Ruby added.

“So you’ve got unemployed slackers, too?”

“We call them ‘Moss,’ yeah,” Ruby replied. “Don’t know how anyone’s willing to put up with eating rock bread or meat paste and sleeping in the homeless shelter every single day for the rest of their lives, but they do!”

Weiss snorted. “And here we humans were wondering what sort of magical, wonderful society could be built in a place like this...”

Ruby chuckled. “Yeah, it’s really funny to read some of the things humans think Keepers like me do when I’m not hunting down people! … And a lot of things that are just really messed up!”

Their conversation was interrupted by the PA system booming:

<Calling all participants of the Job Gauntlet! I repeat: calling all participants of the Job Gauntlet! The morning session is about to begin.>

The Fae that had been lounging around in the lobby, hanging about by the indoor cafeteria, or walking about aimlessly all began to trek towards a direction.

Weiss watched them go and turned back to Ruby. “I’m guessing that call was for me, too?”

“Yup!” she replied. “Good luck in there, Weiss,” she said as hugged her goodbye—careful to point her horns away from her face.

“You’re not coming with me...?” Weiss asked as she pulled away.

Ruby shook her head. “Blake needs me as her Spotter for an emergency fishing trip—some animals broke a fish pen, so now the river’s flooded with domestic tuna, and we need to catch them before they wreak havoc on the ecosystem.

“Those guys grow big, and eat even more!”

Blake licked her lips. <Mhmm...~>

Weiss blinked. “Oh… I see...”

“Don’t worry though! Penny’s going to be with you the whole way as your translator!”

Weiss nodded. “Okay. I guess this is goodbye, then...”

“Mhmm—for now, at least~” Ruby smiled and waved. “See you later, Weiss!”

Weiss weakly waved back, before they split up and went their separate ways.

“I'm detecting a dramatic downward shift in your mood levels, Weiss,” Penny said. “Is something the matter?”

“Nothing,” Weiss replied. “Let's just get me a job already...”


Just inside the gate, a caravan made of Watchers, Tenders, and other citizens who wanted in on the free fish were organizing and making the final preparations for the trip. As Blake and Ruby stood around and waited for the go signal, they got to talking.

<Hey, Ruby, what was with that back there at the Guild?> Blake asked.

<What was what back at the Guild?>

Blake sighed. <Oh, I don’t know—that whole display back there? You couldn't have been any more obvious! I swear, I could hear the all the sighs from the people waiting on you to kiss her.>

Ruby blushed. <Why would I do that?>

<You’re chasing her, aren’t you?>

<What? No!> Ruby shook her head. <I already told you, we’re just friends friends.>

<So you cuddle with her in the same nest at night...>

<She was crying, I wanted to make her feel better.>

<… And then you hold her hand and guide her through the whole of the hot springs because her ‘human sensibilities’ can’t handle public nudity...> Blake said, making air-quotes.

<I promised her I’d get her a private bath, didn’t I?>

<… And then you cut our time short so she can have it all for herself!>

Ruby scowled, her ears pulling back as she turned around. <Oh, give her a break, won’t you, Blake?!> she yelled, unconsciously lowering her horns towards her. <You of all folks should know what it's like to be the new girl in a city where everyone hates your guts, and Weiss isn't so lucky to be a Fae like us!>

Blake winced, her ears pulled back and her tail darting between her legs.

Ruby sighed, her face expression softening. <I know you've got issues with humans, Blake. I do too! But I don't let them make me be a total assbutt to people that don't deserve it, just because they happen to be from the same species.>

Blake's ears and tail stayed down. <Okay, I'm sorry… but just one more question: are you attracted to her?>

<Oh, HELL YES I AM, why wouldn’t I be?> Ruby replied, brightening up immediately. <She's so cute and so great to cuddle with, too—soft, smooth, and squishy-squishy~ Oh, Eluna, I wanted to ask her if I could sleep on her chest so badly!> she said, swooning.

<I mean, yeah, she's almost completely flat-chested, but boobs are boobs, you know?>

Blake stared at her, her mouth agape and an expression of deep regret on her face. <Didn’t need to know that last part, but I suppose I was asking for it...>

The caravan master called out for everyone to start loading up and rolling out.

<Look, Blake, Weiss is just my friend, okay?> Ruby said as she picked up her scythe. <Just because we’re both gay, and I happen to be super attracted to her doesn’t mean we’re automatically going to be girlfriends.>

<I might not even be her type, you know!> she added as she headed up to the front of the train.

Blake stared at her, before she took her post at the last carriage.

<Hey, your Keeper Ruby's friend, right?> one of the other Watchers asked as Blake boarded.

<What of it?> she asked cooly.

<Mind if I ask if all those rumours are true? You know, the ones about her and the new soft-skin being--> they made a sexy animal noise.

Blake sighed as she climbed up to the roof. <I honestly don’t even know anymore...> she replied.


Back at the Guild Hall, Weiss and Penny were standing in a large auditorium, as all the seats had already been claimed, or given away to others more deserving of them in the unofficial pecking order of the Job Gauntlet.

As Weiss understood it, elderly Fae and those that were obviously just looking for a new career out of boredom, financial difficulty, or genuine interest were first; young children and teenagers who were about to embark on their first ever Gauntlet were second; and last were the Moss, a mishmash of different ages, attitudes, and backgrounds unified by the air their lack of a desire to get a job, ever.

As an outsider, Weiss was lumped into that last group.

If it was any consolation, the Guild’s heavily practical attitudes continued here; no one seemed to recognize or care that she was guilty of her father’s expeditions by association, only that she behave and look interested as a presentation started—spoken, written, and with animated cartoons for the illiterates or those with poor comprehension.

The orientation ended with all of the Fae reciting a vow—Penny later translated it as “The Three Truths,” the guiding principles of most of Fae society. As the words, concepts, and historical context were too deep and complex for her to interpret without an hour or so of dedicated processing and cross-referencing the Codex for information she might not be allowed to share with Weiss, the extremely rough, very basic translation came out as this:

I am the World, as the World is I.

I am the Other, as the Other is I.

As the World rises, so We rise; as We rise, so does the World.

These truths we hold in our hearts and our minds, in thought and in deed, in living and in death, now and forever.

Weiss was tempted to say “Praise be,” as those of the Holy Shepherd would, but didn’t.

The presentation ended, and the participants for the Gauntlet were given slips of paper with their schedules, the names of their facilitators and the potential jobs they were being tested for, along with a space for stamps or signatures they needed to get lest they risk a hefty fine, community service, or even imprisonment.

“You are really serious about everyone having a job, aren’t you?” Weiss asked as Penny guided her to her first test.

“Very much so!” Penny replied. “Few Fae are willing to forsake the Three Truths and the laws and practices that they are based on, but as you humans might say, ‘There is no free lunch.’”

Weiss nodded. “So what am I looking at here, anyway?”

“Mostly Maker and Tender positions involving lots of precision work and deft handiwork! Though we understand it doesn’t extend to the whole of your species, humans in Fae society tend to have a reputation as excellent artisans, engineers, and scientists.”

Weiss smirked. “Then this’ll be easy!”

Penny calmly put a hand on her shoulder. “There’s a Fae saying I think is very appropriate right now:

"‘All prey are easy kills until you actually try to kill them.’”

Chapter Text

When Weiss recalled her first time in the Job Gauntlet, her memories played out like a movie montage.

First Scene.

The participants sat in rows of tables, claws deftly working tools and manually-operated machines, cutting, bending, shaping, and sewing fabric and leather into clothes, armour, and bags.

The proctor walked up to the first desk, nodded as the young Fae held up a simple pouch-in-the-making. She patted him on the head, signed his card, and moved onto the second desk.

An older Fae proudly held up a dress fresh off the sewing machine, a beautiful pattern of colourful threads woven into the front and back. The proctor hummed, congratulated them and signed her card with a flourish, and moved onto the third.

She stopped as she saw Weiss with her cheek pressed against the table, her arm shooting out perpendicular to her sewing machine, the sleeve of her dress accidentally sewn into the fabric she was working on.

Weiss smiled sheepishly up at her, the proctor frowned and calmly pulled out a seam ripper.

Penny crossed out <Leather/Cloth Maker> as Weiss had her clothes repaired.

Second Scene.

The participants stood at the foot of long, great tables, strewn with plates, bowls, cups, and glasses of all sizes. They were all handed trays, upon which the proctor blew a whistle and off they went, clearing their assigned table  as quickly as they could.

The sounds of stacking plates and the clatter of cups and bowls filled the room, before a loud, heavy “THUD!” rang out in the hall. Everyone stopped, looked around for the source of the noise, before someone noticed that Weiss had mysteriously disappeared from sight.

The proctor came over to Weiss, casually removed the loaded tray crushing her hands with one hand, and helped her up with the other.

Penny crossed out <Server> as Weiss got her hands examined by a Mender.

Third Scene.

The participants stood over their own cauldrons, intentionally assigned highly unstable solutions, an abundance of ingredients with which to try and stabilize it, and the barest minimum of instructions. The proctor blew their whistle and all the stoves underneath turned on, the liquid inside quickly boiling and bubbling.

After exactly one minute, the stoves were turned off, and the proctor began to check each individual cauldron.

The first had a sweating, panting, but proud Fae hunched over a blue fluid that was calm as a lake on a windless day.

The second had a Fae standing with a surprised look on their face face, now painted in several splotches of random colours from the explosion just moments before.

The third had both Weiss and the proctor peering into the cauldron; the solution had turned an ominous purple, and was still bubbling despite the lack of direct heat.

Then gooey tendrils reached out for them, and they started screaming.

Penny crossed out <Potion Maker> as Weiss, her proctor, and a small team of armed Watchers tried to reverse-engineer her creation, while a team of other Makers autopsied the remains of the original, their brows furrowed and their heads being scratched in confusion.

Fourth Scene.

The participants were in the Guild’s barn, dirt-packed floors, plants and trees growing at a carefully controlled pace, animals walking about in their respective pens and habitats. The participants were only allowed to handle the Valley’s most common domestic creatures:

“Thunder Wolves,” extremely large predators capable of generating and weaponizing electricity using their fur; “Cows,” which were actually giant horned bovines even bigger than Zwei, several times heavier and stronger, but almost completely docile; “Chickens,” like the non-Valley variety except 6 feet tall and infinitely more aggressive and angry; and “Sheep,” who could walk on two or four legs as they pleased, were rather intelligent, and happened to grow wool at an incredibly accelerated pace and sometimes with very exotic, useful qualities depending on their diet, and exposure to certain types of magic and elements.

Because of her qualifications and her performance at earlier tests, Weiss was only cleared for either milking the cows or shoveling manure for use as fertilizer and fuel. As the stench was already nearly overwhelming her as is, she opted for the former.

Her proctor was saying that milking the cows was one of the easiest and safest jobs as a Tender, so long as you knew exactly what you were doing and were careful to never grab their udders incorrectly. To emphasize the point, she had a model of said udders on a rack that every one in line had to grab, to correct their form before they risked getting it wrong on an actual cow.

Weiss wondered what exactly would happen, until the Fae in front of her did it wrong, upon which the beast screamed, panicked, and accidentally stomped him into a crater as she ran off.

The Tenders chased the rampaging animal before it destroyed any more of the barn, hurt the other animals or participants, or worse yet, started a stampede, damage that could easily spread to the rest of the Guild and the area around it.

A group of Menders that were on-hand rushed to the unfortunate victim, wielding what looked like shovels, giant tongs, and a bicycle pump.

Penny looked down at Weiss schedule, debated preemptively crossing out <Animal Tender> as Weiss handed her milk bucket back to her proctor, and went to go look for a shovel.

Fifth Scene.

The participants were in a combination of a kitchen and a laboratory, as the line between the culinary arts and experimental science was very thin for the Fae, even if the facility had a clear split down the middle.

As fetching ingredients could be easily done by trained animals, Fae workers had to go one step above and show that they were capable of cooking, creating, and solving problems as they arose, with or without supervision, so the test was a mix of seeing how fast you could gather ingredients from a communal storage area, then making something out of it as best as you could with limited time.

One of the proctors blew a whistle, and they were off once more, fighting each other over ingredients, sometimes stealing from the others' baskets, and a few pocketing food for later. Weiss stood just behind the crush, trying to figure out a game plan; like Candela, the ingredients were super fresh and maintained by a magical field, but unlike Candela, she didn't have the luxury of a screen popping up and showing her potential recipes and uses, and Penny was only allowed to warn her about dangerous combinations of ingredients or ones best left to professional chefs.

With the ransacked bins and shelves before her, Weiss just grabbed the most familiar looking ingredients and hauled them away. “Chicken” eggs normally weren't the size of a human baby, but everything else was almost exactly the same.

If it was any consolation, there were more than enough knives, tools, and cooking stations for everyone.

Stoves and ovens were fired up, the air was filled with flying slices of vegetables, meats, and fruits as they were cut with incredible speed, force, and precision, before they were fried, boiled, blanched, baked, roasted, smoked, or what have you. It was anarchy—delicious, delicious anarchy as no one was exactly going light on the fragrant herbs and spices, the premade soup stocks, and especially the boar bacon, and Penny had to shout over the chaos to remind Weiss that she'd best not taste test anything lest she risk suffering for it for the rest of the day.

At the tail end of the exam, some participants were focused on plating, arrangement, and last-minute touches to improve the presentation—culinary standards were universal too, it seemed, if with a much bigger focus on aroma for the Fae. The rest were trying to think of some last-minute gimmick that could work, cooking up something to replace their original plan, or trying to discretely get a free meal on the Guild's tab.

Then, a horn sounded, loud and bellowing, followed by a high-pitched whistle for those that didn't stop at the first. Weiss was glad she couldn't hear it as it had pretty much every Fae in the room cringing in pain.

The participants prepared three plates total, one for each judge: a purely vegetarian meal, for the herbivorous Llama Judge; a mostly meat meal, for the carnivorous Hyena Judge; and a mix of both, for the omnivorous Hedgehog Judge.

The first table had a young feline Fae who had made an artful arrangement of shredded, sliced, and pared vegetables and meat using his hands and special bladed caps to protect his claws. The food was very basic, the cuts messy and clumsy at times, but the presentation showed promise and enthusiasm, so the judges passed him on all three accounts; one even gave him a much appreciated pat on the head.

The second table had a middle-aged Fae who smiled and bowed as she presented three separate bowls of noodle soup made with three separate stocks. The judges took up chopsticks or drank directly from their bowl, and all three didn't stop until they had consumed everything. Two of them thanked her profusely while the third offered her a job at one of their restaurants on the spot.

They went to the third table. Weiss had made three variations of the one dish: egg omelets. The three judges smiled politely and ate them anyway; they didn't exactly start gagging or turn green, but they weren't exactly impressed, either.

<Decent enough, but it lacks something for distinct flavour,> said the Llama Judge.

<Yep, it lacks that kick, kind like an alpha for the ingredients, but at least you know how to balance out your flavours well, kid!> said the Hyena Judge.

<Agreed, perhaps you should have used boar bacon?> the Hedgehog Judge offered.

The Hyena Judge drooled a little. <Mmm, boar bacon... multi-paste of food, kid, you should always remember that,> she said as she wiped up her mouth.

<Indeed, few foods that can't be improved with boar bacon,> the Hedgehog Judge nodded.

<Oh goodness, yes! It's my one animal product, aside from eggs and milk,> the Llama Judge said, humming.

After Penny translated and summarized, Weiss asked back, “But wasn't one of the meals supposed to be purely vegetarian?”

The Llama smiled. <That's when you use boar bacon salt!> she said, pointing at her and winking. <Why didn't you, by the way?>

"I didn't know it existed...” Weiss muttered.

The Hyena Judge winced. <Oooh, now ain't that the saddest thing I've ever heard in a while...> She patted her on the shoulder. <Cheer up, kid! There's probably another job out there for you—always something that needs getting done wherever there's Fae out and about,> she laughed as they left for the next table.

Penny crossed out <Food Maker,> the last job on her schedule, and Weiss was very glad the proctor who needed to sign her card was on the way out of the lab.


Weiss turned in her fully signed schedule, waited with the other participants to get her evaluation. Her name was called, she walked up to the counter and received a freshly printed and stapled stack of papers. She couldn't understand the words, but the attached table with her tests on one column and all X's on the next, and the charts having all her levels at the lowest possible with the symbols being a Fae bent over and panting for breath, another scratching their head in confusion, and a third helplessly holding up raw materials were not encouraging.

She hadn't it over to Penny. “Give me as close to an exact translation as you possibly can,” she muttered as they walked out of the Trader's Guild.

Penny frowned. “Are you sure, Weiss? It'll take a lot longer--”

Just do it.”

“Okay...”

Weiss sat on a bench outside as Penny did her work.

It was a beautiful, sunny day still, about 2 in the afternoon. Lunch time for the Bastion, it seemed, as hordes of Fae were clocking off from their jobs, heading out to eat at the many restaurants, street vendors, and take-out places that littered the area around the Guild, enjoying their packed lunches outside, or going back home through the Tubes, other means of transportation, or just hoofing it.

It took Penny five minutes to translate the letter, and she insisted that Weiss keep sitting as she began to read it:

“We of the Trader's Guild regret to inform you that you are completely, absolutely unqualified for any job we can offer you. You are physically unfit for manual labour; you are illiterate, and effectively uneducated; and have no salable practical skills whatsoever.

“We sincerely hope you can stay in Keeper Ruby Rose's good graces, or that you are fine with sleeping in the homeless shelter and eating rock bread and meat paste for the rest of your life, because unless you can vastly improve your physical fitness and capabilities to at least the normal levels of an adult Fae, become literate in Actaeon at an adult level and cram 12 years worth of basic education into your head, and/or develop talents and skills that oftentimes take years of intense, daily practice to master, those are your only two options to keep on living and surviving from day to day.

“Should you have need for work or Shinies, hopefully while you train and/or educate yourself, we suggest you try your luck with the Watchers, sell your body as a paid test subject with the Makers and Menders, or develop an entertaining act that folks will want to pay to see.

“For whatever it's worth, we are truly, honestly, from the very bottom of our hearts sorry for you, you poor, unfortunate soul, you, and wish you only the best in all your future endeavours.”

Penny put the letter down, frowned as she saw Weiss' teary eyes and shaking body. “Weiss…?”

She sniffed. “Do you have triple chocolate cake shakes here...?

Penny consulted the Codex. “There's a shop nearby that sells an exact replica of the famous Fiorina's recipe, yes.”

“How much is it?” Weiss said as she pulled out her pouch of Shinies, started counting the glimmering, carved rocks she'd gotten for participating in the Job Gauntlet for the first time.

“49 Shinies for a Small.”

Weiss carefully counted her money and noted the value on the faces. She had 45. She looked up. “Do you guys haggle here?” she asked.

Penny looked uneasy. “We do, but it's not likely to happen, given your position as both an outsider, and being associated with your father and his expeditions.”

Weiss nodded. “Okay.”

Then, she burst into tears.

Penny stashed the letter into one of her arm's compartments then hugged Weiss.

“There, there...” she whispered as she patted her on the back.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you want to do this, Weiss?” Penny asked as she and Weiss stood in a public bathroom. “Your body's stress hormone levels still haven't returned to normal.”

“Yes,” Weiss said before she splashed more water on her face. “I'm a Schnee, and as my grandfather Nicholas famously said: 'Where other people see desolation, failure, and the writing on the wall, I see motivation to keep on going until we turn this shit around,'" she continued as she dried her face with a paper towel.

Penny nodded. “Calling the Watcher's Roost...” she said as she held up her arm, the “tablet” section flipped out.

Weiss threw the towel away, checked her reflection in the mirror: her eyes were red and puffy from crying, she had the ominous beginnings of eye bags thanks to all the stress and less than ideal sleep she'd been getting recently, and just an aura of unpleasantness had settled on her from having been screwed over far too often and frequently.

She would have killed for make-up, some concealer at the very least, but she supposed she'd just have to work with it. Who knew: maybe looking like someone you wouldn't want to mess with would be a plus in the Watchers.

They left the bathroom and headed to the nearest Tube station, and off they went to the Watcher's Roost.


The Roost was situated on the side of one of the highest mountains of the Valley, overlooking all of the Bastion and a great deal outside the walls, too. Like the city itself, it was a series of trees and platforms connected by bridges and rope, along with a number of extra Tube stations, elevators, and zip lines for getting around quickly.

As Weiss arrived at the main entrance, she looked up and noticed giant birds perched in the higher branches, racks with saddles, bags, and harnesses with folded mechanical wings nearby. “If the Valley had an air force, this would be it,” she thought to herself as Penny arrived.

The two of them walked up to the doors, where there were already two Watchers waiting for her. One was an orange squirrel with all the chipper demeanor and hyperactivity that entailed, the other gave Weiss pause as she stared at him.

Most of the Fae she'd seen in the Bastion were based off mammals, and she'd only seen a handful of bird-like Fae such as Qrow. The one before her looked like a snake or a reptile of some sort, slit pupils in his pink eyes, pink-green scales creeping in on the sides of his face, his neck, and his hands, and what looked to be horns poking out from his forehead.

“Oh hi, you must be Weiss!” the squirrel said as she ran up to her. “Oh who am I kidding? EVERYONE in the Valley knows who you are! You're practically famous! Or is that supposed to be infamous? Anyway, I'm Nora, and that's Ren, and we're going to be helping you in your run through the Grinder!

“Hope you don't come out the other side as meat paste~!”

Weiss blinked, confused and more than a little concerned.

“'The Grinder's' what we Watchers call our entrance exam,” Ren said. “It can get pretty brutal.”

Super brutal, you mean!” Nora cried. “There's a reason the Guild stopped offering 'Watcher' as part of the Job Gauntlet! Well, aside from the fact that we kept getting so much Moss and people who just didn't want to join up clogging up the ranks, but there's that, too!”

Weiss nodded slowly. “I… see...”

“So, are we going to stand here all day? Or are we going to see if you are Watcher Material?!” Nora said, grinning and leaning ever closer to Weiss' face with each word.

Ren calmly coaxed his friend back to a more polite, less uncomfortably close distance. “Sorry about that; Nora's been dying to meet you since Ruby told us that you were staying here permanently, and Penny's call got her excited all over again.”

“Why wouldn't I be?!” Nora cried. “We're going to be just like the Void Claw Clan and Lang-Lang from 'The Last Bear Ender!' An outsider, scared, confused, thrust into a new, dangerous world they are completely unprepared for, seeking guidance and protection wherever she can find it, fighting the wilds, her enemies, and her inner demons to rise up as their new CHAMPION!”

As Nora was busy with her monologue and dramatic posing, Weiss discretely asked Ren, “HV addict?”

Ren nodded. “It's how we both learned Nivian.”

“Figured...” Weiss muttered.

Nora turned back to her, put her fists on her hips and attempted a serious, dramatic look. “So, outsider, do you wish to grow strong with the darkness, or continue to cower in the light?”

Weiss wondered if it was too late to back out, and go see just what being a paid guinea pig would entail.

“There's a sign-on bonus of 1,000 Shinies if you pass, plus a regular monthly salary even if you'll probably be spending the next year or so training and shadowing senior Watchers in the less populated districts here in the Bastion.”

And at the promise of 22 Triple Chocolate Cake Shakes with change to spare, plus a year's worth of compensated on-the-job training, Weiss' mind was made up.

“Let's do this,” she said, smiling.

Nora cheered, while Ren smiled back. “Alright,” he said. “Let's head inside, and get you started.”

The interior of the Roost was a bizarre mix of a military base, a police station, and a hunter's lodge.

There was a giant board with announcements and notices about dangerous and criminal individuals, and suspicious activity in general. An army of operators manned terminals, screening and updating the others on important tips from citizens and their sources of information. A holographic “Heat Map” of the entire Valley was projected from the ceiling, lighting up in different colours depending on how dangerous an area was, sometimes with images of particularly deadly animals, always with a name in Actaeon or Nivian and a corresponding bounty for taking them down.

There were also the stuffed heads and carcasses of famous kills throughout the ages, portraits and pictures of proud Watchers and their trophies, and sometimes statues and reliefs of their more legendary figures, frequently portrayed in combat with their most infamous opponents.

Weiss passed by a giant statue of what looked like the bastard child of an alligator, a shark, and a tank that had also been heavily irradiated with magic, then injected with several gallons worth of steroids, because apparently whoever had designed it thought it wasn't terrifying enough.

There was a plaque underneath it: “Death Claw, the First Soul Eater,” Penny translated.

It was definitely just a statue, but the detail in its six eyes, the rows of serrated fangs within the three flaps that made its “mouth,” and the giant, twisted horns atop its head gave Weiss the chills. “That's a Soul Eater...?” she whispered.

“Yeeep!” Nora said as they passed it by. “Big reason why we Watchers are paid and funded so well—and also why we recruit year round, too!”

“We keep it largely as a reminder to never get complacent,” Ren continued.

Weiss gazed it at one more time, before she resolved never to turn her head in its general direction again, and hurried on after the others.

They went deeper into the Roost, into a series of underground caverns. She could hear the echoes of training and fighting, shouts and war cries from both Fae and animals. And from even deeper in…

“… Is that music?” Weiss asked.

Ren nodded. “We share our facilities with the Pits for extra funding and convenience.”

“Plus, a lot of Watchers tend to be Pit Fighters when they're off-duty, or vice-versa! You're going in there later as part of the Grinder, by the way.”

Weiss' eyes widened in alarm.

“Don't worry, we have safety measures and really good equipment,” Ren explained. “Your opponent's also skilled at roughing folks up without actually causing lasting harm.” He paused. “Physical harm, at any rate.”

“But for now, we're going to do Part 1 of the Grinder: The Reflex Test!” Nora said as she opened a door that led to a training room. It was very basic with a safety mat in the center, some machines for exercises and drills, and a rack of training dummies.

“It's very simple,” Ren explained as they headed to a table. “For 30 seconds, I'm going to try to touch you on your nose, you try and stop me or dodge. To pass, you only need to do either once. Ready?”

Weiss nodded and stood in front of him. “Ready,” she said as she held up her hands.

Nora put her hand over to a giant timer and turned on a camera. “On three: 1… 2… 3!”

Boop.

Ren lightly tapped Weiss on the nose, just enough for her to feel it.

Weiss blinked. “Wait, wha--”

Boop.

Weiss scowled. “Hey--!”

Boop.

Weiss raised her arms in front of her face.

Ren effortlessly weaved his hands around her defense.

Boop.

Weiss growled.

Boop.

Ren was unfazed.

Boop.

Weiss started flailing her arms in the air.

Boop.

Weiss grabbed both of Ren's wrists.

Boop. Boop. Boop. Boop. Boop. Boop.

“Gah!” Weiss let go, unable to stand against the assault. She spun around.

Ren sidestepped.

Boop.

She hid her face in her hands.

Ren gently pried her hands from her face.

Weiss looked him straight in his pink, slit-pupil eyes.

Boop.

Ding!

“Time's up!” Nora yelled. “Reviewing the footage now and…. yeeep… looks like you dodged a grand a total of zero Boops!”

“Don't worry,” Ren said, “you need only get a score of 2 out of 4 to pass, and the Combat Test counts for 2.”

Weiss grumbled as she rubbed her repeatedly booped nose.

“To the Endurance Test!” Nora said, walking off to the side and wheeling in a device that was composed of a tank with a valve, a hose, and a nozzle pointed well away from the operator's side.

“What is that?” Weiss asked.

“A Soul Fire Thrower!” Nora replied cheerfully.

“… What's Soul Fire?”

“A magical substance used for non-lethally taking down powerful targets that shrug off more instantaneous methods, or to weaken strong enemies to level the playing field," Penny explained.

Weiss worriedly eyed the nozzle. “… Is this going to hurt?”

“Yep!” Nora replied, nodding her head. “Gonna hurt LOTS!”

Weiss stared at her. “Wait--”

“On 'Burninate!' 3, 2, 1: BURNINATE!”

FWOOSH!

Weiss screamed and ran around as she was suddenly engulfed in green flames. She patted herself, stopped, dropped, and rolled and rolled on the floor, but the fire wouldn't let up and kept on burning, and burning, and burning.

Then, as quickly as it started, it ended, leaving Weiss sprawled out on her back, eyes wide and breathing heavily, her body, hair, and clothes unburned, though tendrils of leftover magic rose up from her like smoke.

Ren stopped the timer. “5.27 seconds,” he said, before he walked over to Weiss, uncapped a bottle from his belt, and poured its contents over Weiss.

WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?!” she screamed as she scrambled up, rejuvenated.

“Testing how long you might last out in the wilds,” Ren replied. “The time you can stay alight is a very accurate predictor.”

Weiss groaned. “Please tell me I passed...”

“Nope!” Nora chirped. “Gotta burn for 15 seconds at the least, 30 seconds ideally, and at least 72.08 seconds to break the record!”

“There's still the Combat test, don't worry,” Ren said. “I'd recommend at least a repeater, a melee weapon of some sort, and the lightest armour we have for speed and agility.”

“Do you have rapiers?” Weiss asked.

Ren nodded. “We do.”

"Good."


 Weiss stood in one of the smaller arenas in the Pits, armed and equipped exactly to Ren's advice.

Tall rocks and waist high barriers were strewn about, alongside a miniature mountain range behind her back and a deep ditch on her opponent's side, but hiding behind them wouldn't count for much with how small the arena was, how easy it would be to get flanked.

She looked at her repeater—a wrist-bound machine-pistol of sorts—then at the rapier of carved bone in her other hand. She'd been given time to practice with both, and a vigorous warm-up before the fight beside, but no one would tell her who or what her opponent was going to be, exactly.

“Are these darts live?” she asked earlier as Ren taught her how to reload her repeater with a fresh canister.

“As real as your sword,” he said calmly.

Weiss frowned. “Aren't you worried I'm going to hurt someone?”

Ren smiled. “Weiss, believe me, your opponent's going to turn out fine, and you will, too.”

She complained and cajoled anyone to give her a hint, but everyone kept their mouths shut, wanted her to find out for herself as she had with the Tubes. And as the lights dimmed, the crowds in the stands howled and cheered, and her opponent's gigantic cage was lowered into the ring, Weiss could take comfort in the fact that the mystery was finally going to be over.

She got into the stance Ren had taught her—sword for defense and deflection, repeater to actually do the actual hurting.

Nora got on the mic. <And now, Weiss Schnee's opponent for her Combat Test: ZWEI!>

The crowd cheered and howled as the lid opened and crashed to the ground with a massive thud. Zwei casually trotted out, both heads panting happily.

Weiss smiled.

<And for the purposes of this test: ZWEI on FIRE!>

A bird dropped a flaming pot of soul fire on Zwei's back. The flames engulfed his entire body in an instant, but he was completely unharmed. Heavy metal music began to play as he raised his heads up and howled, twin jets of green flames shooting out from his mouths.

Weiss eyes widened as several hundred pounds of burning, giant, mutant two-headed Corgi came bounding towards her, jaws open and tongues flapping in the wind.

Chapter Text

Ruby and Blake trekked back to Keeper's Hollow, a pole on their shoulders supporting a giant, seven-foot long, several-hundred-pound weight tuna; the latter had a content smile on her face, her stomach noticeably distended.

“We're home, and we brought tuna!” Ruby called out as they came to the foot of the elevator. “Well, just a tuna because Blake got hungry on the ride back, but she'll share with everyone! Except Weiss, sorry about that!”

Silence, not even the sounds of anyone heading out to the elevator.

Ruby frowned. “Uncle Qrow? Penny? Weiss? Zwei? Any of you guys home…?”

It was then that she noticed three figures sitting on the highest balcony of the house--”Qrow's Nest” as her mother used to call it, because of how fond he was of going up there alone. One was clearly Zwei, laying down and looking forlorn; the other two were sitting over the edge, nursing drinks in their hands.

Ruby sighed, her face falling. <Oh no...>

Blake frowned. <You need help with drunk duty?> she asked as they set the tuna down on the ground. <I'll help with Qrow, but Weiss is all yours.>

Ruby shook her head. <Nah, I got this; you get this tuna in the fridge, before the Weavers' spell starts to run out,> she said as she headed up the ladder on the side.

After the fish was safely cut up and stored, Ruby made her way up to Qrow's Nest. Zwei looked up from both Qrow's and Weiss' laps as she poked her head out of the hatch; he panted happily at her, before put his heads back where they were, anchoring them to the floor with his weight, eyes watching them both carefully.

Qrow turned around and waved. “Hey Ruby,” he said, slurring slightly.

“Hey Uncle Qrow,” Ruby said, trying to smile. “You're not both drunk, are you...?”

“Just buzzed, but Weiss is 100% sober,” Qrow replied, before he took another sip of his beer.

“It's impossible to get drunk on milk, after all,” Weiss grumbled, before she took a swig of her own drink.

Ruby blinked. “You're drowning your sorrows in milk?”

Yes! Because apparently the fermentation process for all your alcohols involves so much bacteria it'll utterly annihilate my stomach as is, and your uncle here only seems to ever buy the shitty, beer-flavoured water than the good brands.”

“Well excuse me for being poor…” Qrow muttered.

“So, how'd the Job Gauntlet go?” Ruby asked quickly.

Terrible!” Weiss replied. “I failed every single exam. Did you know I'm completely unqualified for any sort of job the Fae could offer me? I have printed evidence from the professionals to prove it, just ask Penny when she's done with her daily maintenance!”

“Did you try the Watchers like Elder Goodwitch asked?”

“She did,” Qrow replied. “The holo for her combat test's gone viral all over AoA.” He switched languages. <It's called 'Soft-Skin Schnee Gits Wrekt.'>

“Go watch it,” Weiss grumbled.

Ruby frowned. “I don't know, Weiss, it sounds pretty--”

Just do it. The sooner all of you Fae watch it for the fifteen-hundredth time and collectively get sick of it, the better.”

“Shit, Weiss, that holo's going in the Hall of Fame!” Qrow said. “Hundreds of years from now, we're still going to be pulling that out of the Codex and thinking 'Man, you'd think this'd get old, but it just gets funnier each time!'”

Weiss scowled. “That's a very encouraging thought, Qrow,” she said through gritted teeth.

Qrow shrugged. “Just making sure your expectations are realistic! It's easier to just face your shit reality and do something about it now, than waste time and energy pretending things are going magically to become better. Trust me, sooner or later, the smell's going to be impossible to ignore.”

Ruby sighed quietly. “I'll just go do that, then...” she said as she climbed back down.

“Watch it on the HV!” Qrow called out. “It's better with big resolution!”


Later, Blake and Ruby were sitting on the couch, grilled tuna slices, cookies, and milk between them. They loaded up the holo, skipped through the technical details and the info that was for the benefit of the senior Watchers handling recruiting.

They watched Zwei come out from the cage. Ruby smiled, Blake frowned.

<...And for the purposes of this test: ZWEI on FIRE!> Nora cried.

Zwei was set alight with soul fire. Ruby frowned, Blake smiled.

As the giant, flaming, two-headed canine came bounding towards her, Weiss turned around and fled, arms in the air and screaming at the top of her lungs.

<… And our recruit is off, trying to put some distance between her and—oh, nope! Zwei caught up to her already.> In Nivian, “Cardio, Weiss, cardio!”

Weiss replied by shrieking in renewed terror as Zwei grabbed her in one of his mouths, bit down just hard enough to hold her steady as he shook her side-to-side.

“Use your sword!” Nora cried.

Weiss whacked the hilt on the side of Zwei's head.

“Use your sword as a sword!”

Zwei carefully tossed her away. Weiss went flying for several feet, rolling as she hit the dirt. She dropped her rapier as she scrambled back up to her feet and started running for higher ground.

“Wait, Weiss—you dropped your weapon!”

“I KNOW!” Weiss screamed, tears streaming down her face now.

Zwei stopped and looked up at Nora, conflicted and still alight.

<Go get her, boy!> she called out. <She's not going to pass if you go too easy on her!>

Zwei turned to Weiss over on the other side of the arena, sobbing and jumping up and down, trying to reach a handhold that was just slightly taller than she was.

Blake choked on her fish from laughing so hard. Ruby smacked her on the back as they continued watching.

“Turn around and shoot him!” Nora cried. “His vitals are getting low! Well, low enough for you to get a good score!”

Weiss turned around, held up her shooting arm, and fired. Because of the tears in her eyes and the absolute terror she was experiencing, most of the darts missed Zwei in spite of him being an incredibly large target that was only getting closer.

Weiss ran out of ammo, the repeater kept on spinning and whining as she held the trigger.

“Reload! Reload! Reload!”

Weiss started smacking the release lever, her hand missing several times.

“No, Weiss, point it away from your--!”

The empty canister popped out and flew into her eye. GAH!”

“--Too late.”

Weiss groped about, dropping two of her extra canisters before she finally got a grip on the third. She was about to load it into her repeater when the bright glow of the Pit's floodlights were replaced by an ominous, green hue.

Zwei slowly padded up to her, both heads deep in thought, unsure of what to do.

Weiss screamed, threw the canister at him, it bounced harmlessly off his left head.

Zwei barked.

Weiss dropped to the floor and curled up in the fetal position.

The horn was sounded.

Birds came by and dropped cure water on Zwei, extinguishing the soul fire. An extraction crew came up, along with Penny and a Therapy Mender carrying a well-worn, much-loved limited edition Eluna plushie the Watchers kept on-hand for situations like this.

There was a final shot of Weiss hugging it and squeezing it to her chest as she was carted away, before the video ended.

Blake snatched up the remote, and pressed the replay button.

Ruby heard a door opening, turned around saw Weiss dejectedly walking back into their room, her milk exchanged for one of her bottles of bacteria culture. She picked up her dinner and went on after her.

She knocked on the door with her horns. “Weiss?” she called out. “Can I come in?”

“It's your room, you decide!”

Ruby frowned, and opened the door. She saw Weiss already lying on her side in her hammock, gently rocking back and forth as she hugged Winter's Eluna plushie, an empty bottle on the floor.

“You want some milk and cookies?” she asked as she held up her dinner.

“Already had way too many,” Weiss muttered.

“Okay,” Ruby said. She walked over to her nest, and sat down on one of her pillows. “So...”

“So, what am I going to do about my being a NEET?”

“A what?”

“It's an acronym: 'Not Employed, in Education, or Training,'” Weiss explained. “I guess it's the human equivalent of Moss.”

Ruby nodded. “Yeah, that. So, do you have any talents or anything? Song, dance, arts and crafts, maybe? I'm sure we can use your being a human as a gimmick while you're starting out and building a fan base—I'll even be your audience if you need someone to test an act out on!”

“I can sing, but I think I'll just sell my body to science,” Weiss replied. “If being a star with the Fae is anything like being a star with us humans, the competition's going to eat me alive by virtue of being able to talk with their fans anytime they want without needing a translator…”

Ruby frowned. “Weiss...”

“You don't need to come with me to the Chronicler's Grove,” Weiss said as she turned away from Ruby and to her other side. “Qrow and Penny are already overdue for a 'brain drain,' so they're taking me with them tomorrow morning.”

Ruby sighed and put her food down. “Weiss, you can't just give up like this!” she said as she got up and walked over to the other side of her hammock.

“And why not?!” Weiss snapped, glaring at her, tears beginning well in her eyes once more. “Let's face the facts here, Ruby: I'm completely, absolutely useless to all of you!”

Ruby blinked. “Well duh! I thought that was already pretty obvious.”

Weiss gritted her teeth. “You were supposed to tell me I'm not useless.”

Ruby frowned. “Why would I do that?”

“Because I was fishing for compliments!”

“Fishing for what now?”

“It's when we talk bad about ourselves so other people will try and make us feel better...”

Ruby paused, and slowly raised a finger. “Weiss, let me get off topic for one moment:

THIS IS WHY I FUCKING HATE NIVIAN! 'THE DOVE DOVE,' 'THE KNIGHT RIDES OUT AT NIGHT,' THE ENTIRE CONCEPT OF 'SARCASM' WHERE YOU SAY THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF WHAT YOU MEAN FOR 'EMPHASIS'!

“WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU EVER INVENT A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE FOR EVERYONE IN AN ENTIRE REALM WITH THE INTENT OF BEING MISUNDERSTOOD 90% OF THE DAMNED TIME?!

WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU HUMANS?!”

Weiss stared up at her, stunned.

Whew!” Ruby sucked in a deep breath. “Look, I'm sorry, but I had to get that out of my system!

“Anyway… Weiss, you're going to find something you can do to make yourself useful, and even if it's probably going to be just me and Penny, we're going to help you find it. We'll put you through a training regime, teach you Actaeon and all the other stuff you'll need to know, help you develop a skill than you can use to make something out of your life!

“There's a saying in Actaeon—something about every animal, from the smallest bacteria to the biggest monsters in the Timeless Depths being here in Avalon for a reason, all of them with a purpose in life, and because we Fae are animals too, that means we have those too!

“Maybe it won't be as obvious and instinctive as sheep existing to eat grass and get eaten by thunder wolves, who keep their population in check so they don't eat all the grass and everyone dies of starvation…

“… But you're not going to be useless forever, Weiss.

“Maybe now, yeah, you can't do anything right, but way back when, the Valley was just a big patch of wet dirt and swampland that happened to get shade from the sun because of the Twin Peaks, and retained a lot of the water from the Flood.

“But now look at it, after we Fae moved in and put in the work to try and make it better...”

Ding.

Weiss could see the light bulb go off in Ruby's head.

“… And I just got a great idea!”

“It's not going to involve faking my own death again, is it...?” Weiss asked warily.

Nope!” Ruby replied, beaming. “Go to sleep, Weiss—you're going to need it!” she said as she hurried on out, stopping only to grab her dinner.

Weiss sat up. “Ruby, wait--!”

She was already out the door.

Weiss sighed, before she laid back down, and decided to just do as she was told and get some shut-eye.

Whatever it was Ruby had planned this time, it could wait till morning.


In the living room, Qrow and Blake were still rewatching the footage of Weiss' ill-fated fight, drinks laid to the side after one too many choking and spitting incidents.

<Uncle Qrow!> Ruby said as she zoomed up right to the back of the couch.

Qrow turned around. <Yeah, Ru--?> he dodged and avoided being accidentally gored with her horns.

Blake noticed, and paused the video.

<Sorry!> Ruby cried. <Do we still have dad's old tools?>

<Uh, yeah, they're in the shed, still on the old hooks on the wall—why do you ask?>

<Because, I've got a great idea to help Taiyang stay here!> Summer replied.

Qrow blinked, shook his head, and noticed Ruby frowning at him.

<A flash again...?> she asked.

<Yeah, don't worry about it,> Qrow replied.

Ruby sighed. <You should really go get your chronicle fixed, Uncle Qrow.>

<Not until that doesn't come with a mind wipe...> Qrow grumbled as he turned back to the HV. <Go get Penny to help you, I've stuffed a LOT of crap in there over the years, and I don't know what might have nested there since the last time I opened that door.>

<Will do, Uncle Qrow!> Ruby said, before she zoomed off once more.

<What was that all about?> Blake asked.

Qrow shrugged. <Who knows? Now unpause that holo, we're almost to the best part!>

Chapter Text

Weiss had another dream her second night in the Valley.

She was sitting in a classroom this time, the esteemed halls of the Arcturus Institute of the Arts and Sciences, the school for children of the rich, the famous, and the ridiculously smart as Lumania continued to lose scholars, funding, and prestige to Candela. Her classmates were all the same: beautiful, fashionable, and bored out of their skulls.

The presentation going on at their respective HV receivers was yet another lecture of the history of Candela, specifically about one of its chief founders: her maternal grandfather, Nicholas Schnee. She used to love watching this video just for fun, until it reminded her far too much of how far everything had fallen the moment “Ole Nick kicked the bucket, and left it all to Jack.”

She knew the narration by heart:

“Ever increasing demand for raw materials and power, and ever dwindling natural resources and overloaded wellsprings. Overpopulated and fatally congested cities, and with yet more citizens being born and moving in every day. Rampant corruption, social unrest, city states at war, driven by survival, greed, and just pure, unbridled hate towards anyone deemed the ‘Other.’

“The world of Avalon seemed on the brink of collapse, brought down by the blinding speed of its technological advancement, scandal after scandal in the Church of the Holy Shepherd, the splintering of Captain Piorina 'Piper' Nikos’ once-unified people into the three distinct regions of the Nexus, Solaris, and Zeal.

“It was a time of strife, of uncertainty, of fear; all over, citizens cowered, crushed by the weight of anxiety; fought and killed each other over the scraps; or did their best to hold together a society that was fast falling apart at the very seams.

“And in these darkest hours, when all hope seemed lost, a hero emerged, a man who could not just stand by and let the light of humanity starve itself to death.

“Born in the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog streets and canals of Valentino, trained with the Armed Forces of Avalon in the Nexus, the leader that put an end to the petty in-fighting of Lumania’s academics and scientists, who united the best of the Triumvirate and formed a brave band of scouts, soldiers, settlers, and scientists to venture off into the barren wastelands of the Acropolis, and found our salvation:

Nicholas Schnee!”

The holo went on to a cliched shot of her grandfather, standing on a mountain top, his energy sword in one hand and his lucky plasma pistol in the other, looking proudly over the foundations of what was to become Candela.

Then, he looked over to Weiss, sheathed his weapons, and stuck out a hand through the holo.

Weiss didn’t even blink as she took it and pulled him out.

“Ah, much better!” Nick said as he climbed out, onto Weiss’ desk. “Thanks, sweetheart; been doing that same stupid pose for far too long...” he grumbled as he climbed down to the floor.

Desensitized and apathetic, no one else noticed.

“Come on, Weiss, let’s get out of here,” Nick said, putting a rough, calloused hand on Weiss’ back.

She happily got up and followed him outside of the classroom, to a giant expanse of pure white.

“Are you actually the spirit of my grandfather, or just my subconscious personified as him?” Weiss asked as they walked.

Nick shrugged. “Who knows! I'd say ask an expert, but if there’s one thing any person who actually knows their stuff will tell you, it’s how much shit they don’t know about. I’ve talked to and learned from enough to know the difference between the real deal, and a phony talking out of their ass.”

Weiss nodded. “So what are you here for, anyway?”

“To give you a pep-talk!” Nick replied, stopping and gently poking her in the chest. “What happened to you, Weiss?”

“Where do I start?” Weiss chirped, smiling. “Shall it be the night I learned that the Keeper of the Grove is actually real and my entire life began to collapse right before my very eyes? Will it be finally getting my sister back after so many years, for all of three days before she was taken away from me again, probably for forever? Ooh, ooh, can it be when I faked my own death because apparently my father considers his stupid ego more important than his own daughter’s life?”

Wow, keeping it light, aren’t you?” Nick replied flatly.

Forgive me, but for these past few weeks, life has been repeatedly chewing me up, spitting me out, setting me on fire, then putting out the flames by peeing on me for shits and giggles!”

Nick raised his hands in surrender. Okay! I get it! I’m sorry! Wrong way to to start off a pep-talk right there!” he yelled. He sighed, and they walked in silence for a few moments. “Let me try again: what does the name ‘Schnee’ mean, Weiss?”

“Unsafe labour conditions? Unethical practices and rampant corruption? Profit over the lives of people?” Weiss replied.

Nick scowled. “Let me be more specific: what did the name ‘Schnee’ mean, before that jackass I regret is my son-in-law and I regret even more is your father went and fucked it up for everyone?”

Weiss sighed. “It meant determination. Quality. Hard work, top-notch service, and cutting-edge technology, all with the goal of making the world a better place to live in for everyone, not just the guys at the top.”

“Exactly! And how did it come to mean that way?”

“You went off on an expedition and found Candela.”

Wrong. What happened was that I saw the shit all around me, had nothing to my name but washing out at Rank 5 with the Queensguard, and decided if I was going to die penniless and starving on a cold, hard floor, it may as well have been while I was trying to do something to not be poor, hungry, and homeless.

“Me and the original crew, we had no idea what we were looking for, where we were going to find it, or what we’d have to do to get it back to our friends and families back home; all we knew was that we were sick and tired of standing around doing nothing, or spinning our wheels and spraying mud all over ourselves.

“The history books keep skipping to the part where we somehow, magically found ourselves the biggest damn wellspring of raw magic in the history books, one that also happened to sitting over a shit-ton of precious minerals, as if somehow, I had a vision and I just knew we’d have to cross a giant-ass blacktop by night and avoid getting turned to people-jerky by day to get to it.”

His face softened. “But it wasn’t that way, Weiss. You’ve read my journals, haven’t you?”

Weiss nodded. “The ones that didn’t get eaten, destroyed, or lost in some way, at least.”

“What’d they say? What’d I talk about?”

“About how much all of your lives sucked. About how you were constantly cold, hungry, starving, lost, had absolutely no idea what any of you were doing, and kept discovering new levels to the ‘How-Fucked-We-Are-O-Meter’ every day. And about the many, many, many times you got sick from trying to purify bad water and testing the results on yourself, even when you recruited grandma whose doctorate was entirely about that.”

Nick pointed a finger at her. “Exactly. And on a related note, make sure to keep on drinking that purified water from Penny and shut your mouth in the hot springs; all those hours I spent on the crapper could have been spent on something infinitely better, I tell ya.”

Weiss winced. “I will. Believe me, grandpa, you made VERY detailed notes.”

“You’re damn right I did! And what else did I do?”

“You trained hard and fought smart—talk first, shoot last, threats never. You made friends wherever you could find them, whoever they were because you never knew who was going to stick around when times got rough. You learned about everything you didn’t know, and were always ready to admit you were wrong so you could start being less wrong.”

Nick put his hands on Weiss shoulders. “And what are you going to do, sweetheart?” he asked softly.

Weiss sighed and looked away. “Spend the rest of my life as paid test subject, I guess...”

Nick shook his head. “Wrong answer, sweetheart, and I know you didn't need me to tell you that.”

“Well what am I supposed to do, huh?” Weiss snapped as she began to tear up. “I’m not you, grandpa!”

“True...” Nick smiled as he put his finger over her heart. “But you’re still a Schnee.”

The white light began to fade.

“Turn this shit life of yours around, Weiss,” he said as he began to disappear, too. “For me, for Ruby and all the other Fae, and most importantly, for yourself.”

Weiss woke up.

She opened her eyes, before she shut them in a hurry. It was morning in the Valley once more, and the light of Avalon’s suns were still as painfully bright as ever. She turned to her other side and started climbing out of her hammock.

Ruby looked over her shoulder from where she was sitting at her terminal. “Oh, hey! You’re awake!” she said as she sat up and dashed over. “You ready to get started on my new super awesome idea?” she said as she helped Weiss out. “I promise it’s better than the last one!”

Weiss nodded sleepily. “Where do I have to go this time?” she asked as she stretched.

“Just outside! Oh, and skip breakfast for now and change into one of your work dresses—they’re the ones that feel a little rougher compared to the rest.” She thumbed to the door. “I’ll leave and get things ready!”

“Wait! Ruby, before you go: have you ever eaten so many cookies and milk that you had a REALLY weird dream afterward? Like, ‘seeing and talking to your dead relatives’ weird?”

Ruby chuckled. “Oh my gosh, like ALL THE TIME! There was one like a week back where I dreamed you, me, my sister Yang, and Blake were like a team of Watchers fighting off these monsters made from hate, jealousy and Mondays, and we all went to this special school together just for that!”

Weiss stared at her. “What is IN those cookies?”

“Uh, milk, flour, eggs, butter, sugar, vanilla, chocolate chips, and a little salt? Why do you ask?”

Weiss groaned. “Nevermind...”


The house was completely empty save for Blake in the kitchen, entirely focused on slicing up her tuna with loving precision; Weiss ignored the growling of her stomach as she headed out the front door and down the elevator.

Ruby was waiting by a giant patch of land infested with weeds, rocks, trees, and all manner of debris that had washed in during the Flood. Beside her was a rack of tools, mostly for farming and some for construction.

The wood was all aged and worn, probably centuries-old like everything in Keeper’s Hollow, but the metal parts were brand new, freshly sharpened and shined.

“You want me clean up your yard?” Weiss asked, eying the overgrowth dubiously.

“No, I want you to try and bring the old farm back to life!” Ruby replied, holding up a bag of seeds. “Starting with these sweet potatoes!”

Weiss turned to the barn in the distance, the one with the tree growing right through its roof. “This place used to be a farm?”

“Yep! Way back when, Gabija’s husband, wife, or whatever they were started a garden here, and it kept on expanding until it became a full-on farm, with Tenders and animals and everything!

“My family’s been kinda on-and-off about it, because Keepers only tend to ever have the one kid, and even then we’re more Watchers than Tenders, but the land’s always good. My dad grew a LOT of great things here—well, before he got banished, anyway.

“So, what do you say? Want to get to work?” Ruby asked, holding up her scythe.

Weiss nodded. “On one condition: I do all of it.”

Ruby blinked, then frowned. “You sure about this, Weiss?”

“Yes,” Weiss said as she walked up to the rack, and picked up a machete.

It took a few hours, but Weiss managed to beat back a little patch of ground, just enough to plant three neat rows of five seeds each, with a little buffer to build a fence in the future. She watered her crops with a giant, 10-liter can, before set it down in the dirt, and followed it soon after.

She sat on the ground, panting, sweating, covered in mud, arms and legs aching, yet feeling better than she had in a while.

Ruby handed her a bottle of purified water and a towel; Weiss thanked her, before she dumped all of the former over her head and wiped herself up with the later, as the suns were already well-up in the sky.

“So how many weeks am I looking at here?” Weiss asked as she caught her breath.

Ruby snorted. “Weeks? Weiss, these are sweet potatoes, they’ll be ready to harvest in three days.”

“Three days?!” Weiss cried. “How is that even possible?”

“Uh, because this is the Valley? Haven’t you noticed how things tend to grow super big and super fast here...?”

“Right...” Weiss muttered.

The two of them stayed there for a few moments, looking at the tiny garden Weiss had started, the many acres more of debris and overgrowth around it.

“It’s going to be a LONG time before I can hope to get this farm up and running again...” Weiss said.

“Yeeep,” Ruby replied. She smiled at her. “But it’s a start.”

Weiss smiled back. “Yeah. It’s a start.”

Beat.

“Do you need me to carry you back home?”

“Yes please...”

Chapter Text

At Weiss' insistence, Ruby carried her all the way back to her hammock for a nap.

“But you're still all muddy and sweaty!” Ruby said.

“Don't care, too tired,” Weiss muttered back.

She slept till the middle of the afternoon, woke up famished and sore. Thankfully, Penny was already back by that time, and her “Mender Protocols” included physical therapy.

“How long is this going to take?” Weiss asked as Penny helped turn her over face down in her hammock.

“No more than a few seconds at the worst!” Penny chirped.

Weiss frowned. “What exactly are you going to do?”

“Almost exactly like you humans do in your hospitals: irradiate you with specially charged magic, in this case for stimulating your sore muscle groups,” Penny explained as she held up her hands, already glowing with a lighter shade of the green energy that held them together.

“This isn't going to hurt, is it...?” Weiss asked.

“Possibly, but nothing worse than a tingle!” Penny said, said as she placed her hands on Weiss' back.

Weiss closed her eyes and preemptively cringed.

The energy in Penny's hands discharged, traveling up and down Weiss body like ripples on a pond. Her muscles did tingle, but not any different than what a vibrating massage module would do, and leaving a pleasant warmth afterward, too.

Weiss opened her eyes, blinking in surprise.

“On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your pain?” Penny asked as she took her hands back.

“Zero!” Weiss asked as she climbed out of her hammock, completely free of soreness. “I feel completely fine!” she said as she stretched and moved about. “Better than fine, even!”

Penny smiled. “Response logged.”

Weiss stomach growled—loudly and angrily, from having missed both breakfast and lunch—and the two of them left for the kitchen. To Weiss' dismay, it'd have to be cookies and milk yet again as all the boar meat was reserved as a buffer for all the predators in the house.

“Where is everyone, anyway?” Weiss asked as they walked in the quiet halls.

“Busy with their duties, or otherwise enjoying themselves at the Bastion,” Penny replied as they entered the kitchen. “Fae generally prefer to spend their free time outside of their own homes and interacting with the community at large; even the most sedentary folks who prefer to spend their time indoors come out at least once a week, and attend most if not all major celebrations and events.

“It's just one of the many aspects of Fae culture you'll be learning about during your education!” she continued as she fetched a plate and went off to the cookie jar.

“My education?” Weiss asked as she headed to the fridge.

“Elder Goodwitch has recently authorized myself to be your tutor in all twelve years of basic education, and my protocols have been updated accordingly,” Penny said as she climbed the ladder. “I will be administering a test later, to properly design a curriculum for you.”

“Got it,” Weiss said as she opened the fridge to fetch the milk.

She noticed that Blake's tuna sashimi was right beside the jug, carefully encased in cling wrap, with a little sticky note on it. It had a crudely drawn picture of Weiss' face on it with a giant X over it. She scowled, and reached for it.

Her grandfather's voice echoed in her head, a line from one of his many video interviews: “Pissing someone off out of spite is about the worst investment you can make; very short-term gain for long-term pain.

Her hand strayed back to the jug, Weiss pulled it out and shut the door. “She caught it, she can decide who gets it,” she thought to herself as she sat down at the table.


 Weiss' life quickly settled into a routine:

Mornings, she'd do farm work, tending to her crops, hacking back a little bit more of the overgrowth to clear space for more plants in the future. She was careful not to exert herself too much as there would be more exercise in the afternoon—weight lifting, running, and even weapons training with all the many varieties of armaments the Fae produced.

Weiss dubiously held up a blade whose hilt could shoot out, connected by a razor wire and an automatic reel system. “How does someone even use this?” she asked, touching the wire and flinching as she cut herself almost immediately afterward.

Very carefully!” Ruby replied. “If you're fast, have great reflexes, and get up high places easy like Blake, a Breakneck's a great weapon to use!”

“I'm going to regret this, but why's it called a Breakneck?”

“Because we use it a lot for catching fast prey like chickens,” Ruby replied. “You just piss them off with a repeater or a crossbow, run through some trees, tie the wire taught between them, and make them run straight into the wire. Run around so the weighted end loops around their neck, and pull the switch.”

She mimed tugging an invisible rope, and violently jerked her head to the side. “Violin! Roast chicken for everyone. Sometimes you can cut the head clean off and save a whole lot of prep-time!”

Weiss turned green and slowly put the Breakneck down. “I think I'll just leave this to Blake...”

After cooling down with the Fae's version of yoga and meditation, she'd spent the rest of the day studying with Penny. It was mostly focused on learning Actaeon and how Fae society worked, as math, economics, science, and so on were essentially the same as humans.

About the only thing she had a problem with was her learning materials:

“Are these children's books?” Weiss asked as she held up worn, much-loved physical copies of simple, colourful books—some of them with Ruby's name scrawled inside, most of them with her many ancestors'.

“They are,” Penny replied. “The Chroniclers recommended that we use these, as they are both designed to help total beginners learn the language, and contain simplified versions of a lot of the cultural concepts and history that you will be learning later.”

Weiss sighed. “Can't argue with that… what do we start with?”

“This one!” Penny said, holding up a book with the cartoon of a generic-looking Fae on it. “The title translates to 'I Am Fae,' though I recommend you read it all out loud in Actaeon to help you with you with your pronunciation.”

She opened it and laid it down before Weiss. “Now, repeat after me...”

<I am Fae.

<I am of Havalon, our Home.

<I am formed from Her Earth.

<I take breath from Her Air.

<I draw life from Her Water.

<I gain strength from Her Fire.

<I care for myself as Havalon cares for me.

<I care for the Other as I care for myself, for they are also of Havalon.

<I care for Havalon, for She is our Home.

<As Her Bounties feed us, so we feed Her.

<As Her Forests, Her Mountains, Her Seas become our cities, so our cities become Her Forests, Her Mountains, Her Seas.

<As we rise, so She rises with us.

<For I am Fae, of Havalon, our Home.>

They repeated it several times; Weiss struggled to speak it properly, as Actaeon sounded like animal growls and noises, not sounds that humans made normally, to say the least.

“So this is basically Fae religion?” Weiss asked as they took a break.

“It's actually much closer to a constitution or a guiding philosophy,” Penny replied. “Religion is a belief in a higher power or powers, and the effects of Avalon are very real and easily proven, no faith necessary.”

“How so?” Weiss asked.

Penny smiled. “That'd be for a much later lesson. For now, let's start with the basics...”

The days in-between training were followed by even more education, though this time in practical skills.

“Though most Fae tend to have one specialized role as their main career, it's not unusual for them to have a second job to complement the first or serve as a back-up, such as Watchers also working as Makers to maintain their own equipment and serve as insurance should they be crippled or otherwise rendered unfit for duty,” Penny explained. “Some even switch careers several times over the course of their lives, following personal interest or necessity.”

Ruby helped teach her how to maintain her tools, and construct a fence for her garden, using the wood and materials from the overgrowth she'd already cleared. With the help of the Codex and supplies permitting, Penny guided her in making common home remedies and useful products, like “multi-paste,” an incredibly powerful and sticky adhesive that had a nearly limitless amount of uses, from patching up walls, repairing clothes, and even serving as a durable temporary fix to a broken weapon until you could find a more permanent solution. And though Blake was unwilling to teach her how to sew and work leather, Qrow was teaching her how to cook and butcher meat, though Weiss had her reservations as he insisted on doing both only while he was sufficiently drunk.

“I'll have you know I do my best cooking while I'm wasted!” Qrow said as he reheated some stew over the stove, one hand on a wooden spoon, the other holding his flask of “jungle juice.” “Granted, I've also done my worst while I was wasted, but I hit more than I miss!”

Weiss groaned as she cut some carrots to throw in. “Qrow, we're both going to be handling sharp objects, fire, and things that might be both sharp and flammable, I'll learn a LOT better and faster if I know you'll be completely sober if something goes wrong! Or at least MOSTLY sober...”

Qrow groaned as he lifted the spoon out. “Princess, I have done way harder things in much more dangerous conditions while I was even more drunk than I usually am—I've got the footage from my Chronicle to prove it, too!”

“Good for you, but my point still stands!” Weiss said as she slid the carrots into the pot.

Qrow sighed. “Fine. But I decide what we cook, alright?”

“Deal.”

As it turned out, it would be sweet potato fries, as “Nothing tastes better when you're completely fucked up at 3 AM than some nice, greasy sweet potato fries!”

Weiss couldn't match Qrow in precision or knife work, but frying them was easy, and only some of them got burnt. No one really minded the extra crunch, though, especially Zwei who had been kept on hand in case everything went horribly, horribly wrong.

“Man, I really should have fried up some fish or grilled hamburgers for this, these are pretty good!” Qrow said as he ate them. “A lot cheaper than what the fast food joints around here charge, too.”

“Yeah, Weiss, looks like the farming life might really be for you after all!” Ruby said through the fistful of fries she had shoved into her mouth.

Weiss smiled. “Thanks,” she said as she picked up the last plate of fries.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Blake looking in from the doorway, her nose twitching, her expression conflicted.

Weiss frowned, a memory of the now long-gone sashimi and the sticky note flashing through her mind.

Then, her grandfather's voice echoed through her head again, the second part of that quote: “Extending the olive branch to someone you hate, though? Much better choice.”

She walked up to her. Blake looked ready to bolt, before Weiss held up her plate and smiled

Blake looked worriedly at her, caught between the delicious aroma of the sweet potato fries, and who was offering them. In the end, the allure of greasy, hot snacks won out and she carefully picked up one of the smaller wedges.

Blake nibbled on it daintily, her expression brightened. “Is good!” she said in Nivian, struggling with the words.

“Get 'em while they last!” Weiss said, inviting her in.

<Thanks,> Blake replied as she did, a smile on her face now too.

A week later, and thanks to Elder Goodwitch's surprisingly enthusiastic support for Weiss' gardening, she'd expanded her crops to include more vegetables like tomatoes, green peas, and even some herbs for medical and cooking purposes.

Unfortunately, the local wildlife had taken notice, and though insects were foiled easily enough by planting a protective row of pest control plants, the birds were still a problem. Ruby had built a very basic scarecrow out of wood and weeds, even drew an angry face on it, but the animals weren't the least bit fooled or intimidated.

“We need to make him look scarier!” Weiss said. “Do you have any clothes we could use?”

Ruby shook her head. “Sorry, Weiss, clothes are expensive here because we make them to last; we don't throw them away soon as they stop being fashionable, we just take them to a maker and have them changed up.”

Weiss sighed. “Do you have anything we can use, then?”

“I think we can use some of Zwei's old blankets, but I don't think the birds will be scared by this guy wearing a sheet,” Ruby said, gesturing at her skeletal creation.

“We're going to need to hire a maker for this, then...” Weiss said as she headed back inside, shooting a glare at the birds eying her crops from the trees.

Penny was sent to stand out and shoo the birds while Weiss and Ruby scavenged some materials, and began to search for a tailor they could hire on their limited budget.

As she headed back from the bathroom, Blake noticed the naked scarecrow outside, the pile of old blankets and popped buttons on the living room floor, and Ruby and Weiss busy with a comm-crystal, clearly looking through the magical version of the Job Board.

She quietly stole some of the them, and took them back to her room.

Later, Weiss closed her comm-crystal in frustration. “Ugh! This is impossible! Isn't there ANY maker willing to do a job on the cheap?”

“It's highly doubtful,” Penny said as she walked up. “A Makers' products are their living, their pride, and their reputation; if word gets around they did a lackluster job just to make a handful of easy Shinies, there will be serious monetary, societal, and personal costs.”

Weiss sighed. “Never have I thought I would ever regret someone putting quality over profit...” she stopped. “Wait, Penny, what are you doing here? Weren't you watching my crops?!” she asked as she scrambled up.

“I was, but Blake took care of that problem!” Penny smiled. “Look out the window.”

Weiss and Ruby did.

Standing guard over her crops was a scarecrow styled after Jacques Schnee, wearing a white jacket complete with buttons and a red handkerchief in the breast pocket, his arms stiffly held by his sides, his bushy eyebrows and mustache making him look very, very angry indeed.

It wasn't the finest craftsmanship, but it scared the birds, which was what mattered.

Weiss and Ruby turned away from the window as they heard the elevator coming back up.

Blake waved and smiled as she walked on past, her pouch full of sewing tools under her arm.

Chapter Text

Weiss was in her dream world once more.

This time, the scene was her ever growing garden, vegetables growing to massive sizes with speed that they could have only dreamed about in Candela. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the actual Jacques Schnee was tied to a post where the scarecrow was, silent and scowling as he reluctantly protected his daughter's crops.

Nick chuckled as he walked through her garden, careful to step between the neat pathways she'd carved out. “Well ain't this a sight for sore eyes!” he said as he came up to edge of where Weiss was working.

“Mhmm!” Weiss said as she knelt in the ground, carefully clipping her herbs. “Thanks for the pep-talk and the advice, grandpa; I really needed those.”

Nick snorted. “Don't thank me, thank yourself! You know, especially because I really could just be the back of your head using me like a sock puppet, or something.”

“You're not going to turn into another me, are you?” Weiss asked as she tossed leaves into the pockets of her dress. “Because that'd just be creepy.”

Nick shrugged. “Your mind, your rules, sweetheart!”

“Then you stay as my dead grandpa,” Weiss said as she finished up.

She and Nick spent a while admiring her work; she hadn't come close to clearing even a quarter of the overgrowth, but damned if she hadn't made a fine looking garden.

“Is this what it felt like for you, grandpa?” Weiss asked. “When you and the crew were out on expeditions?”

HELL NO!” Nick yelled. “All that time spent roaming around and trying to look for anything that could help were objectively the worst time of my entire life, second only to when Frosty told me she was pregnant with Snowie while we were still out in the middle of Fucking Nowhere, and third to when Jackass over there didn't even wait for me to kick the bucket before he set the company on its death-spiral!”

The company has never been more profitable since I took over!” Jacques yelled.

“YEAH, AND THAT WORKED OUT REAL WELL FOR YOU, DIDN'T IT?!” Nick yelled back. He groaned and shook his head, before he turned back to Weiss. “Anyway, the journey sucked, but when we hit pay dirt, there was nothing like it! It's what kept us all going, all those little victories, even after we found that mother of all wellsprings.”

Nick frowned. “It's what kept me going long before I should have retired, too...”

Weiss reached out and put her hand in his calloused palm. He wrapped his fingers around her hand, held her like he was never going to let her go, let anyone take her from him.

“Was it worth it, grandpa?” she asked softly.

“More than worth it...” Nick muttered, smiling. “Hell, now we got a problem with Candela bleeding every other city state dry for everything they've got, but at the very least, we're not shooting each other dead over the last can of spam!

“Anything worthwhile is going to be harder than hell and cost a lot, Weiss,” Nick said. “If it were easy and cheap, we'd never be talking about people like me, or erecting commemorative statues before tearing them back down because I specifically asked those asshats to put up one of Frosty, not me!”

Weiss giggled. It was one of her favourite stories about her grandfather, the time he snuck out of his hospice, flew over the crowds with Tony's help, and personally stopped them from cutting the ribbon on his new statue, then refused to be put back on life support until he saw them taking it down right before his very eyes.

It shortened his already grim lifespan even more, but it was worth it.

“And speaking of costs, you're going to be paying one of them real soon, sweetheart!”

“What, muscle soreness from all the farming and training? I've got Penny for that!”

“Haaah… yeah... I'm pretty sure she's using the 'Resonator' tech me and the Nerd Herd modified the crap out of pre-Candela, and the thing is, there was a HUGE flaw in our design that we never really solved, and no one's been able to crack since, either.”

Weiss frowned. “What flaw?”

Nick frowned as he started to fade away. “Brace yourself, sweetheart, you're going to find out in about 3, 2, 1...”

Weiss woke up.

It was dark, moonlight streaming in through the window. Owls hooted, frogs croaked, Ruby drooled all over her pillows and sheets. Everything was calm and peaceful, except for the fact that every part of Weiss' body hurt.

As it always tended to happen, a memory came screaming up to the forefront of her mind, too little, too late:

Penny, doing her usual treatment to help Weiss with her soreness, the pain and the aching disappearing with the discharge of magic.

Weiss climbing out of her hammock, limber and feeling like she could run a triathlon right there and then.

“I noticed you've been dramatically increasing your levels of physical activity recently, Weiss.” Penny said.

“Yeah, all that training's working wonders—I'm feeling stronger and stronger every day!” Weiss as she headed out the door.

“That's great to hear! But as your personal Mender, I have to warn you against overexerting yourself.” Penny said as she followed her.

“What, afraid I'm going to wake up even more sore than usual? You have all that Mender magitech on you, don't you?” Weiss asked as she headed out to the halls.

“True, but they have their limits,” Penny said as they headed out the front door. “Magic in living bodies can only last for so long before it dissipates back into the environment, and I'd hate to think of what sort of damage you could accidentally inflict on yourself while you're under effects similar to high-grade painkillers.”

“I'll be careful, I promise,” Weiss replied as she headed down the elevator to her garden.

But evidently not careful enough. Weiss tried to move her arm, winced as pain shot up her spine and the rest of her body followed suit, her stiff muscles simultaneously screaming in agony. Paralyzed, she could only let out a tiny whimper of pain.

Ruby's ears twitched. Weiss heard her snort, she groggily raised her head up. “Weiss…?” she muttered.

“Ruby...” Weiss whispered. “Help…!”

Ruby blinked, her instincts kicking into high gear, up in an instant and scrambling over to Weiss. She looked her over once, and instantly knew what was wrong. “Oh man, Stiff-Stuck?”

Weiss made an affirmative noise. “Get Penny...”

Ruby frowned. “Can't: she's totally drained from the hunts today, she won't be ready for anything until morning.”

Weiss whimpered, tearing up.

“Wait, no! Don't cry! Don't cry!” Ruby said as she scrambled off, dug through her piles of belongings. “All of us watchers learn everything there is about massaging sore muscles!” she said as she pulled out a container of ointment, then pumped her fist in victory. “I might not be as good as a therapy mender or Penny, but I can help till we can get you to the hot springs!” she said as she laid it down by her bed and scrambled back to Weiss.

“I'm going to need to carry you to my nest, okay?” Ruby said as she reached for her. “I'm sorry, but this is really going to hurt...”

Weiss whimpered and squeezed her eyes shut.

It hurt. It really, really, really hurt. Ruby was fast and strong, capable of picking her up like she was nothing and laying her down on her nest in the span of a few seconds, but even the tiniest movement was agony.

“I'm going to need you to take your clothes off now,” Ruby said. “Or, you know, I'll have to take your clothes off, since you can't...”

Weiss eyes opened wide in alarm. Her cheeks began to burn. She would have protested if she could, but all she could manage was a squeak of panic.

“I can't massage you properly through your clothes, Weiss!” Ruby explained. “I mean, I've already seen you naked before at the hot springs, so it's not like it's anything I haven't seen already, right?”

The burning worsened.

Ruby bit her lip, took a moment to consider her next words very carefully. “Will it help if I close my eyes? We were trained to do it blind, too! Just tell me! On second thought: blink twice for 'Yes.'”

Weiss debated it. Suffer for however many hours until Penny was done charging, let alone capable of helping her, or have Ruby strip her naked and massage her, a buffer till they could get to the hot springs come morning?

Blink, blink.

Ruby went to work. She kept her eyes open only long enough to strip Weiss naked, open the jar of ointment, and know where it was on the floor. Weiss was laid on her stomach, her body throbbing in pain, her face burning bright red in embarrassment.

She was beginning to have second thoughts, up until Ruby placed her hands on her ankles. Weiss yelped as she felt the ointment kick in, freezing cold on her skin as Ruby started to massage her sore muscles, feeling how Weiss' body reacted and adapting accordingly.

It hurt—possibly even more than if she had just laid awake all night, stiff and sore. Weiss yelped and whimpered, squirming and flinching, until Ruby finally found just the right amount of pressure, and things quickly turned around.

The soreness and stiffness in her body began to disappear. The ointment began to heat and left a pleasant, warm tingling on her skin, along with a minty and soothing scent. Soon, Weiss stopped flinching, squirming, and yelping, smiling in relief and humming in relief as Ruby finished up her legs.

“Feeling better, Weiss?” Ruby asked as she rubbed a fresh layer of ointment all over her hands.

“Yes...~” she moaned happily.

Ruby continued onto her back, Weiss began to doze off, until her hands happened to cross over a particularly sensitive part of her lower back.

Ruby stopped. “Weiss…?”

“Yes...?” Weiss squeaked back.

“You um, uh… made a noise.

Weiss began to sweat. “What noise…?”

“It kinda sounded like--” Ruby made a poor imitation. “You okay…?”

“I'm fine!” Weiss squeaked.

“Are you really? Because I can--” Ruby stopped. She sniffed, then sniffed again a few more times.

Weiss' face felt like it was on fire—soul fire, as she could feel herself dying inside once more.

Oooohh…” Ruby giggled as her hands continued their work. “Weiss, there's nothing to be ashamed about! We Fae aren't as weird about sex as you humans are—why are you like that for something so natural, anyway?”

Weiss bit back another “noise.” “I guess we're just weird like that...” she said through gritted teeth.

“Like with Nivian?” Ruby asked.

Mmpff--!” Weiss stiffened up for a moment. “I mean: mhmm…!”

Ruby snorted, Weiss could feel her shaking her head. “I'll never get you humans...” she muttered as she applied some more ointment on her hands. “Oh, and Weiss?”

“What?”

“After I'm done, I can leave if you need time to, you know--” Ruby made a sexy animal noise. “I'll even hang a sock over the door so no one will walk in on you.”

Weiss mulled it over. “… No… no thanks, I'll… I'll manage…”

“Suit yourself!” Ruby said as she worked on her shoulders. “Offer still stands, though.”

Weiss bit her lip, hard. “Thanks, Ruby,” she whispered, as she began to doze off yet again, finally falling asleep again after Ruby turned her over on her other side.


Morning came, Penny knocked on their door before she opened it. “Good morning Ruby, Weiss! Sorry for barging in, but--”

She noticed Ruby and Weiss sleeping in the former's nest together. The former groggily got up, the latter kept on sleeping peacefully, clearly naked under the blanket that had been thrown over her for modesty's sake.

Penny kept on smiling as she slowly, carefully stepped and closed the door.

Later, that morning Weiss was back to tending to her garden, watering, weeding, and clipping. She looked up as she saw Penny coming up to her.

“Good morning, Weiss!” she said with a wave.

“Hey Penny—something up?” Weiss asked as she got up from the ground.

“Yes, actually!” Penny lowered her voice. “I noticed that you and Ruby have gotten intimate recently...”

Weiss blinked. “I'm sorry, what?”

“You know, the two of you--” Penny made a sexy animal noise.

Weiss face turned completely red in instant. “W-Wait, what?! No we didn't!”

Penny winked. “Of course you didn't~ Anyway, as your personal mender, I have to warn you to please wash both your hands before to minimize the risk of infection to either of you, manicure your nails frequently, and use plenty of lubrication!”

Weiss scowled. “No, seriously, we didn't do anything!”

Penny nodded, still smiling. “I should emphasize that that last point is extremely important: the human body was simply not designed to be able to handle the speed, intensity, and frequency that Fae are capable of, especially when incredibly aroused.”

Weiss just stared at her, simultaneously mortified and offended.

“Do not hesitate to ask me for any questions you may have!” Penny chirped softly. “Though the identities have been changed and obscured for privacy reasons, you and Ruby are not the first interspecies relationship in Fae history.”

Weiss sighed. “Thanks, Penny...” she grumbled.

“You're welcome, Weiss!” Penny said, winking one more time before she left.

Weiss finished up her garden work, and picked up her machete and ax. She was planning on skipping clearing the overgrowth today, but it looked like she was going to go hack some weeds and chop down some more trees after all...

Chapter Text

Ooohh…! Oooh my goodness, this is amazing...” Weiss moaned as she sank into the hot spring, feeling the heat and the minerals soak into her skin, and what remained of her aches and pains melting away into nothing. “Blake? Blake, I am so sorry for cutting your time short last time, no one should ever have to get out of this until they absolutely have to...”

<Weiss is apologizing for last time, and now understands why you were so displeased when she cut our time in the private bath short,> Penny translated as she soaked with them.

Blake smiled. <Apology accepted. I gotta say, I’m surprised your ‘human sensibilities’ aren’t the least bit offended this time.>

“Blake accepts your apology, and is expressing surprise that you are suddenly so comfortable bathing with us,” Penny translated. “I myself am also surprised but pleased at how you’ve gotten over your reluctance of using the public baths.”

Fuck it!” Weiss said, raising an arm in the air. “Don’t care anymore! Seeing a couple hundred to a thousand Fae naked all at once is worth this...” she murmured as she laid back on the edge, letting all but her head sink beneath the water.

A passing group of Fae recognized her, started talking about her, and snickering under their breath. One of them imitated her terrified screams from her fight with Zwei, but Weiss found she couldn’t care in the slightest. “There’s only so many fucks I can give, and I sure as hell ain’t giving it to them,” as Nick would have said.

“So what’s the agenda today, anyway?” Weiss asked. “More training? Lessons? Crafting and cooking?”

“It’s a rest day for all of us, actually!” Ruby chirped. “Nothing to do but relax, have fun, and recharge!”

“Fae believe very strongly in the importance of rest and recuperation, to the point of mandatory enforcement of shift limits, vacation days, and much offering much incentive for participation in most of our major holidays,” Penny said.

Weiss nodded. “Guess I’ll just stay home and watch HV then, seeing as I’m broke...” she muttered.

Ruby nodded sympathetically, before a light bulb went off in her head. “Actually… we’re all going to go hang out with my sister Yang after this! Want to come join us?”

Weiss looked at her in confusion. “I thought she was banished from all Fae territories.”

“She is! But they let me talk to her remotely, so long as we don’t try to relay messages to dad.”

“What, like through holo-chat?”

“Through the Honey Den, actually.”

“What’s the Honey Den?”

Ruby smiled. “You’ll find out.”

“I’m not going to end up getting scared out of my wits, then puking my guts out like my first time riding the Tubes, am I?” Weiss asked.

“Not if you’re allergic to Dreamer’s Honey!” Penny replied. “Which, going from your vitae vine data and your gut bacteria’s swift adaptation to Valley food and water, I can confidently say you’re not.”

Blake tapped her on the shoulder, said something to Ruby in Actaeon.

“Oh, right! One more thing: whatever you do, do not laugh when Blake tries to say something in Nivian.”

“I won’t,” Weiss replied.


Clean, relaxed, and recharged, the group made their way to a district of the Bastion that Weiss hadn’t been to before:

The Weaver’s Terrace.

The whole place resembled a giant temple to some ancient deities, which judging by the statues and reliefs of Fae lovingly maintained and frequently surrounded by worshipers offering tributes, lighting incense, and praying, it probably was. The architecture was either rocks quarried from the bedrock surrounding the Valley, or carved out of the face of the mountain, the one opposite the Watcher's Roost and the Pits, and the whole place was overrun with plant-life, vines, moss, flowers, fungi, bushes, and even some trees, their roots oftentimes cracking and wrapping around the stone.

Animals abounded, but unlike the rest of the city, these were clearly running wild and untamed, as Weiss found out when she got pelted with berries by some monkeys, and there was no tender to apologize, or stop them from howling with laughter at her now stained dress.

“Just ignore them!” Ruby said. “They’ll get bored of you, and go away.”

“Don’t you have anyone keeping them in check?” Weiss asked.

Penny shook her head. “The Terrace’s animals are sacrosanct, both culturally and to the local ecosystem.”

Weiss shot the monkeys a death glare; they mooned her back, and started laughing once more as Blake grabbed her by the collar and dragged her off, kicking and cursing.

They ended up in an underground den, lit up by glowing stones on the wall, pulsating crystals scattered about alongside cushions, curtains, and rugs. Uniformed staff patrolled the area, watching over their clients who were all laying down on their backs, sitting in meditative poses, or sprawled out looking blitzed out of their minds.

Weiss expected smoke to be floating about from burning herbs and concoctions, but the air was completely clear, save for a relaxing, calming scent emitting from the flowers growing on the walls and ceiling.

“What’s wrong with them…?” Weiss quietly asked Ruby as they waited in line for the staff to pat them down.

“They’re just in Honey Dreams, they’re fine,” Ruby replied. “The worst that can happen is that you get the prickles from sleeping or sitting on something wrong, but the staff takes care of that—they’ve even got a therapy mender, worst comes to worst.”

“Okay, now what’s a Honey Dream?” Weiss asked.

“You’ll find out soon~” Ruby chirped.

They walked up to the counter. If not for the bags of carefully guarded Shinies and staff meticulously counting recent transactions, it looked more like the tent of a sage from Sekhmet, with the luxurious curtains, the incense, and the woman meditating in the center of it all.

She was large, in every sense of the word: her rotund and generously endowed body was swathed in silky fabrics and scarves worn loose. Her long dreadlocks were decorated with beads, leaves, and feathers, falling around her head like a veil from which only two soft, rounded eyes peeked through, crowned with a massive pair of yak horns. She radiated an aura of authority and strength, but like that of a mother than a dictator.

“Hey Weaver Miko!” Ruby said, waving.

Miko smiled, and slowly rose up. She already dwarfed Weiss sitting down, even if she hadn’t inherited her maternal grandmother’s “vertically challenged” gene; standing up, she rose well over the heads of all of them.

“Hello, Ruby,” she hummed, her voice deep, rumbling, and soothing. “I see you’ve brought your companions as usual—including your newest friend, Ms. Schnee.”

“Just call me Weiss, please, Weaver Miko...” Weiss muttered sheepishly.

Miko nodded slightly, her dreadlocks shaking and the ornaments in them clinking noisily. “As you wish, Weiss. I assume you will be joining Ruby and the others in the Dreamscape?”

“The what now?”

“The place which your consciousness flees your body and arrives to, usually in sleep or with the help of Dreamer’s Honey; it’s a land where anything is possible, a blank slate to be shaped by your mind, or to join consciousness with others in spite of distance.

“It is similar to what you humans call ‘The Trance,’ though more magical than technological.”

Weiss scowled. “Oh, great...” she muttered. “I knew there was something about this place that felt vaguely familiar...”

“You got something against trancing, Weiss?” Ruby asked, curious.

“The act itself? No, but the Trance Addicts are a different story,” Weiss replied. “No offense to any of you guys, but for me, trancing is mostly for people that can’t ever accept their reality, and just want to keep escaping it, no matter the costs.”

“Any cure is a poison with the wrong dosage, and we of the Den are very careful and precise about how much we allow you,” Miko hummed.

“I don’t doubt that, but I think I’m going to back out anyway,” Weiss said. “Sorry, Ruby, I’ll see you guys back at home...” she said as she started to walk away.

Wait! Weiss! Are you sure you don’t want to give it a try, just once?” Ruby asked as she grabbed her hand and stopped her.

No,” Weiss replied. “First time I tried trancing, 15 seconds after connecting to my first public server, I got dozens of messages from creeps asking if I was really 13 and female or that was just my avatar, among other inquiries I’ll spare you the details of!”

“Ruby’s communications with Yang use a connection analogous to a secure private server, though,” Penny said. “No one gets in without both their permissions, and it’s all but impossible to break into without serious effort, and highly complex infiltration methods beside.”

“We could REALLY use a fifth member for our team, too!” Ruby said. “All this time, we’ve been using a golem, or hoping Ren or Nora’s rest days are the same as ours.”

“Well I wish you luck in finding someone permanent to fill that slot, because I won’t be them! Now please let go of my hand, Ruby.”

Ruby didn’t. “Won’t you please change your mind, Weiss? For me?”

Weiss glared at her. “No.”

Ruby made the Fawn Eyes at her.

Weiss scowled. “Ruby, I said no!”

Ruby’s bottom lip quivered as her eyes began to well up in tears.

“Oh alright, fine!” Weiss cried. “But just this once...”

Ruby brightened up immediately. “Yay! Thanks, Weiss!” she hugged her, pointing her horns away from her face. “Now let’s go—Yang’s probably already waiting for us!” she said as she skipped off.

Blake, Penny, and Miko all smiled.

Weiss raised a finger. “NOT A WORD FROM ANY OF YOU, IN NIVIAN OR ACTAEON!”


The four of them were now lounging in a sectioned-off area of the Honey Den, getting comfortable as Miko personally configured the crystal in the center, before Ruby pressed her palm on it as her “password.” As it began to spin and rise up into the air, an assistant came along to feed everyone but Penny rich, gold-white honey—thankfully, with disposable spoons fresh from sealed wrappers.

The dreamer’s honey tasted incredibly sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, spreading out over Weiss tongue at a slow, even pace. She hummed as she swallowed, enjoying how smooth it felt going down, before her body grew heavy, and her eyes were suddenly locked on the crystal.

There was a flash of light, and Weiss found herself in the same blank, white expanse of her dreams. She blinked and looked around; Ruby was there, as was Blake, and Penny was finishing uploading her consciousness into the crystal, her form becoming more and more solid with each second.

“Well, add ‘talking to the dead’ to my list of ‘Weird Shit I’ve Done!’” she heard an unfamiliar voice say.

Weiss turned around and found herself looking at Yang, much older and vastly changed from the little girl in the picture, but still with that same happy, cocky expression.

“Yang!” Ruby said, running up to her and jumping straight into her arms.

“Ruby!” Yang cried, catching her and hoisting her up to avoid getting butted with her horns.

The two spent a moment laughing and chatting excitedly in Actaeon, before Ruby remembered the others were there, and sheepishly climbed back down.

“Sorry about that! It’s been a while since I’ve been allowed to talk to her, what with everything that’s happened,” she said. “Anyway: Weiss, this is my big sister, Yang!”

“Sup, Princess!” Yang casually saluted her. “So, what’s it like, being dead?”

“It's quite terrible in the beginning, and you lose ties and communication with everyone you knew when you were ‘alive,’ but you leave all the shitty parts behind, and it gradually gets better, so net positive, I suppose.”

Yang grinned. “Probably all thanks to my deer sister Ruby here, right?”

Weiss opened her mouth to reply, before she stopped. “Wait, was that just a pun?” she asked, confused.

Yep!” Yang said as she walked up to Weiss and looped an arm around her shoulders. “Better hold on tight to the reins, princess, because you’re going on a magical sleigh ride straight to Puntown!”

Weiss stared at her, awful, terrible feelings welling up from deep inside her.

<And now you know one of the many reasons I have issues with humans,> Blake muttered.

Weiss pulled away from her in disgust. “Let’s just get this dream over with! What are we going to do here, exactly?”

Ruby beamed. “The next episode of Rune Rangers: Viridian Vanguard, starring our newest Sapphire Ranger:

“You!”

Chapter Text

Avalon.

A realm of some of the most powerful wellsprings to be found anywhere in the Aether.

A realm of life and wonders rarely seen elsewhere.

A realm of boundless potential, where your wildest dreams and fantasies have the best damn chance of becoming reality.

You could say that it was pretty much inevitable that you'd have people trying to fuck it up, locals and foreigners alike, which is why all of them tend to have some sort of agreement and organization trying to keep things in check, make sure that no one person or group can grab all that power, and do whatever the hell they'd like with it.

The Humans over at the West and North ends have the Triumvirate Treaty, the Acropolis Accord, and the Armed Forces of Avalon. The Eldan Fae have the Three Truths, and the Orders of the Watchers and the Seekers. The rest over in Celestion and some parts of Sekhmet have their own ways of making sure their streets are nice and orderly, ensure that there's no one actively trying to make it so that there's not a (mostly) free, safe, and sane Avalon tomorrow.

But sometimes, something or someone grows so powerful, so cunning, and so insidious that even if these three get over their differences and in-fighting to join forces, they won't stand a hope in hell of winning.

Sometimes, you need a new force altogether, a band of misfits and outcasts so different they couldn't give a shit about what the other guys are so long as they can help, who are the right mix of bravery and stupidity to charge headlong into danger, and never realize or just not give a fuck about how bad the odds really are.

In those times you need…

The Rune Rangers.

Wow,” Weiss said, “you have your Uncle Qrow narrating everything?”

“We used to!” Ruby replied, “but now we just have a golem of him doing it, in case he can't be around. I can't sound as cool as him.”

“It's fucking ADORABLE when you do, though!” Yang said.

“Do we really have to him?” Weiss asked.

Hey! I'll have you know that no story of adventure, action, and world-threatening danger isn't complete without a handsome, well-spoken narrator with a sexy, sexy voice.

“I like him!” Ruby said.

“Punching magical bad guys to death isn't the same without Golem Qrow telling me how awesome I was, yeah,” Yang hummed.

<I've learned to ignore him,> Blake said, subtitles of what she said in Nivian popping up before Weiss' face.

“And I think it pays great homage to the inherently ridiculous and over-the-top nature of Rune Rangers!” Penny chirped.

4-1, princess—looks like you lose by majority vote.

Weiss sighed. “Fine. When do we stop being disembodied voices talking over a montage of stock footage?”

Right about… now.


Rune Terra, Somewhere in the Viridian Valley

Our brave heroes hoof it through the grossly incandescent halls of Rune Rangers' HQ, giving their newest member the grand tour.

Weiss and Blake groaned.

Get used to it; Yang's way worse.

“That I am~!”

Ruby was pointing out the various facilities as they passed them by. “… And that's the Training Room, where we can make pretty much prepare for any sort of situation, and also relive awesome battles again; next door is the Theater, where we can just watch them all over again, and sometimes review footage from our helmets' chronicles in case we missed something; and finally we have the Core, where we meet with our Guardian and get told about whatever's going down now!”

FYI, the “Guardian” is whoever gives the Rangers their powers, and makes sure they don't accidentally blow up the realm with them.

“Thanks Golem Qrow!”

It's what I'm here for, Rubes.

“I think you'll really like her!” Ruby said as she put her rune to the door, those big-ass slabs of carved rock sliding open. “After all, you know her already, kinda.”

Weiss shielded her eyes as bright light poured out of the Core, blinding her. A deep, echoing voice rang out from within, the sound of a woman who's replaced her lungs with liquid chocolate—the really good kind.

“Welcome to Rune Terra, Weiss! I, Eluna, formally and heartily welcome you to the Viridian Vanguard.”

The 24/7 light show that is Eluna's hair turns down a few notches, enough for Weiss to actually see her as they enter the chamber.

She stops, stares at her new boss with a dumbfounded look.

Maybe it's the fact that who she thought was just a myth is actually real, and she's not a literal white wolf, but a wolf Fae that also happens to be wearing the fur of a giant Lunar Wolf. (There's a not terrible, awful story behind all that, don't worry!) Maybe it's the aura of radiance, of authority, of power she's giving out, the kind of presence that only comes when you've been training constantly and growing stronger for the past couple of millennia. Or maybe it's the fact that she's about 7 feet tall and 300 or so pounds of pure muscle, flawless skin like caramel, and all her body-fat seems to be concentrated in that kickass rack of hers.

Golem Qrow!” Ruby yelled.

What? It's true, isn't it?

“Fret not, I'm quite aware that seeing me in person can be a very overwhelming experience,” Eluna said, smiling. Her face turned deadly serious. “But I suggest you recover soon, for we've got a situation on our hands.”

Penny offered Weiss a drool rag to clean herself up with. She can't do anything about your face being on fire, though, sorry.

“Relax, princess,” Yang said, “everyone's got the hots for Eluna! Even asexual golems like Penny.”

“I do indeed,” Penny said. “She's such a fascinating Fae specimen!”

“Why does she look exactly like Guadalupe Garron...?” Weiss asked.

“Because I am her,” Eluna said. “Or more precisely, it's one of my many assumed identities over the centuries.”

Turns out there's something in you humans' brains that makes it infinitely easier to just accept that someone's wearing fake ears and a tail, than them being an animal person, let alone immortal and the actual Eluna.

Indeed!” Eluna said. “I used to make my disguises much more complex, before I decided to walk into into the Nexus on the Eve of the Ether on a lark, and everyone wanted to know who made my 'costume,' how much it cost, and if they made designs of different animals. And don't get me started on when I lost a look-a-like competition at a convention...

“Talk of my adventures in immortality will have to wait, however, for we've got a much more urgent, dark business to attend to:

Dr. Nefarious is back.”

A holo popped out of the crystal, the face of your stereotypical mad scientist: nose that puts bird beaks to shame, one eye larger than the other, completely bald, and with a face that looks like he's lived through a couple of strokes.

“Hello again, Rune Rangers!” he said with his awful, terrible voice—seriously, that sound should be illegal.

Weiss groaned. “Stop, stop, stop!”

The whole world around them froze, faded and washed out.

“Something the matter, Weiss?” Ruby asked.

“Are you serious with this villain?”

“Well, uh, yeah! Dr. Nefarious is kind of what we've been using all this time...”

“He looks and sounds like something a 3-year old would make as the Evil Villain of their story!”

“Ruby was actually 2 at the time,” Penny said. “Fae generally mature faster than humans in a lot of ways.”

Yang stepped up to her, looking a little pissed. “You have a better big bad in mind, princess?”

“Yes I do, actually!” Weiss said as she held out her hand. “Temporary admin privileges, please!”

Yang rolled her eyes, and gave it to her.

The world unfroze, colour seeped back in like me at last call for Happy Hour.

“… Or, at least, he was, until the man funding all of his crazy experiments finally decided to show himself,” Eluna said.

“That's quite enough, Dr. Nefarious,” Jacques Schnee said as the camera drone turned to him. “The… Rune Rangers, were you? I've recently gotten word that you've kidnapped my daughter, as you believed the foiling of my expedition was not enough.”

Freeze.

“Wait, wait, WAIT—you're making your own dad the Big Bad?” Yang asked.

Weiss turned to her. “Yes, do you have a problem with that?”

“Only if I can't punch him in the face!” Yang said, grinning.

“You can, but I get first strike.”

“How about we punch him together?”

“Deal.”

Sweet. I'm starting to really like you, princess!”

<… Me too…> Blake said.

Unfreeze.

“We sent those men and women back to Candela unharmed, Jacques!” Ruby snapped. “Well, mostly unharmed, and it's not like you can't just give them cool robot limbs!”

Jacques scowled. “Those are still billions in equipment, contracts, and medical expenses I'm never recouping! Make no mistake, Rune Rangers: I will not let anything stop me from claiming that Valley and all its riches for the Company and Avalon!

Not even you, Weiss.”

Weiss winced.

Too real, too soon?

She nodded.

Sorry. Rewind!

“… I will not let anything stop me from claiming the Valley and all its riches for the Company and Avalon! And though I sincerely hope you will come to your senses before it reaches that point, I will do my best to get you away from these terrorists, and back where you belong:

“Here, in Candela, safely in your room, and under the watchful eye and guidance of your father, like every child should be.”

Weiss scowled. “I'm never going back to you!”

Words in Nivian with an Actaeon translation popped up in front of Blake's face. She spent a few moments reading them, before she said, “Yeah! You... better close up shop while you're still in the black, Zhock, because we're fur… far… forecasting big lossesses in your next quarter report!”

Freeze.

Blake sighed, her ears drooping. <I was terrible, wasn't I…?>

Terrible is right!” Weiss cried. “Those puns were awful!”

Hey!” Yang yelled. “I worked hard on those! Legitimately!”

Blake blinked. <You mean I didn't totally butcher what I just said...?>

“You kinda really did,” Ruby said.

<Oh.>

Weiss put her hand on her shoulder. “Look, how about the next time I'm learning Actaeon with Penny, you help me, and in exchange, we help you with your Nivian?”

Blake smiled. <Sure.>

“Great! And to start you off, you can try saying this instead...”

Unfreeze.

Weiss scowled. “I'm never going to back you!”

“She's not your propereey, you monster!” Blake cried. Her eyes darted to Weiss.

“Close enough,” she mouthed.

“True, but she is still my daughter, and until the day she turns 18, the Acropolis Accord states that is my legal and moral responsibility to keep her away from corrupting influences like you.”

Yang snorted. “Hah! Like you're the poster-boy of Good Behaviour...”

Jacques scowled. “I tire of this. My second expedition into the Valley is just about to arrive—I suggest you surrender my daughter, and step aside before they have to mow you down, too.”

The holo disappeared as alarms began to flash.

Eluna frowned as she pulled up a map of the Valley. “I'd suggest you all hurry, this group looks MUCH better armed than the first.”

“We'll take care of it, Ellie!” Ruby cried. “We're the Rune Rangers, we've got this!”

Eluna smiled. “I know you do.” She walked over to Weiss, a frown on that pretty face of hers. “Weiss, I am so sorry your first mission pits you against your own blood...”

“Don't be; I've always wanted to stick it to my father in a way he can't ignore.”

Then do not let your rage cloud your judgment,” Eluna snapped. “It'd be DANGEROUSLY ironic if our Sapphire Ranger, the embodiment of Wisdom, does something incredibly stupid in the heat of the moment.”

She pressed a sapphire gem into her hand, funky symbols carved into its face.

“This Rune is but a key to the power that lies within you, Weiss—within all of you. Guard it well, for it has been far too long since it has had an owner.”

“Wait, what?” Yang said. “What happened to Lifi?”

Eluna's face contorted in confusion. “Who is this 'Lifi' you speak of?”

Yang slowly turned her eyes over to Ruby, who was totally, absolutely acting completely natural standing there stock still, beads of sweat slowly dripping down her face.

“Who is Lifi?” Weiss asked, looking at her, too.

“'Lifira' was what we named the golem we used in place of a fifth member, should Ren or Nora not be available,” Penny explained.

“Yeah, and we totally don't need to use her anymore since we've got Weiss now!” Ruby yelled. “How about we all teleport out of here, guys?” her rune appeared in her hand. “That new expedition could be trying to find some parking spots in shade like right now!

Yang grabbed her wrist and stopped her she could raise her arm all the way into the sky. <Oh, Ruby... my dear, darling little sister Ruby, you are not getting out of this that easily~!>

<CAN WE PLEASE NOT?!>

<Nope!> Yang chirped. She turned to Weiss. “Weiss, get ready to meet your predecessor, the former Sapphire Ranger who is also totally not Ruby's golem girlfriend:

“Lifira!”

A flash of blue light appeared, spiraling downwards around a figure who was quickly forming back into existence…

“Hi!” a pale-skinned, white-haired, amethyst-eyed human girl about Ruby's age said. “My name's Lifira, but you can call me Lifi! Nice to meet you.”

Chapter Text

Weiss stared at Lifira.

Then she stared some more.

She opened her mouth and raised a finger, looked like she was about to say something, then she closed it. She might have been trying to think of something to say, but with a face like that, her brain's probably decided to talk a walk around the block, get some fresh air and put this problem on the back burner for a while.

Yang grinned as she put her arm around Weiss' shoulders again. “Yeah, turns out Ruby's really got a thing for platinum blondes, just like her mom did for blondes.” She winked. “Better watch yourself, princess!”

Weiss heard a scream of pure, unbridled teenage fury before Ruby slammed full-force into Yang, horns first. Because this is the Dreamscape and Rune Rangers is PG-13 most days, she only gets sent flying off, before Ruby jumps her and starts beating the shit out of her whilst yelling at the top of her lungs.

I'll spare you the unnecessary details of what she's saying exactly, and just call it “Angry Yelling and Cursing In Actaeon.”

“That happens a LOT, don't worry,” Lifira chirped. “It's just how Ruby and Yang show how much they love each other!”

“Play Fighting is oftentimes encouraged between young Fae as a form of bonding and training, to better prepare them for both social life and the dangers they face on a daily basis,” Penny added.

Weiss looked at the two off to the side. Ruby had Yang pinned on her back, holding her arms down as she repeatedly, violently smashed her horns into Yang's skull. Lifira put her hand on her shoulder, and she turned back around.

“You're going to be a great Sapphire Ranger, Weiss!” Lifira said. “I can see it in you: the Wisdom to do what is Right. And don't worry about the team: everyone's super friendly once you get to know them, and Ruby is a fantastic leader.”

She winked and giggled, before she disappeared.

A few seconds later, Weiss' brain finally decided to clock back in. “… Is there… is there anything like a private instance here...?”

Yang kicked Ruby off of her. She flew off like a tiny missile and slammed into one of the walls, adding some visual interest with a new crater shaped like her. Yang picked herself up, perfectly fine because of the power of CENSORSHIP!

“I got this!” she said.

Magic circled around them both from the feet up, till they were whisked away, off to someplace only Yang knew.


Weiss found herself by a cabin deep in a forest. It was a nice place: peaceful, quiet, and more than enough space for a very big family—or, in this case, a giant garden that was right next to a training grounds similar to the one in Keeper's Hollow.

“Where are we...?” Weiss asked as she looked around.

“Where me and Rubes used to live, before The Shit went down,” Yang explained. She smiled. “Lotta good memories here...” she frowned “… lotta really bad ones, too, but all that's important is that Ruby stays away from this place like the Scourge.”

Weiss winced.

“So, wondering why Lifi looks almost exactly like you? Well, before Life beat the Innocence and Wonder outta you, anyway.”

Yes, I am,” Weiss replied flatly. “I'm assuming it wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision to leave me unharmed, once she knew I was in that carriage...?”

Yang snorted. “Hah! Don't flatter yourself, princess: there's like 10 billion of us humans and three to four times as many Fae here in Avalon; I guarantee you, Lifira was probably based on hundreds if not thousands of white-haired hotties, real and fictional!

“Besides, Eluna comes much easier to mind than you when imagining a platinum blonde dream girl.”

Weiss nodded, pacified if insulted.

“… Though, the fact that you do look a lot like the golem I caught her trying to make out once with probably helped!” Yang sighed. “Man, I wish I hadn't deleted my holo of that, the look on her face...” she smiled and shook her head.

Weiss groaned. “Do you really have to share all of Ruby's embarrassing secrets like this?”

Yang took on a look of mock offense. “Weiss, Weiss, Weiss! I thought as a little sister yourself, you should know that one of a big sister's most important duties is to embarrass their younger siblings in front of their friends, and especially their potential girlfriends!”

“Then please stop making things painfully awkward for everyone, because I am not the slightest bit interested in Ruby.”

Yang paused. “Seriously? You two aren't--” she made a sexy animal noise.

Weiss' face turned red in rage and embarrassment. “Ugh! No! Why does everyone think we're--” she made an adorable, somewhat sexy animal noise.

Yang sniggered.

What?”

“Okay, one: that was the cutest way to say--” she made a sexy animal noise “--that I have ever fucking heard in my entire life.” Yang's face turned serious. “And two: because the Eldan Council doesn't just take in every last human that happens to survive whatever lurks in that hell-hole we call the Valley, either on their own or with the help of the Fae. In case you haven't noticed, princess, they're pretty serious about making yourself useful.

“There's got to be a reason that they're keeping you on. A big reason. At the very least, they think you might be this generation's key to keeping the Keeper bloodline alive.”

Weiss blinked. “Pardon...?”

Yang groaned and clutched her head in pain. “I'd tell you more, but there's this niggling in my head that's telling me I've already said too much… look, Weiss, if in case I get my privileges revoked after today, I want you to know that Ruby hasn't had an easy life, alright?

“Dead mom, broken family, and being raised by Uncle Qrow for the past 14 years aside, Keepers are like all those Nikos kids with the Holy Shepherd: an institution first, before a person. Only for Ruby, it means a lot more than just a fancy title you got from your famous dead grandma, and having to make public appearances every once in a while to appease the Flock.”

Yang groaned again, shaking her head as the throbbing faded away. “The only thing I think I can say is that there's a REASON they've all lived in a swamp, far away from everyone else.”

Before Weiss could ask more, there was a flash of light, and they were both standing at the entrance to the Valley.


The world around them was frozen, which was probably a good thing, seeing as the goons staring them down looked like serious business—full-on AFA types, not just private mercs.

“Hey guys! Sorry we're late, wanted to get a private audience with Princess Snowflake over here,” Yang said, waving as she walked up.

“It's fine!” Ruby said, much calmer now. “Did you happen to teach her about metamorphing?”

Yang snapped her fingers. “Shit, knew I forgot something...”

“Eh, that's fine, we'll just show her!” Ruby said. “Everyone but Weiss, form up on me! It's a triangle formation, me in the center, and from your right to your left, it goes Yang, Blake, me, Penny, and then you, Weiss.”

Ruby spoke as they went through the motions. “It's really simple: you just throw your arm into the sky in a badass way; wait for the suns, the moons, or wherever the light is coming from to reflect off your rune; shout 'Avalon's Might!' and wait to metamorph!

“Get into your pose, cry 'Rune Rangers: Viridian Vanguard!' and then we can all go kick some butt!

“Oh, and for reference: I'm Ruby as in the Ranger, and my pose is kneeling on the ground and looking like I'm about to smash my horns into someone; Yang's Onyx, and her pose is looking like a bear standing up and getting ready to maul someone; Penny's Emerald, and her pose is looking cute with her tail curled back into a heart; and Blake's Citrine, and her pose is… well, being her and clawing at someone, I guess.”

“What's mine?” Weiss asked.

“Whatever you want it to be!” Ruby chirped. “You want some time to think it up?”

Weiss shook her head. “I'll just take whatever Lifira's was.”

“Then that'd be looking like a fox mid-pounce!”

“Like this?”

“Perfect! You're a natural at this, Weiss.” Ruby said as she and the others broke formation, turned back to normal. “Want to do a dry run, or go straight to the fight?”

“I think I can wing it,” Weiss said.

“Alright!” Ruby said. “Places, everyone: it's showtime!”

Unfreeze.

Human and cyborg AFA soldiers formed a wall around the Rune Rangers, armed to the teeth with body armour, batons, rifles, shields, and dirty looks. The Rangers didn't look the slightest bit intimidated, glaring at them right back.

From the semi-circle of rovers behind them, their Captain popped her head out from the top of hers, activated the speakers. “Rune Rangers of the Viridian Valley! I ask you all to please stand down, and surrender Ms. Weiss Schnee immediately! You are guilty of kidnapping one of our citizens, and pursuant to Environmental Order No. 8921 of the Acropolis Accord, this land is now reserved for the use of and future development by the Schnee Power Company!”

Penny smiled. “I am sorry, I am afraid we of the Viridian Valley do not fall under your jurisdiction! I highly suggest that you invalidate that order in the records, take whatever physical copies you have of it, and insert them in your bodily orifices that are generally left unexposed to sunlight~”

Weiss stared at her, before she turned to the others.“Did she seriously…?”

Yeeep...~” Yang said, grinning.

Weiss snickered, before she put her Game Face back on.

The Captain grimaced. “I was afraid you were going to say that... this is your final warning: surrender now, or we will use lethal force. You are outnumbered, outgunned, and are facing a foe more than ready to wage a prolonged campaign against you:

“What could you possibly have that makes you think you have a chance against us?”

Ruby grinned as their runes appeared in their hand. “These. All together now--!”

Avalon's Might!”

The night sky glowed red, blue, yellow, black, and green as the Rangers raised their runes to the sky. The AFA shielded their eyes and started having second thoughts about signing up for this as the four teenagers and one golem before them turned into colour-coded, spandex-clad warriors with matching animal-themed helmets, their actions completely in-sync.

Rune Rangers: Viridian Vanguard!”

Boom.

Weiss yelped and dropped to the ground as the mandatory post-pose explosions happened just behind her. “WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME ABOUT THAT?!” she said as she picked herself back up

“We thought you knew about it already! Sorry!” Ruby cried.

This is what you get for not watching enough HV, princess!” Yang added.

The Captain sighed and rolled her eyes, before she got back on the loudspeaker. “Alpha Squad: attack! The rest of you: stand by! We're going to need manpower if we're going to make any real progress tonight...”

Weiss saw words appear in her visor:

Qrow's Commands:

  • Perform 3 Team Acrobatics with Weiss
  • Perform 3 Team Attacks with Weiss

“The hell…?” she asked.

Something to shake things up, princess; it'd be boring if we just made every episode about beating the bad guys in the most efficient and boring way possible.

“Mhmm!” Ruby said. “And speaking of which: Blake, Weiss: get the shooters! Yang, help them get there! Penny, you're with me!

“Ready?”

Ready!” everyone else but Weiss said.

Charge!” Ruby yelled as she ran horns-first into the front-liners, smashing her horns into some poor sap's gut.

Yang ran up in front of Blake and Weiss, crouched and got into position. “Air Xiao Long now boarding!” she said as she held out her hands.

Blake ran up, Yang catapulted her over the front-liner's heads. She somersaulted through the air, and ended up just in front of the riflemen at the back line. No surprises that she landed perfectly on her feet.

“Do I really have to?” Weiss asked.

“It's not Rune Rangers without somersaults and team attacks!” Ruby yelled as she kept some baton-wielders busy, Penny giving her back-up.

“Last call for boarding, princess!” Yang said.

Weiss shook her head, ran up and put her foot into Yang's waiting hands. Her trip through the air was… much less graceful than Blake's was, though at least she knows how to do a tuck-and-roll landing.

<Didn't take gymnastics in school?> Blake asked as she pulled her up.

“I took fencing...” Weiss said as they turned to the shooter in front of them.

He raised his gun up to fire, Blake ducked and kicked out his leg, brought him down to his knees. Now that she could reach, Weiss wasted no time grabbing his head and introducing his jaw to her knee.

Pow!

“… And some hand-to-hand combat with Ruby,” Weiss continued as the poor sap fell down for the count.

<Nice!> Blake said. <I was wrong, Weiss: you might just survive out there in the real world!>

She jerked Weiss to the side.

A bullet whizzed past her helmet, missing by less than an inch.

Underneath her helmet, Blake smiled.

<Might.>

Underneath her helmet, Weiss rolled her eyes, before she smiled back.

Chapter Text

Penny wrapped her arms around an AFA grunt's legs and held them down, Ruby jumped on her back and used her like a step-ladder to smash her horns into their face.

Blake catapulted Weiss right over a rifleman's head. The AFA gal does the smart thing, aims for the one heading in a straight line than somersaulting through the air, but most of those shots just zip right on past where Blake was a second ago. Weiss lands feet into first into her chest, knocking her down to the ground; she steps off, Blake pounces on her, smashing her palm into her face just as she's about to raise her gun to fire, keeping her down.

A baton grunt charged to his buddy's aid, raising his weapon up high before a gloved hand attached to a black sleeve grabbed his wrist. Yang slowly shook her head at him, before she punched him in the face with her free hand.

The AFA got plenty of hits in and landed some shots, and while they certainly hurt, it was clear they were losing, and losing fast.

From inside her rover, the Captain got back on the loudspeaker. “Regroup! Regroup!”

What remained of the Alpha Squad broke off and ran for the rovers, the last rifleman putting their back to the wall of vehicles, two baton-wielders covering their sides, and a big gal with an even bigger shield up front.

The Rangers reformed behind Ruby, a diamond with Penny in the center. She glowed and blasted out some much needed healing goodness, made it a lot easier for all of them to stand and look badass.

Without a field medic of their own, the AFA could only have their lead grunt bash her shield and hurl insults at them as their shooter reloaded.

From inside the Core, Eluna smiled.

From his office in Candela, Jacques scowled.

Ruby looked back at the others, started whispering, “I'll distract shield girl; Yang, get left; Blake, get right; Weiss and Penny, team-up and take out the shooter. Then: finisher.

“Ready?”

The others nodded. “Ready.”

Ruby let out a war cry, everyone around her suddenly glowing with red auras that told their enemies they were in for a very bad time.

They charged!

Crash!

The shield grunt blocked Ruby's horns, got in a few quick bashes with her baton as she held her back.

Blake and Yang rushed the troops on her side, put them down for the count with a 3-part-combo, or a much less graceful but still effective punch to the gut before a bash over the head.

The way now clear, Penny and Weiss both rushed up Ruby's back, launched off the shield grunt's helmet, and landed at either side of the rifleman still trying to decide which ranger to shoot first. With two kicks into both sides of their chest, they solved that problem for them.

The last grunt pushed Ruby off of her, smashed her shield in the side of the face and sent her staggering back.

She grins, up until she notices that she's surrounded.

Ruby recovers and shakes her head. “Need a quick tutorial about how the finishing move works, Weiss?”

“Nah,” Weiss says as she and the others get into their poses, one after the other. “I think I've got it.”

Ruby grins. “Awesome.”

The Rangers glow with power once more, auras of animals surrounding them: a Sapphire Fox, a Citrine Cat, an Onyx Bear, and an Emerald Mouse. They shoot up into the sky, twisting together before they curve downa and make a beeline into Ruby.

Glowing with all five of their colours now, she crouches low and leaps into the air, tilting her head back as the aura of the Ruby Reindeer above her does the same.

Then, they both turn their horns down, the other animals grin and bare their teeth.

The shield grunt's eyes widen, and she raises her shield and braces herself for a world of hurt.

WRATH OF THE WILD!”

The night turns into day straight out of a really good drug trip. The AFA grunts on site shield their eyes, Jacques yells as he's blinded, Eluna smiles as she had already put on her extra-dark shades. When the multi-coloured smoke clears, there is one VERY down and out AFA grunt laying on the ground, just like the rest of the Alpha Squad.

Yang chuckled as she turned to the lead rover. “You going to tell your boss to write this off as another loss, or what?”

The Captain popped her head out to scowl at the Rangers. “Not yet.” She activated her comm-crystal. “Mr. Schnee, permission to deploy the BADAAS!”

Permission granted, Captain,”  they hear through the speakers.

Weiss frowned. “The BADAAS...?”

“The Big-Ass Defense And Assault Suit,” Penny explained. “It's an acronym for the magitechnology developed from the Shepherd Suit MK II, after the MK III made it largely obsolete.”

“That is one of the stupidest names for military gear that I have ever heard in my entire life!” Weiss cried. “What does a BADAAS even look like?”

The ground began to rumble. Soldiers in the other rovers drove off to make room as the Captain's ride began to transform, protective plating shifting and reforming around arms, legs, and a torso, revealing much more serious firepower than your standard AFA rover is equipped with—things like an energy lance, a minigun, and even a grenade launcher turret up top.

“Like this,” the Captain said.

“… Oh...”

The Captain raised the minigun up at the Rangers.

Whirr…!

Qrow's Commands:

  • Defeat The Captain with A Finishing Move
  • Don't get hit by her Sticky Bombs.

Freeze.

Weiss turned to the others. “We have weapons, right? Because one, there is no realistic way we're punching, kicking, and headbutting that thing to death, and two, if we can, that'll seriously break my suspension of disbelief.”

Ruby nodded. “Yep, we do! I've got a scythe!” she said, her rune glowing, before turning into a scythe that probably had way more moving parts than was strictly necessary.

<I've got my breakneck,> Blake said as hers turned into a yellow, fancier version of her usual gear—hey, if it works, right?

“I have two swords that can be easily reconfigured into a bow or a claw,” Penny said as hers split into two beams of light, and turned into twin blades. “I used to have more, until I realized that was too 'OP,' and demeans the Rune Rangers' theme of requiring teamwork and coordination to take down foes too powerful for an individual.”

“And I've got my bear hands!” Yang said, smashing her fists together as her rune turned into twin gauntlets.

Weiss scowled at her. You couldn't see into the visors of their helmets, but you could just tell.

She pulled out her rune, found herself holding a weaver's staff. Realistically speaking, something like this would be no better than a regular staff if you don't have the Gift, but since the Sapphire Rangers are always the ones with all the cool magitech or the really obvious mystic powers, let's just assume you do, princess.

“Is there a version of it that's more sword-like?”

Boom. Runeblade, with an unlimited supply of all four of the Elemental Essences, to be combined however you damn well please. You want me to throw in a Spellslinger so you can make like your grandpa and go stab and shoot things?

Weiss tested the revolver, watched the blade catch fire, freeze over and with water flowing in the ice, crackle with electricity and miniature gusts of wind, then get a metallic sheen with clouds of dust all around.

“I'm good,” she said as she turned it back to normal.

Want a primer on what you can do with the power of the elements at your fingertips?

“I think a hands-on lesson will suit me much better,” Weiss purred. “Hey girls? You mind if we rewind to just before she points that gun at us?”

“Sure,” Yang said, “but this idea of yours better be cool!

Weiss winced. “… And I find myself actually sorry to say that it will be...”

Rewind. Unfreeze.

“Like this,” the Captain said.

She raised the minigun up at the Rangers, they readied their weapons.

Whirr…!

Weiss turned the revolver to Water, stabbed her sword into ground.

A giant block of ice rose up in front of the Rangers, just in time to block the near-solid line of supercharged-lead flying at them.

What the hell?!” the Captain yelled as she stopped firing.

The ice wall shattered, icicles and frozen bullets raining to the ground.

“Spread out, and keep moving!” Ruby yelled. “She can't hit us as easily if we do!”

“That's what you think!” the Captain snarled as she readied her grenade launcher.

Thoom. Thoom. Thoom.

Sticky bombs landed all over the field, flashing bright red with a handy circle around them showing just where you don't want to be when they go off. The rangers hot-hoof it around them, until Yang just happens to step on one of them just after it landed.

“Oh, MOTHERFU--!”

Boom.

Thanks to the power of CENSORSHIP!, she goes flying off instead of turning into a black-and-pink mist.

“YANG!” Ruby yells as she and Penny run to pick her up.

The Captain sees the opportunity, points her energy lance at them. The sides of it begin to light up, ending in a big ball of crackling, concentrated magic that's only getting even bigger.

Might want to do something about that, kiddos, just saying.

Lightning pours out of Weiss' sword and into the BADAAS. Inside the cockpit, all the fancy holos and magitechnical systems malfunction, flashing red and spitting out error messages like crazy. The energy lance fires off at half-charge, Ruby, Penny, and Yang duck as the shot just grazes their helmets before blowing up a patch of bedrock behind them.

Stop screwing with my mech!” the Captain yells as her mech makes like a break-dancer on three cans of Sgt. Pick-U-Up having a seizure.

Then stop screwing with the Valley!” Weiss yells back through gritted teeth, trying to hold her sword steady with both hands.

“Blake!” Ruby yells as she Penny heal Yang and pull her ass back up. “Get the grenade launcher!”

<Already on it!> Blake cried as she fired her breakneck's hook on the base. She pounces into the air, flips the gears in reverse, and goes zipping upwards.

Schwing!

You can see the ghost of her swing in the air for a moment, before the grenade launcher starts to jerk and fizz.

The Captain yells as she smashes a Big Red Button.

All lights in the BADAAS go off, except for the chest which is only growing brighter and brighter...

Ruby and Penny get Yang haul ass behind the rovers. Weiss stops shooting sparks out of her sword, makes a line of ice heading straight for Blake, and starts skating on it. Blake lands on her feet, slips and lands on her ass, wonders what the hell was that all about, until she notices the way everything's gotten so bright all of a sudden.

Weiss grabs her by the arm as she zooms on past.

The BADAAS' EMP goes off.

Weiss and Blake go skidding and rolling on hard, unforgiving ground after her sword suddenly stops making ice, the chambers in the revolver go dim.

The Captain catches her breath as she reboots her mech. “That was a very good effort, I'll admit...” she says in between pants.

She turns to where Weiss and Blake are just picking themselves up, the tank treads and the boosters in her mech's legs engage.

“… But not good enough!”

The BADAAS comes screaming towards them, faster than anything that big should be able to move.

Blake and Weiss did the smart thing and jumped in opposite directions, to the sides of the thing charging towards them.

Penny climbed up the side of the rover she was hiding behind, helped Ruby and Yang up to the roof.

The Captain missed, disengaged the turbo, spun around, and aimed at the one she could take out without getting shit from her boss:

Blake.

Everything went into slow-mo.

Blake turned around, eyes widening and ears pulling flat as the BADAAS came for her, too close to dodge this time.

Yang picked Penny up, aimed, and threw her straight her at Blake, before she re positioned, picked up Ruby, and threw her at the mech.

Everything began to go back to normal speed.

Penny slammed into Blake, getting her out of the way of just a second before she got turned into kitty paste—or sent flying off against all laws of physics, I guess.

The Captain gritted her teeth, leaning forward up until a scythe head came ripping right through the hull, the tip of it coming within an inch of her face.

Ruby lost her grip on the handle from the inertia, flew off between BADAAS' legs, rolling on the ground until she finally stopped near Weiss.

Yang saw the mech coming straight for her and the line of rovers, turbo still engaged; she jumped off and hauled ass to the others.

The poor saps hiding inside them hung onto their asses.

The sound of screeching metal and suspension screaming for mercy filled the air as the rovers flew and flipped around like the toy cars of a two-year old having a tantrum. The BADAAS' screeched to a halt, but the scythe was still stuck in its hull.

The Captain tried to get it off with the mech's arms, only ended up driving it deeper as the minigun and lance acted like paddles. “AGH!” she yelled as she tried to push it out from the inside. “WHO THE FUCK DIDN'T THINK OF GIVING THIS THING CLAWS FOR GRABBING?”

Back at Candela, Jacques glared at Dr. Nefarious over to the side.

The not-so-good doctor just chuckled nervously, giving him a sheepish smile that was missing several teeth.

The Rangers regrouped, watched the BADAAS struggle with its new ornament.

“What's the plan, Rubes?” Yang as she ran up.

Ruby smiled. “We go all out on the Captain while she's distracted, and end this with a finishing move.”

Yang grinned. “Sounds good to me.”

They readied their remaining weapons and were about to start running, when Weiss sword suddenly sparked back to life.

“Can I use my elemental fire like a rocket?” she asked as she turned the revolver.

Penny nodded. “Yes. Yes you can.”

Yang grinned as they got ready. “Great news, passengers: Air Xiao Long is happy to inform you that we've entered into a partnership with Schnee Aeronautics! Our first joint trip is boarding now...”

Inside the BADAAS, the Captain kicked at the blunt side of the scythe with her boot, until the holos started to flash once more.

Warning: Incoming Missile Detected.”

The Captain dropped back into her seat and ducked below the scythe. “Give me a visual!”

Yang was grinning as she headed up the five-Ranger-rocket, her fist already cocked.

The Captain couldn't see into visors of her helmet, but she could just tell.

Chapter Text

The Ranger-Rocket zoomed through the air at ludicrous speed, a grinning Yang up front, a worried Penny behind her stretching her robot arms as far as she could around all of them, Ruby sandwiched in the middle, then Blake with her arms and legs wrapped tight around Weiss at the very back, her runeblade digging into her gut as it shot out a jet of blue flames.

“ROCKET PUUUUNNNCCCCHHHHHH!” Yang yelled as she pulled Penny’s arm off her chest and broke off from the group.

“YANG, WAIT--!” Penny yelled.

Too late.

Yang fell straight into the BADAAS fist-first, more than enough momentum to send the whole thing reeling and make a new deep dent in the cockpit, right next to the scythe sticking into it.

“What kind of sick joke is this?!” the Captain yelled as she struggled to reach a different button—one that the scythe’s head just happened to be in the way of.

“One with a helluva punchline!” Yang cried as she grabbed onto Ruby’s scythe with one hand, and continued punching the hull with the other.

Weiss and Blake would have groaned if they weren’t so busy trying not to crash into the ground, or send them all flying off into space; the laws of physics being what they were, the sudden loss of the weight up front that kept the whole thing balanced tends to fuck things up royally.

“LET GO!” Weiss screamed as she jerked and wrestled with her sword, trying to keep it centered.

Ruby and Penny did, tucking and rolling as they hit the ground.

“BLAKE!” Weiss screamed they went further and further away from the BADAAS, and closer and closer into the line of Rovers. “LET! GO!”

<I CAN’T!> Blake yelled back.

“THEN TURN THIS THING OFF!”

Blake wrenched a hand free, grabbed the trigger of the revolver, and pulled with all her might.

The flames stopped as it turned twice to air.

Meanwhile, inside one of the rovers that had been turned upside down, all the AFA troops had their arms and backs to the right side.

“Alright, everyone!” their Sergeant said. “On ‘Push’: one… two… three—PUSH!”

They all grunted and yelled as they put their backs into it, or just threw their weight against the wall. The yelped as the rover rolled on its side, rocked about as the suspension kicked in and did the rest of the work for them.

The soldiers started cheering and high-fiving.

“Woo!” the Sergeant said. “Good job, everyone!”

Outside, Weiss put a mini-cyclone on the side of the rover. She and Blake landed on it, slowed down until the air-cushion exploded and sent them flying back the way they came, and the rover flipping over across the ground for a second time.

The soldiers screamed as they went tumbling, crashing into the walls, the seats, and each other until their ride came to a stop, upside down once again.

The Sergeant pulled himself up by the upside-down steering wheel. “To the LEFT side this time, troops! On ‘Push’: one… two… three—PUSH!”

Back with the Rangers, Ruby and Penny ran and tried to catch up to Blake and Weiss as they both flailed through the air, screaming.

“We’ve got you, we’ve got you!” Ruby cried as she tossed Penny up.

Penny extended her robot arms and snatched Blake out of the air, but missed Weiss by a few inches.

“… We’ve got Blake…!” Ruby said as Penny landed. She turned back to the BADAAS. “YANG!”

Yang looked back.

The Captain finally pressed the button for “Hull Detonation.”

The outermost layer of the BADAAS’ hull exploded, blowing Yang and the scythe off, but not without leaving a nasty gash that left the Captain exposed.

Weiss made another mini-tornado on the front of the mech, landed on the air-cushion face first. She and the Captain made eye-contact just before it blew up.

Weiss rocketed straight into the ground, skidding and sparking for several feet until she finally stopped.

The BADAAS staggered back, the Captain flailing its arms about blind, blinking and trying to get the dust and the tears out of her eyes. An emergency energy shield formed over the breach, she aimed her lance at Weiss and started charging.

Yang planted Ruby’s scythe into the ground, pulled herself up with it. She saw the sides of the lance, almost at full power.

“WEISS! EARTH! NOW!”

Weiss changed and raised her sword up, holding on tight because her life really did depend on it.

Whoomph.

A giant, crackling ball of magic met Weiss’ runeblade. Blinding streaks of raw energy shot through the air as Weiss pushed back with all her might, arms shaking, knuckles white, eyes squezeed, until finally, she sent that blast right back at the Captain.

KRRZZHH!

Inside what was left of the cockpit, the remaining holos flashed and almost all the alarms screamed and whined simultaneously. Over it all, the Captain’s comm-crystal was beeping and flashing like crazy; she answered the call, if only to get it to stop.

“CAPTAIN, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?!” Jacques yelled.

“MY JOB!” the Captain yelled back.

“You almost killed my daughter!”

The Captain wrenched the BADAAS back into her control. She looked through the gaps, watched Yang drop Ruby’s scythe as she scooped Weiss into her arms before she ran to the others. She scowled even harder than she already had.

She looked at the holo of Jacques. “With all due respect, sir? I don’t give a shit.

“Your daughter is undeniably guilty of cooperating with terrorists, assaulting and seriously injuring several uniformed AFA personnel in a combat situation, and costing us billions in damages to equipment, among other expenses!

Good fucking luck trying to keep her from jail!” she snapped as killed the connection, then raised her minigun it Yang.

Whirr…!

“How you holding up, Weiss?” Yang asked.

My arms…!” she moaned.

“Don’t worry! If you die in here, you don’t die in real life!”

That is NOT comforting news!”

Yang laughed. “Yep, you’ll live!”

Bullets started to rain just behind her feet, Yang catapulted Weiss to Ruby before she made a hard left. Thanks to the Captain keeping the target-lock on her, the hail of bullets followed her instead of tearing into the others.

Ruby caught Weiss out of the air, holding her up by her arms. “Weiss! You okay?”

She let out a scream of pain that had even me wincing—and I’m just a disembodied voice!

Ruby laid her down in a hurry as Penny got to work.

“WHY did you have to make the pain so real?!” Weiss moaned as she got her arms unbroken.

“We built this off a combat dream from the Watchers, and we paid Miko to modify it for us...” Ruby explained sheepishly.

Ugh, I am so learning coding after this...” Weiss said as Penny helped her back up.

“It’s actually called ‘Dreamweaving,’” she said.

Whatever!”

“Uh, GIRLS?!” Yang yelled over their helmet-comms. “LITTLE HELP OVER HERE!”

The BADAAS was firing sticky bombs again. Thanks to Blake, even with the manual aiming the turret was going nuts, spitting bombs every which way, sometimes launching two or three at a time. If anything, it made it even more dangerous, because now you really couldn’t tell where they were going to land.

<What’s the plan?> Blake asked.

“We can’t finish her off without my scythe, and even then, the BADAAS still has too much health for it…” Ruby muttered. “Let me think...”

“THINK FASTER, RUBES!” Yang yelled.

Ruby watched the sticky bombs flying all about the field, some of them zooming straight down, others arcing up in the air and exploding before they reached the ground.

Ding!” goes the light-bulb in her head.

“Ranger Rocket!” she yelled. “Blake! Up front, so you can tell us where to turn—first my scythe, then Yang, then let's lure the Captain into the bombs!”

Everyone but Blake got into position. <Do we really have to do this again?!> she asked.

“YES!” everyone else yelled.

Blake winced, and got on the front like a trooper.

Yang kept on playing Avalon’s most dangerous game of Hot-Hoof ever.

“Just give up, and make it easy for yourself!” the Captain said as she had one hand firing the turret, the other manually turning the BADAAS around by its waist.

“FUCK! THAT! LADY!” Yang said in between dodges, ducks, and hard turns from the bombs falling all around her.

Warning: Incoming Missile Detected.”

The Captain groaned. “Oh, WHAT NOW?!” she turned the BADAAS.

She watched the Four-Ranger rocket zoom around the chaos, Blake up front screaming at the top of her lungs, turning her head to tell the others where to turn, her arms and legs latched on tight on Penny behind her.

Ruby reached out, grabbed her scythe with one hand, before they weaved through the chaos and grabbed Yang with the other.

The added weight and Yang's feet dragging on the ground slowed them down plenty—enough for the Captain to lead a shot, three bombs arcing out to the only patch of ground that wasn't blinking red.

Things went into slow-mo once more.

One hand already on the revolver this time, Weiss shut the jet off, and switched to air. The gusts around her sword twisted tighter and tighter around the blade as she raised it up to the bombs still flying. With a massive gust of wind, she sent them all flying off to safety, and those bombs right back at the BADAAS.

The Captain stared at the trio of hot potatoes staring her in the face, all blinking bright red.

She sighed. “I hate this Valley...”

BOOM.

The Rangers made a landing that was a lot less graceful than any of them would have liked, tumbling, rolling and skidding across the ground until they finally came to a stop. They picked themselves up, looked back, saw the BADAAS sparking and smoking, its emergency shielding now off.

That thing was on its last legs, but not quite ready for a finisher just yet.

“Penny, Weiss?” Ruby asked.

“We're on it,” Weiss said as Penny turned her swords into a bow, she put her runeblade in like it was an arrow.

“Any suggestions?” Weiss asked as she put her hand on the trigger.

“Fire might completely destroy it, and render us unable to end the battle in appropriately stylish fashion,” Penny replied. “Best to play it safe with Water and an ice blast to hold her in place.”

“Water it is,” Weiss said.

The Captain groaned, coughed and blew the smoke out of her face. She turned to where the Rangers were, just in time to see the ice bolt go into the BADAAS' legs and freeze it in place.

NOW you can finish her off.

Ruby put her scythe on its side into the ground, blade first, Blake attached her breakneck to the back of the head. Penny put her swords on the sides, Yang attached her gauntlets just underneath them. Weiss put her runeblade in between them like an arrow.

Ruby explained the lines for the weapon finisher, as the Viridian Blaster started charging up with all their colours.

Weiss nodded. “Got it.”

All together now.

“By the power of the Suns, the Moons, and the Core of the realm we all call Home...”

“FURY OF THE FAE!”

As five beams of red, blue, yellow, black, and green magic shot out of the Blaster, spiraled together and came for the BADAAS, the Captain sighed, and closed her eyes.

They saw the prismatic pillar of light all the way from the furthest outpost of Candela, the one on the mountain range that marked the start of the Acropolis region.

The BADAAS collapsed, multicoloured smoke pouring out of it. The Captain coughed and crawled out of the destroyed suit, looking none too hot herself. She stopped and looked up as five pairs of booted feet came before her.

She couldn't see their grins underneath the visors, but she could just tell.

The Captain sighed, pulled out her comm-crystal. “Attention all units: retreat! Repeat, attention all units: retreat! Mission is FUBAR! Repeat, mission is fucked beyond all goddamn repair!

Blake purred as she held up her hands. “Can’ela – 0. Valley – 2.”

Some troopers came along to pick her up off the floor, like they had Alpha Squad earlier. One nervous looking grunt was holding a tablet with a very pissed-off Jacques Schnee on-screen.

“Do you understand the consequences of what you’ve just done, Weiss?! I can’t protect you from this! The AFA will have your head! They’ll have all of our heads!

“What drove you to join up with these… these… these terrorists!”

Weiss pulled off her helmet, scowled at her dad. “Because, father, these terrorists stand for everything you don’t...” she said as she put it back on.

They began to line up and pose, one by one.

“Compassion for all in need!” Penny sang. “Rune Ranger Emerald!”

Will to fight until the end!” Yang roared. “Rune Ranger Onyx!”

Courage to act come what may!” Blake shouted. “Rune Ranger Citrine!”

Wisdom to do what is right!” Weiss cried. “Rune Ranger Sapphire!”

“Strength to lead us all to victory!” Ruby shouted. “Rune Ranger Ruby!”

We are the Viridian Vanguard!”

Boom.

This time, Weiss only flinched a little when the prerequisite, multi-coloured explosions happened behind them.

Jacques was unimpressed. “You are hereby disinherited, and disowned, Weiss.”

“Good,” she spat. “You can keep that perversion you’ve made of Grandpa’s legacy.”

Jacques scowled, before he cut the line. The AFA soldiers loaded up and rolled on back to Candela.

“Fantastic work, Rune Rangers!” Eluna said through their helmet-comms. “You especially, Weiss; I hadn’t realized you were so well-versed in elemental weaving.”

“I… haven’t really done anything like this before, actually!” Weiss said. “It all just felt so… so natural...”

Yang chuckled. “Sure you're not just a closet RPG geek there, princess?”

“Whatever the case, you should all be teleporting back to Rune Terra, and getting some much needed rest; I doubt this’ll be the last we see of Jacques, with or without Dr. Nefarious.”

“Will do, Ellie!” Ruby said.

And so the Rangers thrust their runes to the sky and went on home, the Valley a lot safer than it usually is…

… Until Jacques comes knocking again, at least.

Guys like him don’t give up just like that.

Chapter Text

“That was amazing!” Weiss cried as they teleported back into the Core and their usual clothes. “I haven't had so much fun in years!” she said, all that giddiness getting so much she has to jump around in place like a little kid on a sugar high.

And just like a little kid on a sugar high, she really can't care that everyone's watching.

Blake smirked. <What happened to 'just this once'?> she asked.

“I changed my mind,” Weiss said as she slowed down some. “I can do that, can't I?”

“So does this mean you're going to be our Sapphire Ranger permanently…?” Ruby asked.

Weiss stopped then nodded. “Yes.”

Beat. (Which, for those of you that don't know it, is the time it takes to breath once .)

“YAY!” Ruby cried, before she charged Weiss and jumped right into her arms.

“GAH!” Weiss yelled as became the newest victim to the Flying Fawn Tackle, one of Ruby's favourite forms of affection/hand-to-hand combat moves.

(Fun Fact: Baby Reindeer are actually called “Calves,” but “Flying Calf Tackle” doesn't sound as nice.)

Yang laughed as the two hit the floor. “Cool it, lovebirds! I get Ruby's pretty horny, but we're still in the Core.”

“Though I've become accustomed to all manner of depravity, eccentricities, and unusual displays and acts throughout my thousand or so years of life… yes, I would prefer it if you two don't--” Eluna made a sexy animal noise “--in the Core, I kind of live here...”

“Okay first of all: RUBY, GET OFF ME THEN HELP ME UP!” Weiss yelled.

Ruby did.

“Thank you. And second of all: WE'RE NOT EVEN GIRLFRIENDS, STOP THINKING THAT WE'RE GOING TO--” Weiss stopped.

Ruby made a sexy animal noise, with a little “?” at the end that you could hear.

Weiss turned red. “Yes, that.”

“We really aren't girlfriends, guys,” Ruby said.

And since Ruby's pretty much incapable of being anything other than completely honest, you know you can believe her.

“But just in case you or anyone else change their minds at a later date: romantic relationships between Rangers certainly isn't encouraged, but not illegal, either,” Eluna said. “Stronger than friendship Romantic Love may be, but it carries a lot more baggage, and I'd rather Avalon not be screwed over by a lover's spat.”

She narrowed her eyes. “And seriously: no fucking in the Core.”

Yang shook her head. “Ellie, you realize that's just making it all the more tempting, right?”

You do that, and I'll show you what it's like to be on the receiving end of a Starlight Spear,” Eluna snapped. “But back to more important matters: I'll be here monitoring activity, you girls get some rest or just wind down, seeing as I'm the immortal deity and you guys aren't.”

She turned around to the giant-ass rune in the center. “Breaking character for a moment: there's about two and a half hours of real time left for your honey dream before you need another dose, and you can only stretch your mind's perception of time so far before it starts to become dangerous.”

“Oh, wow, how long have we been here?” Weiss asked.

“Probably about little over a half-hour real-time, including all the freezes to explain stuff to you,” Ruby said. “Yang being persona non grata aside, we can fit a lot more catching up in a honey dream than anywhere else.”

“And speaking of catching up: it's been fun kicking ass, yelling cool catchphrases, and doing silly poses with you guys, but I think I'd like to do some of that with Rubes over here,” Yang said, throwing her arm around her shoulders. “You mind if Qrow gives us his review now?”

“Just one more thing before he does,” Weiss asked. “Why do my, Ruby, and Penny's outfits have skirts, if they're we're all wearing full-body suits?”

“Because combat skirts look cool!” Ruby said, smiling.

Weiss nodded. “Okay, that I'll agree with. But why do mine specifically have 'stockings' that are of a different colour…?”

Ruby kept on smiling. “Oh, you know: no particular reason! Hit it, Golem Qrow!”

Qrow's Closer:

In Ten Words Or Less: “Good first try, still messier than it needed to be.”

Commands:

  • Perform 3/3 Team Acrobatics With Weiss
  • Perform 3/3 Team Attacks With Weiss
  • Defeat the Captain with a Finishing Move
  • Don't get hit by the Sticky Bombs

Rating: "Fury Blockbuster"

“Oh COME ON!” Yang said. “That should of at least been a 'Holo of the Year!'”

Be happy I felt generous for princess over here and didn't downgrade this to “Top Ten in HV-on-Demand.” Practice some more, try not to get blown up or fly off in decidedly un-badass ways so much, and by the end of this season, you guys will be a team of grade-A, certified BAMFs.

You've got the chemistry, that's for sure, but the skill isn't there just yet.

Taking you guys back to the Lobby in 3… 2… 1…


Weiss found herself back in the white expanse with the others.

“Am I forced to stay here, or can I 'disconnect'?” she asked.

Yang shrugged. “Your choice, princess! So long as you don't try to learn anything the Council hasn't cleared you for, you're free to do anything you want. Before you do anything spicy, though, just know that Miko's legally obliged to review all the footage from this particular dreamcatcher and tell the Chroniclers about it.

“Well, we're off! Lotta shit to talk about, the Bastion isn't the only place that's been busy...”

Ruby waved. “See you guys back in the real world!”

The two of them faded away.

Weiss turned to the others. “Any ideas on what I can do now?”

“Though this dreamcatcher is open for modification, the creation of a new dream might consume a lot of your time, and be more stressful than relaxing,” Penny explained.

“So are there any other preloaded scenarios?”

Blake shifted about nervously. <Well, there is the one I use after Rune Rangers...>

“Then let's do that!” Weiss said.

Blake frowned. <Promise you won't laugh or make fun of me?>

Weiss smiled. “I promise.”

The world around them shifted. Now, Weiss found herself standing in the streets of an urban metropolis, not the gleaming metal and glass of Candela, but much older buildings made of brick and mortar, with architectural styles that had long been phased out, or survived only by the grace of enthusiasts of “Old World” designs.

Her clothes had changed into a white trench coat, with matching thigh high boots, and a beret over her head—all for the better, as her Fae dress would have been woefully unfit for the gloomy, foggy, and overall miserable weather that night.

Weiss looked up, saw just one moon up in that black sky. She craned her neck across the skyline, saw a tall, iconic building from her Old World History classes: the Empire State. She turned back to Blake, now dressed in a white shirt, black pants, and leather boots with metal buckles on the straps.

She eyed the faces of the pedestrians streaming all about them, walking with purpose, ignoring everyone around them or interacting solely with their in-groups. It was a mix of everything you could have found in the Sol System way back when, except for the particularly pale types who had hints of sharp fangs peeking past their lips, or looked a lot deader inside than usual.

Weiss turned back to Blake. “Are we in The Midnight Society?”

Blake looked away sheepishly. <Yeah, I know it's really old, and cheesy, and-->

She stopped as Weiss grabbed her hands, a look of pure joy on her face. “I thought I was the only one...” she whispered, eyes sparkling. “Can be a Maharani?”

Blake blinked. <Only if you aren't magically able to control EVERYONE with your Dominate, including the First Ones. I used to let Yang be one, now she's permanently a Tyrtaeus.>

“Oh, believe me, I will practice MUCH more restraint and class than she ever could, as befitting a member of Royalty!” Weiss said, turning her nose up in the most snobbish way possible.

Blake chuckled. <Maharani it is.>

Weiss squealed with delight as she felt power surge into her, sharp fangs sprout from her teeth, her already pale skin become a beautiful if unnerving shade of porcelain white. “Oh, this is perfect...” she purred.

“Shall we go find some politicians, supermodels, and other people of noble birth and high status for you to feed on, mistress~?” Penny asked as she came up, looking not unlike a regular human if not for the intentionally dead, hollow look in her eyes.

“Let's!” Weiss hummed. “Oh, wait: what bloodline are you Blake? No, let me guess: Grendulus?”

Blake scowled. <Oh, just because I'm a Fae, you automatically assume I'm going to want to be the animal-shifter vampires? That's racist, Weiss.>

Weiss winced. “Sorry.”

With much less bite, Blake continued, <… I mean, you're not WRONG, but that's still racist!>

Weiss smiled. “Shall I apologize by finding something to satisfy your hunger first?”

Blake nodded. <That'd be great. By the way, you can't use your runeblade because you're the wrong bloodline.>

“I know, which is why I'd like a gun this time.”

Penny handed her a .357 Magnum, chromed metal and pearl grips.

“Thank you,” Weiss said as she put it inside a discrete inner pocket of her coat.

<Don't want to get blood all over yourself?> Blake asked.

Weiss put on a look of mock disgust. “Do you know how much all of these cost?”

They paused for a moment, before they started giggling.

The rest of the pedestrians continued to ignore them as they made their way to the nicer parts of downtown.

Chapter Text

Elsewhere in the Dreamscape, Ruby and Yang were in a copy of the former's room in Keeper's Hollow, lounging on the cushions and pillows as they talked.

<… So Weiss is getting stronger because of all that farming, training, and Valley food, right? One day, she asks us to start training her for agility, so she can past The Grinder's Boop Test. I asked her if she wanted to do some reps on the dummies, and she goes, 'No, I want you to do the test on me, but a lot slower.'>

Yang grinned.

<I go, 'Okay, I'll go get Blake! She's the best at that!' and Weiss is like, 'Why can't you do it?' I tell her I don't want to hurt her, and Weiss just goes, 'Ruby, I trust you won't hurt me if you can help it, just hit me with the absolute lightest touch you can,' and I say, 'Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you!>

Yang leaned forward. <And then what happened next?>

<I booped her on the nose. Turns out, the bones in human noses are a LOT more fragile than I thought, and I think I inherited dad's 'Finger Death Punch' skills...>

<Oh, shit! Was there blood?>

Ruby nodded. <Lots. She started screaming, so I asked her, 'Weiss, are you okay?' and she said, 'Nhow, GET PHENNY!'

<So now Blake is in charge of her agility training. She's trying to teach her how to climb and use a hookshot, too, but it's kind of hard for Weiss seeing as she can't completely balance on her toes like she does.>

<Is she getting any better at the Boop Test?>

<Nope! Blake just gets her every single time, and she's going so slow, it's so funny!>

<Man, I wish I could see that!>

Ruby nodded. <Yeah. Me too...>

Yang looked at Weiss' hammock in the corner. <You're all getting along really well with Weiss, aren't you?>

<Mhmm! It was all rough at the beginning, because she was pretty useless at everything, and she forced the Council to take her in after she faked killing herself in front of her dad.>

<Shit, if I didn't know that was you behind that mask, I would have thought it was real, Rubes! You were fucking savage with that speech, too.>

<That was Weiss' work, actually! She's really good with words. Penny's actually surprised at how quickly she's picking up on Actaeon, but that could be because Blake is helping her learn now, too.>

<Out of the goodness of her heart?>

Ruby smirked. <Nah. Weiss is slowly taking over cooking from Uncle Qrow; butchering and cutting aside, she's a lot better at it, plus she grows ingredients for all of Blake's favourite recipes.>

Yang laughed. <Should have known… she trying to make her own tofu now, so you guys don't have to hunt so much?>

<Nah. Penny says everyone but Weiss are 'obligate carnivores' and can't survive without actual animal meat. Still, her garden's REALLY useful; cheaper AND we don't have to compete with all the Makers and their assistants that snatch up the good stuff straight from the Tubes, the delivery carts, or right from the planters.

<Plus, the Watchers say that if she can seriously ramp up her production, they might start subcontracting her for supplies—healing salves, burn creams, sore-stiff ointment, that kind of stuff. She says she won't try until she gets one or two Tenders helping her, though.

<'I'm not planning to be a farmer full-time,' she said.>

<Sure seems like she's getting there whether she likes it or not...>

<I know, but she doesn't like folks pointing it out. It's taking her time to get comfortable with the idea, you know? Kind of like how dad dated your mom, had you, and well… all that stuff happened before he and my mom got together...

<… Sorry.>

Yang waved it off. <It's fine. Dad keeps telling me that short version every once in a while, ever since I said I wanted to try out dating.> In Nivian, “Don't rush into a relationship, young lady! You might just find yourself being part of a big, messed-up Life Goal!”

The two of them laughed, but not for very long.

<I miss dad...> Ruby muttered. <I mean, can I miss him, since I was just a baby when we got separated?>

<'Course you can!> Yang's face softened. <You miss Summer, too, don't you?>

Ruby nodded. <Do you think the Council will ever change their minds about us?>

Yang sighed and rolled over on her back. <Doubt that! Aside from The Shit that went down and who my parents are, all my run-ins with the human branches of law enforcement have pretty much proved their fears of me being a bad influence right—with documentation, testimonials, and holos to back it up, too!>

<What if I tell them I won't try to run away like mom did? I'm fifteen now, they can probably believe that I'll do as I say!>

Yang rolled back on her stomach. <Yeah, sorry, but she pretty much ruined all of that for everyone when she told them the same thing, then did it anyway. Besides, those Soul Eaters still roaming around?>

<We get one like once a season, yeah. We Keepers have killed most of them, or they've just gotten REALLY good at hiding. Whenever they do show up pretty much everything grinds to a halt, though...>

Yang nodded. <Man, isn't this whole thing fucked up? All the Valley's screw-ups were 1,000 years ago, and here we are, the great-times-whatever grandchildren, still paying for it. You shouldn't have to deal with shit that wasn't your fault, it's just not fair!>

<But if we all acted like that, then all of us would probably be dead by now from all the mess-ups that went unfixed, just because it wasn't your fault. Besides, can you imagine what would happen if YOU had to fix all the stuff you've broken?>

Yang winced. <Okay! You've got a point, that's enough poking holes into my rage against the system with your logic.>

<The Wise Ones save The Foolish Ones from their folly, for the Folly of Fools can doom us all,> Ruby hummed, quoting a well-known Fae saying.

<Let's talk about happier things…. Eve of the Ether is coming up! You going to that big party in Candela?>

Ruby shook her head. <Probably not. Between all the seeds, equipment, and groceries we've been buying for Weiss, we're pretty broke! Well, broke-er than usual. And it's not like we can go pull some Urochs from Weiss' old accounts...>

Yang grinned. <Well you might want to change your mind, because me and dad are going there this year!>

Ruby blinked. <Wait, what? Seriously? How?!>

<One of his old students decided to send us a thank you gift! The letter was unsigned, but those round-trip tickets to Candela are oh-so real—business class, too! Plus, I reread dad's copy of his sentence, and it precisely mentions just Fae Territory, and nothing about the human cities nearby.>

<Elder Goodwitch is going to be SO pissed when she finds out about this.>

<I know. But they can't exactly ban us from entering Candela, can they?> Yang said, waggling her eyebrows.

<We are going to get in big much trouble for this. They'll probably cut us off from ever talking through the Honey Dens ever again!>

Yang leaned in. <Will it be worth seeing your big sister in person after all these years?>

Ruby smiled. <Hell yes. Oh: can I bring the others with me?>

Yang frowned. <Are you and Princess Snowflake REALLY not--?> she made a sexy animal noise.

<We're just friends! And I think she might love it, you know, getting to be back in Candela, even if it's in costume and under an assumed identity.>

Yang nodded slowly. <Okay, but on one condition: if it turns out you can only afford just you, then she stays in the Valley, alright?>

<Deal.> Ruby paused. <Hey, do you guys have any idea who could have sent those? I mean, this is Eve of the Ether; even if you guys are flying in from Valentino, the price of admission isn't exactly cheap…>

<Nope! But come on, Rubes, this is Avalon: weirder things have happened! The series of events that led to you being born aren't exactly believable, even with the proof in front of your face...>

Ruby shrugged. <Suppose you're right!>

<You're getting worried over nothing, Rubes; not every good deed comes with an ulterior motive...>


Two weeks earlier, in the real world…

Jacques Schnee sat on the deck of his particular slice of tropical island paradise, sitting stock straight in his chair and fully dressed in a warm-weather three-piece suit, as if he were having a business meeting at sunset than being permanently “on vacation leave.”

His mind drifted back to his last board meeting, in the Schnee Power Company's own corporate headquarters.

“This is the last straw, Schnee!” Kovacs cried. “There is no recovering from this! Forget the media, the history holos will have all of our heads for this!”

“What did you want me to do, negotiate with terrorists?!” Jacques shouted back.

“Yes,” Kovacs replied flatly. “Those 'terrorists' had been sending us all a very clear message: stay out of the Valley.

“But you just couldn't let them go, could you? Never you mind the stories about the Keeper, the failure of those expeditions and all the casual break-ins to your home should have been proof enough that you were facing something far beyond your power!”

“Don't get on your high horse with me!” Jacques yelled as he rocketed up from his seat. “You all authorized the expeditions—I have the holos, the communications, and the signed documents giving me your blessings to journey into the Valley, all three trips!”

“We won't deny that, and we are all prepared to face the consequences of it,” Kovacs said. “But the crux of the matter is that you were the one who could have saved your daughter.”

Jacques gritted his teeth, fire raging in his eyes.

“The lives of all those mercenaries? No one could say they didn't know they were risking death and dismemberment. Collusion with criminal organizations? Nothing we couldn't have covered up, or turned in our favour! But the deaths of even more of your own family...?”

Kovacs sighed and shook her head. “Sekhmet? Sekhmet we recovered from. Who could have expected that killer fungus to have been feeding off the wellspring for all this time? But this, Schnee?

“I'll be damned if anyone thinks you were trying to call a bluff, that you didn't know they would actually do it.”

Jacques glared at her. “May I remind you who is CEO here?!”

“And may I remind YOU who are the Directors that put and keep you in that position?” Kovacs snarled as she stood up from her seat. “Who now have to pay dearly for your mistake?”

The air grew tense as the two stared each other down; some of the weaker-willed directors found it hard to breath, the rest were indifferent, or calmly summoning the security teams and drones in.

“Take a vacation, Jacques,” Kovacs said flatly. “If the Schnee Power Company is going to have any chance of recovering from this irreversible screw-up of yours, it would be best if you made yourself scarce, had someone else at the helm of this sunken ship.

“In fact, there's a jet waiting to take you to your new bungalow in Paradiso—all paid for by us, for we don't want to saddle you with financial concerns in your time of 'grieving...'” she spat as the security teams entered the room.

He glared at Kovacs as they escorted him out of the building, mustering all the fury and malevolence he had within him, but she paid him no mind.

Like he had taught her so many years ago, the only effort you should give to a total, unsalvageable liability was cutting them off, and no more than that.

A drink was laid on the table beside him—a Mai Tai. Jacques looked up and glared at the waitress with long hair the colour of ash, and eyes the colour of a raging fire.

“I didn't order anything,” he said flatly.

“Compliments of my colleagues, no charge,” she replied, smirking.

Jacques narrowed his eyes at her, read her name tag—Cinder Fall—cross-referenced it with his administrator and memory implants. “You're not one of the regular staff. Who are you—a reporter, or an assassin?”

“Neither,” Cinder replied. “We share a common enemy, you and I, Mr. Schnee. I have information and connections you sorely need, you have the resources my people can use to do great things...”

“Ah, so you're terrorists, just like the Keeper and her ilk.”

“We prefer the term 'Rebels,'” Cinder replied flatly.

Jacques rolled his eyes. “Why should I trust you?”

“Because, you've got nothing left to lose, and everything to gain. We both know this 'vacation' is just their way of firing you without the PR stink, and that they're already imagining how they'd look like in that throne of yours, now that the King is in permanent exile.”

She smiled as she leaned on the table beside him. “So, what do you say, Mr. Schnee?”

“I want my Company back, and full knowledge of what you are doing with my assets. Don't think for a second that I won't know if you're trying to keep me in the dark.”

“And we want two seats for a round-trip flight from Valentino to Candela—business class, preferably—plus two tickets for the Eve of the Ether festival.”

“What are you planning?”

The waitress smirked. “Even terrorists have loved ones, Mr. Schnee.”

Jacques hummed. “That they do. You have a deal, Ms. Fall.”

“Shall we drink to it?” Cinder asked, gesturing to the Mai Tai.

“Not until I see it made in a fresh glass right before my eyes by someone I can trust,” Jacques replied.

Cinder chuckled. “This is going to be the start of a very fruitful partnership, Mr. Schnee. You won't regret this.”

“Just show me some results.”

Cinder smiled. “Oh. We will.”

Chapter Text

“Vivian Vixen” had the foresight to hire paranormals as part of her security team—witches, werewolves, vampires, and even the odd zombie thrown into the mix, alongside the mortal street thugs and other criminal types.

Unfortunately for her, they were very good at absorbing blows and taking bullets before they went down for the count, but they weren't very good at dealing it back.

Weiss blew a few more holes into a zombie rushing for her, smashing the butt of her pistol into its head as it tried to lunge at her. The living corpse flailed at her as it staggered back, spitting and flicking bile and blood all over her coat.

“Ugh!” she cried as she kicked it in the chest, sending it down on the floor. She emptied her revolver, and put in six fresh bullets with a speed loader. The zombie got up, just in time for her to snap the cylinder back in place.

“Do you have”--Bang!--“any idea”--Bang!--”how hard it is”--Bang!--”to get putrefied bodily fluids”--Bang!--”out of clothes?!” Bang! Bang!

The zombie finally dropped permanently, leaking from numerous, sizable holes all over its body and head.

“'Always aim for the head,' my undead ass...” Weiss growled as she reloaded, and stepped well around the double dead corpse.

Penny and Blake finished up with their opponents and regrouped with her. The former had clearly taken the worst of it as their meat shield and zombie bait, but she was still smiling, a flicker of happiness in those dull, dead eyes of hers.

They checked the halls for any signs of any more goons still living, or that hadn't taken the opportunity to flee before they gathered before the door a corner office.

“Pink gold door plaque embossed in cursive,” Weiss said as she took position on the side, her gun at the ready. “Why I am not surprised?”

Blake grinned. <Thought you might like it.>

Weiss chuckled. “I do.”

Penny stood in front of the door and reattached her left arm back into its socket. “Ready to breach at your command, mistress!” she chirped.

Weiss nodded. “Try not to kill her, if you can help it, I could use a new pawn. On three: one… two… three!”

Penny ran into the door, the rosewood splintering and breaking apart like it was made of paper.

Fwoosh!

Fire shot out from within, Penny bursting into flames like tinder.

Weiss and Blake screamed her name as she ran back from the blast, stopped, dropped, and rolled as quickly as she could. Weiss tossed her gun to Blake, before she took off her coat and smothered the flames with it.

Weiss pulled it away from her face. “You alright?”

Penny coughed up smoke, her skin and clothes badly burned. “I will definitely need a long session at the mortician's later, but I am otherwise fine! Shall I try again?”

“You just try and pull that shit on me again!” Vivian yelled from inside. “I have TWO tanks of fuel in here, and I'm not afraid to use them!”

Weiss glared at their target, before she turned back to Penny. “No, you're more useful to me than she ever could…” she picked up her singed and smoking coat and put it back on. “Keep yourself together, we'll be right back,” she said as she walked back to the office.

“As you command, mistress,” Penny said as headed back to the elevator on the other end.

Blake spared a look at Weiss as she kept the gun trained at Vivian. “Well? What do we do?” she whispered.

“That tank's only going to cover one entrance: the door,” Weiss said as she took over for her. “We need to find a different way in.”

“No windows,” Blake replied. “Even then, this is one of those crappy Second Millennium jobs with all smooth, featureless sides.”

Weiss sighed. “Whatever happened to the classics…?”

Stop whispering like that! It's creepy!” Vivian screeched. “Just… go away, you fanged freaks!”

Blake and Weiss both narrowed their eyes at her.

“You brought this on yourself, Vivian!” Weiss said. “You want to play the game, you better be prepared to lose!”

“Oh, fuck you two! Like, seriously!”

Blake peered in, noticed something in the corner. She covered her mouth with her hand, and whispered, <AC vent.>

Weiss discretely looked at her, wordlessly told her to go for it. She stepped just out of range of the flamethrower, covering Kitty's view of the hall outside as Blake headed back and broke into one of the other offices.

Fwoosh!

Vivian blasted another jet of flame, kept it going as she talked. “Don't come any closer! You don't think I won't kill you?! Because I will!”

Weiss sighed. “Just keep on talking and wasting fuel, Vivian! I'm sure things will work out VERY well for you when you run out of words and have to change the tank!”

Vivian cursed and shut it off. “What do you want? Is it money?”

Weiss laughed, a real, genuine laugh that had her aim shaking for a moment. She calmed down and said, “No.”

“Come on! Everyone's got a price, right? We can work something out!”

“We could have, but that was before you torched my personal assistant over there. As you definitely have been skimping on maintenance for your living impaired employees, you don't know just how much it costs to keep her functional and presentable.”

“She's just a zombie!” Vivian cried. “Gawd, it's like you can't just go into any old morgue and buy a new one!”

“That assumes that Penny is replaceable,” Weiss replied coolly. Her eyes darted to a pair of yellow feline eyes, visible between the slats of an air vent. “And I'm afraid you just can't make another her—just like this opportunity.”

Vivian glared at her, about to shoot off another reply, before she stopped. “Wait, what?”

Blake burst out of the vent, back in her panther form. Vivian instinctively turned her head to the noise, didn't realize that Weiss had rushed in until it was too late.

Fwoosh!

Weiss dove to the side, ignoring the smell of flamethrower fuel and burnt leather alongside the stains already on her coat. Blake pounced on Vivian and knocked her down to the floor, Weiss ran to the side of the desk and shut the flames off.

Vivian looked up at Blake's snarling face in fear, before she turned to Weiss and tried to muster up a dirty look.

To none of Weiss' surprise, she couldn't.

“Blake, off, please,” Weiss said as she pulled out her gun and aimed it at Vivian. “I'd prefer not to have to think of might be lurking in that carpet...”

Blake did, and transformed back into her humanoid form.

“Oh, but pointing a gun at someone while they do it is totally fine?” Vivian said as she pulled herself up by her desk.

“Yes, because now I won't have to crane my neck so much,” Weiss said as she perched herself on the side. “Sit down, Vivian.”

Vivian reluctantly did. “What do you want?” she muttered.

What you yourself do: power, influence, connections—the ones I can't buy with money. But unlike you, I'm not quite as willing to prostitute myself for it.”

Excuse me? I am an escort!”

W eiss rolled her eyes. “I don't have time for this…” her face and tone softened. “Look, Vivian, we're both after the same thing, aren't we? I can offer you everything Marjoram could—the money, the prestige, the invites to all the most luxurious parties with a brand new dress just for the occasion , with killer shoes and the jewelry to match—but with much better terms and compensation.

“For starters, there'll be no more of all that 'pro bono' work she's so fond on sending you on.” Weiss smiled. “What do you say?”

In Blake and Weiss' vision, a ghostly die jumped in the air, clattered before them, and landed on “1.”

Vivian spat in Weiss' face. “Fuck you!” she cried as she tried to grab her gun.

She smashed the butt of it into her head, grabbed the side of Vivian's head with her free hand, gripped her tightly so she couldn't turn away . Weiss' ice blue eyes were suddenly tinged with ominous, glowing streaks of red.

Vivian started to realize she had made an even bigger mistake than she already had.

What did you just say to me, peasant…?” Weiss growled.

Vivian started crying. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm--!”

'Sorry' is not going to cut it! Now make yourself useful, before I contemplate turning you into a spare body for my assistant!” Weiss cried, before she let go.

Shaking, blubbering, and with tears and mascara pouring down her eyes, Vivian could only frantically nod her head.

See you at my office at 10 AM tomorrow; before you ask, I have people, too, you know,” Weiss said as she reached into her coat, opened a tightly sealed pocket, and laid a card on Vivian's desk.

Blake disconnected the fuel tanks and hauled them away, but it was more for salvaging the resources than keeping Vivian from activating it again; the way she was curled up in her chair sobbing, they needn't worry about her anymore.

<And everything was going so well up to that point,> Blake said as Penny came up and took the tanks for her.

“Any time where I almost get bitten by slavering, rotting zombies is not what I'd call something that 'goes well,'” Weiss said as she pressed the button for the elevator. “Penny, how much time do we have left?”

“Little less than five minutes, actually,” Penny replied as she stepped in and kicked out a corpse that was stuck between the doors. “All that time you two spent crafting Ms. Vivian's sordid background and the events leading to her earning your ire added up to quite a lot of real time.”

Weiss laughed as she and Blake stepped in. “Wow, time really does fly when you're having fun,” she said.

<I'll say!> Blake said as she pressed the button for ground floor. <No offense, Penny, but this is just so much more better with someone flesh-and-blood.>

“None taken!” Penny chirped. “I am well aware of the limitations of even a highly advanced golem like myself.”

<How'd you get into Midnight Society anyway, Weiss?> Blake asked as the elevator quietly whirred. <It's not like it's been picked up for the reboot holo machine lately.>

“My mom and grandma were both into it,” Weiss replied. “They're MAJOR history buffs, and absolutely love anything that reeks of Old World Culture—it helps if you can play as part of a clan of vampires who speak exclusively in insane, prophetic ramblings that even they can't understand.”

Blake snorted. <They were Pythia?>

Yeeep,” Weiss said. “Grandma was kind enough to keep it exclusively to the Trance and table-top sessions, but my mom just LOVED dropping all sorts of weird hints whenever a surprise was coming up.”

<Like what?>

“'Secrets flee to the sands as the wolves whisper in the moonlight,' or something like that.”

<What does that even mean?> Blake asked as the elevator stopped, and the doors opened into the blank, white lobby of the Dreamscape .

I have no idea, and probably never will; it's one of the last things she ever said to me before she died,” Weiss replied as they stepped out.

<Oh.> Blake's ears pulled down. <I'm sorry. I heard about what happened… it was terrible. No one should have to die like that.>

Weiss frowned. “You lost someone to the Scourge, too?”

<No. It was all we could talk about for months afterward, though.>

Good thing it never spread past Sekhmet.” Weiss said as the elevator disappeared behind them. “I shudder to think what would have happened if it managed to spread all the way to Candela and the Valley.”

<Or even Celestion. My kind would have been fucked.>

Weiss looked at her. “Settlements there not as advanced as the Bastion?”

Blake hesitated for a moment. <The Fae settlements in Celestion aren't a part of the Eldan Council. Haven't been for along time; it's kind of why we live there in the first place.>

Weiss blinked. “I never realized there were separatists in the Fae.”

Blake got a far off, remorseful look in her eyes. <It's generally because the movements burn out in the planning stages, or they end up dying trying to look for someplace new to settle, or they crawl back to the Council and beg for forgiveness.>

“Fae are very closely connected to their environments, and especially the power of the wellsprings they build their settlements over,” Penny explained. “Prolonged separation can lead to severe psychological anxiety, not to mention the withdrawal symptoms from not being within a powerful source of magic and nature...”

Wow. That sounds...”

<Really fucking rough?> Blake suggested.

Fae have a single word for that?”

<We have several, if you want to get specific on how exactly you're being fucked over. Anyway, my being a Celestian is why I was so rough on you in the beginning, you know, when you were...>

“Completely useless?” Weiss smiled. “Let's leave the euphemisms back at Vivian's office, shall we?”

Blake smiled. <Yeah. Completely, utterly useless.> She frowned and looked away. <We Celestian Fae don't have the luxury of all the safety nets like the folks here in the Bastion do; we don't have 'Moss,' for one.>

“Why do they call them 'Moss'?”

<You know how when rocks sit in one place for too long, they gather moss? Like that.>

Weiss chuckled. “Funny, we humans have a proverb that says that moss gathering on a rock is a good thing.”

Blake shook her head. <You humans are crazy.>

“What do you have instead of 'Moss,' though?”

Blake frowned. <'Feeders...'>

Who are called that because…?”

<… It's what happens when we kick them overboard, into the middle of the Endless Sea: they drown, and then the fish eat their corpses.>

Weiss blinked. She blinked again. “I… wow, that… just… wow.”

Blake nodded. <Yeah...>

Weiss paused. “Wait, so if you're from the Celestian Fae , why are you here in the Valley, working for the Council…?”

Blake looked away, her ears pulling back as she stared off into the distance. <It's a long story. Maybe I'll tell you it sometime...>

Before Weiss could get another word in, the Dreamscape began to fade around them, and her consciousness returned to her body.

Chapter Text

For Weiss, the worst thing about Trance Addicts was how they would often be found after they disconnected—by their own choice, by someone or something forcibly severing their connection, or by a “Hard DC,” collapsing from exhaustion, malnutrition, or even death.

Gaunt faces, hollow eyes, deep bags in under their eyes from having stayed conscious for hours if not days at a time—the worst of them boasted weeks, with the dubious realm record being little less than a month. Bodies stiff, aching, and oftentimes filthy and abused in some way, largely because of the sorry state of the “Trance Dens” that the poor, the desperate, and the criminal liked to frequent for the strict limits on trancing in homeless shelters, or to escape the watchful eyes of their guardians, supervisors, and landlords. Oftentimes only able to get back up on their feet or even just move with outside assistance, unable to speak for dehydration, weak from starvation, minds wondering what hellish reality they had suddenly entered.

And instead of cutting down the hours of their trancing sessions, they just found new, admittedly clever but still disgusting and disturbing ways to avoid or delay the pitfalls, arrangements to “tag-trance” with fellow addicts, and illegal dens boasting of how many amenities they had for “trancing till you drop.”

It made Weiss tremendously sad that long after Candela had put a stop to the Resource Wars of 200 years ago, Trance Addiction numbers had only gone up—though instead of people in every city state trying to escape the chaos and the despair going on all over the realm, it was people who couldn't afford to immigrate to Candela, or who had watched their lives fall out from underneath them when the “Shining Beacon of Hope” utterly vaporized centuries-old business empires, academic institutions, and social organizations.

Thankfully, the Fae had much more self-restraint and stricter regulations, and Weiss found herself back in the real world laying comfortably on her back, being gently helped up by a uniformed attendant, with another waiting with water and snacks.

<Well, that was fun!> Blake said as they got up and began to leave. <Anyone want to go eat something we don't have to kill ourselves, for once?>

“Blake is--” Penny started.

“Wait,” Weiss said. She paused for a moment. “Blake is… asking us something about food?”

Penny smiled. “That's correct. To be specific, she's asking if we'd like to go eat out at restaurant, or one of the many food stalls.”

Weiss nodded and turned to Blake. With great difficulty, she said something she intended to be, <Yes, I'd love to.>

The attendants' professional demeanor broke for a moment.

Ruby snorted. “Oh my gosh, Weiss...”

Blake snickered. “Wrong werd, not close 'nough.”

Weiss turned to Penny. “What'd I say?”

“Well, you used the Fae word for expressing affection towards other sentient beings and not objects, so what you said can be easily mistaken as a popular euphemism of an intimate nature.”

Weiss blinked. “What exactly does it mean...?”

Blake snapped her teeth at Weiss, then made a sexy animal noise.

Weiss blushed bright red then buried her face in her hands.

Penny patted her on the shoulder. “Do not worry, Weiss; as your grandfather said, 'Learning is a process of trial and error, but mostly error.'”

He had said it an interview asking him about his numerous misadventures in experimental water purification, and the almost always awful aftermaths thereof.

“Let's just get some lunch already!” Weiss said as she got up off her pillow and made her way out, hiding her face from sight.

Blake smiled and went on after her.

“Me and Penny will catch up to you guys at the station!” Ruby called out. “I just need to ask her about some complicated math stuff!”

“We'll wait!” Weiss yelled back, still blushing.


Weiss and Blake passed the time at at the Tube station by practicing the latter's Nivian, putting common phrases and sayings into a translator.

Weiss was impressed by how a simple word like “Friend” had several different alternatives in Actaeon; it could be just a friend; an extremely close companion whom you consider no different to a blood-sibling; or someone you have less than friendly feelings for, but consider a friend nonetheless. The characters they used were similar except for distinct features that could easily tell them apart from each other when written, and the pronunciations varied in interesting, almost musical ways.

Met with much less enthusiasm was the discovery after they reversed the process, and started translating Nivian metaphors and phrases into Actaeon.

“It's puns!” Weiss cried. “It's all puns!”

“FUCK! It iz!” Blake cried, equally distressed.

They tried several more phrases, words, and even song lyrics, but almost every machine translation ended up coming out as a pun, a metaphor, an allusion, or some other form of cheesy wordplay.

Weiss and Blake looked at each other, before they closed the program in disgust.

“Yang makes so much sense now...” Weiss mumbled.

“Yeah...” Blake said. “Nevurr re'lizet!”

“Can I see one of your books? The black market translations.” Weiss asked.

Blake pulled up one them. Weiss flipped around until she found a disclaimer, in Nivian and Actaeon:

“For purposes of style, clarity, and coherence, the editors and translators have changed, modified, or outright replaced many Nivian passages. The following is NOT a loyal, word-for-word translation of the original text, and thus should not be used as an educational material for any sort of serious study.”

Blake sighed. “No wonder so s'pensive...”

“How so?”

Blake showed her the store page on her comm-crystal.

Weiss balked. “This is robbery!”

“S'worse fur--” Blake discretely made a sexy animal noise.

Weiss gestured for her to show her. Blake looked side-to-side, and sure that no one would notice, opened up a separate page.

Weiss' jaw dropped. She looked at Blake, wordlessly asking her HOW they could charge so much compared to the already costly books.

Blake blushed and hung her head. “Kno' will buy it an'way...”

Weiss was starting to understand why most of the reading she'd been lent in jail were mass-produced, cheap novellas, and stories lifted from pulp publications.

“Hey Blake, hey Weiss!” Ruby said as she walked up to them, Penny in tow.

The two of them smiled and greeted her back; they both frowned as they noticed something off.

“Something happen, Ruby?” Weiss asked; Blake looked at her, wordlessly asking the same question.

Ruby smiled. “Oh, nothing! So, any place you guys want to eat at? My treat!” she said, before giving a shorter version of it in Actaeon.

Blake looked at her in worry. <You sure about this, Ruby? I can help pay.>

Ruby waved her off. <It's fine!> Her voice broke slightly. <I won't be buying any thing else any time soon...>

Weiss and Blake discretely looked at each other, before they decided to drop it.

They headed off to the Trader's Guild for lunch. The mood quickly improved after they ate, and Weiss insisted they head to the “Fae-orina's” and get triple chocolate cake shakes for dessert.

“Oh, Eluna...” Ruby muttered as she laid her head on their table, her glass empty and licked clean. “How have I never had any of these before…?”

“Like humans, Fae very easy to fall into familiar patterns and previous choices, than expend the effort to look for alternatives, even if they could be objectively better,” Penny explained.

“We definitely need to go on a food safari one of these days then!” Ruby said.

From beside her, Blake made an affirmative noise as she enjoyed her shake. She took slow, deliberate sips, her ears and face perking up in delight as soon as it came up to her mouth. The shake flowed back down while she was enjoying herself, and the process started all over again.

Weiss smiled as she savoured her glass. “Just have Penny point me to all the restaurants here that make copies of what they offer in Candela, I'll tell you which ones are worth getting.”

She stopped as she noticed the brief flash of sadness in Ruby's expression.

Weiss frowned. “Okay, something is definitely up—Ruby, come on, tell us.”

“Eh, it's personal stuff, I don't want to bother you guys with it...” Ruby said as she picked her head up from the table.

After Penny translated, Blake put her straw out of her mouth and put a hand on Ruby's shoulder. <That never stopped you from helping us with our problems, though.>

<I can put in a request for chronicle footage of all the instances that you persistently offered assistance to others, if you would like!> Penny added.

Ruby looked at them both uneasily.

Weiss reached across the table and put her hand on hers. “You've helped me out plenty, let me return the favour for once.”

Ruby sighed, then smiled. “Alright…” she looked around warily at all the people in the busy restaurant. “… But I'll tell you guys about it later, when we're back at Keeper's Hollow.”

“Fine,” Weiss said as took her hand back, “but you better not try to weasel your way out if it then!

A weasel Fae from a nearby table over shot Weiss a dirty look, she apologized.

Ruby and the others giggled, before she said, “I won't, I promise.”


Ruby told them of Yang's plan and the mystery tickets later at dinner, when they were all gathered outside and having a barbeque of Weiss' vegetables and prime boar cuts, before it was “back to heated up stews of all the crappy parts.”

“… And they just happened to receive both free tickets and air-fare, just like that?” Weiss asked as she basted the meat and vegetables on the spits. “I'm sorry, Ruby, but something about this is really suspicious.”

“Well duh, but it's still my only chance to ever see Yang again!” Ruby replied. “Probably both in-person and over the Honey Den...”

“Sorry to say, Rubes, but the timing couldn't have been any worse,” Qrow said as he turned the spit. “The Eve's just a week away, and the price for a ticket is only going to get even more jacked the closer it gets.”

“How much is one going for right now?” Weiss asked.

“57,750 Shinies, and rising,” Penny said. “And that's not including an allowance for spending Urochs inside Candela.”

Weiss balked. “Why so much?”

“Fake ID's and made-up Info-Grid histories for background checks aren't cheap, and neither is maintaining our back-doors into Candela,” Qrow explained. “The less time you give our folks on the inside, the more they're going to want because of how much farther they're putting their asses over the fire.”

“Ah… right...” Weiss said.

“And speaking of which...” Qrow took sip from his flask of “jungle juice,” before holding it over the meat.

Weiss stepped well back.

Qrow poured.

Fwoosh!

The barbecue pit's flames exploded with renewed vigour. They let it burn uninhibited for a while before Zwei gently blew on it, and lowered it to a safer temperature.

“Pitch 'n fur fund...?” Blake asked. “Wan' t' help.”

“I'm afraid we can't do that,” Penny said. “With this household's general lack of savings, our recurring expenses, and the time-frame of the return of investment for Weiss' garden and skill training, the Eve of the Ether will be long over before we can safely splurge on such a large expense.”

Ruby sighed, her ears drooping. “I guess I'll just have to spring for a phone call or a message, tell her why I can't go...”

Weiss dunked her basting brush back into the bowl, splattering marinade on her apron. “No. We'll find a way. Can't we take out a personal loan?”

“Nope!” Qrow said. “Ruby's too young; you, Penny, and Blake are all disqualified for different reasons; and my credit score is so shitty they'd just laugh at us, before getting security to chase us out.”

Weiss thought while she took the vegetables off the fire. “What if we put up something very valuable as collateral…?” she said as she laid it on a banana leaf laid in front of the others.

“Like what?” Qrow asked. “If you haven't noticed, princess, none of us can pawn off any of our stuff. Even then, they're not worth much.”

“And my sister's Eluna plushie...?”

Ruby's eyes widened.

Qrow thought as he turned the spit. “… Yeah, that could definitely work! Even if it does smell like tears, snot, and despair, Ellies are so rare folks would kill to have one in general, so long as she's not as beat-up as the one we have at the Roost.”

“The last recorded private sales in both the Codex and Info-Grid are well in excess of the price of a ticket to Eve of the Ether, yes,” Penny added.

Weiss!” Ruby cried. “You can't just give away her away like that!”

Weiss sighed as she returned to opposite end of the spit. “Well, we don't really have much of a choice, do we?” she smiled ruefully. “Besides, I don't think Winter will mind, and I literally owe you my life, don't I?”

Ruby sighed. “This still sucks...”

Blake nudged Penny and told her something. “Blake is asking if we can't all pitch in to repay the loan, so we may eventually get the plushie back.”

“We could, but where are we going to get the money?” Qrow asked. “We're paycheck-to-paycheck here,” he said as he tested the meat.

“From me,” Weiss replied. “Is there anything I can do to help us earn or save money?”

“You can attempt to distill your own alcohol for Qrow's consumption, as that particular expense consumes a large chunk of his wages,” Penny replied. “It's not illegal to produce it for personal use, and there is no need for licensing nor fees so long as you can prove you can make it safely, and in small enough amounts.”

“Don't worry about the taste,” Qrow said as he and Weiss prepared to take the now-cooked boar off the spit. “All I really need is for it to get me good and fucked up.”

“Then it's settled then!” Weiss said as she and Qrow hauled it to the banana leaf. “Tomorrow, we're pawning my Eluna plushie, and getting Ruby a ticket to Candela!”

“And after that, we all help her get it back!” Ruby added.

“An' fur now, we eat!” Blake finished.

They all dug into the food, eating, drinking, and having fun, for it was going to be a long, long week for all of them...

Chapter Text

In the beginning, Weiss' parents had thought that Nick and Freya were just completely enamored with their newest grandchild as they had been with Winter, cooing over Weiss, begging to let her be put in their arms and care as much as possible, and taking her out to Candela or jetting off to the other parts of Avalon.

Both even went so far as to take year-long sabbatical from her research laboratories and leave from his seats at company boards, the careers the two never truly quit even though they were officially considered retired.

Weiss had fond memories of that time, if blurry, and frequently pieced together from holos and second-hand accounts.

Her grandfather's strong, calloused hands holding her, carrying her, and raising her up in the air, making her feel like she was Queen of the Realm. Her grandmother's voice explaining scientific concepts and events in history that flew right over her head, but soothed and entranced her nonetheless. The two of them looking at her with such love and affection they oftentimes ended up crying from joy.

And of course, there was the constant, bizarre but amusing mix of flirting, affection, and verbal abuse that characterized their relationship.

Jacques had complained, largely because Tov's predecessors only ever discovered the spontaneous grandparent-granddaughter trips AFTER they had stolen away in a rover or jetted off in the night, but Snowie placated him.

“Just you wait,” she said, “they're going to get sick of her and start begging for us to take her back, just like they did with Winter.”

They didn't.

If anything, as Weiss' first birthday got closer and closer, they started to get more demanding; ignoring the letters from their colleagues and constituents reminding them that their vacations were fast ending; sometimes even outright kidnapping her for spontaneous trips, with the most memorable incident being Frosty snatching her granddaughter right from her father's arms during a public photo-shoot, Tony flying overhead, and Nick holding her by her legs as she hung out from an open door.

Weiss remembered the holo clear as day: Nick effortlessly hoisting his wife and second granddaughter back up into the cab, Freya nestling her in her arm and putting a bottle into her mouth with her free hand, Tony extending his hologram out the driver-side window, casually saluting the crowds, an amused Snowie, and a scowling Jacques before he closed the doors.

Jacques had threatened to put in a restraining order after that—emphasis on “threatened,” as Nicholas and Freya were two of the most important, iconic, and beloved founders of Candela, and were all but untouchable.

He needn't have worried, for just a week after that, the allegedly invincible Nick collapsed in the middle of a busy street, all 6'7 feet and 317 pounds of him laying face down on the floor, struggling to breath as his wife frantically called for help as their granddaughter cried in distress.

In hindsight, the reason for their obsession with spending every single one of their waking hours with Weiss was obvious:

They knew their time was running out.

Nicholas spent the last of his days in a hospice, his wife all but living with him on-site, and his daughter and grandchildren dropping by as often as they could. Jacques made a big show of spending every single Uroch the company could spare in trying to extend his life, but if he wouldn't sign the consent forms (and pass every test that asked if he was still of sound mind), then the treatments would mysteriously flounder, be they gene therapy, cybernetics, or even the nigh miraculous “Life Serum” pharmaceuticals developed shortly after Candela's completion.

“It's like his body is just… refusing to live any longer!” was how one of the many baffled doctors had explained it.

Weiss had less fond memories of those times.

Seeing her titanic grandfather bedridden, unable to stand up or carry her in his arms like he used to, his famously strong grip getting weaker and weaker as time passed. The lawyers that frequently dropped by, going over his estate with him, plans for his successors in the organizations he sat in, rooting out and calling out Jacques' sneaky attempts at getting him to sign off more and more of the company to him before he officially kicked the bucket. Falling asleep in her grandfather's or grandmother's arms, then waking up back in her crib, or in her mother or sister's lap as they road back to Manor Schnee.

It was a slow, ugly death that dragged on for months, an extremely ironic closing chapter for the “Man Who Couldn't Stop Moving.”

He kept on living, however, “sheer force of will” being the only reasonable explanation anyone could offer. Weiss' first birthday neared, and at her, Freya's, and Nick's insistence, he was airlifted from his hospice, and personally delivered to Manor Schnee by VTOL, with Tony as the pilot AI.

(Because of Tony's already extensive record of independent behaviour, decision-making, and blatant breaking of and circumventing the rules—acts that should have been far beyond the capabilities of any transport AI—the CTC had been EXTREMELY reluctant to let Nick access his creation's source code again, let alone modify him to be able to fly aircraft outside of the city proper.)

She remembered sitting in his lap as Freya personally pushed him around in his wheelchair, Nick dressed in one of his favourite, battered suits—the one that had seen more than its fair share of accidents, transit mishaps, and the odd foiled assassination—smiling, proud, and happy as could be to have made it to see his granddaughter blow out the one tiny candle on her titanic birthday cake.

Then, three days later, at 2:37 AM, Nicholas Schnee breathed his last, and the next day, 10:54 PM, Freya “Frosty” Schnee followed him into the Aether.

Both causes of death were “Heart Failure.”

It was Weiss' first experience with loss—true, permanent loss, when grandpa and grandma weren't coming back, when there was no way life would ever be like before, when mom and her older sister became that much more protective of her, when her father began to be around less and less as he completely took over the Schnee Power Company.

Their last words to her were delivered by holo, made after they had returned from Weiss' birthday party.

“Stay curious,” Freya said. “Never stop asking 'Why?' Whenever there's a mystery, you don't stop until you find the answer.”

“Be good, Weiss,” Nick said. “Just be good.”

And now here she was with all her family dead or effectively gone from her life, giving away the last memento she had of them.

Weiss laid on her side, staring at Winter's Eluna plushie in the corner, floating in the center of a protective bubble generated by a carved stone underneath it. She had been the one to pass on one last night with the plushie, had been the one to insist that all of them lock it with their DNA or magical signature, so Weiss couldn't change her mind and risk damaging it in any way and drive the value down.

She hadn't realized that it meant she wouldn't be sleeping that night, too used to snuggling up to it before bed, her first night in the Valley and the sore-stiff incident aside.

Ruby carefully opened the door without knocking; she and the others had just finished their after-dinner meeting, going over their finances, scheduling their shifts so they could continue to help Weiss with her endeavours and training, and most importantly, making a budget for luxury spending so they wouldn't all go insane from boredom, or permanently giving up their creature comforts.

(Apparently, Penny had a paid membership to a “Mechanical Hearts” online community. What that entailed, no one asked, nor wanted to know.)

Ruby was careful to move around with the least noise possible, acting like she would on a hunt, or when she had infiltrated Manor Schnee.

“I'm still awake, Ruby,” Weiss said as she turned over on her other side.

Ruby flinched, looking appropriately enough like a deer in the headlights, before she relaxed. “Can't sleep?” she asked.

Weiss sighed, casting a look at the Eluna plushie. “Yes...” she muttered.

“I've got just the thing!” Ruby said. She scurried off to her many piles of belongings, digging through them until she pulled out a familiar looking plush toy with a scythe prop.

Weiss tensed up for a moment, until Ruby came walking over with her Keeper of the Grove plushie—very different from the ones from the Plushie Palace. This one was wearing a snow white coat, and the infamous mask was off, revealing a friendly face with pale silver buttons for eyes.

“It's of my mom,” Ruby explained. “Uncle Qrow said she and her won a plushie of herself this one time they snuck into Candela on the Eve of the Ether; it used to look just like the ones they usually sell, until he hired a maker to make it look more like her.”

“And you're just going to give it to me…?” Weiss asked.

“Well, yeah!” Ruby said. “But can I borrow her when I'm sad?”

Weiss smiled as she gently took the Keeper Summer plushie from her. “Well, duh? I thought that was pretty obvious.”

The two of them looked at each other, before they burst into giggles.

“Good night, Weiss,” Ruby said as she headed back to her nest.

“Good night, Ruby,” Weiss whispered back as she snuggled up to her new plush toy.

She wasn't as objectively fluffy, soft, and cuddly as Eluna was, but she made her feel safe and comfortable all the same.


Weiss was in her dreamworld once more, this time in her and Ruby's bedroom. The plushie was gone from her arms, the real Summer perched in the corner and watching over her with the Keeper's scythe resting on her shoulder.

She smiled and waved.

Weiss got up and waved back.

There was a knock on her door, before it opened. A familiar face stepped in, wrinklier than ever.

“Excuse me, but I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” said a heavily accented voice.

Weiss jumped off her hammock. “Grandma Frosty!” she cried as she run over.

“Weiss!” Freya cried as she waited for her with open arms. “Oh, look at how much you’ve grown!” she cooed as she hugged her.

“Sorry to say, you’re not going to get much bigger than that,” Nick said as he stepped in, ducking his head out of habit.

“Oh, hush!” Freya said, glaring at her husband as she let go of Weiss. “We both know physical size doesn’t matter, it’s what you can do with it—you of all people should know that!”

Weiss groaned. “Grandma!”

What?” Freya asked, confused. “I was referring to all the blunders guts-over-brains here has done.”

“Like you haven’t made any screw-ups yourself...” Nick growled as he stood over her.

Freya was unfazed, craning her neck well up to glare at him. “Those were failures of which I was well aware of the potential consequences, unlike when you gave that Jackass your blessing to marry our daughter! I always knew there was something off about him, Nicholas, but no: when push came to shove, you just couldn’t say no to Snowie!”

“Oh, and it’s suddenly all my fault? You’re her mother, shouldn’t you have had the advantage in romantic advice?”

“YOU KNOW DAMN WELL YOU WERE THE ONLY ONE SHE’LL ACTUALLY LISTEN TO!”

“WITH ADVICE YOU GAVE ME TO PASS ALONG TO HER SINCE YOU CAN’T GIVE IT WITHOUT SOUNDING LIKE A CONDESCENDING BITCH!”

Summer stepped up to Weiss as the two began to bicker, a 6’7 battle-scared titan built like a brick-house, VS a tiny 5’1 ball of Hate, little less than 100 pounds soaking wet.

“Does this happen a lot?” Summer asked.

All the time,” Weiss replied.

Summer smiled. “Heh. It’s pretty funny!”

Weiss nodded. “Yes.” She smiled. “Yes it is.”

Nick and Freya bickered, their voices unintelligible for the sound and the fury, both gesticulating wildly with their hands, before finally, they stopped and turned away from each other.

Bitch...” Nick muttered.

Asshole...” Freya spat back.

Nick sighed, and turned back to Freya. “You’re right, though, I was an even bigger dumbass than usual with Jackass.”

Freya turned back to him. “Yes, yes you were! But on the bright side, he did make her happy for a time, and gave us two beautiful grandchildren.”

“That he did, which is about the only good thing I can say about him.”

Freya's face softened. “I love you, Nick.”

Nick's did too. “Love you too, Frosty.”

He picked her up off the floor so they could kiss.

“And speaking of beautiful grandchildren...” Freya said as she was set down. “How are you feeling, Weiss?”

Weiss frowned and shrugged. “Conflicted, honestly. Also, I’m starting to realize you guys only ever appear in my dreams whenever I’m having trouble with something.”

“That we do!” Freya said. “It’s quite an interesting psychological phenomenon, that in times of emotional or physical distress your subconscious decides to split into separate personalities of sorts with us as the faces of them.” She sighed. “How I wish I were still alive to study it, and more importantly, offer you an unbiased second opinion, if you could even call this a second opinion at all!”

“Don’t we all, Frosty?” Nick said. “Anyway, what’s eating at you this time, kid?”

Weiss turned to the Eluna plushie, thankfully still just a toy in its protective bubble than the Fae Eluna trapped in a magical prison. “Should I really pawn her off?” she asked as she turned back to her grandparents. “It’s the last thing I have of Winter—of any of you. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do...”

“Well, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in general is extremely difficult if not impossible to accurately, objectively claim given the incredibly relativistic nature of morality and--” Freya started.

Nick put a hand on her head. “What Frosty here means to say is: we can’t decide that for you, kid.”

Freya glared at him, before turning back to Weiss. “Yes, grossly oversimplified, only you can decide whether this is the right course of action.”

“Any way I can try and tell?”

“There’s numerous Old World and Avalonian philosophers who have attempted to answer that, but I like to subscribe to Utilitarianism: whatever benefits the most people is the ‘right’ decision.”

“Just be careful not to become like your father, becoming a monster all in the name of ‘Progress.’”

“The road to Hell is indeed paved with good intentions,” Freya hummed.

“Completely, super-duper biased over here, but I think you should pawn it and get Ruby a ticket to Candela,” Summer said. “It’s not like you aren’t all planning on getting it back eventually, right?”

Weiss nodded. “Right.”

Nick walked over and put his hand on her shoulder. “Look, Weiss, life is full of confusing and complicated situations where it’s hard to find out what the right thing to do is, if it’s not just ‘Bad’ and ‘Worse’ like they say in the Queensguard.

“Don’t stress too much about everything, and just try to figure out how to make today a little less crappy than yesterday—it’s how we all survived and kept ourselves sane out there, when we still hadn’t hit the jackpot with Candela.”

“And be wary of bizarre, unexpected results and developments you couldn’t have hypothesized nor theorized about, such as falling in love with an overconfident troglodyte like this asshole over here,” Freya said, affectionately wrapping herself around Nick’s side.

Yep!” Nick said. “Always knew one of these days me and your grandma over here would end up at each others’ throats, though it wasn’t exactly in the way either of us thought...”

Weiss cringed. “Aw, gross!”

Freya smirked. “You put the two us together, you better be ready for the chemistry.”

Weiss groaned. “Just get out of here already!”

“Alright! We’re going, we’re going!” Nick said, he and Freya smiling as they headed out the door.

Weiss sighed as they closed it after them.

“Aww, I wanted to see more of them being all sweet and salty,” Summer said.

“Easy for you to say when you don’t have grandpa’s very detailed journals burned in your head...” Weiss muttered.

Chapter Text

They all went to the Trader's Guild first thing in the morning, taking jerky, cookies, and several pounds worth of stewed meat to go. Because of a penalty for “misuse, misinformation, and misconduct” from when Qrow had delivered Weiss' message to Winter, he and her waited in the lobby with the Eluna plushie, while the others—including Zwei—went off to go renegotiate their salaries, be they in Shinies, or in ingredients for baking cookies.

Though not nearly as busy as when Weiss had last been there for the Job Gauntlet, she could still hear that same musical clinking of Shinies being shaken by the counting machines ringing in the air.

“Does this place ever close up shop?” Weiss asked as they sat on a bench. “Even just for a few hours or on holidays?”

“Nope,” Qrow replied, “Guild pretty much handles all financial matters in the Valley bigger than buying booze in bulk off your local grocer, or writing a check to your cousin to pull them through for the next month, after they spent all their Shinies on buying booze in bulk off their local grocer.

“Just think of having all of your human banks, corporations, and insurance companies under one government-run location, and have a few satellite branches for convenience here and there.”

“And how do you protect against corruption? All this money and valuables under one roof is a gigantic temptation for embezzlers.”

“Very, very, very strict regulations, security, and supervision, and much more serious punishments than getting roasted over the Info-Grid, before getting away with it anyway when the red tape and the corruption doesn't let anyone actually do anything,” Qrow replied. “Authoritarianism has its perks.

“Well, that, and the shiftier clerks tend to have governors installed.”

“Governors?”

Qrow pulled up a patch of feathers that covered the back of his neck. He showed off what looked like a tiny stump growing on his skin, where his spine would be. “Guarantee for good behaviour,” he said as he hid it once more. “Mine's a deluxe that also doubles as my chronicle.”

Weiss looked at him in a mix of curiosity and horror.

“We've got ethics here in Fae society, don't worry,” Qrow said. “It's just that they can get VERY flexible when someone like me fucks up, big time.

“What happened?”

Qrow closed his eyes, trembling as flashes of memories ran through his mind:

A cottage in an isolated island village, one of those “back-to-nature” farming communities that were escaping the city states' governments.

His sister Raven, murder and madness in her eyes, fresh blood dripping from her sword.

Summer, calmly handing him a crying bundle of blankets with two tiny nubs sticking out from it.

Take care of Ruby for me.”

He looked away, discretely wiped the tears welling in his eyes. “It's… it's a long story, and one that I'm not allowed to tell you anyway, princess...” he muttered as he turned back.

Weiss frowned. “I… I see. Sorry for bringing it up.”

Qrow shrugged. “You didn't know, Weiss.” He stared off into the distance. “None of us did.”

“… I'm going to go review some homework Penny gave me now, if you don't mind,” Weiss muttered as she pulled out her comm-crystal.

“Knock yourself out,” Qrow said, leaning back in his seat.

The others came back while Weiss was in the middle of the beginnings of the Eldan Council, formed from the larger of the independent tribes of Fae that roamed Avalon several millenia ago. Penny and Blake got raises from their original salaries because of their training and education of Weiss in addition to being her parole watchers, Zwei managed to get a sizable advance on his from being “very persuasive,” and for the first time in a thousand years, Ruby changed the Keeper's salary from ingredients for baking chocolate chip cookies.

“Now I'm getting paid in that, and seeds and supplies for the farm so you can eventually grow them yourself!” Ruby announced happily.

Weiss shot out of her seat. “SERIOUSLY?! Ruby, Penny, we are marching back in that office and getting you a better deal!” she said, taking Ruby's hand and dragging her off with her.

“But it is better!” Ruby said as she came with. “Penny said so.”

Weiss stopped, and turned around to Penny.

“I made the calculations: with the sheer amount of calories Ruby needs to consume thanks to all her activity, eventually taking over production of some if not all of the ingredients will have us ending up with far more Shinies than if we took her payment in cash, and bought food with the equivalent amount of caloric content.”

“It's why Keepers have been paid in cookies for all this time, and the amounts were only ever adjusted for inflation,” Qrow added. “Turns out, Gabija and her beau figured out the cheapest, most efficient, and completely complaint-free way to feed these gals without bankrupting themselves, or forcing the Council to spend WAY more than they really need to.”

Weiss stared. “… Are you shitting me right now?!”

Qrow shrugged. “Hey, most of those Keepers went on to live long, happy lives, and have perfectly healthy kids on almost-exclusively cookie-based diets, right?”

“It's supported by their vitae vine data,” Penny said. “Among the many unique physiological quirks of Keepers are their ability to thrive on a diet composed almost entirely of milk, sugar, and chocolate. They're quite the treasure trove of bizarre, baffling phenomena that stump makers to this day.”

Weiss slowly turned to Blake.

She shrugged. <Valley. Don't think too hard: head-hurt.>

Weiss squeezed her eyes shut, and nodded slowly. “Let's go pawn my sister's Eluna plushie...” she muttered.


They had to wait a while at the Loans and Securities section for Nivian-speaking clerks to assist them, as Weiss was considered the borrower and the others were co-signers. Eventually, their number was called, and all of them walked up to the counter.

“Oh hey!” Nora said as she and Ren sat behind the security glass. “What a coincidence! I was wondering what kind of borrower would need someone who knew how to speak Nivian, and then I thought, 'Huh, what if it's Weiss?' and it turns out I was right!

“Isn't that neat?”

Weiss nodded slowly. “Uh… I suppose? Was the Guild short on employees today?”

Ren shook his head. “We're part-time workers here and in lots of other places,” he explained. “Me and Nora used to work all sorts of odd jobs back then, and we never truly lost the habit. So, how may we help you?”

Weiss put the Eluna on the counter. “I'd like to pawn my sister's Eluna plushie.”

Ren's eyes widened, Nora whistled. “Oh, Eluna...” she whispered, “is that an actual, limited edition Eluna plushie? I thought you could only see ones this nice in museums and collections that have their own security staff and fancy systems just for them!”

“No offense, but we'll have to verify that it's authentic first; we're still getting counterfeit Elunas every once in a while...” Ren said as he strapped on some gloves, and pulled out one of the Guild's own magical containers. “Unlock it, please?”

One by one, they pressed their hands, talon, or paw on the bubble, until it disappeared in a flash of magic.

Ren swiftly, carefully grabbed it out of the air and placed it in the Guild's container, a new bubble surrounding it. “Thank you, we'll be right back,” he said as he took it deeper inside.

Nora grabbed her hammer from under the counter and followed him.

Some time later, they returned with an entire cadre of watchers, complete with a guard wolf.

Ren set the Eluna back on the counter. “Good news: it's definitely real, and can be used as collateral for a loan.”

Weiss nodded. “How much is it worth?”

“741,000,000 Shinies,” Ren replied calmly.

Both of Zwei's jaws dropped.

Holy fucking shit...” Ruby muttered.

Penny blinked. “I am sorry, I had not reserved enough processing power beforehand to comprehend such a large sum.”

<That… that is a LOT of money!> Blake said.

“All this time…” Qrow whispered, “all this time… we were sitting on a fucking Etherite mine…!”

Weiss finally recovered. “Is that in the condition it's in right now?”

“Yes,” Ren replied.

“It's been 12 years since production ended!” Nora added. “That's enough time for all the kids who saw their classmates showing off their Elunas to start earning serious money and want to buy their own, so they can show them up on Storybook and go, 'Look who's got an Ellie NOW, bitch?!'”

“A restoration job and the removal of the tears, snot, and despair smell is nothing compared to what people will pay for an Eluna in good enough condition,” Ren finished.

“How much is that in Urochs…?” Weiss mumbled.

Ren punched in the numbers on his terminal. “49,400,000 Urochs,” he calmly read off the screen.

“And how rich does that make me here in Fae society?” Weiss asked.

“Well,” Nora said, “we could bother you with all sorts of boring statistics about average wages, the cost of living a decent life here, and how much the richest Fae tend to have, or I could just say this:

“Money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, money, motherfucker!”

“Please don't ask for all of that in cash,” Ren said calmly. “The Bastion does not have enough physical Shinies to pay you, and the logistics of producing that many new gems, shipping it from the other Council settlements, and transporting it to Keeper's Hollow will be EXTREMELY difficult, time-consuming, and complicated.”

Weiss held up a finger. “We'll be right back.”

“Huddle up everyone!” Ruby cried. “Emergency meeting!”

They all moved to one area, with Zwei looming over them and protecting them from eavesdroppers.

“Weiss, you're not TOO attached to that plushie, are you?” Qrow asked.

Uncle Qrow!” Ruby snapped.

“He does have a point in that selling the Eluna plushie outright will allow us to live very comfortably,” Penny added. “With proper investment, reasonably responsible spending, and no major disasters of any sort, your descendants for the next 1,000 years will most assuredly be living extremely comfortable lives.”

“See?” Qrow said. “Penny's with me!”

“I'm not, actually,” Penny replied, “I'm merely explaining that from a purely financial standpoint, selling the Eluna plushie outright is the better decision. From a more holistic perspective, the loss of such a valued sentimental item, and the definite emotional and psychological repercussions to Weiss makes it a terrible decision.”

“We're getting that Eluna back, Uncle Qrow,” Ruby growled.

They paused for Penny to summarize and translate it for Blake.

<I agree,> she said, <we're not defaulting on that loan.>

Qrow whined. “We could use the money, can't we?”

“Yes, there is no question about that,” Penny replied, “but taking out just a small portion of the total value will allow us more than enough capital to invest into Weiss, her farm, and general improvements to Keeper's Hollow, and give us time to pay off the loan within two or three years and reclaim the plushie.

“We can even safely squeeze in a sizable amount for luxury spending, such as tickets to Eve of the Ether for four of us!”

“But no kicking back with kickass beer and market-bought meat for the rest of our lives…?” Qrow asked.

Penny shook her head. “No, all my calculations assume we continue to earn our current wages or more, and my projections on the return of investment for Weiss' farming and training, erring on the side of caution.”

<Let's vote!> Ruby said. <Sell Eluna, raise your hand!>

Qrow raised his talon.

<Get Eluna back eventually, raise your hand!>

Everyone else raised their hands or their paws.

Qrow sighed. “Alright… alright… you girls win. But can we buy a still with it first, so Weiss here can start making booze…?”

“Yes, we can, so long as you promise to keep up your end of our payments!” Weiss replied.

“I will, I will...” Qrow replied.


Penny redid their plans, and after signing contracts and earmarking money for improvements and investments for the long-run, they had four tickets to the Eve of the Ether festival in Candela, four new fake IDs in the works, and some extra money for making costumes and converting into Urochs for the night of the event.

<Are you sure you don't want to come with us to Candela, Uncle Qrow?> Ruby asked as Blake and Weiss had their pictures taken.

Qrow sighed and shook his head. <Nah, you just take Penny, and enjoy yourselves; I'm pretty sure if I meet up with you-know-who again, it'll be anything but a heartwarming reunion.>

Ruby frowned. <She stopped hating you a long time ago—what does that say about him?>

<It's not him I'm worried about, Rubes...> Qrow muttered. He smiled. <Besides, I'll probably just end up getting totally wasted with all the 'witches' brews' going around, and ruin things for everybody.>

Ruby didn't smile back.

<Next!> the photographer called out.

<Go on, they're waiting,> Qrow waved her off.

Ruby sighed, and did.

Penny was ecstatic to hear that she was getting the fourth ticket instead, and had one of the biggest, brightest smiles Qrow had ever seen when she had her picture taken. After they got their fake documentation and Info-Grid histories, memorized all the small details and answers that'd throw off suspicious Peacekeepers, they left the Guild, the girls taking about their costume plans, and Weiss advising them on which places to hit up, and in what order to get the most out of their night.

He knew he should have been happy for them, but he just couldn't shake this feeling in his gut that something very bad was going to happen soon—and as his chronicle would attest, it was never wrong...

Chapter Text

Mitzi Kovacs burst out of a VIP taxi, cursing under her breath as she dodged and weaved around the sea of people streaming in and out of Candela International Airport.

She bumped into no shortage of fellow businesspeople, carefully circled her way around families (especially those with small children in tow), and even climbed up then vaulted over a train of cargo lifters hovering across the floor and slowing down the human traffic.

She stuck the dismount—thank you, her Old World inspired school's emphasis on athletic extracurricular activities—before making her way to one of the many terminals.

On the downside, she was late—horrifically, inexcusably late.

On the upside, her sister didn't mind, the saintly, patient soul that she was.

“(Sister!)” Mei-Li cried in Chinese, one of their ancestors' Old World Tongues.

“(Mei-Li!)!” Mitzi cried, rushing over and hugging her.

Mei-Li's wheelchair always made it awkward, but they managed.

Mitzi pulled away, bombarded her younger sister with questions—about how things were back in Solaris, about her trip to Candela, about her health, until Mei-Li held up her hand and stopped her.

“(How about we go home to your apartment first so the nice guards don't have to escort us out?)” she asked.

Mitzi looked around, noticed the glares of the other passengers streaming past them, and the Peacekeepers standing by in the distance; with Eve of the Ether less than a week away and the flow of incoming tourists only getting denser and more chaotic by the day, heartfelt reunions at the terminal weren't exactly encouraged, especially when you took up more space than usual.

Mitzi chuckled sheepishly. “(Right…)” she walked behind Mei-Li and grabbed the handles.

She stopped. She hadn't noticed it earlier for how many years she’d been using that same wheelchair, but now that her fingers wrapped around the well-worn grooves in the rubber, there was no mistaking it.

“(Mei-Li, this isn’t the wheelchair I bought for you,)” Mitzi said.

Mei-Li looked back and smiled at her. “(I know, it’s just that this one is more comfortable.)”

Mitzi scowled as she began to wheel her to the taxi bay. “(Have you been using the new one at all since I gave it to you?)”

“(I have,)” Mei-Li replied.

“(When?)”

“(Whenever we holo-chat.)”

Mitzi sighed. “(Mei-Li, that chair is so much better than this creaky piece of shit.)”

“(Easy for you to say when you’re not the one that has to sit on it all day!)” Mei-Li shot back. “(‘Specially adapted for you’ my ass, I could never get comfortable in that damned thing.)”

“(So you’d rather wait for this thing to finally fall apart for good before you use it?)”

“(No, I’ll have it taken to a foundry to be studied first, have them make the new one exactly like it without most of the problems, then use it.)”

“(That’s going to be stupidly expensive.)”

“(Any more stupidly expensive than all those clothes, shoes, and mods you ‘have’ to buy...?)”

“(That’s different.)”

“(How?)”

“(Because those clothes, shoes, and mods help me get the promotions to pay for that chair.)”

The Kovacs sisters paused their conversation to hail and load Mei-Li into a cab; the drones could help her in easily enough, but Mitzi had to fold and compact her wheelchair herself. Even if it had been over two years since she’d last done it, she could be asleep and still undo the jury-rigged latches, fold the clumsily welded bars, and reinforce the duct tape with the roll it always had stashed somewhere, before stuffing it into the trunk.

Mitzi sighed in a mix of relief and frustration; she instinctively reached up to wipe the sweat off her brow with her sleeve, before she remembered she wasn’t wearing hoodies and sweatshirts anymore, she was wearing a hand-tailored Adel three-piece suit had taken a great deal of favours and connections to acquire.

She pulled out a handkerchief from her pocket, mopped herself up with that, before neatly folding it and putting it back, as the holos in proper etiquette had taught her.

From the inside, Mei-Li watched with a frown on her face.

Mitzi stepped into cab shortly after, then stretched out and relax in a most improper manner, an arm lazily looped around Mei-Li’s shoulders.

They both smiled as they snuggled up to each other.

“(Good evening, Mses. Kovacs!)” the default CTC steward AI said in Chinese. “(Where will I be taking you tonight?)”

Mitzi limply waved her free hand in the air. “(Home, and step on it!)”

“(Right away, Ms. Kovacs!)”

The taxi began to lift up into the air.

Mitzi turned to Mei-Li and smiled. “(So, how’s life, Mei-Mei?)”

“(Same old, same old: still programming AFA-grade combat sims, changing the enemies into Zombie Cyborg New World Nazi Pirates so I can sell them as pre-loaded scenarios to Call to Action junkies, then relishing in the bruised egos of all the noobs who can’t beat it because it’s ‘so imbalanced.’)”

Mitzi chuckled. “(Gamers never change, do they?)”

Mei-Li smirked. “(That was from the soldiers. Queensguard wannabes; always so sure they’re going to get their invite any day now… but enough about me, what about you?)”

Mitzi sighed heavily. “(Oh, you know: trying to raise a sunken ship from the bottom of the Endless Sea, then grabbing the helm before someone else takes it and rams it straight into the Maw.)”

Mei-Li frowned. “(I read the news, sister! I meant what’s going on with your life, not your career.)”

“(My career IS my life!)” Mitzi tilted her head back and stared at the ceiling. “(God of the Old World, Mei-Li, they weren’t exaggerating when they said that Candela never sleeps; there’s always some new crisis, some once-in-a-life-time opportunity, new slots and positions opening up when the ones that used to have them burn-out, leave for rival companies, or screw-up, big time.)”

“(You make it sound like its war.)”

“(Because it IS war, and it’s every fucking one for themselves!)” Mitzi spat. “(Shit, sister, that we’re all working for the SPC is the only thing uniting us; even I can see my own personal assistant wondering what it’d be like to be sitting behind my desk, with her name on the plaque.)”

She beamed. “(But all that’s going to change soon, because now that fuckhead Jacques Schnee finally screwed up so bad there’s no saving his career!)”

(Mitzi! His daughter was just MURDERED!)”

(I KNOW! Don’t you ever think for a moment that I don’t have anything but the sincerest sympathies for that poor girl, and the rest of her family! But the facts are, she’s dead, her father is gone, and the position of CEO of the Schnee Power Company is up for grabs.)” Mitzi smiled bitterly. “(It’s going to be hard and bloody, and I’m going to have to burn a lot of bridges, but it will be mine...)”

She smiled warmly at Mei-Li. “(And then, I’m going to be free to spend all my days however I like with you, sister.)”

Mei-Li frowned.

Mitzi looked worried. “(What’s wrong, Mei-Li?)”

“(You’ve changed, sister...)” she muttered sadly.

“(Well, duh?! I couldn’t exactly stay Mitzi Kovacs, Jade Kingdom 415 working under the Mickey Wus! Especially because those two fucks will actually succeed in killing each other one of these days.)”

“(They already have.)”

(Shit! How they'd die?)”

“(They got into a fist-fight on their 75th birthday party, and ended up force-feeding the other the poisoned birthday cake they personally baked for the other. Before you ask: Mikhail's last words were 'Too much butterscotch...' and Makoto's were 'Not enough chocolate...')”

Mitzi groaned. “(See? This is what I hate about Candela: there's so much shit going on within the city you don't have time to check in on what's going on everywhere else. What happened to their turf?)”

“(Their widows and children split it in half, and are now thinking of how to off their in-laws and cousins so they can take it all for themselves, preferably without getting any crap from the rest of the Dragons.)”

“(Huh. Well at least now we know they’re legitimate!)”

Mei-Li stared at her, before she sighed. “(I want you to quit your job, Mitzi.)”

Mitzi blinked. “(… I’m sorry, what?)”

“(I don’t like what Candela is doing to you, these corporations you’re working for! It’s just like the Jade Empire, the Black Cross, and the Jahiliyyah in Solaris—all the money, the power, it makes them crazy!)”

Mitzi scowled. “(Mei-Li, if it wasn’t for my fighting my way up the ladders, criminal or corporate, you wouldn’t be safe in your apartment in Ciel Solaris being paid to trance for a living—we’d both be dead!)”

Mei-Li scowled back. “(I’m starting to wonder if the world be better if we were...)”

Mitzi looked at her in horror. “(Don’t talk like that!)”

Mei-Li glared at her. “(Do you ever stop to wonder what they did to get the Urochs to pay you? Where, and from who they got it from? Who else is paying for your helping them become richer and grow all the more powerful?

“Because I do!”

(I’ve gone legit now!)”

(No you haven’t!)” Mei-Li screamed, pulling away from her. “(All that has changed is that you call them ‘Hostile Takeovers’ not ‘Turf Wars,’ you fight with lawyers instead of thugs, and the Justices don’t get called in to clean-up the bodies in the streets!)”

Tears welled in Mei-Li’s eyes. “(You’ve changed, sister...!)” she whispered, her voice trembling.

The steward AI reappeared. “(We are now approaching your residence, Ms. Kovacs,)” she said calmly.

Mitzi stared at her, confused and hurt. “(Mei-Li...)” she reached out.

Mei-Li slapped her hand away. “(What is it, Mitzi?!)” she barked as she began to cry. “(What the fuck is it that keeps you going, that helps you sleep at night, that makes you think all the new blood on your hands is worth it this time?!”

(Egan’s Syndrome!)” Mitzi cried. “(No one is looking a cure for it even if it’s possible because it’s just too rare to be ‘profitable,’ but if I just earn enough money--!)”

(Forget it, sister.)” Mei-Li growled.

“(Preparing for landing,”) the AI said as the cab slowed down and turned in the air.

Mitzi looked at Mei-Li’s legs peeking out from her skirt—emaciated, and useless. “(Don’t you want to know what it’s like to walk with your own two legs?! What it’s like to use mods?” her voice broke as she began to cry, too. “(To fix whatever is broken or wrong with yourself, just like that...?)”

Mei-Li glared at her. “(Not if it costs other people their lives. And besides: I have the Trance for that.)”

Her condo's attendants opened the door, professional smiles on their faces, trained and paid enough to ignore every sign that anything was wrong between the two sisters. Mitzi unloaded Mei-Li’s wheelchair and set it out again—she couldn’t trust anyone but herself to do it right—but the moment she was back on it, she was wheeling herself to the elevator.

If it was any comfort, she let Mitzi in the same car.


The coldness continued as they exited to her floor, and went to Mitzi’s apartment—really, a miniature mansion with three floors sharing space with other similarly-sized abodes due to the high cost of living in the flying city block of Asgard, and Mitzi not being rich enough to own her own lot.

Mei-Li waited in front of the door as Mitzi put herself through the bio-scanner gauntlet to open it. The two of them paused as the wooden double doors swung open.

Her place was trashed, which was no surprise—Mitzi lived alone and only ever hired the simpler helper drones because she liked her privacy and the freedom to be completely, absolutely disgusting without anyone judging her nor having evidence of just how bad she could get.

But there was just something that was off. A familiar sort of unease when they were living in crappy apartments and the backs of illegal trance dens, easy targets for every last small-time burglar in the whole of Terre Solaris.

Mitzi frowned, reached into a discrete inner pocket of her jacket and pulled out a pistol—the one that security was always informed of ahead of time, so it wouldn’t trip the weapons scanners. “(Mei-Li, stay back, and call the Peacekeepers,)” she said as she prepared to step in.

Mei-Li looked at her in horror. “(Sister--!)”

“How about we not do any of whatever it is you just said, and step inside for a nice little chat?” a male voice said from behind them.

Mitzi spun around, found herself facing two people that definitely weren’t there in the hall before—a well-dressed man with a bowler hat and a white suit, with a young woman with multi-coloured hair, a parasol, and a love of pastel pink.

She aimed her gun at the both of them, switching back and forth. “Get out of here before I have to shoot you both,” she growled.

The man chuckled as he pulled up his cane and pointed it at Mei-Li; the end of it began to charge with magic.

Mitzi's eyes widened.

He smiled. “Just try it, sweetheart.”

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

Faster than anyone should be able to move, the young woman stepped forward and blocked every shot with her still unopened umbrella. Mitzi turned to her and fired, she calmly sauntered towards her like she was in a musical, twirling her umbrella around, blocking every shot or turning her body so that the bullets would zip right on by, missing her by less than an inch.

She came right up to Mitzi.

Out of ammo, she raised her arm to pistol-whip her.

She dodged the attack, Mitzi’s gun and wrist sliding off her clothes and body like she was water pouring over her.

Then, she hooked her umbrella’s handle into Mitzi’s ankle, and pulled.

She fell onto her back, the gun knocked out of her hand and into her apartment as she fell.

Thud.

The walls were soundproof. The security footage was easily doctored to help sneak in guests, business partners, and illicit lovers without suspicion or proof. The other residents were either gone on their own high-power jobs and luxury destinations all over Avalon, or just wouldn’t give a shit about a commotion in the hallway until it spilled into their abode.

Mitzi could only glare at the pink-haired girl pulled a sword out of the umbrella, and held it over her.

“What do you want?” she growled at the man.

“To propose a mutually beneficial business deal,” he hummed.

“(Don’t do it, sister!)” Mei-Li cried.

The man fired.

Mei-Li gasped in pain, magic glowing and crackling in her chest, before she slumped over in her chair, alive but struggling to breathe.

Mitzi screamed her name, shot up to help her before the pink-haired girl stopped her with a blade to her neck.

“Shall we head inside to discuss this further, or will I have to terminate this partnership before it even begin?” the man growled, more ominous looking energy glowing on the end his cane.

Mitzi reluctantly dropped back down to the floor. “Who are you people?”

The man chuckled as he grabbed Mei-Li’s chair and wheeled her in. “There’ll be time for names as soon as we know you can both be trusted,” he hummed.

Though her body was paralyzed, Mei-Li could move her eyes still, could give her sister the coldest, harshest look she had ever seen.

“(I’m sorry,)” Mitzi mouthed, before the pink-haired girl cheerfully dragged her inside her apartment.

“Don’t worry: my employer happens to share your interest in genetic modification,” the man said as they closed the doors behind them. “She wants to get rid of all those pesky roadblocks just like you do—you know, Egan’s Syndrome, organ and prosthesis rejection, laws on Human Testing, and the like...”

Chapter Text

A small army of workers and pack-animals trooped in to Keeper's Hollow the morning after they pawned Eluna, coming in through a mix of the Tubes and making their way through the water on boats powered by motors, with giant turtles hauling in materials and equipment.

It was fascinating watching them work, in-between Weiss tending to her new crops of sugar beets and wheat, and her budding cacao tree orchard.

The new sprinkler system was like the Tubes, a system of vines grown in deliberate paths and connected by wood and stone anchors, and the larger equipment like the mill used live trees for foundation, the rest of them made with the raw materials Weiss had been stockpiling from the overgrowth, or gathered from the remaining wilderness.

They didn't tear down the mossy and partially rotten walls of the old barn, but instead had the weavers place their hands on them, pulsing magic into the wood and reversing the aging process right before Weiss' eyes. They even adapted most of the plant-life growing in and around it as decoration; part of the piping for indoor plumbing, power, and natural gas; or a potential source of food or other amenities for the animals they were planning to house in there, once they found tenders willing to take most of their wages in food and lodging.

Even the tree growing through the roof wasn't cut down; they just patched up the breach to keep the elements out, hacked off some of the unrulier branches, and rebuilt the interior of the barn around it.

<Foundation for house,> the foreman had explained to her, after she gave them water and some snacks for their break.

The final touch was restoring the old transport system between the barn and the house, another boat suspended in the air, at where the water level could reach during the Flood. After a couple of safety tests to ensure that the makers had completely repaired or replaced the hinges that had broken off some years back, Ruby and Weiss took the maiden voyage.

They sat on opposite ends, listening to the cranking of the motors as it pulled them across, peering over the edge and waving at the cheering construction crew, looking at the fast-disappearing overgrowth and the small but thriving farm that had gone on to replace it.

Weiss sighed happily as she turned back to Ruby. “We've come a long way from those sweet potatoes, haven't we?”

“Yep!” Ruby chirped. She playfully pointed her horns at Weiss. “And it's all thanks to you!”

Weiss blushed. “Oh please, we both know I wouldn't have even thought of gardening if it wasn't for you...”

<Just kiss her already!> one of the makers yelled, before the rest joined them, howling, cheering, and making playful gestures.

Weiss glared at them, before she quickly sunk below the level of the boat's sides.

Ruby leaned out. <WE'RE NOT--> she made a very loud sexy animal noise <--YOU GUYS!>

There was laughter, confusion, and some sighs of disappointment as Shinies changed hands.

The boat stopped at a deck on the barn's second floor. Ruby stepped out first, grabbed Weiss hand and helped her out. The boat shook a little, leading Weiss to step farther than she intended and end up MUCH closer to Ruby, just one or two inches of distance between them.

They stared at each other, cheeks taking on a light dusting of pink.

“… I… better get started on making Qrow's booze!” Weiss said quickly.

“And I better get ready for the hunts again!” Ruby said as she jumped off the platform, landing softly on the grass below. “See you later, Weiss!” she called out as she ran back to the house.

“See you later, Ruby!” Weiss replied, before she hurried headed inside, and to her new laboratory/kitchen.

With instructions from the Codex and Penny on-hand for documentation and in case something went horribly wrong, Weiss had her first batches of sore-stiff ointment, moonshine, and cheese on the burners, bacteria cultures hyper-accelerating the process to give her what usually took months in the span of a few days.

She hung up her apron with pride, washing her hands, and heading off for a much deserved snack break before it was back to practicing her Actaeon and learning more about Fae society—fittingly, the day's lesson were about Talos, the progenitor for the Order of the Makers, and one of the most prolific engineers, scientists, artisans, and many more professions of the “Ekindling Era” beside.

“Where have I heard that name before?” Weiss asked as they walked back to the house.

“Probably from one of the more popular Fae epithets,” Penny explained. “'Talos Stinky Beard' is the one of the top ten.”

“Why his 'stinky beard' of all things?”

“Talos was a goat Fae, and extremely proud of his beard which he liked to grow long and wear in braids, and meticulously groomed every morning and night. Whenever an experiment or an endeavour went horribly wrong, or in an entirely unexpected and oftentimes unpleasant direction, for some bizarre reason, his beard would always be stained or marred in some way, the most frequent being afflicted with a difficult to remove smell.

“On a related note, he has another popular epithet frequently used as part of prayers to him: 'Talos Help Us All.' This one was because Talos was also oftentimes called in to assist or reverse the damage done by other Makers less skilled than he, also victims of unexpected outcomes, or both.”

“Well 'Talos Help Us All,' then,” Weiss said.

Penny frowned.

Weiss stopped. “… What?”

I forgot to mention!: that particular epithet and its related prayers are only ever used AFTER something has gone wrong. In Fae superstition, saying it BEFORE anything unfortunate has happened will allegedly cause something to go wrong, as Talos was also well-known for his short temper and dislike of others calling for him, largely because it entailed him having to fix yet another disaster or mitigate unforeseen consequences.”

Weiss frowned. “… How bad are we talking about, exactly?” she asked.

Penny smiled. “Just repeat after me: 'Gabija Have Mercy On Us All,'”

“Gabija Have Mercy On Us All,” Weiss said.

As Penny climbed up to get the elevator, Weiss made a note to herself to not call upon any more divine powers until she knew everything there was about them.


It started with her moonshine.

Though for full flavour and maximum potency, it needed to ferment for a week or more, ethanol was already present within the first 24 hours, and since that was all Qrow really needed, he, Weiss, and Penny were at the laboratory doing the first taste test.

All of them cringed as Weiss poured some into a shot glass, as the moonshine had developed an incredibly powerful, acrid aroma. “Man, they weren't kidding when they said this brewer's bacteria was powerful stuff,” she said as she pinched her nostrils then handed it over to Penny for scanning.

“We Fae have neo-steel guts compared to you humans,” Qrow explained. “It takes a LOT more to get us fucked up.”

Penny made a beeping noise. “Analysis complete! Qrow, I would HIGHLY suggest that you don't drink this, I've detected worryingly high levels of ethanol...”

“It's moonshine, Penny,” Qrow said as he plucked the shot glass out of her hand. “It's meant to be that way.” He raised it in the air. “Bottom's up!” he said, before he knocked it back in one gulp.

“Well?” Weiss asked.

Qrow came to in a hospital bed.

<UNCLE QROW!> Ruby cried, jumping on his bed, and nearly smashing her horns into his head as she hugged him. <I'M SO GLAD YOU'RE NOT DEAD!>

<Fuck me! What happened?!> he asked.

Ruby pulled away. <You mean you don't remember?>

<Last thing I'm getting from my chronicle is me drinking some of Weiss' moonshine, thinking 'Huh, not bad, kinda sweet, but I could see myself drinking this soon as it's got some time to age,' and then POW! Nothing!

<Did the makers launch another rocket, and it happened to punch through the roof and land on me?>

<Actually, you died of alcohol poisoning,> Penny said as she came over. <Fortunately, my mender protocols include detoxification and revival of patients, so long as brain activity had only recently ceased.>

Qrow's eyes widened. <Holy fucking shit… Weiss' booze was that strong...?>

Penny nodded. <The makers currently have it in secure storage, until they find someone brave-stupid enough to want to do serious study of it.>

Qrow laid back on his bed. <How long was I out?>

<6 hours and 37 minutes, including the five minutes that you were brain-dead,> Penny replied.

Qrow closed his eyes. <Someone fill me in on what the hell happened in the meanwhile, before the Council gives me crap about it...>

Penny put her hand to the chronicle-governor on the back of Qrow's neck, and did.


The footage was from Penny's optic sensors, with an overlay of her many scanners' readouts, a scrolling ticker of her inner thoughts, and her “To Do” list in the upper right corner. The latest item was <Keep Qrow from Dying.>

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…!” Weiss whispered over and over again as she stood over her and Qrow. “Is he dead?! Did I kill him?!”

“No,” Penny replied as she held her glowing hands over Qrow's unconscious body, “he's just suffering from severe alcohol poisoning, he's not yet--”

Qrow's vitals readings flat-lined.

“--And now he's dead.”

Weiss wailed in despair. “Ruby's going to kill me!”

“Initiating revival protocols!” Penny said as her hands began to glow with immense power. “And Ruby won't take violent retribution on you, knowing this was an accident; however, she will definitely be permanently traumatized, and also likely fall into a serious depression.”

THAT'S EVEN WORSE!”

Qrow fast-forwarded the footage. Penny revived him, stabilized him, and proceeded to siphon all the alcohol from his system. Unfortunately, there was no closing his eyes for the inevitably messy aftermath of that last part.

The emergency menders were called in, and Qrow was hauled off to the hospital for recovery. Penny spent a good while consoling a distraught Weiss, and he put it back to normal speed as after she recovered and they were back in front of the still, looking at it like it had grown fangs and legs.

“Is Fae alcohol always this powerful...?” Weiss asked.

“No, which is what worries me,” Penny replied. “There's no reason for any of the ingredients or the processes used to end with a product this potent, especially this early in the fermentation stage. The only way they could achieve this is with a catalyst.”

“Like what?”

Penny shrugged. “I don't know. I suggest we call the Maker's Forge—they're going to want to study this. And more importantly, we might need someone with the skill and equipment to safely dispose of it...”

Weiss warily looked at the other two containers of fermenting products.

“Don't worry!” Penny said. “Sore-stiff ointment and white cheese are not nearly as volatile as moonshine is!”

Qrow fast-forwarded again through their attempting to recreate the wort they had used for the moonshine, until Ren and Nora arrived at Keeper's Hollow.

“You two work as safety inspectors, too?” Weiss asked as she met them at the doors of the barn.

“Yes,” Ren replied. “It's cheaper and easier, considering we're already combat-trained watchers.”

“You need combat-training for this job?” Weiss replied.

“Yep!” Nora replied as she walked in, her hammer over her shoulder. “Never know WHAT might come out of a flunky science experiment, here in the Valley.”

Weiss was silent as the two went up and began to test her moonshine.

The results were not encouraging, with the alcohol levels still strangely, dangerously high, and requiring extreme dilution in water until it was reasonably safe to drink.

“There's only one more test to see if we're going to need to bar you from making more until you get a license,” Ren said.

“What's that?” Weiss asked.

“The Fury Potato Test!” Nora cried, pulling out a canister from her back-pocket.

“It's when we see if your alcohol could potentially be used as an explosive,” Ren explained.

Qrow fast-forwarded over the preparations, and resumed when they were standing at a remote, uninhabited corner of Keeper's Hollow, on a bank facing out to the water.

Nora loaded the canister full of moonshine into her hammer. “FURY POTATO!” she cried as she swung.

Thoom.

They all watched it sail off into the distance, and into the water.

Plop.

They waited a few seconds.

Nothing.

“Welp, that answers that!” Nora said, putting her hammer down and leaning on it.

BOOM.

Quite a lot of clouds of debris, exploded plant matter, and dead fish and frogs began to float up to the surface.

“… Nope, spoke too soon!” she said.

“Yeah...” Ren muttered, “we're going to have to confiscate all your moonshine and your still, until we're certain you won't accidentally blow Keeper's Hollow sky high.”

“What exactly did you do to make it, anyway?” Nora said.

Weiss walked them through the process, and at the end, added, “I also kind of said 'Talos Help Us All' just after I put them away for aging...”

Nora and Ren's eyes widened.

“… I didn't know you weren't supposed to say it then.”

“What's inside the other containers, and when are they going to be done fermenting?” Ren asked.

“Sore-stiff ointment and white cheese, and a little before two tomorrow afternoon.”

“Call us when you open them,” Ren said as he made a note of it in his tablet. “Ideally, when Ruby and Blake are with us.”

“Tell them to come armed!” Nora added.

“Is invoking Talos when you shouldn't really that bad?” Weiss asked.

Ren put his hand on her shoulder. “Let's just put it this way: pray to whatever other deities you believe in, except for him.”

Chapter Text

The next day began with an ominous message from the Maker's Forge: Weiss' barrel of moonshine had spontaneously exploded while it was in storage.

“Don't worry: no one was hurt, and our insurance will cover the damage,” Penny translated. “Besides, it isn't as if anyone is surprised, just disappointed we won't be able to study it any more. If ever you successfully apply for a Potion Maker's license, we will happily pay you in materials and labour, and allow you use of our equipment to recreate it on-site, though please give us at least three days advance notice to prepare adequate safety measures and staff for the experiment.

“Signed, Maker Viktor Logos, Shift Supervisor.”

Weiss sighed as she ate her breakfast. “I don't know what worries me more: that my moonshine blew up all on its own, or that they actually want me to try and make it again,” she said as she picked up some fried tomato slices and brought it to her mouth.

“From what little data we did gather, it's got fantastic potential as a cheaper and more easily produced explosive component for grenades, or as an incendiary coating to darts and bolts that can also seriously debilitate targets,” Penny explained as she cleaned up the counter. “We don't have any conclusive evidence, but I wouldn't be surprised if it also works as an excellent medium for channeling elemental fire.”

Weiss looked blankly at her as she chewed. She swallowed, and asked, “Medium for channeling what now?”

“Fuel for magic,” Qrow muttered as he sat in the furthest chair from the sunlight, nursing his head and sipping the weakest, most watered down beers they had in the house. “Weavers can transform raw magic into whatever elements they want, but it's a lot easier, faster, and more sustainable to use something that's already imbued with what you need—poison, electricity, or just bursting into flames if you jiggle it a little too hard.”

“Think of it like your humans' magitechnology, using science to expand what used to be the sole domain of prophets, witches, and sorcerers to the common man, as the 'Computer Wizards' of Silicon Valley had,” Penny said.

Weiss nodded. It was a real game changer when they discovered that magic could be programmed.

Qrow took a sip from his beer. “It also lets non-weavers get in on that elemental action, like with soul fire throwers and grenades. And speaking of fire and explosives, there won't be any more of that when we open those lids later, will there?” he asked, looking at Weiss in a mixture of annoyance and worry.

Weiss sighed. “I hope not, and I'm afraid to think of what might instead.”

Qrow nodded. “Any more of these weird accidents happen, we're calling the Weaver's Terrace, alright? Because then I'll be pretty sure we've got a magic leak building up underneath the swamp.”

“What could be causing it?” Weiss asked. “Last I saw, none of us were burying depleted bullets or dumping barrels of radioactive waste in the lake, and my farming should be stopping it, not causing it.”

Qrow shrugged. “Maybe something washed in during the Flood, and it's reacting to all the magic building up for the Eve.”

“'Something...?'”

“It's not like we can keep track of everything that gets stuck here on its way to the Timeless Depths,” Qrow said as he took another sip.

Weiss sighed. “I hate this, not knowing what the hell's going on.”

Qrow finished his beer. “Get used to it; if there's one sure thing in the Valley, it's that you can never be sure about anything.”


Blake and Ruby came back from their morning patrol, and Ren and Nora returned to Keeper's Hollow some time after Weiss' cheese and sore-stiff ointment finished fermenting. Save for Zwei, who was still away at the Pits, and Penny, who was a golem, they were all dressed in safety masks, gloves, and makers' robes.

The watchers among them were armed, and wore their armour underneath.

They all stood around the lab in a semi-circle, with Penny acting as both the remote camera-feed for the others and the one to actually open the containers.

Everyone held their breaths as she began with the cheese.

Penny lifted the lid. Inside was a wheel of pure white, delicious-looking cheese.

It formed a face, depressions in its surface.

:D

Everyone screamed and jumped as Penny slammed the lid shut.

She carefully opened it again, just enough to peer inside.

D:

Penny closed it again, held it shut with both hands; Ruby and Nora quickly put a heavy cast-iron pot over it to keep it closed.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” Weiss cried. “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!”

“Okay, we are definitely calling the Terrace for back-up,” Ren said as he stepped behind the line and pulled out his tablet. “That is just not normal.”

Within the hour, Keeper's Hollow was swarming with weavers and watchers, some of them going around with magic “dowsing rods” trying to find a leak, the others guarding the barn to ensure that whatever was inside couldn't get out, and the rest were interrogating Weiss and the others until a senior Weaver could arrive on-site.

It was all standard protocol, until Elder Goodwitch showed up.

All the Fae tripped over themselves in surprise and showing her the proper respects; Weiss awkwardly curtsied as she approached the group. She greeted them all briefly, before she got the situation report from one of the supervising watchers.

She turned back to them. “All of you, come with me,” she said.

Blake didn't need a translation to know what she said.

They were all back in the second floor, armed and outfitted, with back-up in the form of watchers with crossbows, repeaters, and cannons, ready to blast into non-existence the things that were in the laboratory.

One was the cheese, escaped from its prison and now shaped like a blob with a little antenna above it. The other was a mound of sore-stiff ointment, a bulging concentration up top drooping forward like a head. They were trapped in a magical field, looking panicked (the cheese) or annoyed (the sore-stiff ointment monster).

“What ARE those things?” Weiss asked.

“Elementals,” Glynda explained. “They're concentrations of magic and materials given life and rudimentary intelligence.” She looked at her. “You wouldn't happen to know just who made them, did you?”

“Are you sure this wasn't a freak accident because of the Eve?”

“Wild elementals are rarely this well-behaved, and more to the point, no one has ever reported seeing cheese or sore-stiff ointment varieties,” Glynda replied flatly. “Who made their base materials, the ointment and the cheese without the magical animation?”

“Me and Penny,” Weiss replied.

“Then one or the both of you kindly talk to what has become creations,” Glynda said.

Weiss paused. “Did we make these, the elementals?”

“One of you did, and I'd like to find out who, so we can safely disenchant them for study; elementals that have been violently dispersed tend not to leave much in the way of samples.”

“I'll do it,” Penny said. “Perhaps an excessive amount of my magical essence has leaked into them.”

Glynda nodded. <Let her in!> she called out to the watchers maintaining the field.

Penny stepped into the lab, the field closing behind her. The cheese was wary of her, but the sore-stiff ointment found her familiar enough not to raise a fuss. The others watched with interest and worry as she put her hands to the both of them, the energy from her fingers arcing into the two blobs.

<I'm attempting to communicate with them!>” Penny said, repeating it in Nivian for Weiss benefit.

After a while of only watching the expressions on Penny's and the cheese's faces change, she turned around with her hands connected to the two elementals.

<They're peaceful and wish no one harm, they're just scared and confused!> Penny said.

<Can you relay our questions?> Glynda asked.

<I'll attempt to!>

With pauses for Penny to interpret and clear up things, the conversation went like this:

<What are you?> Glynda asked.

<I am food!> Penny said, talking with a high-pitched, childish voice. <Be eaten, nourish others, yes!>

<I am healing,> Penny huffed in a deeper voice. <Life-blood for others, till last drop.>

<Who made you?> Glynda asked.

<Weaver did, Weaver did!> the cheese replied.

<Weaver did,> the ointment hummed.

<And who is your Weaver?>

The cheese frowned. <Weaver is Weaver!> Penny said for it.

<Weaver is Weaver,> the ointment hummed.

Glynda sighed. She turned to Weiss. “Either they're not that intelligent, or whoever made them was smart enough to cover their tracks.” She turned back to Penny. <Tell them we need to disenchant them.>

Penny nodded. <Yes, Elder Goodwitch.>

The cheese began to bounce about in a panic, the ointment rumbled and simmered ominously.

<No! Must be eaten! Must not rot! Must fulfill, fill tummy!> the cheese whined.

<Life-blood for others,> the ointment grumbled. <What Weaver wishes.>

<What Weaver wishes, what weaver wishes!> the cheese chirped.

Glynda frowned, and turned back to the others. “Well, the good news is, whoever made them didn't intend them to be anything other than what they are. The bad news is, we need to get rid of them somehow, because who knows how they think they're supposed to do that.”

“Should I try to talk to them?” Weiss asked.

Glynda nodded. “If you think it will help.”

“I'll go with her!” Ruby said, stepping up with her scythe.

“Then go,” Glynda said.

They went in.

Weiss frowned as the ointment and the cheese settled down once more. “Do I just… talk to them like I normally would?” she asked.

“I believe it would be better if you interface with them as I am doing,” Penny replied. “I am not speaking to them in words, so much as abstract concepts, emotions, and intentions, as they are to myself. Putting your hand on my bare chassis should be enough.”

Weiss looked at Ruby. She shrugged. “It's worth a shot!”

Weiss sighed, and did. The larger sections of rock that made up Penny's body were warm, constantly thrumming from the magic and the complex crystal arrays that were embedded inside. She watched Penny's green magic curl into her fingers, meeting above her palm, before it dove into her skin.

“Weiss! Weiss!” the cheese said—not Penny's voice, but an actual, high-pitched voice like a small child's.

“Weiss,” the ointment said in a much more reserved tone.

Weiss let go in a panic. “O-Okay, did anyone else hear the elementals saying my name?!”

“I didn't hear anything,” Ruby said. “Penny, did you say anything?”

“No, I was too busy transmitting and translating the elementals' thoughts into something Weiss can more easily understand,” Penny replied.

Weiss frowned. “This is getting REALLY weird.”

“Do you wish for me to attempt to convince them to let them be disenchanted?” Penny asked.

The two elementals began to make a fuss again. Ruby readied her scythe. Weiss hurriedly placed her hand back on Penny's chassis.

Stand down, relax,” Weiss thought.

The elementals did.

“Weiss?” the ointment asked.

I need you two to go back to normal,” Weiss thought, imagining the two of them back in their containers, white cheese and ointment that didn't move nor have faces.

“My purpose goes unfulfilled,” the ointment rumbled. “I was created to heal others, to soothe their pains, was I not, Weiss?”

Yes, but I need you back in your container, NOT moving nor intelligent.”

“But then how will I serve my purpose?”

Weiss' face heated up as she remembered the sore-stiff incident, Ruby massaging her stiff and aching muscles, the sensation of her hands releasing the tension in her muscles, the ointment on her fingers seeping into her skin.

“Understood,” the ointment rumbled. “You or Penny may disenchant me at your will, I will not fight.”

Wait there.”

The ointment pulled away, and climbed back into its container, and did so, still.

You too, cheese.”

No!” the cheese began to bounce once more. “I'll rot, then I'll have to be thrown away, and then I'll be useless! All your hard work for nothing!”

I'll put you in the fridge!”

But then you might forget me, and I'll get all moldy!”

Weiss sighed. “What will it take to disenchant you?”

The cheese smiled and stopped. “No disenchanting needed! Just eat me!”

Eat you?!”

“Yes! Eat me!”

Weiss frowned. “Wait, wait, wait—let me get this straight: you WANT me to eat you?”

“Yes! It's what you made me for!”

“I… I don't feel comfortable doing that...”

“Then have Ruby eat me! She looks hungry, anyway. Has she had lunch yet? I don't think she's had lunch yet.”

“Hey Weiss?” Ruby asked. “Can we hurry this up? I haven't had lunch yet, and I'm getting really hungry.”

“See~? Let her eat me!”

Weiss looked at Ruby, then at the cheese. “You seriously want to be eaten?”

“It's what you made me for!”

“And you're not going to poison her?”

The cheese looked horrified. “Why would I?”

Weiss bit her lip. “… You're still safe to eat, aren't you?”

“Little floor dirt, nothing too bad! Barn is new, clean!”

Then wait in your container, and Ruby's going to eat you.”

The cheese bounced happily. “Yay! Invite the others, too, I am delicious!”

It disconnected from Penny's hand, bouncing all the way back into its container and waiting there.

Weiss let go. “Penny, disenchant the ointment; Ruby… you're going to have to eat the cheese.”

Penny did that, putting her hand into the ointment and letting out a pulse that turned it back into normal, unintelligent, and non-moving matter.

Ruby just stared at her.

“… It wants to be eaten.”

Ruby shrugged. “Well okay, if you say so!” she removed her mask, and her gloves, came over to the cheese. She took a piece out of it, and ate it. “Mmm! This is really good, Weiss!” she said as she chewed.

The cheese wiggled in happiness, even if a chunk was missing out of it.

:D

Weiss face fell in horror.

D:

She came over, grabbed more of the cheese, and ate it too.

Weiss!” Qrow cried. “What the hell?!”

“If this thing ends up killing Ruby, I don't want to have to live with the guilt!” Weiss cried as she chewed. “Plus, it's actually quite delicious!”

“Then who's going to end up getting roasted by Glynda over here?!” Qrow asked. “Shit! Outta the way, let me have some of that!”

Qrow made his way in as the watchers were beginning to dispel the field.

<What are they doing?!> Blake asked as she looked at the cheese, now a quarter eaten.

Penny told her.

Her eyes widened in alarm. <Fuck you guys, you're not pinning this on me!> she said as she made her way to them, shoving past Ruby who was trying to get seconds.

<Hey!> Ruby cried.

“Save some for me!” Nora said as she headed over, leaving her hammer with Ren before she took off her mask and gloves.

The other watchers stared, while Ren and Penny walked over to Glynda.

She sighed heavily. <If this ends up actually killing them, the revival priority is Ruby, Weiss, Qrow, Nora, then Blake, alright?>

<Yes, Elder Goodwitch,> Penny and Ren replied.

<Fuck me, why does this thing taste so good?> Qrow cried.

<It has a face! I shouldn't be enjoying this so much, but I am!> Blake wailed as she went for her third handful.

<Come on, guys,> Ruby whined, <I'm the one that missed lunch here, priorities!>

Chapter Text

“That was the most disturbing but delicious thing I have ever eaten in my entire life...” Weiss muttered as she and the others sat in a triage tent, their stomachs being scanned by Penny and other menders.

“Same, and I have eaten some weird shit in my life,” Qrow said. “I'm talking take out at the Dark Side of Candela!”

<Why was it so delicious...?> Blake murmured as she stared at her distended stomach. <Why...?>

“Man, we should have bought some salt-bread rolls first, those would have been awesome with it!” Ruby said.

“Ditto that!” Nora chimed in. “Hey Weiss, can you make some more of that cheese? I can pay you to make it! Well, actually, Ren will considering he handles our money!”

“I'm afraid Weiss will not be making anything until we get to the bottom of this mystery,” Glynda said as she came up. “Penny, will they have to be confined for further observation?”

“Not at all, ma'am!” Penny chirped. “My scans show that the magical essence animating the cheese has long dissipated into all of their systems, either transforming into nutrients or stimulating taste and pleasure receptors more strongly than regular cheese.

“Save for the animation, intelligence, and its strong desire to be eaten, it was no different than other elementally-enhanced foods!”

Glynda nodded. “Any potential side effects?”

“We'll have to wait and see to be sure, but honestly, we'd be very surprised if it's anything other than indigestion from having consumed too much.”

“Good. As soon as you and Weiss are able to, please proceed to the Heart of the Maker's Forge immediately. Further instructions will be waiting for you there.”

“Will any of us be coming with her, Elder Goodwitch?” Ruby asked.

Glynda shook her head. <You, Blake, and Qrow stay here. If you'll excuse me, I need to finish up the rest of this investigation...>

After she was engrossed with the supervising watchers and the weavers, Weiss discretely asked Ruby, “Why would she want to send me there?”

Ruby shrugged. “Don't know, but you’re definitely going.”

As the watchers were dismissed and headed home and the weavers began to set up surveillance equipment and mana detectors in case more magical mishaps happened, Penny and Weiss went off through the Tubes and to the Maker's Forge.


Weiss had to stop and stare as she and Penny stepped out to the Heart.

Steam whistled and erupted from the geothermal vents that powered most everything. Water was constantly being piped in at near-freezing temperatures and being siphoned out lethally scalding hot. The carved rock walls and millenia old machinery were cast in a warm, orange glow as sounds echoed all throughout the facility: metal being pounded, liquids bubbling, and the work songs of the makers sweating and labouring at the assembly lines.

Elementals abounded here, creatures of pure fire and lava torching huge batches of raw ores and other materials to be smelted; titans of rock and metal lumbering right on through the thermal vents, unharmed by the blazing hot steam; intelligent gusts of air with ribbons and other identifying markers floating within their centers whisking away the worst of the heat and guiding it into the turbines or the exhaust vents; and beings of water and ice walking around, putting out uncontrolled fires, cooling and freezing items for tempering or storage, or just giving cold comfort to tired workers, sapping the excess heat from their bodies, and chilling their beers or other drinks of choice.

Weiss noticed giant slabs of enchanted rock posted all over the area, numbers and words on them. <Days Since Last Accident,> she read, as the Actaeon was simple enough, and the logo of a calendar and a maker looking at where their arm used to be was very telling.

The number was currently at “0,” with an image of Weiss' barrel of moonshine, with written details.

If it was any comfort, the times for the other most recent incidents were “362 Days” “237 days,” and “5 Seconds.”

“So this is heavy industry for the Fae?” Weiss as they walked, raising her voice over the din.

“Exactly!” Penny replied. “This is where we produce most common consumables like ammunition, and refining raw materials for further processing. It is also the biggest research laboratory in the Bastion, where we constantly develop and improve our current technology and methods, to keep up with the constantly evolving flora and fauna of Avalon, and within this millennium, the much more rapid advancement humans are capable of.”

Weiss noticed some of the makers had prosthetic limbs similar to Penny's; instead of energy, however, most of them were connected by plants or miniature trees growing from where the originals had been severed, or had taken root in the rest of the remaining limb for extra support.

“Is this where you were made?” she asked.

“No,” Penny replied. “Aside from the fact that I was made outside of the Valley, the Fae are quite against automation and fully independent AIs, both for cultural and practical reasons. Though initially, golems might surpass the strength and skill of a Fae, over-time, the natural development and the unique symbiosis of the latter with Avalon will allow them to far surpass the capabilities of both our and you humans’ technology, not to mention other beneficial phenomena.”

“So where we you made, and who did, if Fae are so against golems?”

Penny smiled apologetically. “I am not allowed to answer either of those.” She got a far off look in her eyes. “What I can say is that my creators were very lonely, and wished to have more company than each other.”

“And the Council took you away from them…?”

For the first time since she met her, Penny looked angry. “Absolutely not!” she cried, her green eyes glowing ominously.

Weiss flinched.

Penny sheepishly looked away. “It was my own decision to leave...” she said, just loud enough to be heard. “We had access to both the Codex and the Info-Grid, you see, and well… I wanted to see Avalon with my own optic sensors, than through the Trance or Honey Dreams.”

“And they let you?” Weiss asked carefully.

Penny nodded and smiled at her. “There were parents and grandparents before they created me. In one of their words, 'Well, kids gotta leave the nest some time, right? Might as well do it now, before she decides to run away and leave us heartbroken twice over.'”

They stopped as they reached their destination: the Thumper.

It was the Forge's internal transportation system of elevators and trains, because the plants that composed the Tubes couldn't survive at the Heart's extreme temperatures. Instead of water, it was powered by steam, pressure gathering up before the “shells” were sent rocketing off to their destinations, stopping using the power of incredibly strong magnets and prayers.

As they waited for a free shell—essentially a giant bullet that could fit Fae, humans, and equipment being transported—Weiss observed the life-size statue of Talos before the Thumper.

He was 7'4 feet tall and 6'8 without the gigantic horns curling back over his head. He was built like a mountain, broad-shoulders, massive limbs, rock-solid muscles bulging underneath his robes—the prototype for the maker's robes used in the present, with only very few modifications since. His entire body, horns included, was covered in belts, pouches, and straps for holding tools and materials: hammers, saws, surgical equipment, a protractor, scrolls with charcoal, brushes, and pots of paint, the ancestor of the present-day Fae-firearms, pots and pans, utensils, binoculars, rolled-up maps, nails, screws, pieces of scrap metal, wooden 2×4 planks, hanging crystal arrays and beads, incense burners, a massive tank filled with a liquid that had a tube leading to the side of his mouth with the words <BLACK MOSS TEA> inscribed on the side, and no shortage of what looked like squares of parchment with handwritten notes attached wherever there was space in-between.

And Weiss had to admit, that was one very impressive beard.

At the raised base of it were these:

A sign saying <In Case Of Emergency,> with holos of the current shift supervisors, and a tablet for calling them.

Another saying <In Case Of Catastrophic Emergency,> with a holo of Glynda over it, also with a tablet for calling her.

A third sign saying <In Case We're SCREWED,> with holos of evacuation routes, a stack of enchanted paper with templates for last wills and testaments, and an inscription of a prayer to Talos.

If Weiss had to guess, the first line was “Talos Help Us All” in Actaeon.

A free shell arrived, and they got into it. Unlike the Tubes, the safety measures for these were stasis field generators, magically freezing their physical bodies in time and space. Weiss had to wonder just what necessitated the use of these as the pressure began to build up above them.

THOOM.

Down they went, dozens of miles below the surface of Avalon.

The shells were featureless inside, except for a panel in front of them that displayed a peaceful beach with a calm sea stretching to the horizon, written words on it being spoken out loud over and over again by a soothing, female voice:

<Don't panic.>

Weiss' could only scream internally, as she her unmoving, unblinking eyes stared at the scene.

Five seconds later, they stopped, dipping down a foot lower than intended, before the magnets got a good grip and gently shifted them back up.

Weiss gasped as she Penny were freed from stasis, shaking and woozy from the disconnect between the pandemonium in her brain, and her body still as calm as it was when the field was created. Eventually, she recovered, and the two of them stepped out to a laboratory, very different from the rest of the Forge.

For one thing, the floors were hardwood.

The interior looked like an aristocrats' mansion, a love letter to Victorian Era design with ornate crown moulding, simple but elegant patterns on the wallpaper, brass sconces on the walls, the furniture mostly made of wood with elegant gold accents, with Persian rugs, elaborate tapestries, and curtains with tassels completing the look. There were painted portraits and landscapes all over the walls, though for obvious reasons most of the subjects were Fae and the scenes were from the Valley.

Weiss looked at one of the few humans in the portraits, standing beside one of the former Keepers, the two of them clearly good friends. He had a goofy, confident grin, a top hat that had seen much better days, and a friendly aura that made you want to trust him implicitly, or at least know he was of absolutely no harm to anyone.

She was starting to wonder just who that could be, and why he was so familiar, when he stepped in.

He had changed since the portraits were painted, his body now mostly made of the same organic prosthesis as the makers back in the Forge, not to mention the four spider-like limbs growing out from his back, tools and claws at their ends. His face had turned wrinkled, his skin had mottled with age, and his eyes had long been replaced with glowing crystals like Penny's optics, but that smile, that aura, and that iconic top hat stayed.

“Greetings, and a pleasure to finally meet you in person, Weiss!” he trilled, tipping his hat to her. “Maker Abner Jordan Ignatius, at your service! Please, call me Maker Abner, or just Abner.”

Weiss blinked, her memories going way, way back to a shadow puppet play, the one that had caused Winter's lifelong phobia of the Keeper. “Wait, Abner? From the ‘Terrible Tale of the Keeper of the Grove?’ The story was real...?!”

Abner chuckled. “Mostly! I'll explain later, we musn't dawdle! Penny, please do escort your friend to the Magical Resonance Chamber for testing! We must hurry, before it's too late!” he said, hurrying off around the corner.

“Right away, Maker Abner!” Penny said, reaching out for Weiss’ hand.

Weiss pulled it away. “I'm not going anywhere until you explain to me what the hell is going on!”

“We're testing you for the Gift—if you’re a Weaver, in other words!” Abner called from further in. “Assuming your result is positive, we simply can't risk you being at the peak of your power on the Eve of the Ether whilst you have no knowledge nor control of your abilities!”

What abilities?!” Weiss cried as she followed him and ran through a hallway littered with doors and more paintings. “Humans haven't been able to use magic without technology for centuries!” she added as she came to the end, into a massive room littered with all manner of strange equipment.

Abner looked back from where he was operating the terminal of giant chamber lined with carved crystals and metals. “Oh! You mean you weren't authorized to know?” he asked, before he shrugged. “Huh... well, I guess that's not too surprising, in retrospect!”

“Authorized to know what?!” Weiss snapped. “Someone tell me already!”

Penny caught up to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “Weiss, would you like to sit down before I tell you?”

Weiss spun around and face her. “No. You tell me right here, right now.”

Penny paused for a moment, looking uneasy and conflicted, before she said it:

“Weiss… you're a Fae/Human hybrid.”

Chapter Text

Weiss blinked. What.

“You're a Fae/Human hybrid,” Penny repeated. “Your vitae vine data has shown that you have unmistakably Fae genes in your DNA, which explains why your body and mind has been so quick to adapt to everything here in the Valley—part of it already was, before you even arrived here.”

Weiss stood there, staring at her.

Abner picked up a fancy wooden chair, and put it behind Weiss; Penny gently helped her into it.

“H-how long…?” Weiss whispered. “How didn’t anyone? Who…?!

“Err, well, since I’m assuming you’re asking for ‘How long’ your family has had Fae blood in it, ‘How didn’t anyone’ know, and ‘Who’ was the one hiding animal ears and tails, or an older relative that had them...” Abner said.

“For the first: we don’t know.

“You're several generations from your full-blooded Fae ancestor; your human traits were naturally more dominant and/or expressed themselves more blatantly than your Fae traits, like with Ruby's sister Yang; or you're very recent, but whoever did know was smart enough to modify your genetic code so you're essentially human.

“For the second: the trend of 'Designer Descendants' unintentionally gave inter-species liaisons the perfect, socially acceptable cover to erase the fact that, well, one parent wasn't entirely human, or human at all!”

Then who was it?!” Weiss snapped. “Was it my mom? My father? My grandparents?!” she shot out of her seat and stormed up to Abner. “Tell me! And don't give me any of that 'Not authorized' bullshit, this is my family you're talking about!”

Abner raised his hands, all four of his spider-limbs following suit. “I would sincerely love to so we could begin to accurately map out your lineage, but unfortunately, I really don't know! The Council likes to keep very accurate records, but obviously there are things we can't keep track of, and individuals that don't fall through the cracks so much as they intentionally seek them out, and dive through without hesitation and without a trace.

“For all we know, your Fae ancestor could have been a Celestian, where the Council has no dominion—and the folks there are notoriously good at hiding every last trace that they even exist—or they were from one of the independent tribes in Sekhmet!

“In the latter case, I sincerely wish you luck trying to find them, if they haven't already been killed and eaten by scrabs, or any of the other horrors lurking in the sands.”

“So what CAN you tell me?!”

“That hybrids like you are not that rare,” Abner replied. “Certainly, we don't have many first generation Fae-Human hybrids running around in all of Avalon—Ruby, for example—but if I had to guess, 10% or less of the total population have some form of ancestry with the Fae.

“Aside from the fact that both of our societies have long been capable of removing most boundaries for any two individuals to have biological children, later generations or almost entirely human hybrids like yourself and Yang have been shown to be able to reproduce with humans no problem, and vice-versa for those that were born with ears and tails like Ruby.”

“Shouldn't have this have shown up somewhere?” Weiss asked. “You can buy mods off the Info-Grid to change your bioligical gender AND be capable of having children AND make them however you want them!

It's practically one of the best sellers!”

“It should have indeed!” Abner said. “But, you know: politics! Humans and Fae society aren't exactly strangers to gigantic cover-ups, modification, and even outright erasure of facts, history, and new discoveries that would prove to be… quite disruptive to the peaceful order of things!

“And on a less ominous note: accidents, natural disasters, and mistakes DO happen, and regularly.”

Weiss glared at him, her hands balled into fists. “So I'll probably never know anything and it’s going to stay a huge mystery, is that what you're saying?!”

Abner thought about it. “… Pretty much, yes!”

Weiss screamed in frustration, before she turned to Penny, her expression not angry, but hurt. “You knew...?” she whispered, her voice trembling. All this time, you knew…?”

Penny frowned, and nodded her head sadly. “For what it's worth, I really did want to tell you, but--”

“The Council didn't want me to know, until I was down here deep underground, with a man that they enslaved 500 years ago because he was dumb enough to fall for the Keeper's tricks, right?!” Weiss snapped. “What are you going to do if I say 'No,' huh?! Keep me down here and just tell Ruby there was a horrible accident in the Maker's Forge which is why I'm never coming back?!”

“So sorry for interrupting, but Keeper Ilaya didn't trick me into slavery!” Abner said. “That was just the story we propagated so my debtors wouldn't come looking for me anymore, alongside the general goal of keeping us humans out of the Valley.”

Weiss turned around. “Then please, enlighten me with the truth, because I'm pretty sick of all these 'We weren't exactly lying' omissions of it!” she said as she angrily sat back down on the chair.

“Might I convince you to get tested for magical capabilities first?” Abner said, gesturing a hand towards the chamber. “You'll need to be fully conscious for the whole 10 minutes. Don't worry, it won't hurt, though the deliberate stimulation of your magical resonators, should you have them, might tingle.”

“Depends: what happens if I test positive?”

“Well, depending on your elemental alignment, you'll be able to throw fire balls, shoot electricity from your fingertips, punch with the power of an earthquake, or freeze things with a wave of your hand, possibly whilst singing a catchy tune about your powers!” Abner chuckled.

Weiss and Penny stared at him blankly.

“Sorry, Old World holos! There's only so many projects I can busy myself with... anyway, shall we?”

“Can it help me get answers from the Council?” Weiss asked.

“I'd be surprised if didn’t! Rogue Weavers are one of the greatest threats to Fae society, alongside Soul Eaters, and human beings in general.”

Weiss got up. “Then let's do this,” she said as she stepped into the chamber.

Splendid!” Abner said. “Now, before I begin the experiment, I must warn you that you will begin to float in mid-air, and the constant bombardment of low-intensity magic waves will likely cause a constant but harmless thrumming in your chest, alongside the aforementioned tingling.”

“I've sat through the entirety of my father's shareholders’ balls speeches looking interested for the holos,” Weiss said as she stepped in. “Trust me, I've had worse,”

“Then let the testing begin!” Abner said, dramatically raising his hand, and pushing the big, round “Start” button with his index finger.

The crystals around Weiss began glow as they charged with magic and faded as they released it, the waves being absorbed or reflected by the metals. Her feet lifted up a few inches from the floor, her hair lazily floated around her head, her fingers and toes tingled, and her chest was being hit by a soft, rhythmic pounding.

It was like she was in the middle of an anti-gravity chamber that had static electricity generators and subwoofers blasting at the lowest settings possible.

“You alright in there?” Abner asked as he monitored the various readouts.

“I'm fine, just… tingly.” Weiss said.

Abner chuckled. “Good, good, that's a wonderful sign! Now, shall I start with the True Tale of the Keeper of the Grove? Well, my section of it, anyway; can't speak for Guillermo, seeing as he's dead, and Comtessa was FAR before I was even born!”

“Sure,” Weiss replied. “What really happened…?”


Well, the part about me being potentially one of Lumania's greatest minds was certainly true.

Aside from the fact that my parents were rather fond of genetic engineering to create the smartest, most charming, and most athletically gifted progeny possible, my father was quite rich and born of a noble family, and my other father was also one of the latest candidates for secretary to Steward Reese—the one who was assigned to Lumania at the time.

Unfortunately, wealth, prestige, and luxury tend to make people complacent, and my family quickly fell to ruin, overtaken by both daring new upstarts in business and academe, and a number of sordid scandals I won't bother you with the details of.

I was still in utero when they ran out of funds or other means to continue my gene therapy, currently in the middle of vastly increasing my intellectual capacity and energy levels. The doctors said the pregnancy could continue without any significant problems, and they didn't need to go deep into debt to either reverse the procedures or complete them, so they busied themselves with making as comfortable a life as they could with whatever was left, along with something for my surrogate mother.

'What's the worst that could happen,' they thought?

As it turns out: hypomania and academic excellence, marred by a lifetime of impulse control problems!

Think days of intense work, pushing the boundaries of science and our understanding of reality, stupefying the public and impressing the most advanced minds at the time, followed by weeks of wild daredevil stunts, poorly thought out business ventures, illicit sexual escapades, gambling, and numerous terrible decisions made in the heat of the moment, such as an incident involving a prostitute with an artificial leg, a lamp post, and an umbrella.

My goodness, life before my governor was hell: procrastination, distraction, and guilt at what I could have been doing with my time, energy, and skill than researching everything there was about Joe Pesci, which lead to even more procrastination, distraction, and guilt…

It was a vicious cycle, is what I'm saying.

And it didn't really help that I decided to go against dear daddies' advice and slowly build up wealth I could safely call my own, and instead borrowed extensively, on the promise that I'd get my metaphorical shit together long enough to start a venture that would pay it back several fold in the coming years.”

Abner shuddered. “Never doubt the saying that a loan from a Valentinian is for life.

Once it began to look like I was going to be unable to show anything of note, they began to hound me, day and night. Soon enough, they didn't even want the money any more, they just wanted to get their hands on me, because apparently my uncanny ability to avoid them was starting to humiliate their organization, put cracks in their reputation as people you do not trifle with lest you pay the inevitable consequences, and make people begin to doubt their claim that they would find you and get you, wherever you were.

And believe me, after they chased me out of Lumania, they found me, every single time.

Be it the Nexus...”

Valentian Debt Collectors burst into a temple for the Holy Shepherd. The congregation and the custodian preaching at the time did not appreciate the intrusion, but paid them little heed soon enough. Out of respect, the uniformed goons acted discretely, apologizing as they methodically swept the pews, looked for opportunities to peek into the rooms on the sides, whispering into their comm-crystals than shouting to each other.

A line of hooded shipmates walked down the aisle, on their way out the doors. A goon passing by noticed one of them seemed a little too engrossed in his copy of Captain Piper's Logs, holding the hardbound book right up to his face.

She took a risk, pulled it down.

She and Abner made eye contact.

“Well praise be to Piper,” she said, grinning evilly.

WHAM!

Abner smacked her upside the head with two-inch thick tome, stunning her long enough for him to run deeper into the temple.

The goons shouted and tore through the pews, members of the congregation screaming and fleeing while the poor custodian had to abandon ship as Abner threw the book at the stained glass window behind her, shattering part of it into pieces.

He launched off the altar and through where Steward Valentino's crotch used to be, the goons shattering the rest of the window as they tried to follow him out the same way, with much less grace.

“… Sekhmet...”

Debt collectors in weather-appropriate garb roamed the dunes on a sand-surfer, cloth and goggles around their heads to protect them from the howling winds. The scout on the bow saw a small, inconspicuous stone building nearly buried underneath a mound, and raised their hand.

The leader of the group called for the pilot to stop.

They landed, and made their way inside the seclusion.

The hermits inside paid them little mind, engrossed in their meditation or their chores. The goons began to explore the interior, opening up clay pots, opening doors and looking in, peering past beards and overgrown hair, trying to look for a familiar face.

One of them stopped before a statue of a man down on one knee, his face bowed as he offered a massive bowl of fruit to a relief of the infamous Red Queen of Sekhmet, the inspiration for the Queensguard.

He was about to walk on by, before he saw the “statue” shudder, trying to hold back a sneeze. He leaned down, peered into the face still resolutely pointed downwards, eyes closed.

“Over here!” the goon called out, and soon the five-person crew were standing in a semi-circle around Abner, guns and clubs out, watching him shake and sweat, relishing the moment before they moved in for the kill.

Abner's arms gave way, the bowl fell to the floor, the offerings rolling before the guard's feet.

They paid it no heed, until one of them noticed a “pomegranate” beeping.

Boom.

The guards regained their sight and hearing just before Abner ran away with their sandskiff, pilot included as had enough Urochs and valuables to pay her for the other half of the trip.

“… And then there was that kerfuffle in Solaris!”

Abner screamed at the top of his lungs as he stood at the helm of a tiny sky-skiff.

Just behind him, Black Cross, Jade Empire, and Jahiliyyah forces shot each other out of the air, damaged and sparking ships crashing into buildings, the streets, and the Endless Sea below with reinforcements constantly coming in to replace them, fighting to the death for the massive bounty on Abner's head and the lifetime of good favour it would afford them with Valentino and all its riches.

The Justices on the ground, the rooftops, and the Halls debated stepping in, or just letting them do their work for them.

There was a brief stint of hiding out in the independent communities trying to make it outside of the city states, but I am a man of many creature comforts, and I simply couldn't make it as a simple farmer, or a wandering trader...”

“Mama NO!” a young woman cried as a pantsless Abner fled for the hills as her mother tried to shoot him with a hunting rifle.

“… Well, that, and there are no secrets in such small communities.

So I decided to hide where they least expected me to: Valentino itself. Which worked out surprisingly well, actually! I lasted there for all of two years, since there's so many other fugitives, quasi-legal enterprises, and bad debts that need attention on a regular basis, their infamous tunnel vision and single-minded determination worked to their detriment.

“… Unfortunately, those same problems that got me into such deep debt in the first place hadn't disappeared, and they found me soon enough—fittingly enough, after I flirted with an off-duty collector at a bar.

To be fair, I REALLY should have been more suspicious when she said she recognized me from somewhere.

I must confess: I didn't assemble a last ditch expedition into the Valley, to attempt to find something to bring back and pay off my debts. Even my charms have limits, and there's only so many bridges you can burn before you're just surrounded by water you can't cross, and your pursuers all have motorboats.

For better or worse, the Valentinian Debt Collection Agency had made a serious cost-benefit analysis, and it'd be best for their reputation and their bottom line if I just happened to completely, officially disappear off the face of the realm or die in some mysterious way of my own hand, so they wouldn't have to admit that they only found me by pure happenstance, and they could begin moving on from the giant stain in their reputation that I had become.

It would have been the end of me, if they hadn't insisted on 'Doing it the right way,' by digging a shallow grave to throw my soon-to-be lifeless body in. And as you know, the bedrock only begins to stop once you're deep in the Valley proper…

“… And that's when Ily—err, Keeper Ilaya—found us.”

Chapter Text

Fuckin' hell, can you dig any slower?!” the Boss of the Valentinian goons complained.

“This'd go a lot faster if someone didn’t pull off that shit with the dirt-blasters!” replied one of the goons digging with shovels.

“In my defense, it did significantly cut our travel time past that mountain!” Abner said as he stood with his hands and ankles shackled together. “Why take the long way 'round when you can just send your carriage straight through it, right?”

All five of the goons glared at Abner, trigger fingers itching, knuckles turning white from how tightly they were gripping their shovels.

“… I'll just be quiet now...” Abner muttered.

“You do that...” spat the other goon on shallow grave duty.

All was quiet for a while save for the sounds of digging and cursing.

Awright, that's deep enough!” said the Boss. “Get outta there, grab your guns, and let's all shoot this motherfucker dead—and I want ALL those clips on empty, and a grenade on his face when we're done, in case he's wearin’ bulletproof clothes again!”

“Do we have to shoot him, Boss?” asked one of the goons climbing out the hole.

“What, you want to give ‘im a chance to pull off more of that Houdini shit on us?!” the Boss barked.

“Nah, I was wondering if we couldn't just beat the ever loving shit out of him till he stops moving,” the goon replied. “Got a LOT of stress built up from the trip here, and I want to let it all out before we all head home.”

One of the other goons snorted. “He not help you enough when you thought we were all asleep?”

Fuck off!”

“All of youse, shut up!” the Boss cried. “We shoot him, toss some dirt over ‘im, then we get the fuck outta here, all accordin' plan!”

“What, you afraid the Keeper's gonna get us?” one of them teased.

“Never thought you'd be scared of fairy tales, Boss,” another hummed.

“Keeper, wild animals, whatever the fuck is killing and eating everyone that comes here, I don't want to meet 'em, capisce? Now get your guns before my trigger finger 'slips!'”

“Alright, alright!” “We're going, we're going!”

Soon, all five of them were standing in front of Abner, his feet right on the edge of his grave, the barrels of their guns point-blank on his chest.

“Anyone have any last words before we ice this fucker?”

“I'd just like to--” Abner started.

“Anyone other than this fucker have any last words before we ice ‘im?”

Yes,” said a new voice. “Get out of the Valley before I have to dig graves for ALL of you.”

The goons spun around, and came face to face with the Keeper.

I had the good fortune of being knocked into my grave; ironically, it ended up saving my life as it was just deep enough for me to avoid all the bullets that went flying around, or being caught in Ilaya's scythe swings, and also gave me time to finally pull out the lock pick I'd fashioned from the dirt-blasters.

It was a miniature seismic-wave generator that could easily liquify the anchors for my bindings, you see.”

You made that on a bare-bones trip to the Valley, with five armed Valentinian Debt Collectors who wanted you dead riding with you and watching over you at all times?” Weiss asked.

Abner nodded. “The key is to feign stupidity; people will be wary of a smart man, but quickly grow tired of an idiot. And sometimes, actual stupidity works in your favour, when it provides you with a new angle you hadn't seen before, or a window of opportunity.

Anyway, I managed to break my cuffs, and waited for the sounds of fighting to stop. After that, I attempted to climb out, after which a hand reached in to help pull me out. I had assumed that the Keeper had left, and that one of the goons had survived and had made the rational choice of keeping me alive to better our chances of survival…

“… Only it wasn't one of them, it was Ilaya.”

Abner stared up at the face of fear itself, her crimson eyes glowing in the darkness, his hand wrapped tightly around hers, frozen like the rest of his body.

You okay?” Ilaya asked.

Abner screamed, his free hand pulling out the lock pick, and blasting Ilaya's wrist with it. She yelped, unharmed but surprised, he took the opportunity to use the last of the pick’s battery to dig handholds for himself.

STOP!” Ilaya cried as he scrambled out and ran into the woods.

Abner replied by screaming even louder.

SERIOUSLY, STOP! YOU'RE GOING TO RUN OFF A--”

Abner wailed and flailed his limbs in the air as the ground beneath his feet suddenly disappeared.

“… Cliff…!” Ilaya finished too late.

His screaming continued for a few more seconds.

Thud.

Ilaya ran up to the edge of the cliff with the help of her mask's night vision. “Are you still alive down there...?” she yelled. “Groan once for 'Yes,' and—uh, I guess I'll just climb down and look for you! Wait right there!

At that, Abner's head shot up from the ground. The canopy was thinner here, the moonlight illuminating the little grove of plants he had found himself in. He grabbed one of the wild tubers by the stalk, and pulled it up as food for later.

He stopped as he realized that it had a face.

:o

Abner blinked.

D:

The elemental started letting out a high-pitched, ear-drum bursting wail. Abner dropped it and clapped his hands over his ears, running through the grove as the rest of them woke up and joined in the bone-chilling pandemonium.

I ran until the screams of the elementals stopped ringing in my ears, at least, and found myself in an ironbark forest. The Fae do in fact harvest them from the wild, considering that it's difficult to replicate the conditions that allow the quality they desire for their weapons and other projects. Aside from that, they only ever grow so strong thanks to the constant love and attention of their symbiotic caretakers:

Steel Spiders.”

Abner stopped for breath, put his hand against a tree for support. He didn't notice that he had cut himself on the bark until he felt something other than sweat dripping down his palms. He quickly pulled it away, wrapped his wounds with some bandages he always had stashed somewhere on his body, before he took in his new surroundings.

The moonlight shined down on the ironbark trees, massive, angular titans with branches that shot out like metal spikes, twisting and turning like a set for a horror movie. All that was really missing were the bodies and viscera hanging from them.

Abner nervously made his way through a spacious gap in the trees.

He hadn't noticed the steel-silk web until his palm had already been caught in it.

Twang.

Abner paused as he heard the strand vibrate, letting out a musical sound like an instrument's string being plucked. He turned his head to the noise, watching it vibrate an attached strand, and another, and another, making an admittedly lovely chime.

Then he saw some of the ironbark “branches” start moving, eight eyes opening and glowing in the dark.

Abner tried to pull his hand from the web, but it was stuck, and the strand held strong.

The music became louder. More and more of the webs began to resonate, alerting the other steel spiders that there was prey.

Abner bit back a yelp and began to walk backwards, trying to see how far the strand could stretch until it broke. He stopped as soon as he felt several sticky somethings attach to his back. His teeth began to draw blood as he tried to jump forward, and accidentally got his foot caught in a low-hanging web.

The chiming had become a full on melody now, echoing all throughout the grove. Even more of the spiders woke up, excited, for it seemed like there was even MORE prey that had gotten caught in their webs.

Abner desperately, violently jerked his limbs and staggered around, trying to free himself from the webs, only succeeding in getting himself even more tangled until he could not move an inch. The music he was making would have actually been quite pleasant to the ear, had it not also been the dinner bell for the steel spiders, and the soundtrack to his doom.

Abner saw one of them begin to crawl down the ironbark tree closest to him.

His two eyes met the spider's eight, saw his reflection in those glimmering orbs, its giant fangs curl and twist upwards.

:3

Abner screamed.

“… Would steel spiders happen to be why Fae invented the word for 'BIG FUCKING SPIDER, RUN!'?” Weiss asked.

Oh, goodness no! Those are MUCH larger than the steel spiders could ever be and bounds more dangerous.”

“… How large are we talking about?”

Oh, somewhere between half the size of a building such as the Plushie Palace, to little larger than it.”

“… Do these happen to live in the Valley?”

Oh no, they live in the—ow, OW, OW—sorry about that, seems my thought process got too fast for my governor and it had to pull the emergency brake. Shall I resume the story?”

Can we skip to after Ilaya rescues you?”

Can we not? It's quite a daring, musical escape; the melody she made as she cut the webs and sometimes even plucked them intentionally to fool the spiders is permanently stuck in my head, both for being so catchy, and because this was how I got my crippling fear of steel spiders and ironbark groves!”

I think I'll pass, thank you...”

Oh, alright... anyway, after Ilaya performed her daring rescue, she took me far away from the grove and to a stream so she could refill her canteen—chasing after someone like me is thirsty work. Because the grand crescendo of the rescue, where she stunned the entire grove of spiders with a sound not unlike an especially powerful electric guitar riff, I had become temporarily deaf, and couldn't understand a word of what she was saying.

She tried her best, but unfortunately, Keepers are better at killing the horrors of the Valley than they are at breaking language barriers...”

Abner stared at the Keeper, frozen in fear, dumbly nodding his head as she made cryptic signs with her hands, no doubt what horrible, terrible things she was going to do to him if he misbehaved.

She had taken off her mask, revealing a surprisingly human and friendly face, nothing even remotely close to what they rumoured to lay underneath that skeletal visage, but he knew all too well the disconnect between friendly appearances and what sort of person lay underneath.

Satisfied that Abner understood she wasn't going to kill him, that there were going to be more horrible things that would actually try to kill him if he got out of her sight, and that she was just going to get a drink of water, Ilaya turned around and pulled out her canteen from inside her cloak.

She was taking a long drink of water when she heard a splash.

She spat it all out as she noticed that Abner wasn't where she left him any more.

I'm quite an excellent swimmer, as it was a regular part of my cardio exercises, and a lot of my more daring and close escapes have been made through watery routes—you'd be surprised at how many people close off the streets first, and sometimes never bother to check the sewers or the canals, Valentino being the only exception.

I could have easily escaped Ilaya, if not for the carnivorous fish that lived in that river who did NOT appreciate my presence.”

Ilaya ran along the bank, her mask back on her face, trying to find Abner's aura—a difficult task as the magic in the water was gumming up the sensors.

Bubbles rose up to the surface—as they popped, Ilaya could hear the staggered bits and pieces of a now familiar scream.

She dove into the water.

Splash!

Moments later, pieces of dead fish floated up to the surface. Ilaya broke through soon after, gasping for breath and hauling Abner over her shoulder. She dug her scythe into the roots of a tree growing over the water, and pulled them back up to dry land.

She laid Abner on his rear, held him up by his shoulders. “You okay?” she asked.

Abner threw up all over her.

“… Probably should have seen that coming!”

You were extremely lucky that Penny's creators had the foresight to build a water filtration unit for her; the microbes and elements in the Valley's water are vicious little buggers if you aren't adapted, and the ones in magic-enriched water like that river more so.

I was stuck in the hospital for weeks! I should have died from a mixture of dehydration and water-borne illnesses, but Ilaya, kindhearted soul that she was, managed to convince the Council it'd be better to try and keep me alive than euthanize me.

And this was no mean feat: up to that point, no one knew anything about me other than the fact that a Valentinian organization thought it was necessary to bring me all the way here to execute, and it wouldn't have been too far of a stretch to assume that I was a gigantic problem they wanted gone for good reason.

It didn't help that caring for me was difficult, with at least two menders on me at all times and hourly visits from a water weaver trying to detoxify my body and acclimate it to the Valley.

And oh sweet Shepherd, the buckets. There were so many buckets!

About the only thing that kept me going was that Ilaya always came by to try and cheer me up, and as I'd later find out, act as a subtle means to guard against someone euthanizing me under the Council’s noses.

This was before they installed my governor, and I was quite loopy from the water, the sickness, and the trauma, you see.

Eventually I recovered, and together with Ilaya, made my case for the Council. I was a controversial issue ever since she returned from patrol early with me unconscious over her shoulder, and the division only grew with how expensive my treatment was, and the opportunities lost to both the Valley and the Fae that took care of me.

I managed to convey to them that I was a highly skilled inventor, and with Ilaya's help to keep me on track, I helped create the Tubes. Funny how it was inspired by my noticing how fast the current was taking me and the distance it was helping me put between me and the aquatic predators trying to kill and/or eat me, and my complaining about how long it used to take to get to and from Keeper's Hollow to the rest of the Bastion—even if all that rowing did wonders for my arms!

That was where I helped build the very first Tube station, by the way, with the maiden voyage being to the Tree of Life, the second station.

As I had proven myself more than worth everything they had already invested in me, I voluntarily had a governor-chronicle installed to help tame my worst impulses, took a vow to maintain the Fae's secrecy, and I've been living the good life here in the Valley since.

And that, Weiss, is the True Tale of the Keeper of the Grove!

“… Well, my section, at least.”

Chapter Text

“So the part about the Keeper leading you through the Valley and tempting you…?” Weiss asked.

“All poppycock!” Abner replied. “If Ily had even attempted to offer me seeds from the Valley, there would have been serious consequences for the both of us, and I guarantee you I wouldn’t be coming back to human settlements with them, if they didn’t imprison or kill me first.”

“And the ending, where you were tricked into drinking cursed water…?”

“Artistic license. The river was in fact enchanted, but it’s just a base component for life-water, mana-water, and some forms of elemental weaving.”

“And the eternal slavery?”

Abner smiled. “Well, we had to ensure that my debtors wouldn’t feel the need to go looking for a corpse or any traces of their ill-fated crew, would they? And besides, what better way to scare off Valentinians than with the one thing they fear:

Uncompensated labour!”

“The eternal life part was actually spread much later, seeded into other rumours of the Keeper after the original account had been around for so long it had mutated all on its own. It was Ilaya’s idea, after I accepted the Council’s offer of vastly extending my own life to continue my work, if at the cost of never leaving the Valley ever again, and being the organoid—my term for organic cyborgs like myself—you see before you now.”

“And you accepted?”

Abner chuckled. “Why wouldn’t I have? I was free from all of my debts, had all the equipment and funding I could ever want or need plus a constant supply of fascinating projects to occupy myself with, and a means of controlling my worst impulses and keeping me on track.

Sweet Shepherd, if anyone over at the human territories ever invents something like these governors, they would become an overnight trillionaire! Though I shudder to think at what would happen to Avalon when you have a human workforce that suddenly no longer suffers from lost productivity due to distraction...”

Abner’s face fell. “About the only real con was that I would, and did, outlive Ilaya.”

“The two of you were close?”

Abner smiled bitterly. “She was my best friend, before or after the Valley. I’ve never met a kinder soul, someone who was willing to put up with so much from me because they knew that for all my problems, I was going to be more than worth all the effort—both to herself, as a companion for life, and for the rest of society, as you can experience for yourself whenever you ride the Tubes.”

He looked off into the distance. “Though, to be fair, it’s not like she was spoiled for choice with friends...”

“I suppose living in Keeper’s Hollow made it difficult.” Weiss said. “Why do they live so far away...?”

“Keepers attract trouble like super-powered magnets, and their living far away from the rest of the Bastion reduces the collateral damage when the metaphorical 'shit goes down,'” Abner said. “Well, that other reasons I’m afraid my governor is telling me I’m not allowed to tell you.”

Weiss grumbled under her breath.

“Stand by! The test is almost about to finish.”

Soon enough, the machine powered down completely, and Weiss feet went back down to the ground. “Well?” she asked as she stepped out.

Abner was hard at work at the terminal. “Just one moment to double-check the results and… congratulations, Weiss, you are a Weaver, attuned to Elemental Water, with astoundingly high power levels, and incredible potential for further growth beside!

“I knew Ruby saw something in you!”

Weiss nodded. “Should I be feeling anything?” she said as she looked at her hand and turned it over. “Because I don’t feel any different from before I stepped in.”

Abner chuckled. “That’s because we haven’t given you a focus yet! Remember the runeblade you wielded in your Honey Dream with the others? The Rune Ranger section, at least.”

Weiss nodded. “Yeah, it felt… weird in my hand. Good weird.”

“Even more evidence you’re a Weaver, this test just confirmed it.” Abner said as he shut down the chamber. “Penny, take Weiss along to the Raucous Room, while I take your potential focus out of storage; if the results are going to be even half as I hypothesize they will be, I want you in a facility specifically meant to be completely, utterly destroyed without consequence.”

“Yes, Maker Abner,” Penny said. She didn't reach out for Weiss and gestured out the testing room, and kept a noticeable distance from Weiss as they went off to the hallways once more.

They walked in awkward silence for a while.

“Hey...” Weiss said. “Sorry about earlier, when I snapped at you… that was really wrong of me.”

Penny smiled. “Apology accepted. I understand that given everything you’ve just learned, the temptation to ‘shoot the messenger’ is very strong indeed!”

Weiss nodded. “Why does the Council keep so many secrets?”

“Controlling the flow of information is key to maintaining the peace and authority of the settlements; an uninformed public tends to be a docile one, especially when there is an ever present and very real threat from outside forces occupying their immediate thoughts.”

“Isn’t that facism?”

“It is, and is one of the largest reasons for the separatist movements, such as the Celestians.”

“Democracy lose the popular vote?” Weiss joked.

Penny nodded. “There have been attempts to change the system, from both regular citizens, members of the Council, and local leaders, but it’s extremely difficult to do so given the fact that all of our vital, life-supporting technology and infrastructure rely heavily on pre-existing construction dating back to the Enkindling Era, and the Fae's complex symbiotic relationship with their environment beside.

“All successful Fae mass migrations and separations from the original settlements have relied heavily on truly exceptional circumstances—one of which is you humans arriving here in Avalon.”

Weiss nodded as they entered a giant basement, the walls, floors, and ceilings a pale brown, made of square tiles arranged in a neat grid. “I guess aliens landing and making themselves home will throw the natives for a loop...” she muttered.

“The entirety of Avalon, actually!” Abner cried as he met them, a long, ornate box in his hands. “The realm was very different before we humans arrived. Now, I’m sure you’re growing quite tired of all the history lessons, and are eager to test your powers, but just a few things to get out of the way first:

“One, this is not a brand new weapon, and is actually very, very, very ancient. I’m afraid whoever owned it before you has been permanently lost to time.”

“Two, Fae Ancestral Weapons, while very powerful from the essences absorbed from their previous owners and their battles, are also EXTREMELY picky about who owns them next. From what Elder Goodwitch tells me, so far this one has never had a successor, so the likelihood of it rejecting you is very high.”

“And three, alongside that power also tends to come memories, knowledge, and instincts, which while normally beneficial in that it allows even total beginners to become formidable fighters in record time, it sometimes comes with detrimental side effects to mental health, so please, please tell me if you suddenly have intense moments of deja vu, intimate memories of events that happened long before you were even born, and especially if you’re referring to people by their ancestor’s names.

“I am obliged to mention, the effect is especially pronounced with Weaver’s weapons such as this.

Abner put his hand on the lid. “And now, without further ado, I present to you...

Myrtenaster!”

The runeblade inside the velvet cushions looked like an Old World Relic, an ornate rapier that had been later modified with an essence revolver, much like the one she had wielded in the honey dream. Inscribed on the hilt was the weapon’s name in German.

“Well, go on now! Take it!” Abner said. “Don’t worry: if it rejects you, I can manufacture you a new runeblade within the hour, among other alternatives.”

Weiss slowly put her hand over it. Even though the cylinder had been empty of mediums for centuries, she could feel the power radiating from it. She wrapped her fingers around the handle.

Immediately, magic surged from Weiss' hand and into the sword, the blade glowing a pale blue like ice. She pulled out of the box, held it up and admired the glow. She’d never quite seen anything so beautiful...

Ha-ha!” Abner cried. “I knew my suspicion was correct!’

Penny clapped her hands. “Congratulations on being chosen, Weiss! Being named the successor of an Ancestral Weapon is a--”

They all stopped as even more power surged into the weapon, the glow growing ominous, water-like tendrils now spiraling around the blade and meeting up at the top as a bubble of energy. Weiss thought she really should let go, but couldn’t, like her fingers were frozen.

Beat.

Abner screamed as he dove well out of the way, Penny reached out and grabbed her arm, wrestling the point of her blade away from them.

A beam of concentrated magic shot out moments after, cutting a straight line across the ceiling and the far-wall.

Weiss wrenched her hand free of her sword, her whole body shaking.

Myrtenaster clattered to the floor.

The damaged panels fell off, cleanly cut apart where the laser had split them, new ones teleported in shortly after.

Penny let go of her arm, and held her steady by her shoulders. “Detecting severely elevated vital signs, brain activity, and extremely high magical levels! Are you okay, Weiss?!”

HOLY SHIT, THAT WAS AWESOME!” Weiss screamed, grinning from ear to ear, her eyes wild.

Abner frowned. “Oh dear, here comes the power high!” he said as he stood back up.

“Are you sure you don’t want to take a break first…?” Penny asked, smiling nervously.

HELL NO!” Weiss replied, now looking dangerously pale. “Give me my sword back! Gimme! Gimme!”

Penny looked at Abner.

<… Penny: Paralytic Shock, Intensity 1.>

<Yes, Maker Abner,> Penny replied.

She let go of Weiss with one hand, the other crackling with magic.

“Sorry, Weiss,” she said, before she put her hand to her chest, and everything went dark.


Weiss came to on the floor of the Raucous Room, lying on her back with Penny kneeling over her and Myrtenaster laying on her other side.

“Are you alright, Weiss?” Penny asked as she helped her up to a sitting position.

“I feel… really weirdly good, actually!” Weiss muttered. “What happened?”

“You were suffering from an overload of internal magical energy, and I had to shock you unconscious.”

“So sorry about that!” Abner said, his voice booming from the PA system. “For better or worse, with unstable Weavers, it’s safer for everyone involved if you knock them out first, and calm them down later.”

“Why?” Weiss aksed. “What would have happened if you didn’t?”

“You would have exploded,” Penny replied.

Weiss blinked. “'Exploded'…?”

“The official term is ‘Catastrophic Involuntary Discharge,’ where like an overloaded mana collector, the excess energy is unable to be contained, and is released into the immediate environment as a result—oftentimes violently.

Holy shit...” Weiss whispered. “Is it wrong that I still want to use my powers more?”

“Not at all!” Penny said. “This is actually quite healthy, that you feel the need to discharge your excess mana reserves. The only real issue here is that you do it safely, and in amounts that don’t overwhelm you like earlier.”

“How do I do that?”

“In the long-term, regular weaver training, continuing your farming, and making processed goods from them will help tremendously,” Penny replied. “Without a doubt, your body unconsciously leaking excess magic is what caused your moonshine to be so potent, and your creations to turn into elementals—both the most recent ones, and the goo monster back at the Job Gauntlet.”

Golems began to warp in around her. They were all simpler and more inhuman than Penny, designed like medieval knights in full plate armour, Fae-made weapons in their hands. All of them of them were the size of an adult human, except for a giant titan four times as large as them with an executioner’s blade to match.

“And in the short-term, you can help me get some valuable data about you and your powers by destroying everything you see around you—preferably with your magic,” Abner finished.

Weiss looked around and smiled as the Knight Golems came to life, standing at attention with their weapons at rest.

Penny picked up Myrtenaster, then held it out to her with upturned palms.

Weiss took it. Now that she knew what was coming, she had much better control over her flow of magic, and as a plus, the feeling of it amplifying it several times over still felt amazing.

“Stay back, Penny,” she said as she stepped forward, the first of the knights mirroring her. “This is going to get messy.”

Penny curtsied and giggled. “As you wish, 'mistress~'” she said playfully, before she ran to the side, into a bunker Abner had just warped in.

One of the knights stepped forward, a swordsman.

Weiss curtsied, it bowed, and they raised their weapons.

The knight charge, both hands on its blade.

Weiss readied herself to meet it with her rapier, before she felt Myrtenaster pulse in her hand, images, wordless ideas and suggestions echo in her head.

She smiled, and stabbed the sword into the ground.

A sheet of ice came rocketing out, catching the swordsman unaware. It slipped and fell, Weiss stood aside as it zoomed on past her. The ice cracked and dissolved back into pure mana as soon as her opponent slid past it, but there was no time to complain:

The next knight was stepping up.

Again, she curtsied, he bowed, before he charged her with his sword.

Weiss held up her free hand, spreading her fingers open, a sheet of solid ice forming in front of her.

The knight swung.

Crash!

The shield shattered into a million pieces, barely stopping the blade from meeting her shoulder.

The attack didn’t hurt, but the blow to her ego certainly stung.

The knight stepped back, gestured apologetically.

“I’m fine,” Weiss said as she readied herself again.

The knight did the same, stepping back a few feet, before he swung again.

This time, Weiss didn’t try to block the blow with her magic, but with Myrtenaster. The runeblade was bounds stronger than its thin appearance would have suggested, and knight’s blade came to a stop. However, it still had brute force on its side, and it pushed down on Weiss with most of its strength.

Again, the golem's blade struck home, on her other shoulder.

Once more, no injury, except to her pride.

Weiss gritted her teeth, saw that the knight overbalanced, falling forward and leaving his chest open.

She slammed her off-hand into him, magic pouring into the knight’s chassis, before it turned into freezing cold ice.

The knight staggered back from the blow, stunned.

Weiss stabbed it three times with Myrtenaster, the knight staggering back if it had been blasted by a firehouse.

The shock wore off, it began to move once more.

Weiss grinned as she cocked her off-hand back, then thrust it forward.

The knight went crashing to his back, and skidded back a few inches.

The icicle jutting out from Weiss hand stayed in the air, before it disappeared, the leftover magic falling and glimmering in the air like frost.

The golem was hauled off to the side by the third knight, this one armed with a repeater.

Weiss curtsied, he bowed, then got into a shooting position.

Dummy darts began to fly through the air and into Weiss. She raised up her off-hand, formed another ice shield, but it too shattered after only a handful of shots. She raised up Myrtenaster, closed her eyes and thought:

Shield.”

The hail of blanks stopped. Weiss opened her eyes, saw the darts landing on a translucent barrier in front of her, ripples of energy spreading out from the points of impact before they harmlessly dropped off.

The knight reloaded.

Weiss circled Myrtenaster in the air, the ripples spiraled into the middle.

The knight raised its firing arm.

A beam of water shot out from Myrtenaster, and bored a sizable hole into its chest.

It looked down at itself, up at Weiss, nodded, then promptly collapsed.

“You seem to be getting the hang of this quite quickly!” Abner said. “Shall I up the difficulty?”

Weiss grinned. “As high as you can make it.”

“Well… good thing I had the foresight to equip them all with blanks!” Abner replied.

The knights all bowed as one, before they raised their weapons and charged.

Chapter Text

The army of knight golems thundered towards Weiss, what semblance of chivalry and fairness they were displaying earlier gone as they assembled into a proper fighting force: melee fighters forming a front-line; shooters, crossbowmen, and cannoneers taking firing positions in the back; the giant between them lumbering towards her, its executioner's blade glimmering ominously in the light.

Weiss ran straight for them, dragging Myrtenaster's blade on the floor behind her, both hands on the hilt as her magic surged into it. She swung upwards, and a tsunami of magic rose up from the floor and crashed straight into the army.

Those that didn't collapse on impact were swept away by the tide, flying off to the sides or sent crashing into the knights behind them. Weiss was disappointed they weren't capable of speech, as she would have loved to hear their screams.

The back-line ran away from the wave, and even the giant braced itself, magic and its lighter fellows crashing into and streaming past its ankles.

Weiss laughed as she pulled up her sword. “Is that all you've got?!”

The knights of the front-line threw off or climbed over their fallen comrades, then continued the charge. At the same time, the back-line let loose a hail of bullets, bolts, and blasts, all arcing towards Weiss.

“...”

She braced herself, and formed a barrier around her.

It soon sounded like the Flood had come early, the projectiles crashing into the barrier one after the other like like pouring rain, explosions ringing in her ears like thunder, the translucent shell cloudy and chaotic from all the ripples of energy spreading all over its surface. It took all she had to keep her grip on Myrtenaster, her arms beginning to ache as her magic began to reach its limit.

Suddenly, the rain of projectiles stopped.

Weiss put her sword down, let out a sigh of relief, just as the first of the front-line came charging at her.

The knights were merciless, attacking her from all sides. Weiss dodged the swing of an axe only to get caught in the side by a sword; she dodged a spear thrust, only to get smacked in the side of the head by a hammer. She fell to her stomach on the floor, upon which all of the knights surrounded her and began to literally kick her while she was down.

The weapons were blanks, and they were all pulling their attacks so much every blow felt like being smacked around with foam bats, but somehow, the humiliation hurt worse than the broken bones, internal bleeding, and painful death she would have suffered had they been going all-out with real armaments.

Weiss gritted her teeth, pulled Mytrenaster and her arms underneath her chest, where the knights couldn't try to step on them and pin them to the floor. She closed her eyes, ignored the dull thumps assaulting her from all sides, and concentrated.

“Should I stop the simulation?!” Abner asked, switching his optics to infrared for the knights crowded around her.

A magical geyser erupted, sending the vanguard flying off as Weiss spiraled into the air, smiling and balancing on the toes of one foot.

Not yet!” she cried triumphantly.

As she began to fall back to the ground, she noticed the titan's fist coming towards her.

Just before it impacted, she had a flash from five years ago, during her final exam at the La Maupin School of Combat Arts in the Nexus. The golem became a holo dummy, a knight just like the one she was fighting, only all of the safeties were off.

Pow!

Weiss flew off, to the far side of the arena.

There was no pain, no blood trickling down her left eye and leaving her half-blind for the rest of the fight, but it stung all the same.

Goodness gracious!” Abner cried, the knights lowering their weapons as Weiss picked herself back up. “Should I stop the fight?”

Keep it going!” Weiss barked, as she had that day.

The knights didn't hesitate. The vanguard reformed around the titan, and the back-line launched another hail of projectiles towards her.

Weiss put her off-hand in front of her, frost already already pouring from her fingers, and pointed her runeblade on the floor behind her, tendrils of water spiraling into the tip. It wasn't a jet of pure elemental fire, but it'd have to do.

Swoosh!

She blasted off, skating on a trail of ice that disappeared as soon as her heels slid past it, a determined grin on her face.

The bullets, bolts, and blasts landed and exploded where she was just a moment ago; the melee troops spun their heads as they watched her zoom past them, the shooters adjusted their aim. The titan used its size to run and stand in her way, raising its blade to block the tiny space between its legs.

Weiss gathered power in her sword once more.

Swoosh!

The knights that had tried chase her behind her were blasted with a solid jet of water, getting knocked flat on their backs if they weren't destroyed outright from the pressure. Weiss zoomed between the titan's legs, just before it slammed the hilt of its sword down to the floor.

She looked back over her shoulder, stuck her tongue out at it; she turned back and saw the shooters aiming their repeaters, crossbows, and cannons straight at her, before they fired.

Weiss made a mental note: “Learn how to time taunts better.”

She stepped off the ice, staggered to a stop and braced herself as she held up Myrtenaster and projected another barrier.

CRASH!

Weiss yelped, staggering back from what felt like being hit like a tidal wave. Blanks and holo effects the projectiles may have been, but there was still magic powering them...

… Magic that was all gathered up in her barrier, and only growing as the knights emptied their repeaters and readied another round of bolts and bombs to fire.

Weiss felt her body start to move on its own, like when she had first held Myrtenaster and couldn't let go. She spun herself around on one foot, the barrier disappearing as all that energy surged into the blade, now glowing the brightest it ever had.

The lens of Abner's optics preemptively shrank as he smashed a button on the console, teleporting Penny out of her little bunker and into the control room with him.

A second later, another beam of pure, concentrated magic shot out of her sword and all around the Raucous Room. It cut straight through everything it hit: the vanguard were halved horizontally, some legs still running as their top halves flew off; the row of shooters were utterly annihilated in one smooth stroke; and the titan's ankles were sliced clean off, the golem burying its sword into the ground for support as it fell to its knees.

The beam stopped, Weiss arms fell limp, the tip of her sword clattering noisily on the floor. Her body was shaking, sweat pouring down every inch of her too pale skin, her breath in shallow, laboured pants.

Penny recovered from the teleportation disorientation and looked worriedly at the carnage in the holo feeds. The damaged panels on the walls fell off and were soon replaced. Abner's lens carefully expanded as he put his mouth back to the microphone.

“… Okay…!” he said nervously. “I… I think we should stop now.”

“Yeah…!” Weiss said in between pants, “We… we really should...”

She passed out.


Weiss woke up in a luxuriously soft four-poster bed, like the one back in her old room in Manor Schnee, except in dark oak than spruce, with red velvet curtains and sheets with golden trim. The room was bathed in a low, orange glow as its fireplace crackled.

She felt similar to how she did after a good workout, or a productive day clearing the overgrowth in her farm: exhausted but happy, basking in the glow of her endorphins. Instead of aching limbs, however, she just felt…

… Empty.

“Weiss!” Ruby called out.

Soon enough, she was hugging her, arms wrapped tight around her head as she pulled Weiss' face into her chest. “Oh, Eluna, I am SO glad you're not dead, either! Could you start putting a couple of weeks between your accidentally killing people or almost dying? I don't think I can take this on a regular basis!”

Weiss would have been touched at her concern, and more than a little embarrassed by her latest blunder, if she hadn't noticed that because Abner's home/laboratory was always “comfortably warm,” Ruby was wearing just a tank top.

And more importantly, Weiss' face was buried right between her boobs.

There was a frantic knocking on the door.

Blake opened it. <Ruby, what ha--!>

Ruby and Blake looked at each other, the former still hugging Weiss' face to her chest, the latter holding onto the doorknob with one foot in the guest room.

Blake slowly, carefully closed the door, the centuries-old hinges creaking lightly thanks to carefully measured, scheduled, and applied oiling.

Click.

The door closed.

“Huh...” Ruby said. “Wonder what that was all about?”

Weiss wrenched her arms off her and gasped for breath; her face was burning bright red, and it might have been her imagination, but she could feel blazing hot streams of blood pouring down her nostrils.

“Oh, woops! Sorry about that, Weiss,” Ruby said as she pulled away, and sat back down on the chair beside her bed. “How do you feel?”

The correct answer was “Like my face is melting.” but the one Weiss gave her was “Fine, just… drained.”

“No surprise there!” Ruby said. “Man, Weiss, the power levels for your fight were insane! Oh, and congratulations about testing positive for the Gift, by the way!”

“Thanks...” Weiss muttered as she laid back on her bed, silently wishing there were some way she could remotely put out the fireplace because this room was way too warm now.

“You thirsty?” Ruby said as she pulled up a clear canister of water.

Weiss nodded. She paused. “Why is it glowing…?”

“Because it's mana-water,” Ruby replied as she opened it up. “Don't worry, Penny says you definitely won't get sick from it, seeing as you've been done with the bacteria stuff for a while. Well, that and you being a Fae/Human hybrid just like me.”

“So, did you ever know or suspect anything, or was it just a total whammy out of nowhere?” she asked as she held it to Weiss lips.

“The latter,” Weiss replied before she started drinking.

The mana-water tasted exactly like the Valley's regular supply of drinking water. Unlike it, however, she could feel the power seeping back into her system, the empty feeling inside her disappearing.

“Any guesses as to who it might be? My bet's on your grandpa Nick; he's pretty much exactly like one of the stereotypes for Fire aligned Fae.”

Weiss sighed as she finished drinking. “I don't really want to think of it right now, Ruby; got a lot of stuff on my mind, chief of which is the fact that apparently I can shoot laser beams now.”

“It's called an 'Aqua Laser' in the spellbooks,” Ruby said as she put the empty canister back on the end table. “Have you been reading them, by any chance? 'Cause you pulled off a kickass Tsunami Slash earlier, and that's like one of the most advanced spells ever, and you pulled that off in dry land, without a medium of any kind!

“That's triple the badassery right there! Even Elder Goodwitch is impressed, and that's a saying a lot!”

Weiss squeezed her eyes shut. “Later, Ruby, later...”

“Okay. Sorry.”

Knock, knock.

<Ruby...? Weiss...?> Blake asked. <You guys aren't>--she made a sexy animal noise--<in there, are you...? 'Cause if you are, just… just call me when you're done, alright? I don't mind going home late...>


After Weiss had gotten some rest, and went through a very thorough exam in Abner’s miniature hospital, she headed over to his foundry so he could make her a Weaver’s gauntlet. “It won’t amplify your powers nearly as strongly as Myrtenaster for a variety of reasons, but it will be much more versatile, can also be loaded with elemental mediums, and help tremendously with your control issue,” he explained as she put it on.

Weiss looked at the glove, turning her hand back and forth, examining Abner’s intricate stitching, the metal and crystal components embedded into the leather, how well it fit her hand despite being made from scratch.

“Shall we test it out?” Abner said, pulling out a hammer.

Weiss held out her bare hand, and projected an ice shield.

Abner hit it.

Crash!

To none of Weiss’ surprise, it shattered after three strikes. She held out her gloved hand, and made another shield, noticeably thicker and more solid than the last.

This one took several hits, before Abner was even capable of making a noticeable crack in it.

“Whew!” he said, putting the hammer down as one of his spider-limbs wiped the sweat off his brow. “Well, I think we can definitely say this is a vast improvement.”

“You can say that again!” Weiss said, dispelling the shield. “So I just put this on whenever I’m mixing up anything, and it’ll keep any more elementals from spawning or moonshine from exploding?”

Precisely! Unless you wish it, of course, but I do suggest you get plenty of formal training and practice with the weavers at the Terrace first; the accidental creation of elemental mediums and elementals are no joke, especially with water weavers like yourself.

“Alchemy is the most popular specialty among them, after all.”

Weiss nodded.

“Any other concerns? Modifications to Myrtenaster or your gauntlet? Urgent questions about your newfound powers?”

“Nothing at the moment, Abner,” Weiss replied. “I’ll call if anything comes up.”

“Please do,” Abner said. “I may not be able to personally attend to it given my governor’s hyper-focus, but know that my answering golems always stand at the ready.” He smiled as he tapped the back of his neck. “Sometimes weeks go by before I even think of checking my messages.”

“I’ll make note of it,” Weiss said.

“Well, I guess that settles everything! Lovely meeting you in person Weiss, and what an exceptionally productive day this has been!” he tipped his hat at her. “Cheerio!”

Weiss bid him farewell, and went back to his parlor where everyone from Keeper’s Hollow were waiting.

“Well, look at that fancy piece of gear you got there!” Qrow said as he lounged on a chair, a drink in his hand. “That going to stop me from dying of alcoholism way sooner than I thought I would?” he asked before he took a sip.

“It will,” Weiss replied.

She looked at where Zwei was sitting, a cart loaded with a mix of kitchen and lab equipment near him. Among others, it had a still much more complex than the one she had used for her moonshine.

“What’s all this?”

“Equipment and modifications for making elemental mediums, and/or controlling the effects of your magic,” Penny explained. “Elder Goodwitch thought it very important that you be using designs specifically for weavers, given everything that’s already happened.”

“Don’t worry, it’s free of charge, like with your Weaver training,” Ruby said. “And speaking of new stuff: Blake’s got something for ya!”

Blake walked up with a leather belt, a holster on its side with Myrtenaster in it, and several pouches and clips, presumably for holding spare elemental mediums, mana-water canisters, and other useful things for weavers.

“Mad’ it while you ‘n’ Ruby were… bizzy,” she said as she handed it over.

Weiss bit back a sigh of annoyance and smiled at her. “Thank you.”

She put it on. It was a perfect fit. At Blake's request, she turned around and showed it off to the others.

Ruby whistled. “Looking good, Weiss! All you really need is some armour and some supplies, and you’ll be ready to head out the walls!”

Weiss smiled at her. “Let’s just head home for now, okay?”

And so they did.

Chapter Text

It was late when they arrived back at Keeper's Hollow, Weiss riding on Zwei's back as the magical exhaustion set in. She could still walk and stay awake, but now it just felt incredibly difficult to muster the willpower to do much of anything, alongside a very physical and real growling in her stomach.

It felt strikingly like the aftermath of a particularly brutal test, and just like then, all Weiss wanted to do afterward was gorge on something sweet—in this case, chocolate chip cookies.

“Elemental weaving is a largely mental process,” Penny explained as she and Qrow cooked chicken tortillas for dinner. “Magic already exists in all bodies and beings as the base components for matter, and the Gift is both a body capable of accumulating and storing larger than usual amounts of it, and a bmind able to harness and manipulate it in ways difficult or impossible through conventional means.

“Most Fae just have the former, which tends to manifest in greatly enhanced physical capabilities like the Watchers, or just the latter, which tends to manifest in skill in science and the arts like the Makers and Creators.”

Weiss nodded. “So how rare is it, anyway?” she asked after she swallowed her mouthful of cookies.

“With the extreme amounts of magic in the Valley's wellspring, along with the frequent exposure to it from its food, environment, and our magitechnology?” Penny said as she chopped up vegetables. “About 20-42% of the population, with 61-67% of that going on to become professional weavers. The rest tend to gravitate towards other professions, oftentimes makers, watchers, and/or creators, either from personal choice, or simply not being capable of handling the stress and rigours of weaver training and occupations.”

Weiss picked up her glass of milk. “So why isn't Candela overflowing with weavers? We had to use energy like there was no tomorrow, or else the collectors would overload,” she said before she took a drink.

“Two reasons: genetics, and the nature of your magitechnology,” Penny said as she brought the tray of vegetable fillings to the table.

“As your magitech started to become cheaper, easier, and more convenient than training and hiring human weavers, the importance of preserving their bloodlines and avoiding genetic modifications that could impair their abilities became less and less important,” she said as she went to get the tortilla wraps. “At times, they were even actively hunted down and removed from the gene pool at large to avoid their side-effects, like the increased vulnerability to dementia and other mental illness.

“It didn't help that, unlike Fae, your designs tend to protect and isolate magical exposure to its users as much as possible,” Penny said as she laid them on the table, next to the vegetables. “To use a metaphor: while the Fae were outside getting regular doses of sunlight, you humans were locked in your homes with blackout curtains over the windows.”

Weiss smirked. “Fitting. Makes me wonder what would have happened if we hadn't made the full switch to magitech...”

“You humans wouldn't have started a realm-wide resource crisis because you ran out of shit to build it with, for one,” Qrow said as he came over with a crock pot full of chicken.

Weiss nodded. “Did the Fae ever suffer something like the Resource Crisis?”

Plenty of times!” Qrow said as he set it down in the center. “Believe it or not, Sekhmet used to be a rainforest before we Fae fucked it up royally. In terms of how long we've been able to bang two rocks together and call it music, being the poster-civilization of sustainable living was after we got out of our shitty teenage years,” he continued as he ladled out shredded meat for everyone's wraps but Ruby's.

But it's been a long day, and that's an even longer story, princess, so that's all the Chronicler Qrow you're getting today,” he said as he made a quadruple-large tortilla for Zwei.

“We'll eventually get to it in your history classes, don't worry,” Penny said, smiling as she and Qrow worked together to keep Zwei's dinner from falling apart. The head sticking in through the window started to drool like crazy.

Weiss shrugged, and dug in. She hummed after she took her first bite; her herbs and vegetables had helped make a damn good sauce.


She still had too much energy from sleeping at Abner's lab earlier, so Weiss spent most of that evening building and setting up the new equipment they'd received, starting with the barn and her lab/kitchen, and after that, the long abandoned weaver's section of the training grounds.

“Alright!” Ruby called out as she worked in an underground hatch, only the very tips of her horns visible. “I'm turning the valve on—tell me if anything happens!”

“Got it!” Weiss said as she stood by with a lamp in her hands.

She watched as a long-dead fountain came back to life, water trickling down its numerous grooves, filling its many basins, and a waterfall appearing in the center and pouring out onto a platform big enough for two or three Fae to sit and meditate under.

“It's working!”

“Woo!” Ruby cried as she climbed out. “Go me!”

The two of them stood there, admiring their handiwork, until the combined light of their lamps and the water brought out some rather unpleasant details they'd missed earlier.

“… Do you Fae happen to have bacteria that can eat all that mold and fungus?”

“Yeah, we do, but we could also just turn the water off again then torch it! Weaver equipment is made to withstand all the elements.”

Weiss hummed. “Yeah, that'd work much better.”

Ruby shut off the water, and the two began to head back to the house.

Weiss yelped and nearly dropped her lamp as she came to face with a ferocious looking bird Fae, ghostly and glowing an ominous blood-red.

“Oh, hey!” Ruby said. “The Echoes are already appearing! Neat!”

Weiss stepped well back as the “echo” of Raven Branwen pulled out her sword and got into a combat stance, her eyes narrowed and her mouth/beak curled into a scowl. “What the hell are 'echoes,' and why are they happening?” she said as her eyes darted between Ruby and Raven.

“Echoes are the pieces of you that you leave behind after you die,” Ruby explained. “Usually, it takes a ritual to make them appear, but when there's so much raw magic floating around before and during the Eve, they just come out all on their own.”

Weiss watched a different echo appear some distance away from—Summer, her cloaked figure and the Keeper's scythe a calming silver. The two echoes charged each other, their battle too fast for Weiss to see, so ferocious she could hear the clashes of blade-on-blade and the faint sounds of war cries from long ago.

It was far beyond the level of anything Weiss was capable of, or that she'd ever seen in her entire life—even Ruby's wiping the floor with all of her guards that fateful night.

Raven swung too hard and missed, all the energy in her sword exploding into the ground, sending ghostly dirt and debris flying several feet into the air.

Summer took the opportunity to swing the Keeper's scythe right at her neck, stopping just before she cut her head clean off her shoulders.

The air was tense as the two figures stared each other down, seething hatred in Raven, amusement in Summer's.

Summer pulled the scythe away, and offered her hand with a smile.

Raven ignored her as she picked herself and her sword off the ground.

The two echoes parted ways, and disappeared.

It all happened in the span of less than a minute, though it felt like it had dragged on for much longer.

“Holy shit...” Weiss whispered.

“Yep,” Ruby said. “And that's when mom was holding back.”

Weiss looked at her in disbelief. “That's her holding back?”

Ruby nodded. “Mom was always way stronger than Aunt Raven or Uncle Qrow. It always bothered her, my aunt, since their family has always been kinda obsessed about being the strongest around, probably because they were from Sekhmet.”

“How'd they end in the Valley?”

Ruby shrugged. “Uncle Qrow says it's a REALLY long story—so long he's never really found the time to tell me!” she replied innocently.

Weiss stared at her for a moment, before she nodded slowly. “Do these echoes just show up, or is there a pattern?” she asked as they resumed walking.

“They tend to appear wherever someone had really important memories, or where they spent most of their time, but only if you're related to them in some way,” Ruby replied. “It's mostly for family, but Abner always sees echoes of Ilaya at his place this time of year. You could also summon them by bringing something they used to own and used a lot, seeing as part of their essence rubs off on it.”

Weiss smiled. “You Fae certainly bring a new dimension to the value of heirlooms and antiques...”

“Mhmm!” Ruby said. “As the saying goes, 'Our bodies falter, our memories fade, and our breaths cease, but Havalon remembers always.'”

They walked through Weiss' farm, and noticed one of the mana detectors that had been planted among her crops was glowing and beeping in warning.

Weiss sighed heavily. “Oh, what now...?” she muttered as she walked over to investigate.

“You think your vegetables turned into elementals too?”

“I seriously hope not! Cheese blobs with faces and sore-stiff ointment that moves, I can handle; I don't know how I'd react to vegetables that scream when I harvest them.”

“They definitely won't do that,” Ruby replied. “You're their weaver; they'll probably think it's a great honour to be picked and eaten, maybe even tell you when they're at their best so you can get the most out of them.”

Weiss cringed. “Please stop before I have to become a full-time carnivore; at least I know meat's supposed to move around before I can eat it...”

They halted as they reached the edge of the fence. There was an echo walking through Weiss' crops, wielding a hoe and tilling the soil. She was an arctic fox Fae from the tiny ears and the ridiculously fluffy tail, wearing a long, flowing dress of distinctly human-make, with her glow a pale, icy blue.

“Relative of yours?” Weiss asked as they watched her work and slowly come closer to them.

“Uh… not that I know of...?” Ruby replied. “I haven't really seen her before, either.”

The mystery woman got close enough to reach. Weiss slowly held out her gloved hand, her fingertips brushing the echo. The crystals on it began to glow.

Then, a flash.

Weiss found herself in Keeper's Grove, a long, long, long time ago, seeing through the eyes of the mystery woman as she worked. From the grunts of effort and the sweat she was regularly wiping from her brow, she was just as new to farming as Weiss was, when her farm was just a patch of sweet potatoes.

She heard a voice ask something in broken German.

The woman turned, and Weiss found herself looking at one of Ruby's ancestors. She had the same silver eyes, the friendly face, and the black hair, only her horns were much more pronounced, there were almost no whites in her eyes for how wide her irises were, and her hands and feet clearly ended in what looked like hooves.

The woman chuckled, affectionately said something in the same language, except much more fluently.

Ruby's ancestor smiled, getting a mischievous look on her face as she struggled to say something in a playful tone, before suggestively waggling her eyebrows.

The woman made an exasperated noise, then planted her hoe in the ground. She narrowed her eyes at Ruby's ancestor, shaking her head before she walked up to her.

From the loving expression on her face, it was clearly for a kiss.

There was another flash, and Weiss found herself back in her own body, her legs crumpled beneath her, Ruby holding her up and sounding increasingly desperate.

“… eiss?! Weiss! Are you okay?”

Weiss blinked, groaning and shaking her head. “What happened…?”

“You touched the echo of that fox lady, she disappeared, and then you fainted!”

Weiss looked at the mana detector, now dark and quiet, then to her crops, no more trace of the echo.

“Call the Terrace and Abner,” Weiss muttered as she took off her gauntlet, the crystals now glowing a pale shade of icy blue.


Weiss was amused that the senior weaver for the night shift was an Owl Fae.

Less amusing was the way Keeper's Hollow was swarming with weavers once more, this time with chroniclers deep into their tablets and comm-crystals, half frantically requesting files from all over Avalon and an audience with Elder Oobleck himself, the other half studying the data from the mana detector, what footage they had seen of Weiss touching the echo and it disappearing before she fainted.

And from the way Penny was conversing with them in Actaeon, shaking her head even as they pleaded desperately with her, she could just tell they were itching to crack her head open and see what memories they could pull up.

Through Qrow, she relayed what she had seen through her vision to the chroniclers, Ruby, and Abner who was attending through the second's comm-crystal. The things they knew was that the ancestor she had seen was Gabija herself, and that the time-frame was a few decades after the First Settlers had landed.

Everything else was a mystery.

The chroniclers grilled her relentlessly, frustrated at what little she could tell, before they sighed and returned to their referencing the Codex, calling up their fellow chroniclers, and trying to rebuild the vision from the mana detector and her gauntlet.

“What was that all about?” Weiss asked after the last finally gave up.

“You may have found a very important key to unlocking the mystery that has been boggling the Fae for a thousand years,” Abner said.

“The short version of it is: the Valley wasn't always an Eldan Settlement, it started as a split-off,” Qrow said. “A lot of unethical and illegal shit happened here, and when everything went to hell, the survivors called the Council to save their asses…

“… But not before destroying most the evidence that would link them to the crimes against Avalon that would get them executed or worse, a lot of identities changing, and folks mysterious disappearing of the face of the realm.”

“They burned down the original Chronicler's Grove...” Abner said sadly. “Aside from the loss of all that data, there was also the fact that those who did come forward for their crimes and pleaded guilty were put into witness protection, and what information we do have from just after the Council retook the Valley was delivered via Info-Grid—not nearly as fast, expansive, or reliable then as it is now, made worse because they were ferrying secret messages that were destroyed at the slightest hint of being compromised.”

“So what does what I saw have to do with all that?” Weiss asked.

“Because, Weiss, that lady whose memories you saw was probably Gabija's mate, and the key to why Keeper's like me are so special,” Ruby replied.

“And you don't have better records of her? She was the first Keeper of the Grove, right? Did no one happen to have a pen and paper on hand?!”

Abner sighed. “She and her mate requested the latter's true identity be kept a secret, for reasons unknown. And more importantly, this was WELL before anyone realized just how important the Keeper bloodline really was...”

“Go get some sleep, Weiss,” Qrow said. “Believe us: the answers to the mysteries of the Valley are massive teases, who also love coming when you least expect them.”

Weiss scowled. “I'm starting to realize that, and it's giving me a real headache...”

Chapter Text

Weiss was in her dream world, sitting in the living room of Keeper's Hollow. She had a piece of paper in front of her, upon which she'd written the three big questions on her mind:

  1. Who was the secret Fae in my family, and who knew?
  2. Why are Keepers so important to the Valley?
  3. What else does the Council know, and why am I so important to them?

It didn't take long for both her grandparents to come up and sit down on either side of her, Weiss and Freya sliding into Nick from how deeply the cushions sank from his weight.

“Do any of you happen to have any revelations from my subconscious to share with me?” Weiss asked. “Things I've been ignoring, or dots that I haven't connected yet? Wisdom from beyond the grave, should you two actually happen to be the spirits of my dead grandparents, and not signs of this Valley driving me insane?”

“Sorry, sweetheart, got nothing,” Nick replied.

“A multidisciplinary scientist I may be, but neither a miracle worker nor a seer of the past,” Freya said sadly.

“Anything I can do to help?” Summer said as she walked over to the side of the couch.

“You can spill all the secrets of the Eldan Council to me,” Weiss replied. “You Keepers seem to have a direct line to them and a lot of sway, seeing as Ilaya managed to convince them to keep Abner alive even before they knew how good of a scientist he was.”

“Oooh, yeah, sorry, can't really do that...” Summer replied. “You know how Ruby's days are mostly just going out killing animals and trying to keep humans out the Valley? Those were pretty much mine, too. Never was interested in all the nitty gritty of politics.”

Weiss sighed. “Figured.”

“Maybe you could try touching my echo back at the training grounds with your gauntlet? Maybe you'll get a flash of memories like you did with the fox lady. If nothing else, you'll get to see that kickass fight from my eyes!

“Man, did you see me versus Raven?! I was like--” she started making fighting noises and waving her arms, up until she noticed all three Schnees giving her withering looks.

Summer slowly, sheepishly put her arms down. “… Can you dream up a kitchen for me to hang out in? Just the cookie jar will do.”

Weiss did.

“Thanks~!” Summer said as she skipped off.

Grandparents and granddaughter returned to the list. “Let's go over what we do know...” Freya said as pens for all of them and more paper magically appeared.

“One, you are a Weaver, and an exceptionally powerful one if the way you decimated all of those golems earlier is anything to go by,” Freya said.

“Two, the Fae don't seem to mind keeping us humans around if it's a good deal for them, like with Abner,” Nick continued

“And three, everyone seems to think me and Ruby are...” Weiss trailed off.

Summer poked her head out of the kitchen and made a sexy animal noise, with a “?” at the end you could hear.

Weiss blushed. “… Yes, that. Seriously, what is up with that?!”

“You being sarcastic right now, sweetheart?” Nick asked.

“What do you mean, am I being sarcastic? Why the hell would I be sarcastic?” Weiss asked.

“Well, for one thing, all the evidence overwhelmingly supports such a hypothesis, even if there's no outright confirmation...” Freya replied.

Weiss blushed harder. “Like what?”

“From the top of my head: Ruby spaing you and leaving you unharmed, and going to incredible lengths to convince Jacques to stop; her visiting you every day in jail and doing her level best to give you small creature comforts to make your imprisonment more comfortable; and then there's her passion and drive to help you find your place in Fae society, alongside all her efforts to comfort and care for you in your times of need, such as your first night in the Valley...” Freya muttered.

“And there's also the fact that pretty much everyone here except the dog has walked in on you two in some pretty damn incriminating scenes,” Nick finished.

“What they assumed from those perfectly innocent situations are their fault!” Weiss said, face now burning red.

“True, but I really can't blame them for thinking that,” Freya countered. “Spooning in the Ruby's nest, the same except one of you is clearly naked under a blanket that seemed to have been thrown over you for decency's sake, and then there was earlier when you were...”

“Exploring a valley of a different kind?” Nick offered.

Freya groaned. “Really, Nicholas?!”

Weiss squeezed her eyes shut. “I hate you so much right now, grandpa.”

“ANYWAY!” Freya cried. “Regardless of the truth behind those events, the heart of the matter is that the facts seem so much like fiction, and whatever your attempts to convince them otherwise will likely only lead to them being more convinced it is true.”

Summer poked her head out of the kitchen. “Hey, you mind if I ask if you actually do like Ruby?” she said through a mouthful of cookies.

Freya nodded. “I have been wondering that myself, yes; all these assumptions that you and her are...”

Summer attempted to make a sexy animal noise through a mouthful of cookies, and ended up choking.

“Sweet Shepherd! Why can't you ladies just say that everyone thinks Weiss and Rubes are fucking?!” Nick said as he walked over to Summer and thumped her on the back. “It's not like Nivian doesn't have a shit-ton of ways to talk about doing the diddly!”

Summer snorted and choked some more. Nick ushered her into the kitchen where she cleared her throat out of sight. After they returned, she sputtered, “You humans seriously call”--she made a sexy animal noise--”that...?!” she said, before she doubled over in laughter.

“Among other weird-ass alternatives,” Nick said as he walked back to the couch. “It's one of the great mysteries of Nivian. And speaking of mysteries: how do you feel about Rubes?” he said as he sat back down.

Weiss looked down. “I… I really don't know. How can I tell?”

“Well, shit, sweetheart, you couldn't have picked worse people to ask...” Nick mumbled.

“I concur...” Freya said. “As you are well aware, it was a miracle to everyone that Nicholas and I did not eventually end up killing each other, given our constant, public, and very violent disagreements.”

“Though if you saw me every morning after we did the deed, you'd wonder if Frosty here was just using kinky sex as a cover to murder me,” Nick said.

Weiss shuddered. “I am so happy that most of the parts where you and grandma got intimate were lost or corrupted...”

Freya sighed. “Damned shame, that...” she said wistfully.

Grandma!”

Summer waltzed over. “How about I ask it like this: do you want to be in love with Ruby?”

Freya hummed. “Sometimes the problem is not the lack of an answer, it's asking the wrong question.”

“True that,” Nick asked, looping his arm past Weiss and around Freya's shoulders. “You can't choose who you fall in love with—see me and your grandma—but you can have a pretty good idea about who you won't mind ending up with.

“So how about Rubes?”

Weiss looked down, frowning; the way everyone was looking at her and waiting for an answer didn't help. “I still don't know...” she muttered.

“Take your time, sweetheart,” Nick said, affectionately ruffling her hair. “It's not like me and your grandma didn't take little over a year to either fall for each other, or realize all those sparks was passion and hatred.”

“And even then, before we found Candela's wellspring we always wondered if it was real, or just convenience and circumstance...” Freya added.

“At least we know you really like having your face in her boobs!” Summer chirped.

All three Schnees glared at her.

What? It's true, isn't it...?”


Weiss woke up the next morning feeling miserable.

Maybe it was the exhaustion from having learned of her magic and driven her reserves into the negative on the same day, and seriously fucking up her sleep schedule as a result. Maybe it was the newest mystery with Gabjia's possible mate and her connection to her. Maybe it was the dream that had her wondering if she should start looking for a therapy mender, and ask Penny if she had protocols for that.

Possibly all three.

She looked at Ruby's plushie of her mother. In the daylight, Summer looked friendly as ever, her silver buttons sparkling and her smile radiant like the suns. It made her wonder if she should just learn how to sleep without a toy companion, from all the things that were coming out of her mouth in her dreams.

Ruby yawned and stretched as she got up. “Morning Weiss! You feeling okay?”

“Never better...” Weiss grumbled as she continued to look at the plushie.

“You don't sound… oh! This is that 'sarcasm' thing when you mean the opposite of what you just said, right?”

“Yes,” Weiss said as she climbed out of her hammock, leaving the Summer plushie in it. “Hey, Ruby, has anything weird ever happened while you were sleeping with the plushie? Like, your mom appearing in your dreams?”

“Oh, yeah, she always does when I sleep with it, it's why I like to hold it when I'm sad!” Ruby's ears drooped. “It's like she's not dead, even just for a little while.”

Weiss nodded. “Uh, this is going to sound really weird and insensitive, but… has she ever, you know…?”

“Stared at you the whole time, trying not to judge but totally doing it anyway?” Ruby offered. “Because that's what happened the night after I tried to uh… do something really awful because I was just hitting puberty, and MAN, hormones suck!”

“… I was actually going to ask if she's ever asked you if you liked someone. As in, wanted to be their lover.”

“Oh! Yeah, yeah she does that too.”

Beat.

“… I'll go check on my crops now.” Weiss said as she grabbed her work dress from a corner.

“Don't forget your gauntlet!” Ruby said.


Thanks to recent improvements, all Weiss really needed to do was monitor her crops' growth, harvest and replant as necessary, then water the few sections that weren't covered as the vines grew and expanded the sprinkler system all by themselves, little intervention needed.

She was wondering what she should do with all the free time she now had, when Penny came walking up.

“Good morning Weiss! I see you've already retrieved and are wearing your gauntlet, so I hope you're ready to start creating your first elemental mediums! Elder Goodwitch has already provided you a sizable amount of ingredients and catalysts to begin.”

“Already?” Weiss asked. “Isn't this kind of a really bad idea considering my moonshine spontaneously explodes, and my fermented products turn into elementals?”

“That was before we confirmed the existence of your powers, and also before you received your gauntlet and proper equipment for weavers,” Penny explained. “Now, it'd be best if you begin to make a habit of releasing your excess energy in productive ways, before we risk it overwhelming you again like yesterday.”

Weiss had a flash of Abner showing her footage of her first receiving Myrtenaster, and cringed. “Right...” they began to head into the barn. “So how exactly do I make mediums?”

“Almost entirely like cooking: you take ingredients, combine them, and put them through a specific series of processes to produce a product worth more than the sum of its parts,” Penny said as they climbed up the stairs. “Though it has advanced greatly from the cauldrons over fire pits of the Ekindling Era, the basic principles of elemental medium creation remain basically the same.”

“So I can just make more moonshine, and I'd have fuel for fire magic?”

“Yes, though it may not be as potent if you choose not to use more reactive ingredients like sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal.”

Gunpowder?” Weiss asked as she picked up her apron, now beside a new full face-mask with air filters, and a single safety glove for her other arm.

Penny nodded. “You could also extract the capsaicin from peppers, if you wish to cast fire spells meant to non-lethally subdue targets or just distract them,” she explained. “Alternatively, you can make an extremely spicy hot sauce.

“Qrow likes his to taste like regret.

“Just what are the limits for elemental mediums and the spells I can cast from them?” Weiss asked as she opened up a new box of ingredients on the counter.

Penny smiled. “Your creativity, what ingredients you have available, and your mastery over your powers. I suggest we start with something simple and effective for you: making purified water.”

Weiss nodded as she shut the box, and looked at the vastly improved and expanded equipment. She hadn't been paying much attention last night aside from looking at the graphics in the instruction manuals, and now that she was seeing in daylight with a refreshed mind, she was starting to realize just how complex everything was.

“If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them!” Penny chirped.

Weiss turned around to do so, before she stopped.

“Is something the matter, Weiss?” Penny asked.

“Is it okay if my question isn't about alchemy?” Weiss asked.

“Of course! I'm here to help you however I can, after all.”

Weiss blushed, thankful that her mask hid it. “… How do you Fae see interspecies relationships with humans?”

“It's one of the biggest taboos, with only very few exceptions.” Penny replied. “You have to understand: for most of the Fae, humans only represent one of the many dangers they have to contend with on a daily basis, and it's difficult to find someone who's life has not been personally affected by the actions of humans and your society in general, positively, or more often than not, negatively.

“There's also the fact that relationships themselves have a very low success rate, given the fact that a number of them are made hastily, are based largely off the exotic quality of the romance than any real compatibility, and are prone to being started and sustained by exceptional and oftentimes temporary circumstances, not to mention cultural differences between both humans and Fae.

“It does not help that that these relationships are often with Fae posing as human in your settlements, oftentimes secretively, and never revealing it to their lover until the relationship has already long been made 'official.'”

Weiss paused. “So why is everyone so okay with me and Ruby being…?”

Penny made a sexy animal noise, with a little “?” at the end that you could hear.

Weiss blushed even more. “… Together, yes,” she said, making a note to begin using that instead of trailing off.

Penny smiled. “Keepers are one of the above-mentioned exceptions.”

“Because...?”

Penny frowned. “I'm afraid I'm not allowed to answer that.”

Weiss sighed. “Figured… so how exactly do I go about purifying water for magic?”

“There are many ways, but we'll start with the most basic of methods: charcoal filtering!”

Weiss pulled out the equipment and ingredients, and got to work.

Chapter Text

As Weiss purified water and made new solutions with them, captured the resulting gases from various chemical reactions, liquified mineral and soil samples, and carefully distilled a new batch of moonshine with gunpowder for plenty of extra kick, she had flashes back to her chemistry classes in Arcturus Academy.

Because of her reluctance to use all but the most basic and unobtrusive of mods like vaccines, she was lumped in with all the other students who had the same philosophy as her, couldn't afford them, or had the misfortune to be afflicted with Egan's Syndrome or other conditions that prevented the use of them, or seriously impaired their effects.

A lot of her classmates who flunked out or got lower grades than they wanted accused her of secretly modding, bribing the proctors and security to sneak in cybernetic or genetic enhancements so she could pass her classes with ease, while avoiding what was essentially real-world work with all the other “transhuman” students.

“Has it ever occurred to you that someone might just naturally be better at some things than others?” Weiss shot back after they had made threats about “busting” her—ones that ultimately had no teeth.

It was always just natural and easy for her, having strong hunches about what proportions her experiments needed for the right results, balancing chemical formulas, even the actions of pouring, stirring, and mixing seemed second nature. About the only times it had failed her was during the Job Gauntlet and her first attempts at processing her produce, but those were the faults of her being a stranger in a strange, strange world, and all the magic unknowingly leaking from her fingers.

Now, it turned out she was almost literally born for it, as a water aligned weaver.

“The claim that your elemental alignment completely decides your personality and skills have long been debunked, however, and there are many records of water weavers who have made terrible alchemists,” Penny explained as they waited for her mediums to cool off, or build up to usable amounts. “No one individual consists almost entirely of one element, and numerous factors affect them beside such as environment, genetics, and how they were raised, to name some.

“However, the correlations between certain personality types and alignment are incredibly strong; stereotypes are based on some grain of truth, after all.”

“What's the one for Water?” Weiss asked.

“Intelligent and adaptable, capable of being both soothing rain or a destructive typhoon as is needed, but also considered the most emotional, either volatile and unpredictable like stormy seas, or antisocial and reserved like ice.”

“Sounds like me, and every other female from my mother's side.”

Penny nodded. “Elemental alignment is hereditary, yes, as with Ruby and all the Keepers being Earth.”

“What's theirs?”

“Amiable and with great integrity and adherence to their values, if either stubborn and irrationally resistant to change like a mountain, or too easily molded such as that of clay.”

“And Fire?”

“Passionate and energetic, but oftentimes overwhelming and even dangerous. Prone to fits of anger and other strong emotions, to the point of burning everything and everyone around them, sometimes even snuffing themselves out like a pyre running out of fuel.”

“Oh yeah, that's grandpa Nick, 100%. And what's for Air?”

“Regal and confident, but sometimes too detached from the world around them—be they aloof and snobbish because of their often very high standards and unrealistic expectations, or moving through the world like a passing breeze, never staying still nor committing to anything for any reasonable period of time.”

“So my father, Blake when we first met, and Abner, with how he's a master escape artist and all.”

Penny nodded. “Ilaya and her descendants' influence have helped make him more 'grounded,' though that can also be attributed to his governor overriding his natural tendency towards flight and distraction, if not the creativity and the unusual, novel ideas that comes from 'having your head in the clouds' most of the time.”

“That is a lot of puns and similes right there,” Weiss said as she began to shut off her equipment, took finished batches off for bottling.

“Whereas Nivian reserves wordplay for literature and creative comparisons, Actaeon uses them for the actual terms,” Penny said as she helped her with the rest.

With the help a special device for funneling her creations into special vials, Weiss had a sizable row of multi-coloured mediums, a decent mix of potency for each element. She loaded the weakest from all four into her gauntlet, her smile growing ever larger as she shot out a dust cloud, set it alight with a fire ball, put it out with a spray of water, before she whisked it out the window with a gust of wind before the smell stayed.

“Shall we go test this out with Myrtenaster at the training grounds?” Penny asked, smiling.

“Let's!” Weiss said as she began to gather them all up in a bag. “Bring the others, too, I feel like showing off...~”


Weiss faced the fountain from last night, its ancient stone damp, moldy, and lousy with plants and fungus that grown over the years of disuse.

In one hand was Myrtenaster, and on the other, her gauntlet, the water vials glowing a faint, icy blue. She wore a Water Weaver's coat just delivered from the Terrace, its hood thrown over her head and her usual ponytail tied into a bun for safety. On her face was the specially carved mask that came with it, for protection magic and utility such as an overlay over her vision of how much of each medium she had left, and what Myrtenaster was currently attuned to. The belt Blake had made was around her waist, loaded with spare vials, a few canisters of mana-water, and an anti-magic grenade in case things went horribly awry.

She could feel her power surging all through her body as it was amplified by her runeblade and gauntlet, and sustained and controlled by her armour. It felt wonderful—not a powerful, electrifying jolt like the first time she had touched Myrtenaster, but a constant thrum that made her feel like she could do anything.

The others sat behind a magic barrier, Penny putting her hands on the generator for extra safety. All was silent as Weiss took a long, deep breath, and slowly let it go. Then, she put her hand on Myrtenaster's trigger.

FIRE~!” Ruby yelled.

Weiss thrust her sword forward, a jet of orange flames pouring out of the tip. The fountain was completely ablaze in an instant, the mold, the fungus, and the plants turning to ash.

Air!” Qrow cried.

Weiss spun her runeblade in the air, a gust spiraling out from her sword, feeding the flames and taking the smoke and ash deeper into the swamp.

<Earth!> Blake shouted.

Weiss sandblasted the fountain, holding her blade steady with both hands as she suffocated the flames and gave the stone a good polishing.

WOOF!” Zwei barked.

Weiss slowly raised Myrtenaster, a miniature rain cloud forming above the fountain. She gently tapped the air in front of her, the cloud burst, a deluge of water coming down, and washing away the leftover sand.

The grooves, the reliefs of Fae weavers and the elements, and the basins all sparkled and shined like new.

Weiss turned to the others, pulled off her mask and hood, and bowed.

They all cheered and clapped, Penny putting her hands off the barrier as they came over to hug her and pat her on the back.

“That was awesome, Weiss!” Ruby cried.

Supur cool!” Blake added, smiling.

“Gotta admit, princess, you've got a real knack for alchemy and elemental weaving,” Qrow said. “Maybe you could even start making bombs and ammo for the rest of us, help us out with our own jobs.

“Just make sure they don't explode until after we pull the pins…”

“It can also help them take on higher risk-reward targets and duties at the Watcher's Roost,” Penny said. “Though there is always an abundance of especially dangerous creatures in the wild, the Council rarely funds the necessary equipment, labour, and munitions until they become an imminent threat to the residents.

“The bounties alone will also go a long way into helping pay off our loan and getting your Eluna plushie back much sooner, not to mention improving security in the Valley—something the Council always appreciates.”

“Oooh! Ooh!” Ruby started bouncing in place. “Does this mean I can finally use my scythe's farslinger attachment more?”

“Your what now?” Weiss asked.

“It's the sniper rifle version of a spellslinger,” Qrow explained. “Also takes mediums instead of bullets, but they have to be super potent so they'll actually go that far.”

“You have an attachment for the Keeper's scythe, that also turns into a magical sniper rifle?”

“Mhmm!” Ruby said. “Have to put the blade in the ground when I fire, or else I go flying—and sometimes I do it on purpose because it's so much fun!”

“That sounds incredibly dangerous, and just outright insane.” Weiss said.

Beat.

“What do I have to do make ammo for it?”

“First, you'll have to take out more money from our loan for licensing fees and equipment,” Penny said. “Assuming you pass and your resulting products are even a fraction as powerful as your magic is, it will easily pay for itself within six months to a year.

Weiss laughed. “Never thought I'd end up in munitions manufacturing! But then again, I never really thought I'd end up in… anything like this!”

Qrow smirked. “Eh, to be fair, it's kinda hard to imagine getting abducted by supposedly mythical creatures, living in their society, and them helping you find out you have magical powers.”

Weiss was actually thinking of close friends, a loving home, and a place where she could just be herself, rather than the heiress of the Schnee Power Company.

But, they didn't need to know that.

“We should go celebrate!” Ruby said. “For Weiss finding about her powers, and for her life seriously picking up since she first got here!”

“It might also be good to celebrate while you still can,” Qrow added. “With the Eve coming in just a few days and all the general weirdness yesterday, you can be damned sure you're going to be spending a lot of your time in the Terrace from now.”

“I suggest triple chocolate cake shakes at Fae-orina's!” Penny offered. “It'll be beneficial for both the energy she's expended just now, and for her emotional well-being.”

“Won' say 'No' to that!” Blake said, licking her lips.

Zwei barked happily, picked Weiss up and put her onto his back. He held his heads up high, the others smiled and laughed as they came up to his sides, like they were all in a parade and Weiss was the star attraction.

Weiss had to laugh and shake her head at the ridiculousness of it all, before she grinned, thrust Myrtenaster in the air, and cried,

Onwards!”


They went off to the Guild, both to readjust their loan and find out just what Weiss needed to do to get licenses for producing large amounts of ammo, high-explosives, and alcohol, and just to go shopping for materials to add some much-needed personalization to Weiss' clothes.

“If I'm going to wear them until they fall apart, I want to actually mourn their loss,” Weiss said.

But first, they were going to buy materials for their Eve of the Ether costumes.

Blake was going as a character from one of her favourite novels, “Ninjas of Love.”

With the help of a jumpsuit and life-like prosthetic hands her creators had given her, Penny was going as an actual mouse mechanic, a character from an Old World holo.

Inspired by Weiss' new mask and weaver's robes, Blake modified her original idea of an “Elven Princess” from more Old World literature, and instead made her costume like the infamous “Keeper's Bride,” one of the rare figures in the legends who survived an encounter with her by becoming her servant/lover.

After the Keeper had massacred the rest of her party, she was relentlessly hunted down and psychologically tortured for a whole week, never given rest nor peace until she went insane, and became an inhuman monster who helped her track down and slaughter her victims as a twisted, gruesome idea of date night.

And after Weiss explained to her how the humans knew and remembered her, Ruby laughed, and laughed hard, so much that they had to move to the side of the street to keep from blocking the rest of the days' shoppers.

That's what you humans think happened?” she said she wiped tears from her eyes. “That was my great-great-great...” she continued for a while “… grandmother Myala's mate Samaria, and believe me, the relationship was totally consensual and not based on murdering people, and she didn't need to drive her insane first for her to fall in love with her!

“Sammy was always kind of crazy before she came to the Valley.”

“What really happened, then?” Weiss asked.

“She really was the last survivor of the Mystery Busters, and she was there to find proof that The Keeper of the Grove did exist, but the only things chasing her were more animals—Myala and her party were trying to lead her out of the Valley the whole week she was in there, but all whenever they did to scare her off or offer her a way home backfired, and Sammy just kept going deeper and deeper into the Valley every single time.

“Eventually, she managed to attract the attention of a Soul Eater, and even if she was one hell of a badass to survive that long all on her own, she was still human, and Soul Eaters are Soul Eaters. Myala killed before it could kill her, and she was so impressed by the fight she told her,

“'Marry me or kill me. I'll be happy either way.'”

“She did not,” Weiss said. She turned to Penny. “Did she?”

Penny nodded. “One of her party members had a chronicle.”

Weiss turned back to Ruby. “Well what happened to her after that?”

“Well obviously, Myala didn't kill her, though she did say she at least wanted to date her for a while before she decided on whether or not she wanted to marry her. Sammy went on to work for the Watchers, they did eventually get hitched, and then they had kids who married and had their own kids, and eventually we end up here, with me!”

<Samaria was one of the most legendary Watchers who ever lived, too,> Blake said. <Even before she got modded, she had all the senior watchers worrying and making plans to go to the training grounds more often.>

After Penny translated the words Weiss didn't understand and clarified what Blake meant, she asked, “You Fae have gene mods, too?”

Ruby nodded. “We don't really use them as much here in the Fae territories for a lot of reasons, but we have them. Abner can get you some, though it won't be cheap! He doesn't need Shinies, but green goo doesn't grow from trees, either.

“Well, some of it doesn't grow from trees, anyway.”

“Before you ask, 'Green goo' is the slang term for the extremely versatile substance we use for all of our genetic modification,” Penny said.

Weiss nodded, and they resumed shopping.

“Have we gotten everything for our costumes?” Weiss asked. “I don't want us to go over-budget because of me.”

<Yep,> Blake said, holding up some of their bags.

“Our checklist is complete, yes,” Penny added.

“Why doesn't it seem like we didn't get anything for Ruby?” Weiss asked.

“Because I already have my costume, silly!” Ruby chirped.

“So what, or who are you going as?”

“What else?” she beamed. “Myself, as the Keeper of the Grove!”

Weiss scowled. “Are you serious? You realize you're still very much Avalon's Most Wanted after you 'killed me' on live holovision, right?”

“Well who's going to believe that the actual Keeper of the Grove came to Candela, and is just hanging out at the Eve of the Ether fair with her friends, and not killing and/or scaring people?” Ruby replied. It works all the time for Eluna at conventions and press events.”

Weiss raised a finger, before she slowly put it down. “You have a point...”

<Saves Shinies, too,> Blake said, holding up the bags of materials and accessories they'd already bought.

Weiss nodded. “But what if someone somehow realizes it is actually you?”

Ruby beamed. “That's when I use my human disguise!”

“What does it look like?”

“I'll show you later!” Ruby said. “It kinda ruins the point of a disguise when there's tons of people around seeing you put it on,” she said.

Weiss couldn't argue with that, and they resumed shopping.

Chapter Text

To Weiss’ disappointment, she wasn’t going to be able to manufacture elemental or regular ammo and explosives any time soon.

The Guild, the Forge, and the Roost required that the Terrace certify that she had much more control over her powers, and that certification would take at least six weeks, with three-four visits per week. And with Penny advising her against any more physical or magical exertion in preparation for her first trip tomorrow afternoon, there really was nothing to do but laze around, or watch Blake and Penny finish their costumes in the living room and wait for them to ask for input.

“Want to go see my human disguise?” Ruby offered.

Weiss agreed, and off the two went into their room. Ruby put on her full Keeper of the Grove armour: enchanted cloak, the hood pulled up over her head, and the same mask she'd worn when they'd staged Weiss' death, as intimidating as the real one but without the fear hexes.

Ready to see my super awesome human disguise, Weiss?” Ruby asked, waggling her eyebrows underneath the mask.

“Don't keep me in suspense!” Weiss replied as she sat in her hammock.

Okay! Close your eyes and don’t open them until I say so!”

As Weiss obeyed, she wondered just what exactly she would look like, while Ruby giggled in excitement as she put it on.

“You can open your eyes now!”

Weiss did.

Ta-da!” Ruby cried, throwing her arms out.

She had pulled off her hood and her mask, the latter stashed inside her cloak. She was now wearing a top hat similar to Abner's sans the bullet holes, the tears, and the weathering, so large it completely hid her horns and animal ears.

Weiss stared blankly at her.

“Pretty clever, right?” Ruby asked, waggling her eyebrows again.

Weiss groaned. “Ruby, that is the most stupid, paper-thin disguise I have ever seen in my entire life! It’s just you with a top hat on, who's going to be fooled by that?!”

Knock-knock.

The door opened.

Blake peered in. “Hey Whyss, hau low d'yu--” her eyes widened, and her ears and tail perked to full attention. “Who'err you?!” she cried as she threw the door open and jumped back in fright, her hands in front of her with her claws out.

Penny rushed in, arms and eyes glowing in warning. Detecting--!” she paused at the doorway, and blinked a few times. “Oh! Hello, Ruby! I'm sorry, your disguise completely fooled my optic sensors!”

Blake whipped her head back and forth between Ruby and Penny, the horror on her face turning into confusion. <That's Ruby…?!> she whispered.

<It's her,> Weiss said with difficulty.

<My magical aura sensors can not be fooled as easily, Blake,> Penny said.

Blake turned to Ruby. She pulled her top hat on and off several times, showing them how she pulled her ears up and stuffed them and her horns underneath.

Blake just stared at her in ever growing disbelief, her face going through a number of expressions, none of them pleasant.

Qrow came up. <The hell is all this—oh, it's just Ruby and her human disguise, got it.>

Weiss looked at Ruby, then at the Fae crowded in the doorway. “Were you guys SERIOUSLY all fooled by that?”

Qrow, Penny, and Blake nodded.

<Excuse me...> Blake muttered as she walked away in a daze. <I just need to… question everything I thought was true...>

“Blake is currently suffering an existential crisis, and needs some time to pick up the pieces of her shattered perception of what is reality,” Penny translated.

Weiss looked at Ruby, who was now holding the hat in her hands, then back at Qrow and Penny. “Are you all fucking with me right now?!”

“I am not trying to deceive you in any way, Weiss,” Penny replied.

“She got me bad the first time she showed it off to me,” Qrow said. “You're probably not freaking out because you two are so close you can always tell it's her in a heartbeat.”

Weiss gritted her teeth. “Never mind… now, before I have to wonder who are these 'mysterious humans' wearing the same costumes as my friends, what are Blake and Penny's disguises like?”

“Blake ties a bow over her ears, and I have a headband with slots cut in to look like my ears are a novelty accessory,” Penny replied.

Weiss stared at her, then at Ruby, unable to speak.

Blake walked back in the doorway, one hand rubbing her temples. <Weiss: how low do you want your skirts?> she asked, her other hand making a line back and forth across her thighs.

Weiss got up off her hammock. <I'll just show you...> she replied in broken Actaeon.


Later that night, Blake finished their costumes, and Weiss' wardrobe had been modified more to her taste: the skirts cut higher over her knees, some with the sleeves and most of the topmost sections removed entirely, with the leftover fabric turned into decoration, or part of her new jackets, coats, and stockings that helped add some extra protection from the elements, natural or magical.

With a curtain set up in the living room for changing and her comm-crystal as a mirror, Weiss dressed up in her new and modified clothes, then showed them off to the others, going through the whole gamut of everyday wear, gowns and outfits for celebrations and special occasions, working clothes, and even some extreme weather gear in case she’d ever find need to venture out of the Bastion and travel to the rest of the Valley.

“Why in the world would I need a thunder wolf fur coat?” Weiss asked as she nuzzled her face into the soft white fluff around the collar. “I mean, I don’t mind, it’s so fluffy I could die, but isn’t this too warm for the Fury and too heavy for the Flood?”

“There’s places here that you’re going to wish you had it if you don't already,” Ruby said. “You might not ever need to go down to the Coldburrow Caverns, but hey: never hurts to be prepared!”

“I've never heard of any place that cold anywhere here in Acropolis,” Weiss replied.

“Plenty of secrets in the Valley, Weiss,” Qrow said. “Lots of them we’re still trying to figure out.”

“If you say so,” Weiss said, shrugging the coat off as she was already beginning to sweat in it.

The impromptu fashion show ended with her Eve of the Ether costume.

Blake had taken all manner of liberties with the design, both because Weiss weaver’s coat was armour first and foremost, and no one thought she would look good with the most popular—and as Weiss' learned then, accurate—depiction of Samaria:

Crouched low to the ground, a repeater in one hand and a hookshot-dagger in the other, both loaded with potent poisons that would ruin the days of anything short of a Soul Eater, with her hood thrown over her head, and only the emerald eyes and “fangs” of her Gila Monster mask peering out from under it.

Weiss’ version was much more regal and dignified: standing proud with Myrtenaster in one hand and her gauntlet in the other; her hair left untied and flowing out from her hood and down her shoulders in carefully brushed locks; her belt of mediums and equipment tied around her waist; and a slit in the front of her dress, with enchanted steel-silk stockings to compensate for the exposure, and some risque elements to it.

Completing the look was her weaver's mask, now modified to look like a mischievous and sinister fox, the eyes an icy blue, and a voice modulator just like the one Ruby had in hers.

She checked herself out for far longer than all the other outfits, making sure that everything was perfect—you never got a second chance at a first impression, after all.

“Come on, princess!” Qrow called out. “Night shift’s coming soon!”

“Yeah, let us see, let us see!” Ruby added.

Weiss sighed, and shut off her crystal. She supposed she had done everything she could… except…

From the outside, the others watched as a cool, frosty mist started to pour out from under the curtain, before Weiss threw it aside, and the fog rushed out to the others. She stepped out with slow, measured strides, thin layers of ice on her clothes glimmering like jewelry.

Ruby’s jaw dropped.

Weiss smiled as she stepped up to her, carefully put Myrtenaster under her chin, and pushed it back up.

You’ve got a little something...” she hummed as she daintily tapped the side of her mask, her voice coming out husky, with an unnerving, ethereal echo—a sound that’d send a chill down your spine and a very different sort of shiver elsewhere.

Holy hell...” Qrow muttered. “Should I start calling you Ice Queen instead, princess?”

The eyes of Weiss’ mask twinkled. Whatever pleases you, peasant,” she purred.

Qrow chuckled. “Well alright then, your majesty.”

Blake smiled and hummed in pride, giving her two thumbs up.

Penny beamed. “You look very intimidating and attractive, Weiss!”

You guys really think so...?”

Hell yeah!” Ruby said, a line of drool still running down the side of her mouth. “You look hot, Weiss!”

Weiss felt her face heat up. “Thanks... but could you hold back on the compliments when we're in public? I don’t want things to get... weird.”

“What’s so weird about me telling you how good you look...?”

People might think we’re actually a couple, when it’s just our costumes,” Weiss replied. “And before any of you ask: I only agreed to this because it’d be cheaper and easier for Blake, alright?” she said, pointing Myrtenaster at the others.

After Penny translated, all of them nodded.

Glad we got that cleared up,” Weiss said, before she dispelled her magic, and took off her mask. “Hey, Ruby? Can we talk some more in our room?”

“Sure!” Ruby said, getting up off the couch. “But better make it quick, most of us are leaving for the night shift soon!” she said as she headed there.

“I’ll skip changing until after, then,” Weiss said as she followed after her.

Qrow waited until the door to their room was shut. When it didn’t look like either of them were stepping out soon, he turned to the others, and whispered, <Is Weiss fucking with us, or does she just have one of the most impressive cases of denial I have ever seen in my entire life?>

<It feels like there's some sadistic author teasing us with Unresolved Sexual Tension for as long as they possibly can,> Blake grumbled.

<The disconnect between what my sensors detect, the evidence I have on record, and what she claims to believe is indeed jarring,> Penny said. <But didn’t her father also take quite a while to realize he was really more interested in Summer than Raven?>

<That was with my sister distracting him, and as far as I know, there isn’t anyone else trying to melt the Ice Queen’s heart,> Qrow replied. <Well, unless I missed one or the both of you making your own moves...>

Blake wrinkled her nose. <Ugh. I am DONE with romance for a LONG while, until I’m sure I won’t make such a horrible mistake ever again...>

<For a variety of reasons, I’m not romantically interested in Weiss, either,> Penny replied. <Besides, she’s really not my ‘type.’>


Meanwhile, in Ruby and Weiss' room...

“Could you give me a minute to gather my thoughts?” Weiss asked as she put away her mask and equipment.

“Sure!” Ruby replied. “I’ll just be in my nest.”

“Thanks,” Weiss replied.

She had thought that she’d have a well-articulated, thoughtful speech all ready to go by the time she put away her mediums in a locked box, but she still had absolutely nothing by the time she sat down in front of Ruby.

A long, awkward silence passed as they just looked at each other, Weiss fidgeting and feeling her face grow warm.

There were so many things she could have asked her to lead up to her actual question, make the transition smoother.

She could have asked how she felt about everyone assuming she and her were a couple and getting intimate (and on a regular basis, no less), how she felt about learning that Weiss was a lesbian, too, and how she felt about everyone but Zwei walking on them in compromising situations.

She could have asked why she so readily offered to snuggle with her to make her feel better, what she really thought when she noticed Weiss’ more interesting reactions to her massaging her, why she lent her the Summer plushie even if it was obviously as precious to her as the Eluna plushie was to her.

She could have even tried to get some more information straight from the source, asked her why if human/Fae relationships were such a taboo for the rest of their society, why was everyone so unquestionably supportive and enthusiastic of them, just because Ruby was the Keeper?

“You want to try this again tomorrow morning, Weiss?” Ruby asked. “I really need to get ready soon.”

“Do you like me?” Weiss blurted. “As in, do you want me to be your girlfriend? Hold hands in public, and kiss, and...” she tried to make a sexy animal noise.

Ruby snickered.

Weiss frowned and blushed.

“Sorry.”

“Well?” Weiss asked. “Do you...?”

“Yes,” Ruby replied.

Weiss blinked. “… What do you mean, ‘Yes’?” she asked, her cheeks burning brighter red.

“I mean, ‘Yes,’ I like you, I want to be your girlfriend, I want to hold your hand in public, kiss you, and--” she made a sexy animal noise--”with you.”

Weiss stared at her, mouth slowly falling open.

“I'm being completely honest with you, Weiss, because I really, really, really like you, and more than that, I hate lying,” Ruby said before she got up and went to the equipment rack.

“If Aunt Raven hadn’t lied to dad, if dad hadn’t lied to mom, and if Uncle Qrow hadn’t lied to the Council and the other Watchers, then maybe they wouldn’t be dead, and he wouldn’t have had to raise me alone all these years,” she said as she put her cloak on.

She picked up the Keeper’s mask, currently wrapped up in a magic-proof cloth. “And besides: I’ve watched enough holos to know that whenever someone is attracted to someone else, and they decide to keep it a secret, it just makes things all weird and awkward between them, and they all find out in the end, especially when it’s going to make things even weirder and more awkward between them than if they just came clean in the first place.”

Ruby picked up her scythe, then turned to Weiss. “Why would you even do that to yourself...?”

“...”

“I need to go, Weiss,” Ruby said, as she opened the door. “Good night.”

“… Good night, Ruby...” Weiss muttered, long after the door had closed behind her.

Penny was the only one left in the house with Weiss, and the two of them busied themselves with picking up and hauling her clothes both old and new into her and Ruby's room.

“I'm detecting a higher than normal level of stress hormones in your system, and a dramatic downwards shift in your mood beside, Weiss,” she said as they worked. “Is something the matter?”

“Yeah...” Weiss replied. “I… really need to ask Ruby to build some trunks or wardrobes one of these days, this place is a mess...”

Penny frowned, clearly unconvinced, before she nodded and said, “I'll inform her for you, and see what materials we can spare for it.”

“Thanks, Penny,” Weiss said.

Penny left to maintain herself before charging up in preparation for tomorrow. Weiss spent a long time laying in her hammock, gently rocking back and forth, the Summer plushie left in Ruby’s nest. Eventually, she fell asleep and found herself back in the dreamscape.

This night, it was just the blank white expanse.

Her grandparents walked up from behind, Nick put a rough, calloused hand on her shoulder. “You want to talk about it, sweetheart?” he asked.

“No...” Weiss replied. “Grandpa, grandma? Can you guys please leave? I... need to be alone right now...”

They nodded somberly.

“Call if you need us, we’ll be around,” Nick said, before walked away, and faded into nothing.

“We love you, Weiss—no matter what happens,” Freya said, before she did the same.

Now all alone, Weiss sat down, and began to think.

Chapter Text

Up until puberty came with all its raging hormones and confusing changes to her body, Weiss had never really been interested in romance.

Didn't have crushes on her classmates, adults, celebrities, fictional characters, or androids; rolled her eyes and tuned out whenever any of her classmates began to gush over how attractive someone was; and only participated in the Valentino's Day events because she didn't want to get lumped in with the pretentious and insufferable crowd who loved bragging about how they were exercising their right to do whatever the hell they wanted, oftentimes claiming some form of inherent superiority for not “following outdated traditions like blind sheep,” or something to that effect.

It didn't really help that her father's only concern about her crushes was that she either get involved with the children of Avalon's other elite, famous, and ridiculously wealthy (sans the ones of those that were even more controversial than him), and Winter only ever seemed to have crushes on soldiers, professional athletes, and of course, Guadalupe Garron, who Weiss now knew was both the sole official voice actress of Eluna, and the actual “mythological” figure herself.

(In retrospect, there was something quite different about Winter's gushing over the Eluna plushie.)

But all that changed when Clarita Nguyen literally came swinging into her life.

To kick-off the start of the school year, the various instructors, facilitators, and some alumni had a live show of the many extra-curricular activities Arcturus offered. The students either watched with mixed levels of interest, or hacked their holo-projectors to watch something more to their interest on HV.

Weiss herself was seriously tempted to follow suit, until the Dance Clubs segment ended.

“And now, for a very different sort of dance, combining grace, coordination, and violence!” the MC said. “Kicking off the Combat and Martial Arts Clubs is Ms. Clarita Nguyen, of the Swordplay Society!”

A replica of an Ancient Old World pirate ship was warped in on stage, holo-dummies of ferocious (if historically inaccurate) buccaneers appearing on deck, armed with cutlasses and pistols. The lights began to dim except for the stage's. All was quiet but for the murmurs of students still chatting with each other.

Then, laughter—excited, confident, and just the right amount of unhinged.

A spotlight tracked Clarita as she swung in on a rope, flying over just over the students' heads before she somersaulted through the air, and made a graceful landing right in the center of the deck.

The buccaneers all readied their weapons and cried out in pirate slang, more Hollywood than history. Like the knights when Abner had cranked the difficulty up to max, there was no fairness here, all hands on deck swarming her and climbing out from the rest of the ship to drown her in a sea of marauders.

But Clarita was more than ready for them, unsheathing her own sword and proceeding to decimate the entire crew.

Weiss was transfixed as Clarita effortlessly weaved around the pirates attacks be they blade or bullet, somersaulting through the air, maneuvering through every space she could squeeze in through, launching of walls or balancing on the rails to use every advantage available to her as she took them with perfectly timed thrusts and swings, oftentimes hitting them where they least expected it.

Weiss heart beat faster as dramatic music played alongside the sounds of violence and fallen pirates—though in retrospect, that was probably more because of the way Clarita laughed and smiled, the way her ruffled shirt and tight pants fit on her lithe and muscular figure, the incredible flexibility, acrobatics, and fighting skill she was gladly showing off.

She devastated the entire crew in less than two minutes, dozens of combat-grade holo dummies disappearing one after the other, and her never taking a single slash nor shot. The crew's Captain burst out of his quarters, roaring with anger as he unsheathed his blade, fire in his eyes and his mouth og rotten teeth curled into a snarl.

Clarita merely laughed and taunted him, drawing a C with a little N in the air.

The two clashed, swords sparking, blades locking, so close they could see the whites in her eyes and the tell-tale distortion of holo-dummies. The music swelled to a crescendo just as the Captain got the upper hand on Clarita, knocking her off balance.

The Captain let out a mighty laugh as he thrusted his sword for the kill…

… Only for his opponent to suddenly “regain” her footing, twisting and dodging the attack by less than an inch, raising her sword up to his neck and making him slit his own throat from his momentum.

The Captain fell, surprise on his face before dissipated.

The music reached its end and faded away.

The audience erupted into cheers.

Clarita turned to the audience and bowed, her eyes sparkling, sweat dripping down her caramel skin. “And those, students, are the kinds of moves you can learn at the Swordfighting Society!”

Weiss signed up as soon as the prompt came up.

She had a plan all thought up in her head: become one of the best students in class, challenge Clarita to a duel, and the moment she bested her in combat, confess her love for her!

… And it all fell apart her first day in the Society, when a much calmer but no less cheerful Clarita put down her and the many other lovestruck hopefuls as gently as she could, explaining it would be illegal for her to get into a relationship with any of her underage students, it would feel wrong for her to become their mentor then their lover, and most importantly, she was already taken, and happily so by a woman who had already bested her in one-to-one combat two decades ago.

Some quit on the spot, unable to face such rejection—oftentimes the first they'd ever experienced in their lives with how sheltered Arcturus kids tended to be.

Weiss stayed, if only because she didn't want her to know that her heart had been rapidly hacked apart like Clarita did a block of wood for the first day presentation.

The sessions passed, Clarita trained her and others in all the many types of blades, until they finally found her specialty in fencing. She taught her the proper form, the technique, and the rules, helped her discover just how fluidly and gracefully she could move, how devastating her well-aimed rapier thrusts could be, refine them both until Weiss was on track to becoming one of the best students in the Society.

It started to look like the plan might not have crashed and burned after all, that dogged persistence had paid off for her as it had for her grandfather, and she could challenge her to that duel after all. (People fell in and out of love all the time, she reasoned with herself.)

… And then, Clarita called her into her office in private, to discuss what she thought was stagnating her performance in the Society.

“Weiss, are you in love with me?” Clarita asked.

There was no malice, no annoyance, no slyness or suggestive undertones. Just curiosity, like she was asking her how her grades were.

Weiss began to sweat and blush. “N-No, absolutely not!” she stammered, lying poorly in the see-through, blatantly obvious, and poorly thought out way adolescents could. “What makes you…?”

“Once upon a time, I was a teenager too, Weiss, and I remember very well how I acted when I was in love with a woman I could never have—exactly how you've been acting.”

Weiss hung her head, ashamed, angry, but most of all, hurt.

“Do you wish to change instructors, Weiss?” Clarita asked softly. “I feel that I’m only holding you back because of how you feel about me, and I how feel about that.”

Weiss looked her in the eyes, and said “Yes.”

Her own eyes were red and welling up with tears, but there was proper decorum to be followed, even if your heart had been sliced up into ribbons, just after you'd finally sewn it back together.

Clarita nodded. “I’ll go ask my colleagues and see who would be willing to take you on instead.” Then, she opened her drawer and pulled out a physical business card—a real rarity those days. “And also: a recommendation for someone who can help you out.”

That someone turned out to be Dr. Coriander “Connie” Corazon, a therapist who specialized in counseling people questioning their sexuality identities and orientations but mostly for women. In her words, “Society may stop blinking an eye at queer couples doing basically anything, but there will always be girls wondering if they have a girl crush or just an actual crush.”

Jacques was willing to pay for the therapy, if only because he probably made a cost-benefit analysis, and the price of a scandal of his adolescent daughter pining after a married woman three times her age (who had also been her instructor, and was notably close to her) did not even come close to the price of keeping Dr. Connie on for a decade or more.

It all worked out wonderfully for Weiss, as the first handful of sessions were spent in painful, awkward silence, making small talk, and squirming and fidgeting when she ran out of meaningless topics. Dr. Connie had the patience of a saint, was a firm believer in the value of waiting for your clients to come forward with their issues on their own volition, and was still getting paid handsomely regardless of whatever happened.

Then, Weiss' broke like a dam and out came everything in a messy, disastrous flood of Teenage Angst, one that Dr. Connie dutifully waded through, sorted out, and tried to help funnel into healthy, mature drains and pathways so Weiss wouldn't drown in hormones, stupid impulses, and poorly thought-out plans.

The one session she remembered the most was when Weiss admitted that she wanted to try to ask a girl out--”and for clarification, we're in the same grade, she's less than a year older than me, and she's also a member of the Natural Body Improvement Club!” she snapped, her cheeks burning red.

“So, have you thought of what you're going to do on your date?” Dr. Connie replied.

“I… haven't actually thought of that yet...” Weiss admitted.

“Well why haven't you?” Dr. Connie asked.

And so began the recurring structure of their meetings: Dr. Connie asking questions, Weiss answering them, and the process repeating itself for however long it took for Weiss to finally admit or figure out just what exactly was the problem, if Dr. Connie didn't step in to explain to fill in the gaps of her knowledge and emotional maturity.

“… So what if she does say yes, she will go out on a date with you?” Dr. Connie asked.

Weiss groaned, her neatly tied hair now frazzled and a two strands less than when the session started. “I… I… I don't know!” she cried. “I guess we'll go out for chocolate shakes, or something? I haven't thought that far yet!”

“Because…?”

“Because what if she realizes what a giant bag of issues I am, and she decides to just lie her way out of the date, and say an emergency came up?! What'll it look like if I don't just take her on her word and decide to go launch an investigation, find out if she really did have something come up and she wasn't lying?! And what if she did have something come up, and she finds out that I made like a creepy stalker, and that just makes her so glad she couldn't go on that date because who knows what would have happened, now that she knows all these new horrible things about me?!

“How do I find out this a relationship with her isn't just going to crash and burn?!”

Dr. Connie smiled. “Ask her out on a date.”

Weiss groaned. “Isn't there some other way?! Preferably one I can use BEFORE I ask her out?”

Dr. Connie shook her head. “Last I heard, no one has cracked the perfect algorithm that'll completely, accurately decide who's going to be your 'perfect match,' and all the dating companies are still legally required to say that their algorithms can't 100% guarantee said match.

“So, we still have to find it out the tried and tested way: ask someone out, date them for a while, and see if you two will work out to the best of your abilities.”

“There has to be a better way!”

Dr. Connie smiled. “If there is, then none of us have figured it out yet.”

So now here Weiss was, sitting on the side of her hammock and hoping that the Fae had cracked the code.

It was morning when Ruby stepped back into their room, looking roughed up and tired, her clothes and scythe still faintly stained with blood and other stains. “Morning Weiss!” she said, waving lazily with one hand as she put away her scythe with the other.

She frowned as she began to pulled out her wrapped up mask from inside her cloak. “Rough night?”

“To put it lightly...” Weiss muttered.“… Hey, Ruby...? Can I ask you a question?”

“Could you make it an easy one?” she replied as she put away her mask and cloak. “I kinda really need to crash soon.”

Weiss blushed. “How do you know if you're in love with someone?”

“Oh, that's easy!” Ruby said as she walked over to her nest. “I kiss them.”

Weiss blushed. “Just like that…?”

“No, I ask them first, and most of the time there's a date before that!” she said as she sat down among her cushions. “Anyway, if it turns out I really like kissing them and want to do more of that in the future, I know I love them, not just like them.”

“Is that a Fae thing?” Weiss asked.

Ruby shook her head. “Just me. I can't be in a serious relationship with someone I can't kiss, let alone have fun making-out with.”

Weiss blushed even more. “How do you know that?”

Ruby sheepishly looked away, before she turned back to Weiss. “… Do you promise not to tell anyone?”

“Promise.”

“I tried making out with Lifira one time,” Ruby replied. “I hadn't kissed anyone real before, and I was really curious about how it was like, so I tried it on her.”

Weiss' face betrayed nothing. “So how did it feel like?”

Awful. And I asked her to be really into it, and man, she was! But the thing is, there wasn't that something, and it just felt weird and unnatural, and then Yang caught me, and…” Ruby trailed off. “… Yeah.”

“Do you Fae have a word for that for that 'something'?”

Ruby shook her head. “Nah, it's all on you on whatever you want to call it. I don't know what it is for me yet, exactly, but I know it's not just kissing because Lifira was a pretty great kisser, just not for me.”

She yawned. “Was that all you wanted, Weiss? Because I don't think I can stay up much longer...”

Weiss opened her mouth. “No--” she blurted, before she shut her mouth.

Ruby looked at her. “No…?”

“No… I…” Weiss' face felt like it was melting. “Ruby, do you promise not to tell anyone, either?”

Ruby nodded, her sleepy face turning alert and serious. “Absolutely.”

Weiss sheepishly looked away, before reluctantly looking back at Ruby. “Could you… kiss me...?”

Ruby's eyes widened, her ears perked up.

Weiss started to sweat. “I-I know you like me, and I'm not sure if I like you back, and I'm kinda leaning on yes, but also no, and I just want to--”

She stopped as Ruby got up off her nest, walked over, and sat down beside Weiss.

Weiss gulped. “… Make... sure...” she finished, her voice barely a whisper.

“Someone please walk in on us,” she thought to herself. “Please, please, please...”

Ruby smiled at her, her sleepy eyes twinkling in the morning sun. “You can say no if you don't want to, Weiss.”

Weiss took a deep, not-at-all calming breath, then forced herself to bring her lips right up to Ruby's, careful not to smash their noses or foreheads together in decidedly unromantic and painful ways.

Her whole body began to tremble, sweat poured down her face as she closed her eyes, her face so close to Ruby's she just knew she could feel the intense heat radiating from her cheeks.

“Do you still want to…?” Ruby whispered.

“Y-yes...” Weiss whispered back.

She felt Ruby hold the back of her head, fingers threading through her hair, her touch only light enough to keep her steady, so much of her power and strength being held back because she knew any more would hurt her.

Weiss swallowed the lump in her throat.

She always knew that Ruby was powerful, in combat skill and in physical strength. She could and had crushed an entire armed mercenary company of rank 6 Queensguard Nominees without resorting to killing any of them if crippling most instead; easily wiped the floor with Cardin and his men while unarmed if invisible; and fought the dangerous creatures of the Valley on a daily basis without the slightest hint of serious injury, and from what she'd seen of her at the hot springs, any injury at all.

She could crush her, easily.

And yet she wouldn't, being very, very careful, holding back so much of her power, putting this much conscious effort and attention to make sure she didn't hurt her.

And Weiss found that she really, really, really liked that.

She closed the distance between their lips, surprising them both.

Weiss frowned, feeling like she was kissing a rock: solid and unmoving.

Then, Ruby got over the shock, started kissing back, physically pushing Weiss back from the strength she put behind it, before she quickly toned it down to just enough for her to really feel her lips on hers. She began to move her mouth against hers, now soft and warm, feeling like it was yielding exactly to the shape of Weiss' till they were a perfect fit.

Weiss felt a rush like the first time she'd held Myrtenaster, only instead of a dam breaking and her magic flooding out of her body, into the sword then back again several times as potent, she felt herself melt, delicious warmth spreading to every single part of her body, turning her into jelly.

Ruby caught her before she could fall and break the kiss, cradling the back of her head, cupping her lower back. Weiss could feel the touch of each finger send ripples across her skin, her grip tightening and loosening, too hard, too soft, until she found just right.

Weiss threw her arms around Ruby, pulled herself into her body, feeling her densely-woven muscles constantly shifting and tightening under her clothes. She made a noise, a sound she'd never made in her entire life, what sounded like a deep and guttural…

… Not a threat, but an invitation.

Ruby opened her eyes, half-lidded and with a mischievous look Weiss hadn't seen before. She broke away from the kiss for air…

… Or she would have, if she could.

Weiss' eyes fluttered open. She tried to ask Ruby what was wrong, before she found she couldn't move her lips anymore.

“Whut da phuck?!” Weiss mumbled.

“Ay fink yuu frovz arr lipsth togeverr!” Ruby replied. “Ay geth datz wut da tinggling wath!”

“Gonthlet! Nid tu get my gonthlet!” Weiss said, her eyes opening wide in alarm, her face burning bright red—sadly, it didn't do anything to melt the enchanted ice sealing their lips together.

Knock-knock.

“Weiss? Ruby?” Qrow asked. “I'm not about to walk in on anything, am I?”

They tried to answer him, but it only managed to come out as panicked, unintelligible, and muffled mumbling.

“… Okay: I'm giving you guys till the count of five to cover up, or try to make whatever is going on in there look less awful, then I'm opening the door. One… two… three...”

Weiss made a little dying noise.

Ruby tried to give her a reassuring look, but it was difficult to do so with just her eyes and eyebrows, and more so with their lips frozen together.

“… Four… five!”

Qrow carefully opened the door, and peered in.

Weiss squeezed her eyes shut.

Ruby sheepishly waved.

Qrow stared blankly at them.

“… I'll go get Penny...”

Chapter Text

Qrow knocked on Blake and Penny's bedroom door. <Hey, Penny! I need you in Ruby and Weiss' room, stat.>

The two of them looked up from helping Blake improve her reading in Nivian. <What happened?> Penny said as she turned off her holo-projector. <Is it a medical emergency?>

Qrow paused. <It's uh… you should probably just go there and see for yourself, and fast.>

Blake and Penny looked at each other, before they got up and did so.

The door had been left open for Qrow's rushing, and Ruby and Weiss were still sitting on her hammock, lips still frozen together. They had tried to move, but it was both painful and difficult, and neither wanted to risk finding out first-hand what would happen if one of them broke away without melting the ice first.

Penny and Blake stopped in the doorway for a few moment, both of them processing the scene in front of them.

“Beginning dispelling and separation attempts...” Penny said as she walked in, her hands glowing.

Blake turned to Qrow. <Did Weiss…?>

<Accidentally freeze their lips together while they were making out?> Qrow replied. <Seems like it.>

Weiss made a frustrated noise and squeezed her eyes shut, her cheeks still burning red.

“Hey Whyss?” Blake asked.

“Mhmm?” she replied.

“Aym rilly sorry, but aym gunna lahf rilly hardd at yu guyz ryte naw,” Blake said, before she did just that.

Weiss grumbled under her breath. Ruby patted her on the shoulder. Blake tried reach for the door frame for support, missed, and ended up on the floor, curled up and clutching her sides from how hard she was laughing.

Penny put her hands near their lips, quickly separated the two of them, and healed any of the physical damage.

“Woo!” Ruby said as she smacked her healed lips, no longer severely chapped. “Thanks, Penny!”

“You're welcome, Ruby,” Penny said. “Are there any more concerns either of you have?”

“Nothing else from me,” Ruby replied.

“Can you revive the parts of myself that have died from embarrassment?” Weiss asked.

Penny shook her head. “Sadly, my mender protocols have their limits.”

“Then you can you at least help me forget everything before we I ended up freezing our lips together?”

“Unfortunately, I can't do such precision memory erasure unless I had access to much more complex equipment than I currently have, or you also had a chronicle installed.”

Weiss sighed and shook her head. “You know what? Just shock me unconscious again...” she muttered as she laid down on her side, away from the others.

“Can you do it for me, too?” Ruby asked as she got up to give her room. “I was planning on going to sleep, but Weiss got me all fired up, and I don't want to nod off on my shift later.”

“I can and will, though I must advise against too frequent use of this!” Penny said as she began to charge up her hands with a different frequency of magic. “This was only ever meant for temporarily curing extreme cases of insomnia, and non-lethal take downs; repeated use will seriously disrupt--”

Just do it already!” Weiss cried.

Penny paused, before she shrugged. “Administering treatment!” she said as she put her hand on Weiss’ back.

There was a brief flash in her vision, before she blacked out once more.


Weiss came to by noon, feeling somewhat better now that she'd caught up on her lost sleep.

Ruby was in her nest, still unconscious and drooling all over her pillow. Weiss bit her lip, debating whether or not she should wake her up and ask her all the new burning questions on her mind, before she decided not to.

She grabbed her work dress and her gauntlet, then tiptoed it out of their room and outside the house. Tending to her crops and her new orchard provided some much needed distraction for an hour, but the after she closed the lid on the storage box, there was no avoiding it anymore:

“I kissed Ruby.” Weiss thought. “And she kissed me back. And then I froze our lips together.”

She whined in distress as she leaned on the box, a flood of mixed emotions welling up inside of her:

Confusion, as she wondered just what exactly this new relationship would entail, as though Ruby wasn’t Weiss ‘first girlfriend, she was the first person she’d dated across species lines.

Excitement, as she remembered how amazing her lips felt on her, how well their bodies fit together, the way her touch brought all sorts of interesting reactions to her that she’d never felt before with anyone else.

Dread, as she worried if Ruby was going to change her mind about her now that she knew how quickly things could go south because of her lack of control over her powers.

Horror, as she imagined just how much worse that incident could have gone if her powers had leaked out in greater amounts, or if they had been doing much more than just kissing each other on the lips.

Arousal, when she imagined what exactly those acts would be, sans the mood-killing magical mishaps.

“Weiss?” Penny asked.

Weiss screamed and jumped into the air, face burning red. She looked in worry at the thin layer of frost that had formed over the lid, hurriedly dispelled it, before she turned to Penny.

“Y-Yes…?” she asked, trying and failing to act casual.

Penny hesitated a moment. “I just came over to remind you that you're due at the Weaver's Terrace in an hour, 2 PM as Elder Goodwitch had ordered,” she replied.

Weiss blinked. “O-Oh, right… I… should I do anything before I go?”

“I would heavily advise dressing in your full weaver's armour, and eating a heavy lunch as you skipped breakfast, preferably something high in carbohydrates as you will begin your Elemental Weaving training today. Even with your naturally high stores of mana, performing magic will still tax your physical body, if just your mind and willpower.

Weiss nodded. “I guess I should go get cooking...” she said as she prepared to head back up to the house.

Penny stopped her. “Actually, Weiss, I was wondering if I could ask you how is your relationship with Ruby, given your recently discovered powers.”

Weiss sighed. “Well, it'd be hard to tell how it is, given that the whole thing just started this morning!”

“It's been two weeks at least, hasn't it?” Penny asked.

“No, no it has not!” Weiss snapped. “For the last time, me and Ruby are—well, I guess we are together now, but again, only since this morning!” she looked away uneasily. “We… we haven't really had any time to discuss it, either, so I guess I'm just assuming we’re girlfriends now...”

She looked back uneasily at Penny. “… Do Fae have platonic friendships that happen to involve things like kissing…?”

Penny nodded. “Some do. But there are always long discussions beforehand laying out the terms exactly, and Ruby strikes me as the kind of Fae who would not just kiss someone unless she were romantically interested in them.”

She looked around, her ears rotating on her head like satellite dishes, before she leaned in and whispered, “And please don't tell Ruby, but I'm aware of the incident where she attempted to get intimate with Lifira in a Honeydream; as part of my duties as the Keeper's Chronicler alongside Qrow, I'm privy to the records stored in her and Yang’s dreamcatcher.”

With another check to make sure Ruby hadn’t heard, Penny leaned back and resumed talking to her normally. “Anyway… how would you say your relationship is looking, then?”

Weiss paused. “I don't know. I've… never really been good at this dating thing.”

“How so?”

Weiss debated it for a moment, before she shook her head. “I'm sorry, but I don't feel like sharing the intimate details of my love life, when I know there's probably an army of chroniclers itching to dissect every word after your next brain drain.”

Penny nodded. “Understood, and shall not ask again!”

“Thanks. By the way… did the Council happen to put you up to this?” Weiss asked. “Ask me questions about how me and Ruby are doing once you're unmistakably sure we're together…?”

Penny shook her head. “Oh, no, not at all! Aside from the fact that I had wrongly assumed you were a couple for most all of the time we’ve been together and had been treating you two accordingly, Keepers are actually given plenty of autonomy, and the Council rarely steps in their personal lives.”

“Exceptional circumstances aside, they’re more than happy to let them ‘do their own thing,’ as you humans might say.”

Penny suddenly looked away; she couldn't blush, having no blood nor modifications to her “skin” that could simulate it, but Weiss could tell she would have if she could. “… And in the interest of transparency, this was also motivated by my own desire to learn more about courtship and how to attempt it myself.”

“You want to try dating?” Weiss asked, more curious than incredulous.

Penny looked back and nodded. “My creators were mates, actually, and to use a shared expression between our cultures, they never let the flame of passion die out.

“It's been quite interesting observing them, how this arrangement that seems to cause such stress, conflict, and anger is also the same thing that gives them incredible relief, peace, and happiness.

“They had actually fed me a large amount of anecdotes, records, and sometimes even live observations of their moments together, as part of their attempts to make me more like an organic being, and expand my knowledge in general.

“The only thing they've excluded is whenever they get intimate, though that's more for avoiding the risk of my becoming collateral damage during the act itself.”

Weiss raised her eyebrows.

“One of them is a Water Weaver,” Penny replied. “Emotional arousal has been proven to affect your alignment's magic even more than that of Fire Weavers, if less destructive. Generally speaking, at least...”

Weiss looked at her gloved hand, and winced. “Right.”

“Back on topic: I became quite curious about romance in general, and even with the information available through me to the Codex and the Info-Grid, there's only so much you can learn from theory before you have to experiment.”

“So you tried dating?”

Penny nodded. “The Trance was great for that. I assumed false identities, and by that point my intelligence had been upgraded and grown to such a level where I could convince anyone I was, well, anyone I wanted to be!

“It helped that most assumed that you are not being entirely truthful about who or what you are 'IRL,' and identities and histories were easy enough to acquire then erase or obfuscate to avoid suspicion, so long as you know what you're doing—or alternatively, can hack and manipulate the server’s code at the machine language level,” she said, beaming with pride.

Weiss’ eyes widened. “Oh, sweet Shepherd, please tell me you didn't get swarmed with creeps like I did...”

“I had been, though honestly I'm not bothered by it these days,” Penny replied. “If anything, studying the data afterward left me feeling sad for them than anything else, especially when closely examining the records of our interactions and the trends in their responses and actions.”

Weiss shuddered. “Let's move on, please!”

Penny nodded. “As you wish. I fostered some 'serious' relationships, but eventually, I realized that though romance in the Trance is possible and there are numerous precedents, there was the caveat that many couples eventually decide to reveal who they are 'IRL' as a show of absolute trust, that they are truly committed to each other.

“And, well...” Penny gestured at herself.

Weiss nodded. “I could see where that'd become difficult.”

Penny hummed. “I attempted to construct a human identity for myself. One that was completely biological, had been born to normal parents, and had both the mental and chronological age of a 15 year old.

“But it just felt… wrong.

“So I decided to start going as myself, being honest about my identity as a completely artificial being, though obviously, my true origins and the nature of my creators were kept secret.”

“Were people… bothered by your appearance?” Weiss asked, eyeing Penny up and down. “Your design is kind of...”

“Unnerving?” Penny offered. “Disturbing? Creepy?”

“'Unusual!' I was going to say 'unusual,'” Weiss said. “I stopped being weirded out by your floating arm… thingies… pretty quickly, and considering everything else I've seen in the Valley, that's really saying something!”

“They weren't actually all that bothered by my design,” Penny said. “If anything, they wanted to know the schematics or at least the scientific principles behind them, so they could attempt to build their own prostheses similar to mine.

“I'm still getting requests for plans, with Non-Disclosure Agreement drafts, and reputable lawyers to modify them with at my discretion, though for obvious reasons, I've had to decline every one.”

“And they're not bothered at all by the fact that you're an AI? Or a golem, I guess.”

Penny smiled. “That would be surprising indeed, considering the community I ended up with is united by their mutual interest in cyborgs, androids, and artificial intelligences.”

Weiss blinked. “Wait… so that's what 'Mechanical Love' is? A dating site?”

“It's more a forum and centralized location for resources such as reputable independent prosthetic engineers for more 'exotic' enhancements, though yes, they do have a subset for those that would like to become romantically involved with cyborgs, or even completely artificial beings like myself.

“I'm actually well-known as one of the most advanced and ‘human’ of the latter.” Penny smiled. “The irony is not lost on me.”

Weiss chuckled. “You must get a lot of attention.”

“I do, though it's mostly intellectual inquiries, or those wishing to attempt to create personalities similar in complexity to mine. I've exes who wish there was something fundamentally different about my personality if with the same level of complexity and intelligence, or that they could clone me and try a second time with a fresh slate, so to speak.”

Weiss paused, before she laughed. “Of all the things I never thought I'd be talking about, it'd be a robot's exes...”

“It makes for interesting conversation at community events, that's for sure!” Penny chirped.

“So are you about to reveal I'm not the only human involved with a Fae here?”

Penny frowned. “Sadly, my search for a potential mate for a long-term relationship has been unsuccessful. Though, if anything, all those failures have helped me refine the my most important criteria—my 'type' so to speak.”

“And that is…?”

“Someone who is enthusiastic about my being an artificial being, first and foremost! There's something that irks me about people that simply ignore such a vital part of myself, than accepting that I was made, not born.

“Second is that they are 'nice' as you humans would say; the 'Mender' personality type who is caring, more concerned for others than themselves, and is generally reserved and polite. I get enough excitement from all of you, no offense.”

“None taken.”

“And lastly, they would have to be female, taller than myself, and a natural redhead, though the last is optional given the rarity of its occurring still, and the propagation of 'hair dye' mods.”

“Why natural redheads specifically?”

Penny smiled as she touched her own hair. “Because they're incredibly rare, just like myself; it's why I chose this combination of hair and eye colours, actually.”

The conversation came to an abrupt end as Weiss' stomach began to growl.

“Aw, crap, how long have we been talking here?” Weiss asked, pulling out her comm-crystal.

Penny's eyes widened. “Much longer I originally intended...” she muttered. “I'm sorry.”

Weiss sighed as she hurried back to the house. “You can apologize by helping me cook something up real quick!”

“I was already planning to!” Penny chirped as she followed after her

They came into the kitchen, where Blake was already sitting at the table reading, and enjoying a plate of sashimi from some fish she had caught last night.

As Penny got out pots and pans and heated up the oven, Weiss opened the fridge to see what she'd have to work with.

Inside was another plate of sashimi, carefully wrapped in plastic with a sticky note on it.

This time, the doodle of Weiss' face was much more flattering, with a checkmark beside it.

She pulled her head out of the fridge, and smiled at Blake.

She looked up from her reading, and smiled back.

Chapter Text

Walking in the Weaver’s Terrace felt very different with Weiss’ robes and her gauntlet on, and her mask and Myrtenaster hanging on her belt alongside her mediums.

She could feel the magic radiating all around, like being submerged under a cool, calm river, feeling the water and an incredible calm wash over her, her body begin to hum and radiate with incredible power. Even the Fae there started to treat her differently, Weavers greeting her amiably, the other folks bowing respectfully and minding how they spoke to her.

About the only thing that hadn’t changed were that the monkeys were still assholes.

Weiss felt a disturbance, like rocks falling into a pond and sending ripples all over its surface. Faster than she thought she could ever move, she spun around and held up her bare hand, blasting cold mist into the air.

She smiled as the flying blueberries froze in mid-air, before they dropped to the ground and shattered. She looked up at the disappointed and surprised monkeys up in their branches, and stuck her tongue out at them.

The creatures hung their heads and looked apologetic.

Then she felt a second barrage of blueberries assault her from her behind.

The first troop of monkeys howled with laughter as Weiss spun around to glare at the second troop, who were instead congratulating each other and pointing at the foolish weaver they had caught by surprise.

Weiss gritted her teeth, freezing mist pouring from her nostrils and the sides of her mouth, before Penny grabbed her wrist and pulled her off to their destination—higher up the side of the mountain than inside it this time.

She walked up a series of staircases and gardens thriving with plants and wild animals, before she stepped into the eponymous Weaver’s Terrace. She had to stop and stare in wonder, taking it all in, feeling the intense magic pour into her body, making her feel more alive than she ever had in her entire life.

The Terrace was divided into four quadrants, one for each element, with an elaborate raised altar in the center.

For Air: a lush forest, filled with tall trees, vines hanging from their branches, and small islands floating up in the air by tornadoes at their bases.

Weavers swung, climbed, and even flew all around them, propelled by bursts of electricity or flying devices of various designs, if they didn’t already have wings of their own. Those that weren’t nested in the branches and hollows, making music or experimenting with various magitech made of wood and plants.

For Earth: an arid desert, ancient mountains and tall spires of stone rising up from the ground, sand swirling and blowing over dunes, and caves, their insides glimmering with gems and precious metals.

Weavers there sat and meditated in almost perfect stillness, if they weren’t stomping their feet and thrusting their hands through the air, the land shifting and changing as they willed it. Those that weren’t carefully molded and sculpted clay and refined metals and stone, working on similar projects as their air counterparts.

For Fire: an island paradise, tropical plants, exotic flowers, and miniature volcano rising up in the center of it all, rivers of magma pouring down from its constantly bubbling and smoking mouth.

Weavers danced with and fought each other—sometimes both at the same time—going through a series of complex, energetic movements accompanied by jets of flame, balls of fire, and even pillars of hot lava. Those that weren’t participated in the loudest, most energetic, and entertaining cooking competitions Weiss had ever seen, the chefs often literally on fire as they tossed, chopped, and roasted their creations.

And for Water: a thriving swamp like Keeper’s Hollow, filled with giant mangroves with roots rising over the water, streams and rivers gently burbling and trickling, with a few docks, boats, and buildings-on-stilts spread around.

Weavers there were almost constantly in the water, waist-deep as they harnessed it and turned it into playful bubbles, blasts of water, and miniaturized storms, or completely submerged, effortlessly moving through it like sharks in for the kill. Those that weren’t were carefully monitoring bubbling cauldrons or slaving over much more complex alchemy sets than the ones Weiss had at home.

As she and Penny headed there, Weiss noticed and watched a mixed team of weavers move as one in front of a long series of alchemy equipment, straining their necks and dipping low to the ground as they followed a solution’s trip through so many containers and tubes, before ending at a pitcher.

The others stepped well back as the alchemist leading them pulled out a dropper from inside her coat, and carefully added two drops.

The purple-blue liquid inside started to bubble and fizz violently. The other members of the team readied their hands and foci as their leader held the pitcher steady, keeping it from rocking itself right off the table.

Finally, it stopped. The alchemist called her fellows over, some of them fetching glasses and a ladle. A small sample was poured out, then handed over to their earth weaver who carefully swirled it around in its glass, before knocking it back.

Everyone waited in tense silence.

The earth weaver smacked their lips, and gave the thumbs up.

The group cheered, high fives going all around as they began to pour glasses of juice for the rest of them.

Weiss laughed.

“The Fae like to mix training with play, as a means to entice young children to attempt them in the first place, to help mitigate the effects of stress, and of course, just to have fun,” Penny explained, smiling.

“Please do note that this doesn’t mean you can take you can your training lightly,” Glynda said as she came up behind them, watchers on either side of her. “We Fae can also get extremely competitive and serious about our games.”

Both Penny and Weiss spun around, eyes and optics widening in surprise. “Elder Goodwitch!” Weiss cried as they bowed. “What are you doing here, ma’am?”

“It’s my day-off, and I’ve decided to use it to train you,” she replied coolly.

“You’re using your day-off to take on more work?” Weiss asked.

“Yes. Do you have an issue with how I choose to spend my free time...?” Glynda asked, a barely perceptible edge to her voice.

Weiss shook her head. “Not at all, Elder Goodwitch! I'm just… surprised, is all.”

Glynda nodded. “Do know that I will only be able to attend to you once a week; the rest of your visits here will likely have you training under a different senior weaver, or even one of the Primals.”

“They're the four of the most powerful weavers in the entire Valley, second only to Elder Goodwitch,” Penny explained.

Weiss nodded. “Who are they, anyway?”

“Most of them are incredibly busy with preparations for the Eve of the Ether tomorrow, but one is currently around,” Glynda replied. “A word of warning: Primal Salamanca has quite the--”

YYYEEEEAAAHHHHHHH!”

Weiss flinched and turned to the Fire quadrant of the Terrace, staring as a weaver shot out from inside the volcano, rocketing up into the air before he began to arc downwards towards where she was.

A Chinchilla Fae with his hair done up in a giant, fluffy afro landed just before Weiss, blasting jets of fire from his palms to slow his descent. He crouched low on the floor with his head down, and said, “Ladies, gentlemen, and non-binary genders…

“RORY SALAMANCA, PRIMAL OF FIRE IN THE HOUSE, YO!”

Fwoosh!

Giant pillars of flame erupted behind Rory as he sprang up into the air, landing with his arms and legs in the shape of an X and his hands in the Horns.

Weiss staggered back, her arm in front of her face.

Glynda sighed. “… Personality...” she finished.

“Haah-haah…!” Rory laughed as he walked up to them. “What is up, my homies?!” he said, his arms spread wide.

“What the hell was that all about?!” Weiss cried as she put her arm down.

Rory grinned. “What, this?”

Fwoosh!

Weiss yelped and threw up an ice shield in front of her. “Yes, that!” she yelled.

“Relax, homie: it’s just some fire!” Rory said as the flames disappeared once again. “I got this—wouldn’t have become the Primal of Fire if I didn’t! Besides, what’s so wrong with fire? You know how much better life would be, if we had a lot more pillars of motherfucking fire shooting out behind people?

“Imagine: one of those service at the Holy Shepherd’s place, right? Custodian’s gets to the end of the sermon and they go, ‘Praise be to Piper!’ then--”

Fwoosh!

“Trust me: people are gonna be lining out the door, standing outside and looking in through the windows, watching those sermons on HV just for fun!”

Glynda sighed as she stepped up. “Please excuse us, Salamanca, Weiss and I have a lot of training planned for today.”

“Sure I can’t take over for you, Goodwitch?” Rory asked. “It's your day-off and all! Besides, the things she's capable of, and a little one-on-one time with me, and we can do some beautiful things, man, beau-ti-ful things!”

“Sorry, but I’d rather train with Elder Goodwitch thanks,” Weiss said as she stepped up beside her.

Rory shrugged, still smiling. “Eh, suit yourself! But if you ever want to learn how to do tricks like this--”

Fwoosh!

“Just give ole Rory a call, yo!” He said before he crouched low, and pointed his palms down to the ground. “Salamanca out!”

Weiss raised another ice shield as Rory went rocketing through the air once more, and back inside the volcano. “Are all the other Primals like that?” she asked Glynda.

“Primal Aeilana is also of a similar disposition, but Primals Logan and Wenua are much calmer, if with their own quirks.”

“Weavers of exceptionally high power and skill tend to exhibit highly visible forms of neurodivergence, though the exact causes are still heavily debated,” Penny added.

“However, that's a conversation for another day, when the clock isn't counting down,” Glynda said. “Weiss, I'm assuming Maker Abner warned you of the Eve's unique effects on weavers like ourselves?”

Weiss nodded. “He did. Let's get these powers of mine under control.

Glynda smiled for a moment. “That's what I like to hear.”


Weiss' training area turned out to literally be the shallow end of the water.

Weavers much younger than her were learning how to swim, or harness their powers in the first place, oftentimes in the form of shooting galleries like at arcades, but with magic than toy guns and holo projectors.

Because her biggest issue was control, Weiss was doing what they called the “Blast Back.”

The mechanics were as follows: Glynda would man five magical rings floating in the air, all the same size. She would throw a certain amount of water at Weiss, her job was to harness it and redirect it into a specific ring with the right amount of power, as denoted by whichever ring was lit up and in what colour.

If she got it right, the ring would retain the magic until it was full, and taken out of the game. Too weak or too much, and it would come right back in her face, giving the game its name.

“This is going to be easy!” Weiss said as she prepared to wade into the water, only up to her shins.

Glynda stopped her. “I was about to mention: this is going to be without your gauntlet, Myrtenaster, or your mask,” she said.

Weiss eyes widened, before she nodded sheepishly. “Oh… right...”

Penny came up, and took her equipment and mediums away from her, leaving Weiss with just her clothes.

Glynda sent the rings floating up in the air at different heights. “Ready?” she asked as she drew a stream of water up into her hands, lazily curling and winding it around her body.

Weiss held out her hands. “Ready!”

Swoosh!

Glynda sent a blast of water like garden hose.

Weiss caught it, bit her lip as it began to surge and spiral around her arms, more powerful than it was before.

“Don’t think too hard!” Glynda cried. “Relax, feel the flow!”

Ding!

One of the rings lit up.

Green. Lightest you could make it, like spitting out a mouthful of water.

Swoosh!

Weiss ended up sending a fire hose blast into it. The ring made an awful noise, before sending it right back to her.

“Agh!” she cried as she staggered back, eyes squeezed shut.

“Are you alright?” Glynda asked.

Weiss wiped the water from her eyes, blinked until her vision was clear again. She stepped back into position, and nodded. “I’m fine!”

“Good!” Glynda said, waiting a few moments before she tossed a tiny orb at Weiss.

She caught it, sliding it back and forth between the palms of her hands, keeping it moving before her magic could begin to gather in it.

Ding!

Orange. High-pressure, like a pipe that just burst.

Weiss bit her lip as she suspended the ball between her palms, magic swirling into it and growing it larger and larger, until she let it go.

Whoosh!

Off it went! … Several inches to the side of the ring, exploding into the protective barrier around them before returning to the water below.

Weiss cried out in frustration.

“We’re not stopping now!” Glynda said as she wound up like a baseball pitcher.

“I don’t intend to!” Weiss said as she readied herself once more.

Glynda threw her fastball at Weiss.

She held her hands out to catch it just a moment too late, the ball exploding right in her face.

Splash!

Weiss fell back into the water, knocked down from the surprise and the momentum, looking up at world from under the surface.

Ding!

Blue, middle of the road, like a garden sprinkler.

Bubbles escaped her nose, as the rings turned off and floated down to the shore.

Glynda waded over and pulled her out. “Are you alright?”

Weiss gently spat at some water. “I’m fine...”

“Then, I hope you’re ready for more, because we’re doing this again.”

“Great, because that's exactly what I was about to say,” Weiss said.

Glynda smiled. Weiss felt some of her magic surge through her hand and into her body, energizing her, washing away the sting of the fastball-to-the-face.

The rings started to float up in the air once more as Weiss and Glynda got into position.

Chapter Text

Weiss and Glynda trained through the afternoon and well into the evening, going through a handful of the many, many games/training exercises meant to help weavers improve their skills.

They kept playing Blast Back until Weiss messed up far too often for Glynda's liking, sending the wrong pressures into the rings, missing them entirely, or even failing to catch the water she was sending over in the first place.

After a short break and several canisters of mana-water for the both of them, it was off to the next game:

“Whip-It”

Here, Weiss had to fish orbs of the water, or knock them down from the air with only a water-whip spell, avoiding certain targets, and minding the pressure after she caught the right ones, or else they would burst.

She played a few rounds, until her arm began to hurt from whipping it back and forth and flicking her wrist for extra control, and the fingers on her other hand were starting to get crooked from her using it to control the pressure.

They took a longer break after that, Weiss getting herself examined by Penny as Glynda explained the last game for the day:

“Ripple Rider”

Here Weiss had to maneuver a little boat through a pond littered with obstacles, only allowed to move it with waves and ripples made however she chose. At Glynda's recommendation, she sat on the edge of the pond, stuck her feet into the water, and tried to move the boat using just her lower body, making sweeping movements with her ankles and feet, and precise movements with her toes.

It was all going well, until a mistimed wave got her boat tangled in a mess of weeds. Weiss struggled to pull out, gently nudging it, trying to blast it out with a rogue wave, then attacking from a different side of the pool, but it just ended up getting more and more caught in the plants.

“That's enough, Weiss,” Glynda said as she put a hand on her shoulder.

Weiss eyed her boat, almost completely unseen for the weeds, and sighed. “Okay…”

Glynda and Penny worked to pull her out of the water, and they went to towel off and rest one last time.

Weiss supposed she was well on her way to becoming an honourary Fae when she wasn't the least bit horrified by how wrinkled and pruney her hands and feet gotten from being submerged and exposed to water for so long, the way her formerly smooth and supple skin had become tough and calloused like her grandfather's from all her farming and walking barefoot everywhere.

On the bright side, her complexion had gone from “porcelain doll” to “rosy white.”

On the downside, she still felt like she'd just gone through a battery of brutal written tests of all her weakest subjects.

“Gaah...” Weiss groaned as she lay spread out on a dock. “Is it time for yoga, or whatever it is you Fae call it…?” she asked.

“That's for physical training,” Glynda replied as she sat beside her. “We use a different form of meditation for magical training.”

“Well what is it?” Weiss asked.

“Sitting under a waterfall,” Glynda replied.

Weiss paused. “Seriously?”

“There's a reason it's a cliché for every martial arts holo,” Glynda replied.

Once Weiss felt well enough to walk, they headed over to a massive fountain built into a tree, niches carveod out o its trunk, on its branches, and even hidden between its submerged roots.

Numerous waterfalls poured out from it, falling out onto several nests for weavers to sit on. Weiss peered into the water below, noticed some of them were under the water, wearing their masks or enchanted cloth tied around their mouths and noses.

She stopped as she noticed some of them not wearing any equipment at all, be they amphibious Fae like Frogs, or even what looked to be various types of fish and other aquatic creatures—fins for ears, gills on the sides of their chests peeking out of slits in their robes, and even some with “hair” made of tentacles.

“During the Fury, the amphibious and aquatic subspecies of Fae generally live in settlements outside of the Bastion, such as Calmwater Commune near the Timeless Depths,” Penny explained. “Those that do live in the city spend most of their time in the Weaver's Terrace.

“While not impossible nor that dangerous to go on dry-land for long periods of time, and they do have equipment and public facilities for it, it's oftentimes painful, uncomfortable, and/or inconvenient for them to do so, to the point where most just choose not to, until the Flood comes.”

Weiss nodded. “Guess that explains why I've never seen them before...” she muttered they looked for free spots above the water.

Weiss was the only one meditating that time, sitting cross-legged with her head under a waterfall; she closed her eyes as it begin to drip into her eyes, struggled to breath without inhaling it.

Glynda busied herself with fixing her posture. “Maintain your form,” she said as she put her hands on her shoulders, pushed them back down. “You won't reap the benefits otherwise.”

“I'm trying over here!” Weiss snapped, before she regretted it as a mouthful of water poured straight into her mouth.

“Breath deeply and slowly, empty your thoughts,” Glynda said as Weiss spat and gagged. “Don't intentionally think of anything, don't dwell on your emotions, just let them come and go as they please.”

“… And above all, please don't fall asleep.”

Weiss mumbled an affirmative noise as she tried to do just that.

A few moments of silence passed.

“You're still not relaxing,” Glynda said flatly.

Weiss pulled her head out from under the waterfall. “I'm trying to reach a state of calm and peace here!”

“Well don't try, that's ruining the entire point of the exercise,” Glynda said as she gently pushed her head back under the waterfall. “This meditation isn't to calm you down, it's to help you become more attuned to yourself and the Flow.”

“The Flow is how Water Weavers refer to the specific wavelengths of Avalon's magic that naturally resonate with them—your alignment, in other words,” Penny explained.

“And the only way you can do that is if you are able to become completely in the moment,” Glynda said. “The Flow isn't a state of mind, a place you have to go to from somewhere else—you are always in it, you just have to know where exactly at any given time.

“Don't think, just be. And before you complain that nothing's happening: the results don't start to become noticeable until at least a month to a year in of daily practice.”

Weiss sighed heavily.

“Just think of it like your physical training,” Penny hummed.

Weiss made a little affirmative noise, and continued to meditate; she tensed up as she felt Glynda's hands on her once more, fixing her posture yet again.

“Be like the water over your head,” Glynda said, “constantly moving and changing, never static, nor exactly the same drop when it falls on you again. Whatever emotions or thoughts are going through your mind, let them come freely, then go freely.”

Weiss didn't reply, focusing on maintaining her posture, ignoring the strong urges to fall asleep, trying to figure out just what letting her thoughts and emotions come and go actually felt like, so she'd know if she was doing it right.

She could still feel the constant hum of power and energy from the Terrace, same as when she had stepped out the Tube station, but she guessed that wasn't what Elder Goodwitch meant.

The experience didn't improve the whole half-hour of her meditation.

Weiss continued to struggle to breath without inhaling water, fidgeted or unconsciously went out of the proper posture, and Glynda constantly had push her shoulders back down, pulled her back up straight, and even made sure her thumbs were just touching each other than pressing into each.

By the end of it, she was soaked, frustrated, and miserable.

“How are you feeling?” Glynda asked as she helped her back up to her feet.

“Soaked, frustrated, and miserable,” Weiss grumbled. “I thought meditation was supposed to make me all calm and peaceful!”

“It's not, that's just an unfortunately common misconception,” Glynda replied.

“Those who have been practicing them religiously for years generally tend to be much more emotionally stable, happier, and less stressed out, however!” Penny chirped.

Weiss glared at her.

Glynda put a hand on her shoulder. “Don't worry, you'll get it right eventually. Most everyone is terrible their first time meditating—myself included.”

Weiss continued to scowl, before she was just too tired to be angry. “Please tell me there's someplace to eat around here...” she muttered as her stomach growled. “I'll take whatever.”

Glynda nodded, and they headed for the Earth quadrant.


Dinner was a “Forgotten Pot,” a Sekhmet specialty that was a stew of meat, vegetables, animal bones, spices, herbs, and a dash of bacteria culture, before being buried underground and left to ferment for at least a month.

“The original recipe really was a pot of stew that had been forgotten in the wake of a cave-in,” Penny explained as a weaver poured Weiss a bowl. “Three months later, the team in charge of reopening the tunnels managed to find the clay cookware intact, and as it happens, their supplies had been raided by subterranean pests earlier.

“Their mender deemed it reasonably safe to eat still, and a staple of every table and feast spread was born!”

Weiss picked her bowl up, looked dubiously at the bones, the meat, and the vegetables floating in the rich, golden stew. “Are you sure this won't mess my gut up?”

“Positive,” Penny said. “The ingredients were originally imported from Sekhmet, but they have been grown locally in the Valley.”

“Try sucking out the bone marrow first,” Glynda said. “Can't speak for it myself for obvious reasons, but I hear it's quite good.”

Weiss' uneasily fished one of the bones out of her soup, put it to her lips, and did as the carnivores and omnivores among them.

The golden marrow hit her tongue, Weiss eyes widened as it all but melted in her mouth, coating her taste buds in a medley of powerful, delicious flavours. It felt like getting smacked in the face with a large rock, except you'd have an amazing taste in your mouth and warm, liquid gold trickling down your throat as soon as you swallowed.

You'd still be plenty dazed, though.

Weiss stared blankly ahead, her bowl resting on the flat slab of rock they were all dining on.

Glynda pulled her bowl from her lips, and smiled. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Holy shit...” Weiss muttered, still dazed.

Glynda chuckled, before she continued eating.

“If you wish to continue training at this intensity on a regular basis, I would highly advise you increase your food intake, especially simple and complex carbohydrates,” Penny said. “Elemental weaving is hungry work.”

Weiss made an affirmative noise before she went to look for more marrow-filled bones in her soup.

The dinner ended with Weiss full and feeling much better, her bowl empty but for the bones sucked clean of fat. As she soon found out, it was polite in Sekhmet to pile them all up in the center, free for those who could to chew on.

The sounds of idle conversation and bones cracking and splintering filled the air, surprisingly pleasant to listen to even if Weiss could only understand bits and pieces of what they were saying.

“Weiss, will you please walk with me?” Glynda asked as she got up.

Weiss looked down at her distended stomach, frowned, and got up. “With pleasure, Elder Goodwitch,” she said as she followed her.

The two of them walked a good distance away from the others, to the side of a cliff-face. It was peaceful and quiet, the weavers meditating in the carved out niches silent like statues, the light-stones and the moonlight beaming through the canopy bathing everything in a soft, friendly glow.

“I'm assuming this isn't just to help our digestion?” Weiss asked.

Glynda nodded. “Weiss, you are aware of the effects our emotions can have on water weavers like ourselves, correct?”

Weiss winced. “I got a firsthand experience of it earlier this morning, yes. Don't worry: I'll make sure to get control over my powers, and wear my gauntlet much more often,” she said.

“It'll take much more than that for you gain full control over your powers, Weiss,” Glynda said as she slowed to a stop. “Your training here is just one half, teaching you the specifics and the techniques to harnessing your power; the other half is for you to master what is much more dangerous and destructive, even more so than that aqua laser you decimated Abner's army of golems with.”

Weiss looked at her, waited for her answer.

Glynda gently touched her on her chest. “Yourself.”

Weiss blinked. “Seriously…?”

“Yes, seriously,” Glynda replied flatly. “In all my years of being alive, I have not met a weaver that didn't have considerable personal issues, and those that seemed completely put together were always just very good at denial and maintaining outward appearances.

“Your powers are not some entity separate from yourself, like the difference between you and Myrtenaster—it is you, making up every single component of your being, physical, mental, emotional, or magical.”

Weiss held back a sigh. “Just get to your point, please, Elder Goodwitch.”

“Have you ever bit back your tongue, and never found a way to say it in a better manner, or just let the impulse fade away? Shied away from anything involving commitment and intimacy like serious romantic relationships, kept parts of yourself secret from others, put up a facade because you were afraid of what would happen if people saw the real you? Kept your feelings all bottled up inside, praying, hoping, it'll never become so much you'll break and it'll all come spilling out?”

Weiss didn't reply, but the way she looked away, and fidgeted was very telling.

“You remember what happened when you first held Myrtenaster?” Glynda asked.

Weiss nodded, her eyes cast down to the floor. “… Y-Yes… I… I completely lost control.”

“And why do you think that happened...?”

Weiss didn't answer.

Glynda put her hand on her shoulder. “There's a saying in Actaeon: 'You always know all the answers to everything—you just keep convincing yourself you don't.'”

“So how do I stop doing that?” Weiss asked as she looked up at her.

“You keep on meditating.

“Fire weavers meditate in extreme heat, to burn away the false and the frivolous, then keep whatever survives.

“Earth weavers meditate it in isolation and silence, to know what they are truly made of without outside influences moulding and changing them.

“Air weavers meditate atop mountains and in forests, to let whatever is holding them down come blowing away until they are weightless and free.

“And we Water weavers meditate under or in water, to remind ourselves that we should let our thoughts and feelings come and go freely, like water flowing down a stream or the tide receding into the sea.”

“But what if those thoughts and feelings are bad, huh?” Weiss cried. “What if they're scary, and confusing, and will only hurt me and other people?!” she snapped, starting to tear up and shake.

Glynda put her hand on Weiss' chest. She felt her magic pour into her, the cold, icy dread gripping her melt and turn a wave of warmth spreading all over her body.

She smiled as she took her hand back. “Then you let them pass, or you turn them into something better.”

Weiss stared at her in confusion, eyes still moist.

“Water is the element of Transformation, Weiss,” Glynda said. “Taking whatever is dangerous and destructive, and turning it into something to heal and protect is our alignment's 'thing.'”

“Now if you'll excuse me, I need to leave now: lots of work for the Eve of the Ether festival here in the Valley, and it goes on till daybreak the next day.”

Weiss nodded. “I understand. Good night, Elder Goodwitch.”

Glynda nodded back. “Good night, Weiss. You can take the teleporter, if you'd like to return to Keepers' Hollow quickly,” she said as she began to walk away. “Don't worry: we have charms to keep you from getting sick.”

Weiss thanked her and watched her go, before she stood in silence for while, lost in her thoughts.

She was brought out of it by by her comm-crystal beeping.

Weiss reflexively answered it. A magical projection appeared just in front of her face.

“Hey Weiss!” Ruby said, waving.

Weiss blushed. “R-Ruby! Hi!” she started to sweat. “Why are you calling…?”

“Just wanted to say 'Goodnight,' since it seems like you and Penny are going to go home late, and I want to get some sleep before the Eve tomorrow.” She rubbed the back of her head. “It seemed like a 'girlfriend' thing to do, you know?”

Weiss smiled awkwardly. “Yeah, it is.”

“And speaking of those... can we talk tomorrow morning?”

“About what...?” Weiss asked, trying to keep her voice level.

“You know, this new relationship of ours, especially because we're meeting you-know-who at Candela tomorrow, and she's going to be all over this. We never really got to discuss it earlier—hard to talk with your lips frozen to your girlfriend's, after all!”

Weiss winced.

Ruby frowned. “Too soon?”

“I'll think back to that and laugh eventually, Ruby,” Weiss said. “Just not any time soon.”

Ruby nodded. “Okay. Well, bye Weiss!” she reached for her comm-crystal.

“Wait, Ruby!”

Ruby paused, looking at her and patiently waiting.

“I love you,” Weiss said quickly, her face burning red. She paused. “Goodnight.”

Ruby blinked, before she laughed. “I love you too, Weiss, goodnight~”

Her comm-crystal automatically shut off. Weiss felt her mouth split into a grin, before she let out a happy squeal as she jumped around in place.

Several pairs of glowing eyes peered out of the caverns, many fanged mouths curling into scowls.

Weiss sheepishly looked at them, made apologetic signs at them, and hurried on back to Penny.

Chapter Text

The Terrace’s teleporter was at the altar in the center, where all the quadrants met.

The place had the solemn air of a temple of the Holy Shepherd, weavers keeping mostly silent and moving about carefully, or otherwise chanting scriptures and singing songs as they practiced magic together—always with two different elements, and spells that required fusing them.

There was a raised fountain in the middle, four platforms before the four pillars that held it up, one for each element. It was currently running dry, but for the sheer power Weiss could feel radiating from it, she knew it wasn’t just for décor.

“The Terrace’s most important rituals happen there,” Penny whispered as they were escorted by another weaver. “I’d expound further, but you’re already rather drained from the training.”

Weiss yawned. “Yeah, the lessons can wait...” she muttered as they were led down a spiraling flight of stairs, into the underground caverns beneath the Terrace.

There was none of the colour, the life, the distinct flair and personality of each quadrant there, just closely guarded halls and tunnels, doors and entrances glowing with runes of protection and all manner of security systems beside.

“Is this a vault for artifacts?” Weiss asked as they went even further down.

“Among other things,” Penny said cryptically.

Weiss decided not to pry as they came to the bottom of the stairs, to a vast underground chamber, radiating with magic. Barriers surrounded the edges of the scaffolding they walked on, so no one would accidentally fall into the gently swirling concentration of pure magic in the center of it all.

A wellspring. A tiny one, true, but still a considerable amount of mana gathered in one place.

“This… isn’t how I remembered Ruby teleporting me out of my old room...” Weiss muttered as a weaver prepared them for the trip.

“It’s a different method,” Penny replied. “Teleportation via wellsprings are much easier to sustain and have less side-effects compared to the Air charms and totems used for emergency extraction, not to mention boundless utility beside.”

The barrier was let down, just enough for Weiss and Penny to stand side-by-side. Penny reached out and grabbed Weiss hand, she held on tight. The surface of the wellspring swirled and changed, forming a hazy image of Keeper’s Hollow.

Weiss took a deep breath, Penny counted to three, and then the two jumped in feet first.

It was a very different method indeed.

She was still transmuted into magic, but instead of being broken up into millions upon millions of tiny fragments, then sent screaming across Avalon, Weiss remained whole, floating down the natural lines of mana all throughout the realm, being pushed and pulled by invisible currents.

She opened her mouth in wonder, reflexively tried to shut it, until she found no water rushing into her mouth and lungs. As she floated by with Penny by her side, their hands still intertwined, she felt something:

A sense of complete and total peace.

Her whole body brimming with endless power and potential.

Like she had become one with something bigger than herself, bigger than anyone, or anything.

No.

Like she was always part of it, she had just never realized until then.

And just like that, it was over.

Penny and Weiss came bursting out of the top of the fountain in Keeper’s Hollow, propelled by an arc of water, their forms translucent and steadily becoming more and more solid until they hit the ground, completely back to normal.

Penny eyes glowed and faded as she stood stiff for a moment. “All systems rebooted and recalibrated. Are you alright, Weiss?” she asked.

Weiss nodded dumbly. “… Hey, Penny, did you--”

“Feel completely at one with Avalon while we were being transported?” Penny suggested, before she shook her head. “I’m afraid the Flow is exclusive to water weavers like yourself.”

Weiss nodded her head. She looked back at the fountain, made a note to set aside a half-hour each day to meditate under it. If that was what feeling the Flow felt like, she was going to do most everything in her power to experience it again.

For now, however, it was off to bed before she passed out where she stood.


Ruby was fast asleep in her nest by the time Weiss arrived. She took a moment to gaze at her, look at how cute she was at peace like that; she pondered slipping in with her until she noticed the usual flood of warm, sticky drool leaking out the side of her mouth.

Weiss frowned. “We are really going to have to do something about that...” she muttered to herself as she began to store away her equipment and change out of her armour.

The Summer plushie was waiting in her hammock, no doubt put there by Ruby; Weiss debated sleeping without it again, before she decided to do so anyway. “Don’t make this weird, alright…?” she muttered to it as she hugged it to her chest, and drifted off to sleep.

She was back in her dreamworld, sitting in the kitchen table of Keeper's Hollow. She briefly wondered where Summer and her grandparents were.

Boom! Pffrrtt!

Weiss screamed and fell out of her chair as confetti and magic sparks rained down around her.

Thud.

Summer awkwardly blew her party-blower a second time.

Pfrrrrttt…

Weiss glared at her from the floor.

Summer pulled the party-blower out of her mouth. “Sorry.”

Sweet Shepherd, you trying to give her a heart attack?!” Nick snapped as he pulled Weiss up from the floor with a massive hand. “You alright, sweetheart?”

“I’m fine,” Weiss said, thankful that nothing hurt in her personal dreamscape.

“Perhaps you should be more reserved about your congratulations next time,” Freya said as she and Nick helped Weiss back in her seat.

“Aww, but I made a banner and everything!” Summer whined.

“A banner?” Weiss and Freya asked.

“Yeah, here, let me show you!” Summer went off out of the kitchen, and came back with a rolled up banner. “Someone help me hold this up!”

The Schnees all looked at each other. Nick shrugged, and came over to help her. Weiss and Freya turned two chairs around, sat down and watched in morbid curiosity as the banner was unrolled and held up for all to see.

“’Congratulations on Becoming...’” granddaughter and grandmother read, before they trailed off, confused.

“What is that?” Freya asked. “Some form of slang?”

“I tried to write”--Summer made a sexy animal noise--“in Nivian.”

Freya and Weiss blushed, Nick chuckled. “Of course it is...” he said, amused.

Weiss turned away, Freya rolled her eyes. “Please, Mrs. Rose, it was just a kiss! My granddaughter and your daughter are not yet--” she struggled visibly “--intimate.”

Sure looked like they were heading there if she hadn’t frozen their lips together, though!” Summer replied.

“Yeah,” Nick said, “reminds me of when Frosty and I used to get all worked up, only this time there aren’t any bets about what we’ll be doing to each other later.”

Grandpa!” “Nicholas!”

What? I swear, you gals being so weird about fucking is genetic.”

“Why are you guys like that, anyway?” Summer asked. “You know, aside from you humans being crazy in general.”

Freya huffed. “Some of us like to maintain an air of decency and class, you know.”

“And if you ask me, it was because Frosty gone went and convinced herself she was never going to get any, till I came along and proved her wrong.”

Freya blushed. “Oh, fuck you, Nick!”

“Love ya too, Frosty,” Nick replied calmly.

“What's the story behind that?” Summer asked, curious.

Nick opened his mouth, before Freya shot him a cold look. He shut up, she took a long, deep breath, then sighed.

“I was never really one for romance, alright?

“As I was born in Lumania, the very heart of Avalon's scientific development pre-Candela, and there was always something better I could be doing with my time and my vast intellect than socializing and attempting romance.”

“Translation: she was the awkward nerd in school with no idea how to talk to people,” Nick said.

Freya gritted her teeth. “Yes, grossly oversimplified… I was that.

“I spent most of my time engrossed in education, research, or work. By the time the Resource Wars were well and truly underway, the grants that had been funding my lifestyle all dried up or were channeled elsewhere, I was well into my forties, and I certainly hadn't been taking care of myself as well as I should have!

Freya sheepishly stared at the floor. “I had long resigned myself to a life of permanent singlehood, and looking at myself in the mirror in those days just confirmed that yes, I was never going to find someone...

“… And then one day, while our expedition team was completely lost in the mountain regions separating Acropolis and Heartland, Nick invites me up to a cliff, and when he's sure we're alone and no one else from our party can hear, he tells me he's 'pretty sure' he's in love with me.”

“Believe me, she took that news REAL badly,” Nick said. “Almost threw me off that same cliff!”

“I thought you were joking, you asshole!” Freya snapped. “Who the fuck just goes and tells someone they're in love with them?”

Summer raised her hand.

Nick snorted.

Freya blushed and scowled. “My point still stands…. I couldn't believe it. Even after I found out I was pregnant with Silsa, after we founded Candela and spent the rest of our lives building it up to what it is today, after we married and officially moved in together to start a family

“… There was always that fear in my mind, that one day, it was all going to fall apart, and I'd be all alone again...”

Nick handed his section of the banner back to Summer, came over, and put his massive hands on her tiny shoulders. “And it was my job to convince her it wasn't. That's the funny thing about smart people, you know: they can be idiots about the weirdest, most obvious things.”

Freya looked up at him and smiled. “And the funny thing about idiots is that they can be pretty smart about the weirdest, most obvious things.”

“Love ya, Frosty,” Nick said, smiling back.

“Love you too, Nick.”

“Aww!” Summer said as she came over with the banner rolled up. “You two are so perfect together!”

Nick and Freya paused, before they both burst into laughter.

“Hah! Perfect? Hell no!” Nick cried. “But it is pretty great.”

“That it is...” Freya hummed.

“Maybe you can share your secrets to life-long romance with Weiss here?” Summer asked as she came over and rested the tarpaulin on the table.

“Eh, it's just the same three things you'll find in my journals: communication, honesty, and always remembering you're no treasure yourself,” Nick said. “The rest is all the small details and specifics that only she and Ruby can hash out.”

He turned to Weiss. “Oh, and speaking of which: when you and her finally get down and dirty, don't forget the lube, and lots of it.”

“Grandpa!”

I'm serious! If you're anything like your grandma, that Rubes is made of very tough stuff is going to be a very good thing for the both of you!”

“It couldn't have been that rough, could it?” Summer asked. “I mean, Frosty's even tinier than me and human, too!”

Nick gave her a haunted look. “Oh, believe me, I thought the same thing...”

Okay!” Freya said as she shot up off her seat, her face burning red. “That is enough discussion about my and Nick's relationship, let's move on out and give Weiss some time to herself!”

“Aww, but I still want to know!” Summer whined.

“Then do it some place in my mind where I'm not around!” Weiss said, her face also red.

“Oh come on!” Summer whined as Nick escorted her out. “It's not like we don't always end up discussing”--she made a sexy animal noise--”whenever we're all together, right?!”

“That's exactly why I'm seriously debating letting you three into my dreams anymore!”

Summer made a disappointed noise as she headed out the kitchen with Nick, Freya following suit.


Morning in Keeper's Hollow yet again.

Weiss grumbled, debated on having Blake and Ruby install some curtains on the windows, even if the sun beaming right into her face made an excellent alarm clock.

She shifted out of her hammock, sat over the edge with the Summer plushie still in her lap. She looked down at it, up at the still sleeping Ruby, and sighed. “Well, at least there's no question where she gets it...” she muttered to herself.

She left it behind as she walked over to Ruby's nest, s sat down behind her, carefully put her hand on her arm. She didn't know how Ruby would react if she startled her awake, and she didn't want to find out.

Weiss touched her bare skin, flinched as she felt her muscles tense and harden immediately; she didn't what exactly to think about the way it made her excited, her cheeks burn red.

Ruby's ears started to twitch and move before she opened her eyes, frantically looking around until she noticed her. “Oh… hey Weiss!” she chirped as she slowly got up to a sitting position. “Morning~” she trilled, before she cupped Weiss' cheek and kissed her.

Weiss made a noise.

Ruby pulled away, worried. “Sorry! Should I have asked first?”

“N-No!” Weiss stammered, dazed and feeling like her face was melting. “Just… surprised, is all! In the good way, to clarify!”

Ruby nodded, smiling. “Never had any girlfriends who gave you good morning kisses?”

“Yes...” Weiss muttered.

They both felt a sudden, unusual chill in the air from the frost pouring out from Weiss' fingers, and the new mist floating over Ruby's nest.

“Gauntlet!” Weiss yelped.

She got up to fetch it, but Ruby already had it and was coming back. She handed it to her, Weiss shoved it on, dispelling the ice before it could freeze anything.

“Phew!” Ruby said as she sat back on one of her pillows. “Crisis averted!”

“Just barely,” Weiss grumbled, holding her bare hand in her glove.

“Just keep training, you'll get it eventually,” Ruby said. “I wasn't able to do all those fancy tricks with the Keeper's scythe when I got it—well, that was mostly because I was three when Uncle Qrow first let me have it, but still.

“Anyway… you want to talk about our being girlfriends now, or save it for after breakfast?”

Weiss blinked. “O-Oh, right,” she took a deep breath, willed the bullets of sweat back. “So... what is it you wanted to discuss?”

“Well, first up, Yang's going to tease us non-stop as soon as we tell her or she figures out that we're”--Ruby made a sexy animal noise--”so be ready for that.”

Weiss groaned. “I'll manage, don't worry...”

Ruby nodded. “Second, do you want to use pet names or anything? I mean, I'm fine with just calling you 'Weiss' and you calling me 'Ruby,' but if you want to do something else, I'm game!”

Weiss shook her head. “No, our real names are fine.”

Ruby hummed. “Okay, that's everything!” she said as she got up. “I'm going to go get some breakfast now!”

Weiss blinked, watching her go. “Wait, Ruby!” she cried as she reached out and grabbed her hand.

Ruby stopped, and sat back in her nest. “Something up, Weiss?”

“Was that really everything you wanted to talk about...?” Weiss asked.

Ruby thought for a moment. “Uh… yeah! Yeah it was. Why, did you have anything you wanted to talk about…?”

Weiss bit her lip. She paused for a while, debating it in her mind, before she sighed. “Look, you probably already know this, but I've got Issues, alright? Really, really, really bad, really deep, really awful Issues that'll probably make me do really mean, really stupid, and sometimes really creepy things for weird and irrational reasons.”

Ruby smirked. “I know, and I'm ready for that. Besides, you're not the only one with Issues, Weiss. You realize Uncle Qrow raised me for the past 14 years, right…?”

Weiss had flashes of all the things she'd witnessed Qrow doing, always while in various stages of inebriation. It was easy to miss when she was so focused on just trying to get by day-to-day, but now that things had settled down, she was starting to realize the full, awful implications of letting someone like him raise a young child, all by himself, in a location far removed from the rest of the Bastion.

“… Right.

“Moving on: I'm not very good at the whole 'girlfriend' thing, okay? So expect a lot of blunders and mistakes, because most of the time I probably have zero idea what I'm doing, and I'm just winging everything!”

Ruby laughed. “Weiss, it's fine! I think you just described pretty much everyone in a relationship ever, anyway.”

Weiss bit her lip, clearly struggling with whatever it was she was thinking about.

“You want to pause this until after breakfast, Weiss?” Ruby asked. “Penny told me you were pretty brain-fried yesterday.”

“No, I'm fine, it's just that—usually this is the part where myself and my exes discussed what we were exactly and what we were going to call each other, what we're going to tell the media and our parents, and how we're going to act in public and on the Info-Grid…

“… But now that everyone in the human territories thinks I'm dead, and pretty much everyone here seems to be fine with us being together...”

Ruby smiled, cupped Weiss' cheek as she looked her right in the yes. “Weiss...?”

Weiss' lip trembled, a lump forming in her throat. “Y-Yes…?”

“Don't think too hard about this relationship stuff, alright?” Ruby said. “We'll just make it up as we go along, and if it goes well, then great! And if it doesn't—well, it's not like I'm the only Fae in the entire realm that's into humans.”

She kissed her, a gentle, loving peck, before she quickly pulled away.

Weiss stiffened and made another noise, a thin layer of ice forming right over her lips.

Ruby grinned. “You got a little something...” she said, tapping her mouth.

Weiss quickly spun away from her, putting her gloved hand to her face before dispelling the ever loving shit out of it.

Ruby chuckled as she got up and left the room. “I love you, Weiss!” she called out.

Weiss didn't reply verbally, but they knew the frantic waving she was making was, “Love you too, Ruby!”

Chapter Text

Weiss was in her lab, mixing, pouring, and cooking like a woman possessed—which wasn't entirely inaccurate, because alongside the wellsprings, weavers everywhere were experiencing an incredible power surge, exponentially larger than any other peak the rest of the year.

“Incidents of CIDs—shorthand for Catastrophic Involuntary Discharges—are at their most frequent this time of year,” Abner had explained while he ran Weiss through a battery of tests in his infirmary. “Though thankfully it's mostly for young ones and it's not nearly as destructive as an industrial collector overloading, even the older and more experienced weavers have to watch themselves.

“You drained all of your stores of mana in that fight earlier, but on the night of the Eve itself, I wouldn't be surprised if they are completely replenished with plenty of reserves—a nigh infinite supply of mana for everyone, regardless of if they are able to control it or not.

“I would highly suggest you drain your stores earlier in the day, either through productive efforts or more controlled destruction. Even without Myrtenaster or your gauntlet, magic can get to all sorts of mischief even if you're not doing anything!”

So here she was, making her second batch of hopefully potable moonshine for Qrow, more white cheese, and all manner of cosmetics and medical products for preventing and curing magical mishaps.

Weiss didn't know whether to be relieved or concerned that the Fae had found the need to make things like anti-freeze lipstick; mints that gave you lovely fresh breath and also prevented it from freezing your you or your lover; and nail polish that kept frost from pouring out your hands and toes, or them them turning into razor sharp claws if your lover was fond of surprises and you weren't.

(And that wasn't going into all the varieties for “special occasions,” “niche applications,” and “personal taste.”)

But she did know she was going to make them, and lots of them.

Weiss set fire to her gloves and burned off the leftover residue before she removed her safety mask. “How are my levels looking like, Penny?” she asked as she mopped up her sweat and cooled her skin with a little bubble of water, before evaporating it.

“Still strikingly high!” Penny replied. “You're not in any immediate danger of becoming overwhelmed again, though this is assuming you can handle the surges throughout the day and especially later tonight.”

“Oh for fuck's sake!”

“Want to go practice your magic after breakfast?” Penny offered.

“Let's,” Weiss said, heading back to the trolley to the house.

After a big breakfast full of sugar and chocolate—willpower and attention was vital to controlling her magic—Weiss was off to the training grounds with her mask and Myrtenaster, no mediums this time.

She spent all of her time at the “Punching Rock,” a giant slab of incredibly sturdy rock that the residents of Keeper's hollow had punched and blasted over the centuries to harden hands, train their magic, or just let off steam with something that would break them long before they could even come close to breaking it.

The surface was covered in scratches, dents, and magical burns; sometimes, there were what looked like names and words written in Actaeon and Nivian carved on its surface, but they had long been erased or rendered unreadable, intentionally or not.

The “mana bar” in Weiss' mask-overlay was blinking, with a little warning animation of a weaver standing around before suddenly exploding.

She sighed as she raised up Myrtenaster, began to channel her magic into it. “I know...” she grumbled.

Then, she started casting spells.

She pressure-washed the Rock with a jet of water. She assaulted it with a hail of ice bolts, shattering all over its surface like a ferocious storm. She cast “bubbles” at it, floating balls of concentrated magic that rapidly got more and more unstable until they exploded. She sent two tsunami slashes at it, the hard-packed dirt of the training grounds steadily turning into mud as the waves broke on the face of the rock and flew everywhere.

Then, for good measure, she spent a while stabbing and slashing it with her sword, all her attacks enhanced by her magic.

An intense ten minutes later, Weiss was sweating, panting for breath, feeling a soreness in her arms, and feeling hungry again even though she just had breakfast. She frowned as she looked at her mana bar—the CID warning was gone, though the it was still full and glowing ominously.

Ugh!” she cried. “Am I going to have to do this every year?”

“With regular training, probably not!” Penny said as she came over to heal her. “Daily meditaiton and becoming more attuned to the Flow naturally increases your capabilities to store magic, use it, and control it. Senior water weavers liken it to the difference between being on battery and permanently plugged into an outlet:

“You're never at risk of running out, always have an available store of power, and can simply use as much as you need at any moment, and send back the excess.”

Weiss sighed as Penny pulled her hands away, her physical pains gone. “Guess it's time to meditate some more?” she asked as she turned to the fountain.

“That would be wise, yes,” Penny hummed.

Weiss sat down in under the waterfall in the center, getting into the proper position, Penny moving her about and guiding her instead of Glynda. It somehow managed to be an even worse experience than the first time, as she was constantly fidgeting, distracted by all the magic constantly pouring into her.

Ugh! This isn't going to work!” Weiss cried as she pulled her head out of the water.

“Would you like to drain some of your reserves into mine?” Penny asked, holding out her hands. “Though I just finished charging, I have used a decent amount since then.'”

Weiss looked at her uneasily.

Penny smiled. “Do not worry: I am equipped with protections against surges.”

Weiss slowly put her hands into Penny's. She closed her eyes, began to pool her magic into her hands, and sent it into Penny. Ice blue tendrils of mana swirled around Weiss' arms, curling around their joined hands until it flowed into Penny's and turned into her shade of green.

They did it for all of three seconds, before Weiss felt a thought intrude her mind:

Fully Charged: Please Disconnect Immediately.”

Weiss let go of Penny's hands, excess magic dissipating in the air before she reabsorbed it into her body.

“How are you feeling, Weiss?” Penny asked, the magic in her arms and eyes glowing extra bright.

Weiss sighed. “Not much better to be honest...”

“We might need to invest in long-term storage for your magic, creation of mediums aside,” Penny replied. “For now, continuing your meditation is your only option—well, unless you want to miss out on Eve of the Ether later.”

Weiss frowned, and pulled her head back under the waterfall; she took a deep breath, and began to meditate again.

“Feel the Flow,” she thought to herself.

Less than a minute later, the water stopped.

“Err, Weiss…?” Penny asked.

Weiss opened her eyes, found a water elemental patiently “looking” at her, its “hands” politely held in front of its body as it waited for orders. She sighed as she stuck her hand into it, lines of power glowing on her submerged skin.

The elemental burbled, before it surfed across the ground, up the fountain, and rested at the top. It held its hands out over Weiss as it started pouring itself over her head, little by little.

Weiss sighed, and tried again.


Her mana stores were still obscenely high by the time she ended; on the bright side, she noticed that the numerical estimate of her stores had gone up by 2 points, for a total of 5,047 “MP” when the most focus-intensive spell she could cast she could cast—Tsunami Strike—was an estimated 108 MP.

“Is there ANY place I can drain all this?” Weiss asked as she siphoned the excess moisture off her body. “I don't care if I have to return to the Terrace.”

“I'd suggest against going there, actually,” Penny said. “The morning of the Eve, the weavers are all preventing the younger and more inexperienced among them from suffering CIDs. It tends to be… chaotic.”

Elsewhere, in the Weaver's Terrace…

<NO! NO, LITTLE BUDDIES!”> Primal Salamanca screamed, frantically waving his arms in the air as the entirety of the Fire Quadrant burned. <THAT'S TOO MUCH FIRE!>

<GET BACK HERE BEFORE I BLOW YOU UP MYSELF, YOU LITTLE SHITS!> Primal Aeliana roared as she rode atop a tidal wave, stopping only to jump over the docks and buildings of the Water Quadrant before making a new one when she landed.

Primal Wenua let out Distressed Bird Noises as she and the older weavers flew about trying to catch her numerous charges, flying all about the trees and the floating islands of the Air Quadrant with their magic or numerous contraptions.

Primal Logan sat peacefully in the sand of the Earth Quadrant, a content look on their face as they let the young earth weavers around them climb them like a jungle gym, their punches, kicks, and thrown rocks and peers barely capable of making a dent on their massive, rock-and-steel body, nor on the young ones.

Glynda stood in the temple at the center, keeping the most troublesome charges in protective, elementally resistant bubbles, her eyes dead and her mouth permanently in a hard line.

Back in Keeper's Hollow…

“So what can I do?” Weiss asked. “Just hope I don't blow up today and hope I've gotten enough control of my powers by next year?”

“Well… given your elementals’ record of being completely harmless and well-behaved, perhaps you can attempt making more of them? Your cheese is about the only one I can guarantee will be safe, though.”

Weiss began to head back to the barn. “What do I have to do, exactly?”

“Very basic elementals are just a large infusion of magic with intent,” Penny said. “Sticking your hand in the solution, then thinking of what you intend it to be, or to do will be enough.”

So Weiss took off her gloves, washed her hands thoroughly, then opened up the container for her cheese. The bacteria had already gone to work, and Weiss could see the fast expanding colony already curdling the milk into thick, frankly unappetizing clumps. She closed her eyes, and stuck her hands right into the mix.

Be food,” Weiss thought as her hands glowed with power. “Be delicious, make people happy when they eat you.”

Then, she pulled her hands out, wiped them on her apron, and covered the now glowing mixture; the bacteria didn't quite enjoy open air and sunlight as much as Fae and humans did.

Weiss looked at her palms, felt the mana she'd spent flooding back into her as Avalon continued to surge and pulse with excess magic.

She sighed as she put them down at her sides. “Here's to hoping I don't blow up...”


As everyone had the day off from work for the holiday, and there were several hours before they were headed to the hot springs then the Valley's backdoor to Candela, they spent their time rehearsing their fake identities (or practicing Blake's for her, as she was going to claim to have a speech impediment thanks to a malfunctioned mod she couldn't yet afford to have reversed), took amusing pictures of themselves in their costumes, then watched Rune Rangers: Lightning Legion for the remaining time.

“This is the most ridiculous and over-the-top thing I have ever watched in my entire life,” Weiss said after they finished the first episode. “How many episodes are this season again...?”

Ruby chuckled as she loaded up the next episode. “26 right now, for a total of 40.”

The day turned to afternoon turned to evening, and soon, Weiss, Ruby, Penny, and Blake were at the in the roots of the Tree of Life, one group among many who were being screened by the watchers and prepared by the weavers before they jumped into the Valley's wellspring and to wherever the mysterious backdoor was in Candela.

Weiss had rarely ever seen a city-state's wellspring this close, let alone jumped into it.

For various reasons, the Schnee Power Company's actual facilities were kept under incredibly tight security, and all the many technomagical equipment strewn all over it to protect it and channel the power into the city weren't exactly conducive to tourists.

Here in the Bastion, the only equipment was the roots of the Tree of Life dipping into it; otherwise, the wellspring was left to thrum and pulse as wildly and erratically as it did before the Fae settled the Valley.

Is this even safe?!” Weiss asked as they floated off to the center of the wellspring on a platform, the hum and crackle of the pure magic ringing in her ears, making every bone in her body sing to a mysterious, wordless tune.

Of course it is!” Ruby replied. “I use this and the one at the Roost get around all over Acropolis and the Valley super fast! How do you think I was able to break into and out of Manor Schnee so easily?!”

Where else does this thing lead to?!” Weiss asked as they loomed ever closer to it.

“I'm afraid we can't answer that!” Penny yelled.

Then where is this backdoor into Candela?!” Weiss asked as their handler told them to get ready to jump.

Ruby beamed. You'll find out!”

They all linked hands, and jumped.

Traveling through this wellspring was a much more intense, awe-inspiring experience. She floated in a giant sea with the thousands of other Fae sneaking into Candela that night, looked around wide-eyed at the tens of thousands more streams of magic pouring out of the Valley’s wellspring and flowing to who-knew-where.

And then, they all began to spin around, caught in a massive vortex, swirling ever closer to one path in particular.

Weiss tightened her grip around the others as they rushed through the streams of magic coursing through Avalon, shooting through at a speed even greater than the Tubes. The stream started to narrow and break, protrusions in the shape of human wellspring collectors buried into it and siphoning it out. They curved and flowed all around them, coming far too close to getting sucked in to some before they shot on past, unharmed.

Weiss didn't want to think of what would have happened if they didn't.

Eventually they reached their destination and were caught in another vortex, individuals and groups spaced out so they could arrive in a neat, orderly fashion for the watchers and weavers on the other end.

Weiss could begin to see flashes of indoor lights and hear muddled snippets of Actaeon and faint music, before they emerged from an arch-like device, two pillars of carved out stone with crystals embedded all over its surface.

Robotic drones in nurse hats came to attend to them, scanning their vitals, checking their identities. Their handler checked their tablet. <Group of four: Keeper Ruby Rose and companions, Watcher Blake Belladonna, Mender Penny Polendina, Weaver Weiss Schnee. Clear. Please proceed into the lounge for debriefing on the rules and emergency extraction protocols,> she said in Actaeon.

She looked at Weiss specifically. “Ms. Scarlatina also wishes to talk to you specifically, Ms. Schnee,” she said.

Weiss blinked. “Wait, Ms. Scar--”

She was interrupted by the drones herding them along, to make way for the other visitors still in transit. Weiss looked around them as they walked—fluffy pillows and cushions of Fae make, plants and trees strewn all about, Fae relaxing with their ears, tails, and other animal features proudly on display.

They stopped as a very familiar woman wearing a stereotypical Old World magician's outfit came up to them, a top hat much like Ruby's over her head.

Weiss' eyes widened. “Velvet?!” she whispered. “You're working for the Fae?!”

Velvet smiled. “Why wouldn't I be?”

She took off her top hat, a familiar pair of brown bunny ears springing up to their full height.

Only this time, there wasn't a headband at their base.

“I am one.”

Chapter Text

Velvet smiled.

Weiss stared blankly at her, her expression unreadable underneath her mask.

Velvet frowned. “Is something the matter, Weiss…?”

I'm sorry! I'm just… SO disgusted with myself right now, for never connecting these dots!” Weiss cried as she threw her hands in the air. “I have known you for almost all of my entire life, how have I never realized your 'fake' animal ears and tails were real?!”

“The Order of the Seekers are extremely thorough with their cover-ups,” Penny explained. “It also helps that there is a unique quirk of both our human and Fae minds that find it much easier to accept the lie than the reality-shattering truth that the Fae are not mythological creatures, and have been lurking among you for over a millennium.”

But it's just a headband and a belt with pieces cut out for her ears and tail!” Weiss whined. “How could it work so well…?!”

Blake patted her on the shoulder. “Naw yu nowh haw ay feele...”

“We really don't know!” Penny replied with a shrug. “Numerous makers and Fae-funded scientists have been attempting to crack the secret for all this time, but it looks like for however our respective intelligences and perspectives advance, we're just constantly blindsided by it.”

It's kinda like how your facial recognition technology kept getting screwed over by people wearing eyeglasses until you figured out how to fix it,” Ruby added.

Weiss sighed heavily. “How many humans know about this?”

“A select few,” Velvet replied. “You're the first person from the Schnee family to have been made aware of this, actually.”

You mean mom never realized there was something up about Granny Scar? They hung out all the time!”

Blake shrugged. “Wurkt fur us in Sellesschionn, still wurks naw.”

Weiss sighed again, her face falling. “So how many of your human employees know the secret?”

None, considering we don't have them in the first place!” Velvet replied.

Weiss looked around at the Fae lounging about. “So all of these Fae…?”

“… Are employees of the Plushie Palace?” Velvet finished. “Yes, yes they are.”

As if on cue, a group of Fae got up, put on the hats and elaborate costumes that were the Palace's uniforms. They easily hid their tails, horns, ears, and other Fae features under hats, loose pant legs, and coats, before they went to an elevator and back to the public areas of the establishment.

A different group of costumed employees took their places, sighing and talking happily in Actaeon as they threw off hats, pulled down scarves, and shimmied out of pants, horns, ears, and tails springing free and waggling about in the open air.

Weiss recognized some of them as the very same people that had been attending to her and Winter earlier that month. “… They aren't even wearing contacts, are they...?” she asked, defeated.

Velvet shook her head.

“Do you need a moment to recover from your existential crisis?” Penny asked.

No… I'll just… pick up the pieces while we go around and enjoy the fair, it's not going to last all night...” Weiss muttered.

Then off we go!” Ruby said, cheerfully raising her scythe.


Before they left the Palace, a team of watchers, weavers, and seekers did a last minute check if they could remember their fake identities and stories, then enchant their gear with special magic that'd render their weapons harmless, and keep Weiss from using all but her most harmless spells.

She could feel it most strongly with Myrtenaster, still humming in her hand but muted, like it was trapped underneath thick soundproof material.

I was wondering why we weren't using your prop scythe,” Weiss said as she and the others holstered or concealed their weapons.

“It's in case something happens back at the Valley,” Ruby replied. “Can't waste time finding my real scythe, because shit goes down fast back there!”

Weiss nodded. “I can imagine.”

The four of them boarded an underground tram in one of the Palace's many secret tunnels and entrances, and off they went, through a complex series of fronts and outposts owned and operated by Candela's many seekers and the handful of humans aware of the big secret, until they emerged from the back-doors of a gigantic high-end casino.

Weiss looked back at it as they walked along the sidewalk.

The place had a 100-foot flashing holo for a sign, many smaller ones boasting of all its facilities and its reputation among high rollers and small-time gamblers all over the realm, and of course, its very skilled and attractive staff.

To top it all of, it was named the “Snake Eyes,” with a sexy snake Fae waitress lounging on top of the letters winking at passersby, her reptilian lower half curled into the shape of the “S” in “Snake.”

She sighed and turned away. “Refuge in audacity indeed...” she muttered under her breath.

The group slowed down and were on high-alert as they crossed into the Dark Side of Candela, where the decorations and the Eve of the Ether specials stopped being so friendly and playful.

Now, they were for intense Trance simulations made affordable because the power companies were paying consumers to use energy to avoid overloads; “witches' brews” of a very different kind; and the kinds of costumes that wouldn't be allowed anywhere else in the city.

The few Peacekeepers assigned (or willing to be assigned) to the area paid them little heed; it wasn't unusual for teenagers to get up to mischief on the Eve, emboldened by their costumes and the spirit of the holiday, and the Bureau was much more concerned with the official fair.

The adults manning the businesses couldn't have cared less—not unless you were willing to pay the exorbitantly inflated prices, mostly from the “discretion fee.”

Where are we going?” Weiss asked as they crossed an overpass, wary of the bums laying on the steps.

To the one place I'm sure Yang is going to be waiting for me,” Ruby replied, smiling underneath her mask.

That turned out the to be the “The Shithole,” a bar that was exactly everything Weiss imagined it to be: dank, smelly, and full of unwashed and unsavoury types drinking cheap beer as they talked about their sordid lives or partook in ages old bar games like drunk billiards, possibly with the twist of the loser cracking their cue over the winner's head whilst accusing them of cheating.

The four moved in a tight formation, Ruby up front, Penny in the back, Weiss and Blake at the sides. The patrons noticed them and seemed amused to see this seemingly lost quartet of scared teenagers, but most of them quickly went back to their own business.

All except one, at least.

“Well lookie what we have here!” said a massive brute as she got up off his seat, a cheap beer in her hand and many more empty bottles on her table. “You lost, girlies? Because this doesn't seem like a place for gals like you to be in.”

“We're just here to meet up with someone, thanks,” Ruby said, trying to make her way around him.

The brute grinned, an ugly face with a several times broken nose, the look of someone that couldn't or wouldn't pay for the relatively cheap reconstructive surgery. “And who's that going to be, huh?” she chuckled, her awful breath making Ruby and Blake cringe and shudder.

Thankfully, Weiss' mask was proofed against it. “Step off and leave us alone, asshole,” she said as she raised her gauntlet to her face.

The brute laughed. “And what are you going to do if I don't, huh?” she asked, looming over her threateningly.

Ksshhhttt!

The brute reared back and screamed, hands over her face, blindly bumping and crashing into everything in sight as low-grade elemental fire seared her eyes.

“Get out my pepper spray, is what,” Weiss hummed as the sounds of vile cursing and breaking bottles filled the air.

Blake grinned and gave her a thumbs up, before they made their way further into the bar and down a flight of stairs, to its illegal fighting arena. From their newfound sense of respect for them, or fear of becoming next, no one else bothered them until they got to the second bouncer standing at the gate.

“You don't have anything particularly nasty to worry about in that fancy glove of yours, do you?” they asked as Weiss held it up for inspection.

Not unless it's illegal to carry pepper spray, a taser, sand, and water in there!” Weiss replied.

The bouncer chuckled and opened the gate. “Get in there, and enjoy the show, kiddos—we got a real great guest pair tonight, been wiping the floor with everyone! Might want to get out before the crowds riot, though—pretty sure they were lying when they said they weren't modded...”

Weiss discretely cast a look at Ruby. Even through their masks, she could tell she was smiling. “We will,” Weiss said, before they entered the arena and stood by the energy barrier—all the seats were long taken.

They were the only people in costume there, but no one minded, for the scene going on below was far more interesting.

The group spotted Yang and Taiyang, both dressed in leather dusters and cowboy hats, hands wrapped in bandages and old cloth, looking very much like the settlers of the Old World's Frontier. The two of them were in fighting stances, fists held up in front of them, no doubt because of the 300 pound, 6'7 titans coming out from the other end of the ring.

The MC came back on the mic. “This dynamic daddy-daughter duo's destroyed damn near everyone we could throw at them, but will they stand a chance against our local champions, the Bash Brothers Smash and Crash?!”

Hell no!” the regulars all roared.

The MC laughed. “All I'm going to say folks is that it's time to consult your guts then place your bets!”

Holo-screens lit up all over the arena, people frantically transferring money to the ever growing pot. Weiss would have spared a glance at the odds, if she didn't know the whole fight was a foregone conclusion.

Betting ended, people were on the edge of their seats and shouting, roaring for blood.

Kick their asses!”

“I'm betting it all on you two, don't let me down!”

Sweet criminy, just beat the shit out of each other already!”

All the lights dimmed, but for the ring's.

“Fighters! Are you ready…?!”

Crash and Smash roared and beat their bare, muscular chests.

Yang punched her bare fists together, Taiyang opened his arms and made the “Come at me” gesture.

“Then let's rumble…!”

The horn sounded, and the two fighters rushed each other.

Weiss expected daring acrobatics and devastating strikes, Yang and Taiyang deftly avoiding all of their opponent's attacks. What she got was a bar brawl, fists flying, landing square on jaws and chests with meaty thuds and sickening cracks, unintelligible grunts and curses being thrown about with wild abandon as the four of them beat the ever loving shit out of each other.

If she hadn't been training with Ruby, aware of the Fae's many different forms of martial arts, she would have thought that Yang and Taiyang were just going all out and hoping they'd come out the other side the victors.

But now, she could recognize the plan.

Taiyang absorbed most of their opponents blows, bracing himself for each strike, his whole body stiffening as he absorbed the kinetic energy—were the blood-stained concrete not already cracked and broken, the audience would have noticed all the new fractures appearing beneath his booted feet.

“The Earth-Fist style: stability and protection, standing tall against all your opponent's blows like ancient mountains, immovable and unbreakable,” Weiss thought.

Smash pulled him into the air by his arms, then headbutted him; Taiyang seemed to reel from the blow, before he rebounded and smashed his skull into his face, too. Dazed and confused, Smash cried out and dropped him.

Taiyang landed, shook his head, and was completely fine.

“The Water-Fist style: control and deflection, letting your opponents attacks slide harmlessly off you like water pouring over a smooth rock, or come straight back at them.”

At the same time, Crash wailed on Yang, pounding his giant fists into her braced arms, slowly staggering her back further and further into the wall. When he had her cornered, he pulled his arm back for an extra powerful punch.

Yang pulled back her arms down just enough to grin at him, before she thrust both her fists out, slamming them into Smash's stomach.

The audience cried out in surprise as he flew off and crashed on his back, all the wind knocked out of him, a bewildered expression on his face.

“The Fire-Fist style: power and retribution, using your opponent's power to vastly magnify your own, at the risk being snuffed out before you could take your fiery vengeance.”

Smash saw his fallen brother, roared and charged at Yang, clumsily swinging his arms through the air, trying to catch her or smack her on the back-swing. She easily dodged him, Taiyang slipped in in front of him, deftly moving back and forth just out of Smash's grasp.

Smash staggered to a stop, tried to punch Taiyang with one hand; he grabbed his fist and twisted his body to the direction of the blow, his other fist coming straight for Smash's face.

He braced himself, squeezing his eyes shut.

Nothing.

He carefully opened them, saw Taiyang's fist an inch away from his face.

Now, Taiyang punched him.

Crack.

No longer braced and ready, Smash screamed as his covered his face with has hands, his nose broken once again.

“The Air-Fist: speed and deception, tricking your opponents into letting their guards down, slipping strikes into the cracks in their defenses like a draft seeping into a home.”

Crash got up, crazed and furious as he raised his hands over his head, brought them down over Taiyang's head. He raised braced his arms, absorbed the full force of the blow; Yang rushed over to him, her fist already pulled back and aimed for Crash's side.

Taiyang discretely lifted up his foot; what to those looking closely would seem like him accidentally crushing his daughter's foot in the heat of the moment was actually him transferring all of Crash's kinetic energy into Yang—energy she happily used to amplify her punch.

Pow.

Unprepared for the sheer force, Crash flew off to the side, staggering for a few moments before he fell on his side and screamed in agony.

Weiss smiled as she and the others cheered. “And of course, to top it all off, they used all four at once, with the Tsunami-Fist, and the Firestorm-Fist,” she thought, grinning.

Holy fucking shit!” the MC cried. “They actually did it!”

Taiyang pulled his foot off Yang before anyone could notice, she bit back a wince as she looped her arm around his side, hiding his holding her up as they waved and smiled at the audience.

Get the fuck out of here!” the MC cried. “And forget your prize money until you can show us proof you two aren't modded to hell and back!”

Cheaters!”

We'll get you for this!”

Fuck you! Probably got secret robot arms and shit!”

“It's called 'Martial Arts,' people!” Taiyang called out as he and Yang walked back to the stands. “Look it up!”

The two of them finally noticed the costumed quartet in the audience, calm amidst the raging and frothing audience members. Yang discretely mouthed “Train Station,” and they all began to make their way out of the bar.

They didn't talk, didn't look at each other, didn't give anyone a hint that they knew one other, for fear of them getting caught in the fast brewing riot.

And once they were at the nearest train station and well away from the Shithole, they dropped it faster than Yang and Taiyang had the Bash Brothers.

Dad!” Ruby cried, pulling off her mask and dropping her scythe before she jumped right into Taiyang's arms, smiling and crying as she lovingly nuzzled his face into his chest.

Ruby!” Taiyang cried as he hugged her back, crying and smiling too. “Oh my gosh, you are still so tiny even though you've grown up so much, I love it!”

The others stood to the side as father and daughter reunited, tears, laughter, and excited chatting filling the air.

Yang smiled, sniffing as she wiped away the tears welling up in her eyes. She turned to the others, and paused. “Hey... how'd you afford to send all four of you guys here? Did Uncle Qrow stop spending his money on booze and invest it, or something?”

Actually, we pawned my sister's Eluna plushie for money,” Weiss replied.

Yang's eyes widened. “Shit. One of those super rare toys people have literally killed each other over?”

Blake, Penny, and Weiss all nodded.

Yang chuckled as she put her arm around Weiss shoulder. “Well you did a great thing there, princess; you're good in my book.”

Weiss smiled underneath the mask. Thank you.”

“Hey, mind if I ask what's your costume?” Yang asked. “I feel like I should know it, but I can't put my finger on it...”

It's a modification of the 'Keeper's Bride,'” Weiss replied.

Yang paused. “… And why would you wear that…?”

“… Because me and Ruby are”--she made a nervous sexy animal noise--”now…?”

Chapter Text

“What.” Yang said.

“We haven't gotten… intimate yet!” Weiss added quickly. “… But we have kissed, and agreed that we're girlfriends now...”

Yang slowly pulled her arm from Weiss shoulders.

Ruby and Taiyang stopped their conversation, sensing something was terribly, horribly wrong.

Penny and Blake both took a few steps back, either from instinct or sensing the dramatically rising levels of stress hormones in Yang's body.

Weiss began to sweat. “Uh… Yang…?”

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” Yang yelled. “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCKING-FUCKITY-FUCK?!”

Weiss looked around as heads turned, and the peacekeepers at the train station debated stepping in.

Yang, you're causing a scene--!”

FUCK YOU, YOU ARE NOT GETTING AWAY WITH THIS JUST BECAUSE WE'RE IN PUBLIC!”

Taiyang stormed up, a stern look on his face. “Yang, what's going on here?!”

Yang ignored her as she turned to Ruby. “RUBY! Are you and Ice Princess over here--” she made an aggressive sexy animal noise.

“Yeah, we are!” Ruby replied as she walked up.

Yang turned back to Weiss. “I thought you said you weren't interested in her!”

People change their opinions all the time, it's not unnatural!”

Yang turned back to Ruby, frantic now. “I thought you said you and here weren't--” she made a desperate sexy animal noise.

“We really weren't!” Ruby replied. “But I was still interested in being--” she made a sexy animal noise--”with her, and then we did in between the last time we met and now.”

What is your problem?!” Weiss asked. “Weren't you the one joking and having a grand old time teasing me and Ruby about being--” she attempted and failed to make a sexy animal noise.

Yang didn't laugh or smile this time. “I was trying to turn you off! What kind of sister thinks, 'Oh, I really want this person to date my precious, innocent little sister, better show her the fake girlfriend that looks disturbingly like her, and tell her all about the time I walked in on her trying make out with her!'?

NO SISTERS DO! NONE!”

Taiyang blinked, and turned to Ruby. “Wait, you did what...?”

Ruby blushed, and slowly put her mask back on her face. “It's… it's a really long story we don't need to get to, ever.

Excuse me!” said a peacekeeper walking up to them, a squad of drones at her tail. “What's going on here?!”

“Oh, just me finding out this gal right here is now my sister's girlfriend after she explicitly told me she wasn't even the slightest bit interested in her!” Yang cried, thumbing at Weiss.

“Well take it somewhere private, or you can go solve your issues in a jail cell for disturbing the peace!”

“We will, officer, sorry for the disturbance!” Taiyang said as he stepped up, his hands out in front of him. He glared at Yang. “Yang, tonight's supposed to be a night of fun and catching up with your sister, not yelling at her girlfriend. Behave—your criminal record's already long enough!”

Yang looked at him in betrayal, before she groaned and threw her hands up. She sulked off to an uncrowded corner of the train station, and found a nice, solid pillar to punch.

Taiyang sheepishly turned to the peacekeeper. “Sorry, officer: you know teenagers.”

She sighed. “Do I ever…? Look, it's Eve of the Ether, and obviously, your kid's been looking real forward to seeing you again; I really don't want to have to take you all in and ruin your night, so how about you all just sign these statements saying you're not going to cause another ruckus, and aren't going to complain about the charges we'll slap on you if you do?”

Taiyang turned to the others.

“Fair enough!” Ruby said.

“That sounds like a reasonable compromise,” Penny said, nodding.

“It's the least we can do...” Weiss muttered.

Blake gave the thumbs up.

Taiyang turned back to the peacekeeper. “You have a deal, officer.”

The peacekeeper smiled. “Thanks—I mean it.”

Yang came sulking back, and they scanned their IDs—real or fake—into the peacekeeper's comm-crystal. She looked a little surprised at the records popping up. “Most of these kids are from the Country, huh?” she asked.

Taiyang nodded. “Yep! They've always been dreaming of going out to see what it's like in the city states, so why not do it on the Eve? Going to be a lot of loan payments to make, but so far it's been worth it just to see the looks on their faces...” he said with a happy smile.

“Well watch yourselves out there—Candela may be one of the safest city states in all of Avalon, but that doesn't mean we don't have crime. Don't mean to insinuate anything bad about you folks, but it's a jungle out there!”

Ruby chuckled. “We live in tiny villages in the wilds, officer—we know wild.”

The peacekeeper smiled. “Don't doubt it for a second!” she thumbed behind her. “I gotta get back to work, you folks try not to get into more trouble and just enjoy your evening, okay?”

“We will, officer!” Taiyang replied.

All of the group except Yang waved goodbye as she left, before they all simultaneously glared at her.

“Nice going, Yang—you almost got us all arrested!” Ruby spat.

Yang grumbled what might have been “Sorry” under her breath, before she glared at Weiss, before she began to burn holes into the floor.

Taiyang put his hand on Ruby and Yang's shoulders. “Let's just move on and enjoy our night, shall we ladies? The night is young, but it's not going to get any younger!”

Yang and Weiss forged a temporary truce, and soon they were off on a train to Goldleaf, Candela's commercial district and the heart of the Eve's celebrations.

Meanwhile, the peacekeeper they had spoken sneaked into a deserted part of the station. She dumped her stolen uniform with the unconscious sap she had stolen it from, revealing green locks of hair underneath her hat, alongside and a pair of hyena ears. She put on her real clothes, did a thorough perimeter sweep, before pulled out her comm-crystal.

“We've found them,” she whispered as she sent over the data.


It felt strange to be back in Candela, and stranger still that Weiss felt that way.

She'd only been away for a month or so, and yet staring up at its tall skyscrapers, floating islands, and the never-ending vehicle and pedestrian traffic flowing through every available route—sights she had been seeing regularly for a decade and a half—she couldn't help but feel like it was an alien world, as freaky and unfamiliar as the Valley was when she first got there.

Penny, Blake, and Taiyang were among the gawkers at the windows, marveling at seeing these sights in person, or after a long, long absence. Weiss debated joining them, if only to see if that would rid herself of the unease.

Hey, you okay?” Ruby whispered as she stood beside her.

The other passengers were too engrossed in their own devices or their business to notice. If they were bothered by their mask modulators' effects, they just turned up the volume on their comm-crystals, or tuned it out.

Weiss hung her head. “… No, not really.”

Well what's wrong?” Ruby asked. “Aren't you happy to be back home? Well, kinda back home.”

That's just it: this doesn't feel like home. Not anymore.” Weiss looked up at the ceiling. “I'm kind of wondering if it ever was, and it just won by default...”

I… really don't get where you're going here, Weiss.”

Weiss looked at Ruby. “I… never really had anything like you guys, back when I was living here. You know: friends, someplace where I felt I really belonged, you—well, the you I know now, not the one the stories led me to believe.”

Ruby chuckled. “I don't blame you—they can get pretty messed up.”

Weiss snorted. “To say the least...” she looked down at the floor. “There's also something that feels really wrong about this place...

Maybe someone farted,” Ruby offered.

My mask is air-tight and filtered beside, and it's not just here in the train—it's everywhere since we got here. I just didn't notice that much because of everything else happening at the time.”

Huh… well, I'd suggest that maybe it had something to do with you being a you-know, but I've never really heard of anyone else saying something was wrong with the city. What does it feel like, anyway?”

Weiss closed her eyes, opened herself up to the magic all around her. Comm-crystals, tablets, the rails of the train, the power lines and conduits all around them, the buildings with their terminals, the many small magitechnical devices pretty much everything had from clothes, the roads, to even the light beaming from the streetlights as they acted as free Info-Grid data transmitters.

All of them, humming with magic, dull and thrumming like the sealed Myrtenaster, but however faintly, Weiss could feel something…

“… Tainted,” Weiss said. “Like there's something just wrong about… everything.”

Ruby paused. “… Now I have definitely never heard that before!”

Now approaching Goldleaf Station,” the train's AI hummed. “All passengers, please step away from the doors, and make way for those disembarking. Remember: waiting your turn helps all of us get to our destinations on time.

This announcement was brought to you by Sgt. Pick-U-Up: 'When it's time for double-time, get yourself a can of Sgt. Pick-U-Up, soldier!'”

Weiss shook her head. “Eh, it's probably just because it's my first Eve of the Ether after you-know-what happened,” she said as the passengers began to shift and prepare to move out.

Ruby shrugged. “Probably.”

They didn't step out onto the platform so much as they joined a sea of slowly moving people, some of them in costumes, others in plain clothes, tied up at the numerous checkpoints in spite of the peacekeepers and their drones clearing completely clean people at lightning speed.

As it did every year, however, there were always several someones who either blatantly broke the rules, or toed the line so far that they had to call in a supervisor.

It took all of five minutes for them to come out one of the gates and into a busy city street; they were even more people here than inside the station, but thankfully they had much more room to move around in.

They all spent a moment patting themselves down, trying to discover if any one of them had been pickpocketed, and to their relief they still had everything they boarded the train with, their cash Urochs and cred-sticks especially.

“How much money do you girls have, anyway?” Taiyang asked.

“Not much,” Penny replied. “Between the original cost of the tickets, and all the numerous other unexpected expenses we've racked up for a variety of reasons, we've had to dramatically cut down our original plans for spending money, and tonight's itinerary beside.”

How much have you and Yang brought, dad?” Ruby asked back.

Yang and Taiyang smiled sheepishly.

“We're uh… we're actually pretty much broke right now!” Taiyaing said.

Weiss stared at them. “Are you two fucking kidding me right now?!”

“We bet it all on the fights earlier back there!” Yang replied. “We were only supposed to go a couple of rounds, collect a couple hundred Urochs extra, but then we kept winning and the MC kept offering us more money, so...” she trailed off.

“… Yeah.” Taiyang finished.

Then what are we supposed to do now?” Weiss asked. “We only budgeted for ourselves and assumed you were going to provide your own spending money; at this rate, we probably won't even make it till midnight before we have to go home—that or spend all our time at the crappy free attractions, and trust me, you really do get what you pay for.”

“Perhaps I can help…?” said a new voice.

The group turned to see a tall, muscular teen dressed up like Piorina “Piper” Nikos, complete with a real antique Starfarer Captain's Cap and an energy lance, even if it was conspicuously missing its clip.

She smiled nervously. “I seem to have seriously overestimated how much spending money I needed for this trip, and only ask that you'll let me join your group. The Eve's not very fun alone...”

Ruby smiled, stepped up and offered her hand. “Well climb aboard, Captain Piper, we'd love to have you!”

Yang frowned and stepped up. “Woah, woah, woah! Hold up there, sister—I know you like thinking and assuming the best of people, but just because someone's dressed up as the Holy Shepherd herself doesn't mean she's automatically a saint.”

“Will it help if she's a direct descendant of her, then?” Penny asked quietly.

“Piper” stiffened.

Taiyang, Yang, and Weiss all did a double take on her, their eyes widening as they recognized the face almost constantly paraded about the triumvirate of city states in Heartland, and plastered all over the Info-Grid and HoloVision beside.

“H-How did you know…?” “Piper” whispered, her eyes frantic.

Penny pointed to her eyes with one of her life-like fingers. “My optic sensors take a lot of factors into account, such as height, body weight, and notable facial features.” She leaned in and whispered. “Don't worry: we'll keep your secret so long as you keep ours, too.”

She smiled as she tugged the sleeve of her costume down, revealed the glowing bits of rock suspended in magic underneath.

“Piper's” eyes widened. “You're Penny Polendina…?”

“If you're Pyrrha Nikos, then yes! Yes I am,” Penny replied as she pulled her sleeve back up.

Huddle up, everyone!” Ruby called out. “Emergency meeting!”

Everyone including Pyrrha shuffled to a quiet alleyway and formed a circle.

Okay, first order of business: Penny and Pyrrha—if that's who you really are—you two know each other?” Ruby asked.

Penny nodded. “It's rather hard not to know who Pyrrha Nikos is, given her constant presence on the media and in the public.”

“I… know her from an Info-Grid forum where she's very popular, yes,” Pyrrha replied, blushing and looking away.

“Hey, we're not judging!” Yang said. “It's not exactly unusual to like buns of steel, right...?”

Everyone but Taiyang, Ruby, Penny, and Pyrrha groaned. The last just blushed even harder and began to attempt to sink into the ground and into Avalon's core.

That settles that!” Ruby said. “So what are you doing here by yourself? Shouldn't you be escorted by swarms of guards and stewards and stuff?”

“I snuck out,” Pyrrha replied. “They're probably already scrambling all over this city trying to find me, which is why it's very important to me that I mesh with a group that'll remove suspicion, like several people also dressed like iconic figures from history, myth, and pop culture.

“Those are excellent costumes, by the way!”

Thanks! Blake made most of them,” Ruby said, pointing to her. “Who made yours, by the way? It looks so real, especially that energy lance! Why's it missing its clip, though?

Pyrrha looked sheepish. “… That's because it is, and no one's manufactured ammo for it in centuries,” she muttered.

Yang's eyes widened. “Ho-ly shit. You stole the actual Sacred Vestments and Armaments of the Holy Shepherd...?”

“I didn't steal them!” Pyrrha sputtered weakly. “I legally own them as a direct descendant...!”

Relax, I'm not judging you—I'm going congratulating you! That takes realm-sized balls right there!” Yang said, nodding and giving her the thumbs up.

Pyrrha blinked. “… I… uh… thank you…?”

We're getting off topic,” Weiss said. “Do you actually have money on you, or was that just a lie to get in our good graces?”

Pyrrha nodded. “I do, and if I didn't, who would be stupid enough to even attempt that?”

Taiyang chuckled weakly. “You'd be surprised...”

Weiss ignored him. So how much do you have? Just cash-on-hand, we can't use your credit line because that'll just be a giant sign saying 'Rogue Holy Shepherd Here.'”

“I know, which is why I brought a lot...” Pyrrha said as she pulled out and opened up her wallet.

Their eyes and optic sensors all widened.

“I also have a private account I can withdraw from, but I'd rather not risk it being compromised,” Pyrrha said as she put it away. “So will you please let me join you? I promise that if someone recognizes me, I will do my very best to limit the fallout to just myself!”

Ruby looked at the others. “Everyone in favour of letting Pyrrha join us, raise your hand.”

Everyone raised their hands.

Pyrrha sighed in relief. “Oh, thank you so much, you don't know how much this means to me...” she smiled.

Ruby smiled at her underneath her mask. “No problem! And just so you know, if someone recognizes us, we'll make sure you don't get roped in with us, either...” she muttered.

Pyrrha blinked. “What are you…?” she muttered, before her eyes widened in alarm and horror.

Weiss quickly removed her mask and showed her face. “I'm fine! It was all a fake!” she said quickly.

Pyrrha stared at her, bewildered.

“It's me—Weiss Schnee! I can't explain everything because it's a really long story, but I'm telling you: you can trust them!”

Pyrrha continued to stare at her, before she shrugged “… Well… I guess this wouldn't be the first time a Nikos has made strange friends in even stranger circumstances...”

So, you still cool with being with us?” Ruby asked.

Pyrrha nodded. “But, please, call me 'Piper,' so people won't notice.”

Got it!” Ruby said, giving her the thumbs up. “Now let's set sail for the Eve of the Ether fair for real already!”

Weiss put her mask back on, and they walked out of the alleyway, walking freely amongst the crowds as if they weren't wanted terrorists, her exiled family members, and a renegade religious figure hiding in plain sight.

“Hey, Penny,” Pyrrha asked, “I meant to ask: what are the specs of the optics you're using?”

“I'm afraid those are classified,” Penny replied. “Though, I may be persuaded to tell you if you take me out to dinner first...”

Pyrrha blushed. “… I, uh… was that a joke?”

Penny chuckled. “Obviously! I don't eat food, I'm an artificial being,” she said, before she winked.

Pyrrha cheeks heated up even further.

Yang chuckled as she listened in from the behind them. “I guess you could say the attraction between them is pretty... magnetic,” she whispered to Blake and Weiss.

They both punched her in either arm.

Ow!”

Chapter Text

“Wow, that Keeper of the Grove costume is amazing! I'd be scared if you weren't so tiny, kid, but you and your girlfriend are still pretty creepy.”

“Well ain't you the best damn Piper I've ever seen all night! Why, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were the Holy Shepherd herself come back from the Aether to bless us with her presence.”

“OH MY GOSH! NINJAS OF LOVE! I NEED A PICTURE WITH YOU, RIGHT NOW, OR I'M GOING TO DIE! LIKE, LITERALLY DIE!”

“Hello! We're from the Old World Animation Society, and we'd love to take your picture and use it as part of our promotional material...”

“Well howdy there, cowboy! Mind if I ask y'all what time it is…?”

Taiyang grinned. “Well, pardner, I'd say it's… niiinneee forty-five…!”

The other Old World cowboy laughed. “Thanks for the laugh and the memories, pardner,” he tipped his hat to Taiyang. “You and your gals enjoy your night now!”

He tipped his hat back. “Yer welcome, pardner, and y'all stay safe, too!” he said, before he resumed waiting at a bench with Weiss, watching over their bags of souvenirs and food while the others were busy with a game of “Shoot the Shade.”

Weiss sighed.

Taiyang turned to her. “Something wrong?”

I can't believe no one's noticed,” she replied. “All of these pictures, all of these people stopping us, and not a single one has had even the slightest inkling, if I wasn't pretty sure they're also like us.”

Taiyang shrugged. “It's Eve of the Ether; 'weird' kinda becomes the new 'normal.'”

Weiss was about to reply, before she saw a group of Fae walk on by, dressed in their usual armour with their animal features out, shrugging off any suspicion by speaking in fluent Nivian. The difference between Fae and human fashion was so great the unsuspecting masses probably thought they were just dressed up as characters from a holo or a Trance sim.

Are you fucking kidding me…?!”

“Yeah, they do that,” Taiyang hummed, smiling. “The 'costumes' Summer, Qrow, and Raven were 'wearing' when I first met them were just like those, actually!”

Weiss turned to him. “You met them on Eve of the Ether?”

Taiyang smiled. “In this very city. We met while we were in line at a 'Test Your Strength' game, where I was betting my last Urochs on breaking the record. I couldn't do it, but Summer broke the ever loving shit out of it and the machine, then split her prize money with me—so long as I promised I'd buy Qrow that beer he'd been clamouring for all night with my share.

“It was at that moment that I’m pretty sure I fell for her, and though I didn't realize it at the time, she was pretty interested in me, too.”

What, couldn't see her expression under the mask?” Weiss teased.

Taiyang chuckled and shook his head. “Nah, she was actually going without it that night, not scare the crap out of people for a while. Denial is a hell of a thing, though.”

“So how’d you end up dating her?”

“We spent the rest of the fair together, and had a lot of fun. By the time the sun was almost about to rise and we all needed to leave, I realized this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities staring me in the face.

“I was young, lovesick, and had only enough money for the return trip back under the boot of the coziest kleptocracy in Avalon. What was the harm in following these three strangers back to whatever wild place in the Country they came from, I thought?

“As it turns out: a heckuva lot!

“But if I had a time machine to go back to the exact moment where I made that decision, I'd punch out Past Me, take his place, and convince Summer to take me home with her, so I could do it all over again without all the really bad decisions...

“How are you enjoying it out there, by the way?”

Very much, actually!” Weiss replied. “My first two weeks aside, everything couldn't be better. At the very least, it's bounds better than what I left behind…”

Taiyang nodded. “You haven't experienced a Soul Eater attack yet, have you...?”

Weiss slowly shook her head. “No, actually... should I be worried?”

Taiyang was about to answer when the others came walking back with their prizes and badges proclaiming them the “Slickest Shade Shooters in the Realm.”

“I suppose you'll find out for yourself eventually!” he said as he got up to meet them.

Weiss sighed, figured that finding out how terrible something was from first-hand experience was just the way things worked in the Valley.


They eventually decided to go get dinner, and at Weiss' recommendation, they ate at Fiorina's.

For reasons of maintaining their cover, they chose a corner booth, Weiss and Pyrrha squeezed all the way inside and out of sight from the rest of the restaurant, Penny making sure that their bags of prizes and souvenirs were arranged in a way that would handily block the surveillance equipment without arousing any suspicion.

This isn't amateur hour,” Ruby whispered to Weiss and Pyrrha. “We know what we're doing.”

They saw them in action as Taiyang talked to the waiter for all of them, and found out that he had followed the news very closely and had actually watched the fake ransom/execution holo several times—enough to feel that there was something disturbingly familiar about Ruby and the sound of her voice.

Taiyang sighed. “Look, Marty, I know it was big news realm-wide, but come on: we're just here to eat and enjoy ourselves! You wouldn't want to get in trouble with your boss by making seven hungry customers lose their appetites all because you couldn't stop talking about that awful tragedy would you?”

On cue, everyone but Weiss and Pyrrha looked at Marty with a mix of uneasy, disgusted, and extremely annoyed expressions.

Marty groaned. “Okay! Fine! I'm sorry for bringing it up... I'll be back with your orders in a 'jiffy…'”

They all watched him sulk off from the corner of their eyes, until he disappeared back into the kitchen. They let out sighs of relief, then started casually talking and discussing how to spend the rest of their night, as Pyrrha had essentially given them an effectively unlimited budget to do anything they wanted.

I wish we had some way of paying you back for all this, 'Piper,'Ruby said after they finalized their plans. We've spent a LOT tonight.”

Pyrrha smiled. “Oh, it's fine! The memories I've made with all of you are more than worth every Uroch. My only regret is that we'll probably permanently part ways come morning...”

Yang smirked. “It's not to late to ask for our comms, you know—maybe you can just get Penny's, she's pretty well-connected after all,” she said, winking as she nudged Pyrrha with her elbow.

Pyrrha blushed.

Yang raised an eyebrow, then beamed. “Oh man! You already have, haven't you? Gimme a high-five, 'Piper!'”

Pyrrha tipped her cap lower over her bright red face, before she quickly high-fived Yang.

Penny smiled. “If I may interrupt: I do see a way we would be able to recoup our expenses,” she said as she pulled out her temporary comm-crystal, projected an advertisement out to the whole table.

The Candela Couple's Costume Contest?” Weiss asked. “But contestants have to have a clearly matching theme, and it's only open to romantic—oh, right...”

I'm game!” Ruby said. “It might be fun.”

“You'll probably score a lot of points with the judges for being relevant!” Taiyang added. “What is for sure is that you two going to get a lot of attention.”

Possibly the bad kind...” Weiss muttered.

“Our ploy's worked very well so far,” Pyrrha said quietly. “I think it'll be safe to assume that it'll keep on working.”

Blake pulled out her own comm-crystal, typed something on it: “Make escape plan, just in case?”

Pyrrha nodded. “I can be bait for a distraction; I'm getting hell when I get home anyway, what's a little more trouble?”

Taiyang hummed. “Don't see how this can't work, if all of us work together!”

Yang raised her hand. “Yeah, that's going to be an issue, because I have several issues with this plan.”

Ruby sighed. “Can't you just let it go for tonight, Yang? We could really use the money.”

Yang glared at her. “No. You are my precious, innocent baby sister, and I am not okay with throwing you at the mercy of strangers for Urochs, especially when you'll be going in with Ice Princess over here!”

Weiss growled. Everyone, could you please excuse myself and Yang? We'll just be going to the restroom...

Ruby looked uneasily at them both, before she sighed and began to make room for them to leave, the others following suit.

Diners and servers gave them a wide berth as they walked on past, fearing the aura they were giving off—like an inferno coming up against a blizzard.


They kept their voices down for the benefit of the people actually using the facilities, but the tension came through loud and clear.

What is your problem with me?” Weiss snapped. “What is it that is that ticks you off about me dating Ruby?”

Yang scowled and held up her hand. “I suggest you don't go there, princess, or else we're going to have to add broken furniture and walls to our bill later. Look: has anyone told you about the statistics of Fae/Human relationships? About how they’re almost always doomed to fail?”

Penny has, and in my defense, that's the same thing they said about my grandparents relationship, and look how they ended up,” Weiss huffed.

Yang groaned. “I'm trying to help you here, Weiss! You know one of the biggest reasons why the Shit went down? It's because dad thought he could handle a relationship with Ruby's mom!

“Now don't get me wrong: they were crazy for each other, and Uncle Qrow’s got the proof in his chronicle, but the fact is, dad just couldn't handle all the cons of dating a Keeper—though it probably didn't help that he was forced to live with his ex-wife, AKA my mom the Alpha Bitch.

“Dating Ruby is going to be crazy, it's going to be full of problems, and trust me: you may think you've got it all figured out, but then something's going to happen that'll turn your whole world round and round till you don't have the slightest clue which way is up or down!

“Trust me: I watched this shit unfold before my very eyes, and it was a helluva roller coaster of ups, downs, and seventeen-dimensional shapes beyond our comprehension! I was just a baby for all of it, but I know you know from personal experience that little kids absorb and understand a lot more shit than adults think they do.”

Yang's eyes softened. “Dad wasn't perfect, as a person or as a husband both times he tried, and he'll be the first to admit that! But he was a helluva lot more well-adjusted and had a whole lot less issues than you did, Weiss.

“You're going to end up getting hurt. Ruby's going to end up getting hurt. And with Keepers, you can bet there’s going to be plenty of collateral damage. And I don't know if you’ll believe me, but I sincerely wish none of that to happens to you—to either of you.

“So please: will you say 'No' to the contest…?”

Weiss looked Yang in the eyes, saw the sincerity, the desperation. She felt the anger and indignation inside of her drain away as she saw something far too familiar:

Someone who only wanted to protect her little sister.

Weiss slowly reached out and touched Yang on the shoulder. “Yang…? I believe you, alright? I don't want Ruby to get hurt either, and trust me, I'm already starting to get a pretty good idea of all the crazy shit that happens when you date a Keeper.

But I'm entering that contest with her, and I'm going to keep on dating her, unless one or the both of us decide to break it off!”

Weiss carefully pulled off her mask. “Ruby's going to get hurt, Yang. You can't protect her from everything. And I know you know she doesn't want you to—even if you are her big sister.

“It's called the growing the fuck up, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

Weiss put her mask back on.

Yang looked down, defeated. “… If you two happen to win one of the big prizes, and you have to do the big victory kiss for the crowds, don't go full-on make out session, alright? The images my brain is offering are bad enough, I don’t need the reality broadcasted on live HoloVision for all of Avalon to see.”

We won't, I promise,” Weiss replied. She looked away. “… Besides, we, uh, kinda know from firsthand experience that it's REALLY bad for me to get too excited...”

Yang looked at her in curiosity. “Why? What happens?”

Weiss slowly looked back at her. “… I accidentally freeze our lips together...”

Yang sniggered. “Well, at least I you're not giving her the cold shoulder, huh?”

Beat.

The both of them groaned.

“Oh, fuck me, that was a mistake...” Yang said, quietly gagging.

Yes… yes it was...” Weiss grumbled.

They returned to their table, told the others that Yang had changed her mind and that she'd join the plan. “And just so we're clear here: this is only because I don't want Ruby to get in trouble,” she added as she and Weiss slipped back into their seats.

That means she's starting to like you!” Ruby whispered as Weiss returned by her side.

Their food arrived shortly after. They could see Marty still being very suspicious of them, especially with how Weiss and Ruby noticeably kept their masks on as the others began to dig in, but thankfully the other server with him told him to knock it off.

“Geeze, Marty, lay off the shock news for a while! That shit's not good for you...” they muttered