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when darkness crashes against it

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When Safire rams his sword through the last Ursa, pinning it to the ground before the Grimm dissolves around the blade, and the last sphinx is shot out of the air of the air by one of the newcomers with what Oscar can only assume to be a militarized handbag, they all catch their breath for approximately seven seconds before the rabbit Faunus speaks up, loudly.

 

“They’re still children!”

 

Oscar, Cobalt, Safire, and Morado all look up at that. “I’m sorry,” Safire says, drawing himself to his full height — which, to be fair, was considerably taller than the rabbit Faunus if you didn't count her ears. “What did you say?”

 

The rabbit Faunus ignores him and turns to the woman with the militarized handbag. “Coco! Look at them!”

 

Coco raises one gloved finger to tip down her sunglasses, examining the four of them. Oscar immediately feels defensive. “Yes, Velvet, I’ve noticed.”

 

The large one — the one with a colossal blade that looked to be nearly as tall as his already-intimidating figure — saunters back from the tree line. “This is the team keeping Mistral safe?”

 

Cobalt bristles. “Listen, if you punks think you’re so much better than us just because—”

 

Coco raises her hand. “Yatsu meant no offense. We’d just thought that you would be… older.”

 

“And why is that?” Oscar speaks up, accepting the outstretched hand the silent red Huntsman offers him. For a moment, he has an irrational urge to call him Mister Alistair, but he shakes it off, letting the other Huntsman pull him to his feet. There’s a niggling feeling in the back of his head that he already knows this team of Huntsmen and Huntresses. “Mistral had no Huntsmen, so we stepped in to fill the gap. If we’re young, it’s because there was no one else.”

 

Coco and Velvet trade a look that Oscar can’t quite read. “Then I guess you don’t have your licenses, do you?” Coco asks.

 

“No, and we’re doing just fine,” Cobalt declares.

 

Oscar winces — they’re doing all right for a ragtag group of half-trained young people, but they are a far cry from fully-trained, fully-licensed Huntsmen.

 

Velvet pulls Yatsu aside for a conversation. Coco — their leader, Oscar knows, how does he know  — approaches him. “We were tasked by the Haven Council to bring you in,” she says, apologetic.

 

“Bring us in? For what?” Morado asks, and she doesn’t raise her voice often but Oscar knows her warning signs. “We’re helping people out here.”

 

Coco raises her hands placatingly. “No, not like arrest you bring you in, but like, ask you all to come back to Haven. Now that things have settled down and the world’s stopped ending, they’re trying to start up society again. Have people go to schools and actually get their licenses and all that jazz. Trust me, the council is very appreciative of the work you all have been doing.”

 

Velvet’s agitated voice from the furiously whispered conversation happening by the treeline distracts Oscar, so he doesn’t realize until Cobalt clears her throat meaningfully beside him that the awkward silence was waiting on him. Safire, Morado, and Cobalt all gaze at him expectantly, deferring to him.

 

“I’m sorry—” he knows that this will bother him until he finds out, so he might as well ask now. “—but do I know you?”

 

Coco raises a single, skeptical eyebrow. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

 

Oscar tamps down the urge to say what about in my past life?  “What academy did you graduate from?”

 

Coco’s eyes narrow. “Shade, why?”

 

“Were you ever at Beacon?”

 

Coco nods, curt. “We were second-year students when Beacon fell, and we transferred to Shade from there. Why does that matter?”

 

It all clicks, then — Ozpin must have known, even taught, their team when he was still Headmaster of Beacon Academy, and some unconscious memory made Oscar think he’d known them too. “Nothing. I just… knew some people from Vale, that’s all.”

 

“Oh.” Coco’s stance softens. “I hope they’re all right.” It’s been over three years since the tragedy, but it was still fresh in their minds.

 

Oscar hopes so too, even if he hadn’t parted with the students he knew from Beacon on the most amicable of terms. “You said the Council of Haven was looking for us.”

 

“Yeah, rumors are going around Mistral about a vigilante team of Huntsmen and Huntresses,” Coco says, slinging her handbag over her shoulder. “I’m here with a personal invitation from Professor Dill Almon for you to enroll in Haven Academy in—” She pulls out her scroll to check the date. “Ooooh, three days from now. If you move quickly, you can make orientation. Full scholarship, no tuition,” she adds, nonchalant.

 

Cobalt storms forward. “If the Haven Council just wants to make us go back to school to keep us in check, then you can tell them to take their offer and shove—”

 

“Cobalt,” Oscar cuts her off hurriedly, before she can finish that sentence. He turns to Coco. “That’s a very generous offer.”

 

“Well, what can I say — you’re attractive students. Haven wants you.” Coco waggles her eyebrows at Cobalt, who flushes. “And, I daresay, Mistral needs you. More than ever, they need a new generation of Huntsmen and Huntresses to step up.”

 

“And I take it they’d rather not have unlicensed Huntsmen and Huntresses running around,” Morado says.

 

Coco shrugs. “That too.” She looks expectantly at Oscar, waiting for his decision.

 

Oscar hesitates for a moment, waiting for something. And then he realizes — that sardonic, soothing voice, always ready with advice and commentary, was not going to speak up. He was never going to hear Ozpin’s voice in his head again. “Yes,” he says finally. “I would be honored to enroll at Haven Academy.” He turns to look at Safire and Morado. “I wouldn’t presume to choose for you.”

 

Morado shrugs. “Hey, if I don’t have to pay tuition, I’m all in.” Tuition, Oscar remembers, had been Morado’s main reason for not enrolling in Haven despite graduating from Sanctum a few years ago.

 

“If you think you’re going alone, you have another think coming,” Cobalt announces. They all look at Safire.

 

“I’ll go where my tribe goes,” he says finally, and Oscar lets out a long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

 

“That was sweet,” Coco says. “Take your team to Haven before you get any sappier.” She glances over her shoulder, trading a meaningful look with the silent red Huntsman. “We can take over clean up from here.”

 

—————

 

It takes them a week to make it back to Haven, so they miss the new student orientation and the formation of teams. If Oscar is being honest with himself, he doesn’t really mind, although given the excited buzz around the first-year class, the orientation process seemed to involve a great deal of spelunking in the cavern network to the southeast of Haven.

 

Professor Dill Almon assigns them to be on the same team, for convenience’s sake. The headmaster is a diminutive goat Faunus with bright eyes, a neatly brushed mane of graying hair, and a pair of devastatingly sharp black hooves that click on the polished floors of Haven. He calls them all to his office the day after they arrive, but when they try to enter his office as a group, he blocks the way. “Just you,” he says, pointing at Morado, and the remaining three of them glance at each other, nonplussed, as the heavy door shuts in their faces.

 

Morado emerges in a matter of minutes.

 

“What did he say to you?” Safire asks.

 

Morado shrugs. “He found my transcripts from Sanctum and wanted to know what I’d been doing since, and I got to give him the ‘tuition-is-prohibitive-to-potential-Huntresses” talk. Seems pretty chill.”

 

Safire goes in next, and this time the wait is verging on twenty minutes by the time he emerges, expressionless. Oscar frowns; after a few months of traveling with the other boy in the woods, he’s learned where and how hard he can push Safire, what his usual reactions are. Oscar is just about to ask Safire to see if anything's wrong, when —

 

“Mr. Pine?” Headmaster Almon holds the door open expectantly.

 

Inside the office — autumn-colored, just like how he remembers it — the headmaster gestures Oscar to take a seat across from the desk. “I’d like to begin by apologizing for the actions of my predecessor,” Almon says briskly.

 

“Oh.” Oscar takes a moment to process that. “Well, it wasn’t your fault—”

 

“It certainly wasn’t,” Almon says, folding his hands. “But nevertheless, the power vested in the position of Headmaster of Haven Academy was terribly abused, and the ramifications of Professor Lionheart’s actions fell mostly on you. And Ozpin,” he adds. “What you did, travelling the backwoods of Mistral to aid the outlying villages, was noble — heroic, even — and I wanted to thank you for your service.”

 

Oscar doesn’t know what to say, so he just bobs his head mutely.

 

“I won’t press you for too many details, but if I may ask,” Almon leans forward over his desk, hands clasped, “Is Ozpin truly… gone?”

 

Oscar looks down at his hands, gloved and resting gently in his lap. “Yes,” he says. There is a long pause before he can form the next words. “The day the gods returned, he—” His voice catches.

 

“I understand.” That makes Oscar look up, because Almon sounds like he means it. “That’s all I needed to know, although you are welcome to come to my office if there’s anything more you would like to say.” Almon sighs. “I was only informed of — well, everything — when I agreed to take up the headmaster position here, but Professor Goodwitch has been infinitely helpful. It’s a lot to take in — and I’m sure it was overwhelming for you, too, when you learned of everything. But that is in the past, and its only relevance is how you would like for it to influence your time here at Haven Academy.”

 

Oscar blinks at Almon. This was all progressing very quickly, and not at all the way Oscar expected it would. He latches on to one bit of information he did get. “Glynda is here?”

 

Almon smiles. “Yes, and she’s been an incredible help. She doesn’t teach any classes, but I swear, if I didn’t know that her Semblance was telekinesis, I’d think it was bureaucracy.” He hesitates, then asks, “Did you know her?”

 

Oscar shakes his head — it’s happening again, the weird fuzziness that comes when he tries to access Ozpin’s memories that are there-but-not-there. “No. Yes. I never met her, but I knew her. Know her. Agh!” He reaches for his head instinctively.

 

Almon chuckles. “Well, you’ll meet her soon enough, I’m sure. But what I was really hoping to cover in this meeting was…”

 

They go on to discuss how the Haven curriculum can be altered to the special needs of their team — “there’s never been a team like this in all of Haven history, which is, to be frank, rather indicative of systemic forms of exclusion,” Almon says, and Oscar nods along like he understands — and Oscar realizes exactly how much he doesn’t know about Grimm typology, Remnant history, Huntsman legal policy, and weapon design. “We’re even thinking about offering a new class on the science of Aura given some of Atlas’ recent breakthroughs,” Almon adds, “but that’s for next year. It sounds like you and your team will have more than enough to start out with.”

 

“My…team?”

 

Almon nods. “I thought it would be obvious, that you would lead your team.”

 

“Actually, if I may,” Oscar closes his eyes for a moment, gathering his thoughts. When he opens his eyes, his gaze is steady. “I’d like not to be team leader, if possible.”

 

Almon quirks an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”

 

How to explain that, for the past three years, Oscar’s been running on fumes, faith, and pure dumb luck? That he’s keenly aware of his lack of any formal training, and should probably enroll in Sanctum instead? That he really isn’t the hero they’ve been making him out to be, that he was truly just faking it until he made it to the end of the world and past? That ever since Ozpin has left, Oscar has noticed that he’s been making more mistakes, reacting more slowly to things, because he doesn’t have the help of a passenger in his head to warn him of things he’s missed?

 

“These three years have been… hard,” Oscar says. “And I haven’t really had time to, well—”

 

“Grow and develop as an individual outside of the burdens placed upon you by fate?” Almon says, kindly, and Oscar just barely stops his jaw from falling open in disbelief. “Growing up is hard,” Almon continues, “and that’s without a millenias-old hero suddenly reincarnating inside your head.” The headmaster leans back and scratches out a few lines on his notepad. “Thank you for letting me know, Mr. Pine, and I will certainly take your request into account. Now, if you could send Miss Kye in…?” And Oscar, a little dazed, takes his leave, nodding at Cobalt as she passes him through the doorway.

 

Morado and Safire seem content to leave him alone with his own thoughts, and Oscar spends the time climbing back out of the funk that accessing Ozpin’s memories puts him in. Before long, the door to the headmaster’s office opens again, and Almon gestures for all three of them to join Cobalt in his office.

 

Cobalt looks…strange, Oscar notes as they all file back into the room. The rebellious slouch is all her, but there are two spots of color high on her cheeks, like she had been recently shouting.

 

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today,” the headmaster says when they’re all seated. “It is my great pleasure to welcome you as team COSM to Haven Academy.” He pronounces the name like “cosmic,” and Oscar is silently relieved.

 

“I also wanted to thank you for agreeing to come back to Haven Academy,” Almon goes on. “I understand that with years of experience in the field, it can feel like school can have very little to teach you still, but having spoken with each of you individually, I think you’ve all come to realize how much more Haven has to offer you. The four of you are exceptionally talented, and the council felt that this was the least they could do to begin to repay you for your service.

 

“Though you will be taking a specially-tailored form of the curriculum here at Haven, do not assume that this means you will receive special treatment. All the same rules governing first-year students apply to your team as well. Keep this in mind, as you meet your classmates. They’ve grown up in very different situations and circumstances than you have, and at Haven Academy, fighting is not an acceptable way of resolving conflicts between students.

 

“You will receive your schedules on your scrolls once they have been finalized. And if you ever have any questions, my door is usually open.” Almon favors them all with a quick smile before dismissing them, and they emerge from the headmaster’s office, no longer as the odd students out, but as team COSM.

 

—————

 

Moving in is decidedly uneventful, since none of them have many belongings anyway. They push the beds into the four corners of the spacious room, and situate their desks in the center. Cobalt and Morado spend some time cooing over the facilities while Oscar pages through a campus map on his scroll, looking for the bookstore. Out in the backwoods of Mistral, he didn’t feel like he was missing much, but now that he’s back in civilization, he realizes how woefully unprepared he is for school. He doesn’t even own a pencil.

 

It doesn’t help that his memories of Haven are overlaid with the memories of a different night; simply walking across the quad earlier had felt immensely disorienting.

 

Oscar shakes his head to clear his mind. The Battle of Haven was three years past by now, he reminded himself firmly. Stop getting caught up in it. He glances up to see Safire sitting on his bed across the room, running a finger along the slender blade of his sword. The other boy must be incredibly uncomfortable, Oscar realizes. Five years ago, Safire had been the son of a bandit chief, haughty with power and arrogance. Four years ago, he had been a prisoner in Raven’s camp, after her bandit tribe had annihilated his in a territory dispute. Even if Safire was now profoundly disenchanted with the way tribal society worked, the bandit distrust of Huntsmen and Huntresses had been ingrained in him his whole life. And for Safire to be here, now, after all these years…

 

Oscar approaches Safire slowly and sits on the bed beside him. “What are you thinking about?” he asks, quietly.

 

Safire glances up, and Oscar is struck by the paleness of his blue eyes. The other boy huffs a soft laugh and looks away again. “Nothing. Just… I think I can sword dance, here.”

 

Oscar blinks. “What?”

 

Safire’s hand tightens on the hilt of his sword. “Life in a bandit camp wasn’t just thuggishness and thievery. We had a relationship with one of the villages, and there was this old woman there who taught me some forms. Like…” he thinks for a moment, then stands, moving to the space between the desks and the beds. He settles into a loose stance, sword angled diagonally towards the ground, eyes closed. Oscar tucks his feet up on the bed to watch.

 

Slowly, Safire traces a graceful arc around his feet with the tip of the sword, then tilts the blade to draw a horizontal fan before him. Oscar watches as Safire flicks his wrist — the blade flashes and spins — and the sword dance begins to pick up speed, Safire’s feet moving quickly and surely through the stances. Oscar blinks, hard, but no, his eyes aren’t deceiving him — there are glimmers of light arcing behind Safire’s sword, the other boy’s Semblance kicking in.

 

They’re both jolted rudely out of the elegance and enchantment of the moment when Safire’s sword bites into the back of a chair, and Safire’s eyes shoot open. “Oh, Dust,” Safire says, and drops down to investigate the damage. “It’s been less than one day, and —”

 

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Oscar says. “This is a school for teenagers with ridiculous weapons, I’m sure chairs get broken all the time.”

 

“Oh. Right. Of course. That makes sense.” Safire lets out a long exhale. “I’m just…nervous about being here. I feel like the Haven police are going to break down the door and come chase me out of the school.”

 

Oscar moves down to join Safire on the floor. “Me too,” he admits, and Safire looks up at him sharply.

 

“You? Why?”

 

“Not for the same reasons you do, I’m sure.” Oscar tilts his head back to look at the ceiling, afterimages of Safire’s sword still dancing in the corners of his eyes. “But I guess I don’t feel like I deserve to be here either.”

 

Suddenly, there’s a hand on Oscar’s shoulder, and he jolts up, alarmed. “Don’t say that,” Safire says, and Oscar is startled by the seriousness in the other boy’s tone. “You’re the best person I know. You got me out of Raven’s camp. You gave me a second chance. You, of all people, deserve to be here the most.”

 

“I… thanks, Safire.”

 

“Don’t mention it.” Safire removes his hand from Oscar’s shoulder and goes back to worrying at the gash in the chair. “Do you really think it’ll be fine?”

 

“Definitely. Although don’t let Morado know, she’ll never let you hear the end of it.”

 

—————

 

They get their course schedules late that evening, and they’re all surprised when they compare their scrolls to find that they aren’t in the same classes.

 

“I have the Science of Grimm when you have Weapons Design,” Cobalt says, frowning at Oscar’s scroll. “What’s up with that?”

 

“Well, I would like to design my own weapon.” Oscar glances at Ozpin’s cane where it rests on his bedside table. “And I’ve never learned how.”

 

“Wait, what?” Morado comes over to glance at their schedules. “You didn’t design your weapon?”

 

“That makes a lot of sense, actually,” Safire offers from where he’s already sprawled out on his bed. “Why else would Oscar have an old man weapon?”

 

“Excuse you,” Oscar fires back. “Says the one who has the most basic sword in existence!”

 

“Yeah, but my Semblance is cool enough to make up for it,” Safire says lazily.

 

“Well, I guess we all have Developmental Combat together, at the very least,” Morado says. “Bright and early, tomorrow morning.”

 

“Is anyone else vaguely offended by that name?” Cobalt asks.

 

Developmental Combat, as they discover the next morning, is a class taught by lean tiger Faunus dressed in flowing amber robes, who introduces herself as Professor Song, her tail waving languidly behind her as she calls them before the rest of the class. “Team COSM,” she says, clicking the “c” on the end. “You will demonstrate your fighting styles to the class against me.”

 

“Uh… in here?” Cobalt says, glancing around at the lecture space. There’s an open space barely wide enough for a tightly-controlled battle; now, Oscar realizes why there are no students seated in the first three rows.

 

Shields suddenly flicker into existence, protecting the seats from the lecture space. “Indeed,” Professor Song says, then leaps at them.

 

Oscar lunges in front of Cobalt, whipping his cane out and up with his right hand and bracing the length of it with his left against Professor Song’s attack. He feels rather than sees Cobalt’s gauntlet unfold down over her wrist and forearms, reinforcing the punch delivered by her right arm with electrified metal. Professor Song, however, is no longer there, pushing off of Oscar’s cane and landing elegantly in a back handspring. She tilts her head at them, amber eyes considering. “Acceptable.”

 

Cobalt growls, and her gauntlet flips itself inside out, forming into a long black baton. Before the transformation is even done, a sharp twang! sounds from behind them, and one of Morado’s crossbow bolts streaks by, arrowing towards Professor Song. Morado herself follows close behind, disengaging her crossbow into its two pieces to wield as dual melee weapons.

 

Professor Song deflects the bolt upwards and away from her with a casual flick of her hand; Oscar catches the flash of metal plates, molded to the backs of her hands and extending up into her loose, billowing sleeves. Then Morado is there, swiping at Professor Song in diagonal slashes from the disassembled blade and arc of her crossbow. The tiger Faunus dodges the first series of slashes, catches the second on her forearms, and the telling scrape of metal on metal confirms Oscar’s suspicions that the professor’s ornate handguards extend further into gauntlets. Professor Song thrusts Morado away from herself and, in a spinning whirl of cloth and metal, rams an elbow sideways into Morado’s midsection hard enough to throw her back against the edge of the fighting space.

 

Oscar wants to look up at the other students, to see if they are surprised at all or if this happens every day in class, but then Safire is there, blade tracing shimmering shields of light around them. Cobalt unhooks a small wind-and-fire wheel from her belt — a miniaturized version of what her sister used to wield, she’d told Oscar when they first met — and aims it through the cracks in the shield generated by Safire’s Semblance. Their professor, however, is nowhere to be seen.

 

The only warning they get is the harsh plink! of Morado’s crossbow bolt, thrown back into the hard-light shield, before Safire’s Semblance shatters under the full force of Professor Song’s attack from above. Safire cries out as pale blue Aura flickers around his body, but then Oscar is there, slamming the cane against his professor and sending her flying backwards across the classroom before she can press her advantage.

 

Professor Song lands in a crouch, dragging a hand along the ground to slow herself down. “Good,” she says, and Oscar can hear the hunting cat in her voice. She straightens up, and the shields around the fighting space hum slightly before vanishing. Team COSM regroups warily before her.

 

“Now, who can tell me what weaknesses team COSM just demonstrated?” Professor Song says, addressing the students above.

 

A voice pipes up from their left. “The blue-and-white guy — sorry, I don’t know your name—”

 

“Safire Longma,” Safire says, sheathing his sword.

 

“Yes, well, your Semblance is super cool but you rely way too much on it,” the voice says apologetically. “It fences in your teammates as much as it protects them.”

 

“Correct, Mister Vrai,” Professor Song says. “Yes, Miss Teal?”

 

“Excuse me, uh, the guy wearing the green shirt—”

 

Oscar shades his eyes and tries to find the speaker in the seats, but can’t. “Oscar Pine,” he says.

 

“Yes, well, Oscar, you basically didn’t… move the entire fight? You just stood there.”

 

Oscar winces. Miss Teal, whoever she is, wasn’t exactly wrong.

 

“An astute observation, Miss Teal,” Professor Song says crisply. “In fact, this seems to be team COSM’s main flaw — they respond to attacks with a well-formed defense but an ill-defined offense. While Mister Pine has astonishingly swift reflexes for defending his teammates, none of them have successfully followed up on the opening he generates. Miss Kye excels in close combat, but Mister Longma’s defensive contributions actively discourage engaging at that range. Miss Ála alone demonstrated a powerful offensive press, but did so without working with her teammates, and so the strength of such an attack is greatly diminished.” Professor Song turns to face them, her face stern. “In fact, I am sure you are all formidable combatants on your own, but your team shows only rudimentary partnerwork. This,” Professor Song announces to the class, “is the purpose of Developmental Combat — to work on honing teamwork in battle, both between partners and more unusual combinations of teammates.” She gives team COSM a genuine smile — one that shows all of her teeth, which are surprisingly rounded and completely human. “Thank you, team COSM. You may be seated.”

 

—————

 

Developmental Combat, thank the gods, meets only once a week, though they are expected to practice various team attacks outside of class. Professor Song is demanding but fair, and the first time Oscar receives praise from her — a casual “Good work, Mister Pine” — he goes about the rest of the day positively glowing. Meanwhile, Safire comes back to their room at night gushing about what he’d learned in Aura Enhancement, and within a few weeks, can craft a tiny handful of light with his Semblance without using his sword as a focus.

 

The mix of Safire working on his Semblance and Morado tinkering with even more ludicrous Dust combinations for her crossbow does mean that there tend to be fairly regular explosions in the room, but after the fires are put out, Oscar just shakes his head and continues doodling potential designs for weapons. Wielding Ozpin’s cane is reliable and instinctive for him now, and Oscar cherishes it as his last connection to Ozpin, but he wonders what kind of Huntsman he would have become had Ozpin never come into the picture. If he would have even become a Huntsman at all.

 

At some point in the semester — Oscar doesn’t even realize when — he turns eighteen. On the day of his birthday, he cradles this secret knowledge between his palms and doesn’t tell anyone. He’s not sure why. It just feels more personal than he’d like to share.

 

Adjusting to the daily humdrum of life at Haven Academy — rushing off to class, noisy meals in the dining hall, the grunting and sweating of training and practice — has been keeping Oscar’s mind off of the conspicuous absence in his life. The first time he gets through an entire day without thinking about Ozpin — a particularly nasty combination of tests in both Science of Grimm and Theoretical Dust Studies after a grueling morning of Developmental Combat — Oscar lies in bed, muscles aching in tandem with a deeper, more melancholic pang. He’d lived with Ozpin peering over his shoulder for three years, offering snarky little comments or whip-smart insight or gently coaxing Oscar into confronting the things he was avoiding, and to go through a day without noticing that gaping hole in his life felt disrespectful to Ozpin’s memory. Who was Oscar, to just forget Ozpin when he was no longer around, no longer actively helping Oscar towards some greater glory, some larger destiny?

 

At the same time, he feels like he’s taken a large step forward. With Ozpin no longer in his life — with his destiny uncoupled from that terrible yet reassuring certainty that he’d just become another one of his lives — Oscar realized months ago that he would have to learn how to be a person outside of Ozpin, so this feels like progress, even if it’s flavored with guilt.

 

He falls asleep still unresolved, pulling the tangle of his problems back and forth and back and forth. His dreams are white worlds edged with blue smoke, fantastic castles and ancient arches bent all out of shape, the glass falling out of contorted frames.

 

In the morning, Cobalt wakes Oscar with a pillow to the face, and he flails a little in his blankets before he manages to surface. “Wake up, sleepyhead! You’ve got Weapons Design in half an hour and I get to go to the best class in this whole school so come on, get up, don’t make me late!”

 

“You could always leave without me, you know,” Oscar points out as he slides out of bed and hunts for his clothes. “If you’re so worried about being late.”

 

“Then I wouldn’t be much of a leader, would I?” Cobalt shoots back, and something in her tone makes Oscar pause as he reaches for his boots.

 

“You know, Cobalt,” Oscar says gently, “you’re doing a great job leading team COSM and—ack!”

 

“No conversations about my leadership or personal anxieties before breakfast!” Cobalt says brightly, brandishing Morado’s pillow.

 

Oscar knows a deflection when he sees one, so he lets her help him to his feet and lets it go. “All right, all right, fearless leader,” he says. “Lead the way.”

 

—————

 

Huntsman Legal Policy, Oscar discovers, is a surprisingly engaging class. Legalese frustrates both him and Safire to no end, but after Morado patiently sits with them for a few weeks in the small coffeeshop outside the campus library, guiding them through the passages, Oscar starts getting the hang of it, and before long, he’s hooked. The Huntsman licensing process is tedious and bureaucratic, but in studying the historical conditions that resulted in the regulation what essentially amounted to Grimm vigilantism, Oscar could see why it made sense. He’s reading about the founding of the Huntsman Academies when he gets a little jolt from the name — King Ozymandias of Vale.

 

Of course, he thinks, and tries to soothe over his frazzled nerves. It shouldn’t get to him as much as it does, but it felt like reading his own name carved into a headstone while still standing there, living, breathing, flesh and blood. After ten minutes of trying to refocus back onto his readings, he gives up and goes for a walk to clear his mind.

 

Aside from those small hiccups, Huntsman Legal Policy is excellent. He winces when he finds out that the treaties he’d painstakingly negotiated between the bandits and the village of Inori are legally void, and resolves to return with an actual licensed mediator next time. He reads up on the debates about how to determine Huntsman commissions, the discourse on the role of Huntsman Academies in the government, and spends long hours trying write a coherent essay on the ethical and legal issues of Huntsmen as vigilante enforcers of the law in urban areas. Looking around at his classmates, Oscar wants to believe that they are all driven by a pure goodness, that all of them have the interests of human- and Faunus-kind at heart, but then he reads about cases like Village of Olun vs. Jay and the trial of Vinyas and he knows that, even if all Huntsmen and Huntresses began pure of heart, the violence they saw and the losses they endured and the difficult choices they had to make could corrupt a person. Oscar thinks of a gravelly voice, of blazing eyes, of the terrible impact of the back of his skull against a pillar in the grand hall he passes through every morning to get to class, and tries to picture Reinhart vs. Beacon Academy, and how an impartial lawmaker might rule on that.

 

“I don’t see how you can find legal policy so interesting,” Safire complains from the other side of the room. They’re both in the room, sighing together over their most recent paper from across the space. Morado has headphones in and her notebook propped against one knee, and Cobalt had left for the library after loudly declaring that she couldn’t concentrate with the two boys being dramatic about their homework.

 

“Huh?” Oscar drags himself up from his third paragraph, processing Safire’s question a beat later. “Oh. Well, don’t you think it’s interesting, how we try to make society better through the law, but when you look at actual policy, it doesn’t match up with ethics at all?”

 

“No.” Safire flops down on his bed, letting his head hang off the side. “That’s just depressing.”

 

History of Remnant is Oscar’s only class with Cobalt, so they sit together in the third row and poke each other to stay awake in their post-lunch stupor. Safire has this class at a different time to make room for Aura Enhancement, and Morado, smugly, had informed them at the beginning of term that she had tested out of the class already, but Oscar knows that Cobalt is enchanted by the stories Professor Dine weaves, about the shifting currents of power and intrigue that washed over Remnant’s continent like clockwork. Cobalt often gets caught up in the action — Professor Dine is a very active lecturer, and keeps a rack of weapons behind the chalkboard for the express purpose of “clarifying” historical scenes — so Oscar rolls his eyes and resigns himself to taking notes for both of them.

 

The class is disorienting for Oscar, because he feels like he should enjoy it but he doesn’t. No, that’s not quite right: he feels like he would really love this class — he’s always loved books, after all, and had torn through most of Aunt Em’s books by the time he was fourteen — if he didn’t have this regular feeling of unease whenever Professor Dine speaks about the Great War, or Remnant pre-history, or completely random details, like who authored what petition, or exactly where a skirmish took place. He figures it’s Ozpin’s latent memory trying to correct the events he’d lived through, but every time Oscar tries to access Ozpin’s memories, he gets only fuzzy impressions and a mild headache.

 

The class about Ozymandias, King of Vale, is the worst; the mild headache builds into a pounding migraine by the end of class, and he isn’t sure if his handwriting for the past two pages of his notebook is even legible. He finally looks up to see the classroom empty, and Cobalt staring at him, crystal blue eyes narrowed in concern.

 

“That bad, huh,” Cobalt says.

 

“What?” Oscar manages, but then she’s helping him pack his things back into his bag and towing him unceremoniously out of the classroom. “I’m fine, Cobalt, it’s just a bit of a headache—”

 

“If that’s just ‘a bit of a headache,’ then I’m a Boarbatusk, and I’m definitely not a Boarbatusk, ‘cause we were learning about them in Science of Grimm yesterday and they are gross. Come on, I know where to go get you some prescription-strength drugs.”

 

Oscar feels like he should protest, but then they make a sharp turn around the corridor and his vision whites out in protest. When the world comes back into focus, he’s sitting, propped against the wall, and Cobalt’s hands are fluttering over him. “Shit, I’m sorry, Oscar, I’m sorry, that was my fault, oh Dust—”

 

Some deep, buried part of him wants to admonish Cobalt for her language, but Oscar steps on that particular headmaster-y instinct and just grabs one of Cobalt’s hands. “‘M okay,” he says, trying his best to meet her eyes. “Promise.”

 

There is the sharp, brisk clicking of heels coming from down the hall, and Oscar catches an impression of blonde hair, green eyes, a stern voice. “What’s going on here?”

 

Cobalt’s hand slips out of Oscar’s grasp as she stands up. “Professor, my teammate, Oscar, he just—”

 

“Oscar?” The voice is familiar, but unfamiliar, and it’s making Oscar’s headache worse. “Oscar Pine?”

 

“Yes! Please, Professor, you have to help him. He gets headaches sometimes in Professor Dine’s class but they’re usually never this bad—”

 

“Hello, Oscar.” The voice is much closer now, like it’s crouched down to his level. Yes, Oscar thinks, that’s makes sense. The person the voice is attached to probably did just that. “Do you think you can stand?”

 

Oscar opens his eyes and yes — the world is still swimming, since people didn’t usually wear three pairs of glasses, right? But regardless of how many glasses she wore, he still knew her. “Glynda?”

 

Glynda Goodwitch’s smiles are invisible to those who don’t know her — just the slightest tilt at the corner of her mouth — but Oscar knows her, and that makes his head hurt even more. “I think I should be Professor Goodwitch to you here, Oscar, but I’ll let it slide this time. Do you think you can stand?”

 

Stand? Of course he can stand. Oscar nods and gets to his feet, but perhaps he moves too fast because when he straightens up, there’s this moment of weightlessness, and he doesn’t notice gravity reasserting itself but it must have because now he’s falling —

 

—————

 

He wakes up to a pale green room glowing with the morning light. White curtains ripple silently in an invisible breeze; across the room, he can see a small sink and counter, a kettle waiting, expectant. He still feels a bit groggy, but at least the splitting headache is gone.

 

Oscar props himself up against the backboard of the bed, hissing at the soreness in his muscles — it was just a headache, why is the rest of his body complaining? — then freezes when he catches sight of Glynda Goodwitch, legs crossed elegantly in the chair beside his bed, reading a book, riding crop propped against the leg of her chair. A cup of coffee steams gently beside her, and as Oscar watches, she licks a finger and turns to the next page.

 

Oscar frowns; he knows that book. “Professor Goodwitch, are you…reading my history textbook?”

 

Bespectacled green eyes peer at Oscar over the covers. “I am indeed. It’s quite riveting.”

 

Oscar watches as she makes note of what page she’s on before setting the book down. “But not particularly historically accurate, as Ozpin used to complain about to great length. I will be having words with Professor Dine about which whether Dust to Dust is really the best textbook to be using. Beacon Academy was using the third edition of A Peoples’ History of Remnant before it fell, and if anyone’s still printing them, we could consider making a curriculum changeover.”

 

Oscar folds his hands over each other on top of the blankets, relieved that no one had touched his gloves while he was out. He stares at his hands, trying to piece together the fragments of yesterday.

 

“Your name is Oscar Pine,” Professor Goodwitch says, and her voice is surprisingly grounding. “You are currently a student enrolled in Haven Academy as a member of team COSM. Three years ago, you became the most recent and last incarnation of Ozpin. Four months ago, the gods returned to Remnant, and Ozpin fulfilled his mission and passed on.” She smiles, and the edge of it is sad. “Although I’m guessing that Ozpin’s not as gone as we think he is, if your episode from yesterday was any indication.”

 

Oscar looks up at her sharply. “Episode?”

 

“From the outside, it looked like a serious migraine, though we don’t know what it might have turned into if you hadn’t fallen unconscious. You’re a unique medical case, to say the least.”

 

Oscar drops his gaze again. “I thought I was back to being a regular nobody, now that Ozpin’s gone.”

 

Professor Goodwitch sighs. “First of all, Oscar, you are not a nobody. Secondly, you must bear in mind that no one in the history of Remnant has undergone what you have — to merge, Aura and soul, with another entity, much less one who has been reincarnating for countless years and who possessed magic.”

 

“Except every other incarnation who came before me,” Oscar points out.

 

“True. But you’re also the only one who has survived separation from that other entity, to remain behind while Ozpin passed on. You have divine intervention in your bones, Oscar, whether you like it or not.”

 

Oscar’s pretty sure he doesn’t like it. “But the God of Light separated us. He pulled our Auras apart, and let Ozpin go.”

 

Professor Goodwitch purses her lips. “And if the God of Light were here, I would be having strong words with him about that.” When Oscar looks at her in confusion, she elaborates. “From what we understand about the reincarnation process, it’s not simply the housing of two souls in one body. Over time, the two of you become one mind, one entity, one Aura, so synchronized in perfect agreement that each incarnation becomes permanently changed from who he was before. You may have only been three years along in the process, but even so, there wasn’t a clear line between you and Ozpin anymore.”

 

“But there must have been,” Oscar says slowly, “because the God of Light could still pull the two of us apart.”

 

“Except the process probably wasn’t as clean as he would like,” Professor Goodwitch says. “Let’s go about it a different way — Miss Kye says that you’ve been having headaches in your history class, correct?”

 

“Yes. Although Professor Dine is a great lecturer, and—”

 

Professor Goodwitch waves him off. “Professor Dine’s employment status is not in question. But if I had to guess, your headaches happen when Ozpin’s memories disagree with what you’re learning in class.”

 

Oscar nods. “More or less.”

 

“And yesterday you were learning about…?”

 

“King Ozymandias of Vale, but I don’t remember being him, Professor Goodwitch, it makes no sense!” Oscar’s voice rises, and he cuts himself off, embarrassed.

 

“For better or for worse, Oscar, you are completely unique,” Professor Goodwitch says quietly. “Which means when it comes to you, we can only try our best to guess what is happening.”

 

Oscar closes his eyes and breathes deep — in, out. “Can I ask a question, Professor?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“What is your best guess, then?”

 

“Well,” Professor Goodwitch leans back in her chair and takes a sip of her coffee, gathering her thoughts. “I think that, when the God of Light helped Ozpin pass on to the afterlife, he had to decide how much of Ozpin to take. And you haven’t lost any memories from the past three years, have you?”

 

Oscar shakes his head. He’s pretty sure he hasn’t, but would he remember if he had? Was that how memory worked?

 

“But for the past three years, the events you and Ozpin have been experiencing have been increasingly becoming both of your memories, not just your memory and his, separately. And that’s not to mention all the other memories slowly merging in both of your subconsciousnesses. So when the God of Light removed Ozpin from your body, he had to decide whether to take all of Ozpin’s memories with him. But that would have meant taking away some of your memories, and rather important ones as well.”

 

It was starting to fall into place for Oscar. “So I still have my memories, and Ozpin’s, because they can’t be untangled anymore.”

 

“That would be my best guess,” Professor Goodwitch says.

 

“Then why do I get headaches whenever I try to access his memories? Why can’t I just see them?”

 

Professor Goodwitch picks up her riding crop and points it at the counter, making minute gestures. The cabinet door opens, and a mug slips out. The kettle busies itself pouring steaming water into it. “This is where I’m less sure,” she admits. “Perhaps the God of Light put a filter in your head, to try and separate the parts of Ozpin that weren’t integral to you. Or maybe this is your own mind trying to protect itself from the sheer volume of information that Ozpin’s memories would entail.” She flicks her riding crop one last time, and a mug comes sailing smoothly across the room to rest at Oscar’s bedside. “Perhaps you can work past it, and access all of his memories with time and training. Or perhaps you’d like to leave it all behind and never think about it again. It’s your choice.”

 

The aroma of hot chocolate wafts towards him, and Oscar wants to laugh and cry at the same time. Instead, he cradles the mug between his hands, feeling the warmth seep through his gloves. “What do you think I should do, Professor Goodwitch?”

 

“I don’t know,” she says evenly. “But I do know that you have three very anxious teammates waiting outside, and they might break down the door if I try to keep them out there much longer.” Professor Goodwitch stands, and favors him with a smile. “Take care, Oscar Pine. And don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you ever need to.”

 

The door swings open, and Safire nearly falls over Cobalt and Morado as they pile into the room. “Oscar! You’re okay!” Cobalt squeals as she leaps onto his bed.

 

Oscar misses Professor Goodwitch’s exit, but after Morado has pet him enough to reassure her that he is, in fact, still alive, and Cobalt has chattered his ear off about all the things he’s missed since yesterday afternoon, and Safire has tickled his feet under the covers multiple times until Oscar finally gives in and kicks him, he finds his cup of hot chocolate, unspilled, still steaming gently on his bedside table.

Chapter Text

Aside from that episode, the semester continues without too much incident; Oscar notes with pride that Professor Song is favoring team COSM with more and more of her rare smiles; Safire’s Semblance training is travelling by leaps and bounds, and Morado sets their room on fire a little less than she used to. Oscar has never seen Cobalt so radiantly happy. He thinks that, if someone had told him a year ago when he’d first met Cobalt — fierce, half-wild, and straddling a Nevermore as she fired six shots into the back of its skull — that she was secretly an academic at heart, he would have laughed himself silly. But Cobalt is invariably the first person awake every morning, and on the days where it’s a little harder for Oscar to get out of bed, he looks at Cobalt’s boundless enthusiasm and thinks I could do it for her.

 

Professor Goodwitch has performed some kind of bureaucratic sorcery, and now Oscar is exempted from taking History of Remnant. “How did you manage that?” Safire asks, envious.

 

Oscar shrugs, and Cobalt calls from the other bed, “It’s his loss!”

 

“More like it’s your loss,” Oscar counters, “since I won’t be taking notes for you anymore.”

 

When he gets a pillow in the face, he figures he deserves it, but is too busy laughing to care.

 

He takes his newfound free time one day and heads off campus, following directions on his scroll to Haven’s CCT tower. The building looks like a series of colorfully stacked boxes, each floor delineated with the graceful filigree of a curved roof. He takes a moment to stand outside and gawk like a tourist — there are actually some over there, snapping photos on their scrolls — before he heads inside.

 

The CCT tower is quiet at this time of day, and the receptionist guides him over to a bank of seven empty terminals, the Haven crest glowing on their darkened screens. Oscar nods his thanks, and keys in his aunt’s home terminal address.

 

He might not have gone home in the past three years, but a few months in, he’d stopped in Inori for the night, when he’d been hit by a sudden wave of homesickness, followed immediately by guilt. He’d gone downstairs and asked the innkeeper for pen and paper, and agonized for a good hour about what to write. Eventually, he’d settled on a brief travelling through Mistral, not dead yet, love you lots and posted it before he could lose his nerve.

 

The next time he’d stopped in Kochinashi, his scroll had immediately buzzed with new messages. Surprised, he’d reflexively palmed it out of his pocket to check—

 

Aunt Em: [3.6 09:32] my dearest nephew, thank you for your letter but you do know scrolls exist, right?

 

Aunt Em: [3.6 09:33] considering how big Mistral is, that tells me almost nothing

 

Aunt Em: [3.6 09:33] I’m glad you’re not dead. Come say hello if you ever get time off from saving the world

 

— and he’d exhaled, letting go of some tension he didn’t even know he’d been holding, relieved that at least one person in his life had not turned their back on him.

 

And then a few months later, Ozpin had returned; and then the years had flashed by, and he still hasn’t gone home, but the loading icon on the screen is fading and his breath hitches when he sees her familiar face.

 

“Oscar!” Aunt Em beams at him from the monitor, and behind her, he can see familiar walls, the sunlight streaming through the window of her study. She leans forward to peer at the screen. “You’ve grown.”

 

“Aunt Em,” Oscar complains, and it’s like those three years never passed. “You can’t even see the rest of me.”

 

The video call adds a filtered quality to the sound, but Oscar can still hear her skeptical hum. “Mm, I can still tell.”

 

They just look at each other in silence for a few moments, drinking in the other’s presence. “So, Haven,” Aunt Em says finally, leaning back and folding her arms. “Skipped right through Sanctum, did you?”

 

Oscar rubs the back of his head apologetically. “It was an accident?” he offers.

 

She laughs. “And I had a whole list of campus secrets and shortcuts I was going to give you if you’d decided to go to Sanctum, too.” Her expression softens. “But everything is going well? Keeping up with homework and everything?”

 

This is the way of their small family — they ask about the superficial, chat about the unimportant, and leave the urgent questions buried deep beneath the surface. Oscar nods. “It’s going really well.”

 

He tells her about team COSM, about the classes they’re taking and the last time they set the room on fire. He tells her about Haven life, the cafeteria and the semi-regular food fights that happen there.

 

He says nothing about his migraines, or Ozpin, or magic, nor does she ask. Both of them know better than to do that.

 

“How are things going on the farm?” he asks.

 

His aunt sighs. “I haven’t had time to take care of things — the firm has been running us ragged over a new case, so the weeds are taking over the fields.”

 

“You should hire a farmhand,” Oscar suggests.

 

“I should,” Aunt Em agrees. “But I think I’m still holding out hope for my last one to come home, once he’s a big powerful Huntsman and can take care of all the pesky Grimm for me. My joints aren’t what they used to be, y’know—”

 

“Please, Aunt Em, you’re not even forty.” Oscar sobers up. “Have Grimm been giving you any trouble?”

 

Aunt Em shakes her head. “Nothing I haven’t been able to handle.” She thinks for a moment. “Actually, it’s been pretty quiet lately.”

 

“Who knows, they might have finally learned their lesson and are staying far away from your cooking,” Oscar says, and Aunt Em fixes him with a glare.

 

“I’ve changed my mind, young man, and you can stay at school and eat cafeteria food for the rest of your life.”

 

She laughs while he clutches at his chest and pretends to keel over, and the two of them subside into softly smiling at each other again.

 

“I should let you go,” Oscar says at the same time that Aunt Em starts with, “Well, it’s been great to catch up—”

 

They both chuckle, and Oscar sees Aunt Em’s hand move toward the screen. “Aunt Em,” he says suddenly. “You haven’t—” He wiggles his fingers, and her eyes narrow behind her glasses. “—lately?”

 

“Of course not,” she says promptly. “Lying low, remember? And there hasn’t been a need for it anyway.”

 

“Okay.” Oscar relaxes. “Just checking in.”

 

“You know you can come home whenever, right?” Aunt Em says quickly. “You’re probably busy with school, but if you ever just hop on a train, well—let me know.” She flashes a quick smile at him. “If you let me know early enough I might even be able to whip up a casserole.”

 

“I’ll think about it,” Oscar promises.

 

“That’s all I ask for. Talk to you soon, love.”

 

“Love you too, Aunt Em.” And then the terminal goes dark, and Oscar sits there for a few moments longer, holding tight onto the warm feeling of the moment.

 

—————

 

After a month of doodling aimless lines and browsing through weapon magazines and tinkering with spare parts in the workshop, Oscar finally has a design. His instructor, Timbras, nods when Oscar shows him the design. “I was wondering how long it’d take you to come around to that one,” his instructor says, his smile a flash of white in his dark face.

 

First and foremost, however, the design involves modifying Ozpin’s cane. It takes Oscar a week to muster up the courage to think about it, and then another week grappling with the sanctity of Ozpin’s legacy in his head to persuade himself that Ozpin would forgive him, no, encourage him to modify the cane to his own design. But in those weeks, Oscar makes no progress on actually touching the cane.

 

Instead, he finally steels his resolve, and approaches Professor Dine after History of Remnant has let out one day.

 

“Mister Pine!” Professor Dine wears a deep, wine-red evening gown, a belt loosely strapped around her waist with loops for absent weapons. A long slit runs up the side of one leg, exposing thigh-high combat boots whenever she takes a step. When she turns to face him, the ends of her dress flutter gently. “I’ve missed you in my classes, but I do hope you are doing better.”

 

Oscar coughs nervously. “Uh, yes.” How much did she know? How much would Professor Goodwitch have told her?

 

Professor Dine eyes him curiously. “So, what brings you back to my classroom?”

 

Oscar squares his shoulders. “Well, it’s a bit of a strange request, but — I’ve noticed that you’re good at a large variety of weapons.” He tilts his head at the rack of weapons behind the chalkboard.

 

“I’m all right at a bunch of weapons,” she says dismissively. “You know, silver in all, gold in none.”

 

“Yes, well—” Oscar pulls out Ozpin’s cane and clicks it open. Professor Dine’s eyes immediately sharpen in interest. “I’ve had this pretty much since I’ve first started, but I’ve been thinking a lot, and I’d like to try something new—“

 

“Say no more.” Professor Dine strides across the lecture space, sending the chalkboard rolling away with a touch of her boot. She grabs a quarterstaff from the end of the rack and turns to face Oscar, beckoning with her free hand.

 

“What, right now?”

 

“If not now, then when, Mister Pine?” she says with a devilish grin, and then she’s charging at him, quarterstaff raised high overhead.

 

Oscar dives and rolls out of the way, throwing the cane into his left hand and whipping it to the back and side. A loud clack! resounds throughout the hall.

 

“Hm,” Professor Dine says from where she’d caught Oscar’s strike on the quarterstaff. She straightens up and tosses Oscar the quarterstaff. “Try that.”

 

Oscar catches it reflexively in his free hand. “Do I drop the cane?” he asks.

 

“Whatever you’d like!” Professor Dine says cheerfully, sauntering back over to her weapons rack. “Heads up!”

 

Oscar spins around to see a long dagger streaking towards at him. Instinctively, he bats it aside with the quarterstaff. It barely misses him, and he clicks the cane shut and tucks it behind his back, so he can give full attention to the staff in his hands.

 

“Intriguing,” Professor Dine says, drawing out each syllable. She’s already drawn a long spear, its end tasseled, and as soon as Oscar meets her eyes, she charges forward with it.

 

The quarterstaff feels clumsy and overlarge in his hands, but as he frantically spins it to deflect her swift jabs, he starts to get the logic of it. It’s not too different from the cane, if Oscar adjusted for the weight, and—

 

His hands go numb as Professor Dine knocks the quarterstaff from his grip with a well-placed smack. Before Oscar has time to say anything, she tosses him the spear she was just using. “Now this one.”

 

Oscar’s just figured out how to grip the poleshaft — it’s thinner than the quarter staff, so his grip is better, but his gloves don’t give him much traction — when she’s on him again, slashing with a single-bladed saber in graceful curves. Oscar stumbles back, fumbling with the spear, and Professor Dine lets up immediately. “Not that one, then,” she says, and tosses him the saber.

 

Oscar drops the spear to catch it, and is just deciding whether to hold it with one hand or two when Professor Dine comes at him with a pair of deer horn knives — two overlapping crescent blades that angled outward into deadly hooks. One-handed, Oscar decides in the split second before he catches her blow on the saber with an overhand block; he almost raises his left hand to support the blade, when he realizes right, that’s sharp and pulls his hand away from his own weapon. They fence back and forth for a bit, Oscar experimenting with slashing and hacking, until Professor Dine straightens up and drops the deer horn knives back where they came from.

 

“You don’t want me to try those?” Oscar asks, panting.

 

Professor Dine laughs. “Oh, trust me, they aren’t for you.” She gestures impatiently at him. “Put the saber down, you should try these.”

 

Oscar leans the saber carefully against the wall, and nearly misses the hook swords — long metal blades, curved in merciless U-shapes at their ends — she chucks at him. He holds them, one in either hand.

 

She selects a thin, elegant double-edged sword, not unlike Safire’s. “Let’s give this a go,” she says, grinning.

 

Oscar deflects her first blow with one hook sword, swinging experimentally at her with the other. She leaps back, but before her second foot has touched the ground, she’s lunging forward again, sword slicing towards him point first and Oscar crosses his blades and twists—

 

— and the sound of metal is so loud, that it’s not until the echoes die away that he realizes he’s yanked the sword out of Professor Dine’s grip. Oscar glances nervously at her.

 

“Interesting,” Professor Dine says, pronouncing each syllable distinctly.

 

Oscar looks down at the hook swords in his hands, their sharp edges and vicious curves. “I— I don’t think—”

 

“No, they’re definitely not the right weapon for you,” she says, then tosses him a battle-axe.

 

He gets one experimental heft with the battle-axe — she hasn’t even so much as twitched in his direction — before Professor Dine is shaking her head again. Oscar puts down the mace himself after she hands it to him — the weight is too strange, the exact opposite of the cane — and she nods in approval before handing him a glaive.

 

A ghost of recognition shudders through him, and for a moment, he thinks the blade flashes a crystal green. He holds it, loosely, in one hand at his side.

 

Professor Dine plucks a trident from the rack — which is looking decidedly emptier now — and runs at him. He waits until he sees the movement of her hand as she angles the tines towards him, before bringing his other hand to bear on the glaive and spinning it around, deflecting her experimental jab. They fence for a few moments, well out of arms-reach of each other, before Professor Dine steps on one of the fallen hook swords and kicks it into her grip. “Catch!” she calls, tossing it to him.

 

Oscar does, but immediately feels off-balance, hook sword in one hand, glaive in the other. He doesn’t want to let go of either of them, he realizes.

 

Professor Dine has retrieved the double-edged sword from where it lay, thrown against the wall from earlier. “Drop the glaive, silly,” she says. “Use your own weapon.”

 

Oscar sets down the glaive and kicks it behind him, grabbing the cane and extending it in one fluid motion. Balanced, cane in his right hand, hook sword in his left, he’s struck by how right this feels. It isn’t the optimum arrangement, by any means, but he feels like something had been filled, like some blind spot he’d had his entire life suddenly clear as autumn skies.

 

This time, when Professor Dine charges in, Oscar is ready, catching her first swing on the cane but deflecting the blow rather than holding it. The momentum carries him around and he unravels with the motion, whipping the hook sword forward, forcing her to block with her blade. There is a logic, a sequence, Oscar realizes, in using two weapons as once.

 

Their fight takes them all around the lecture space, and goes on for much longer than any other weapon she’d handed him. It ends only when Professor Dine kicks Oscar’s hook sword out of his grasp, and it goes flying, bouncing off the wall and leaving an ugly gash in the paint.

 

Oscar winces, flexing his hand. “Sorry, Professor.”

 

She stares at him for a moment, then throws back her head and laughs. Oscar blinks at her, confused.

 

When she finally recovers, wiping at her eyes, she bends down and begins scooping up fallen weapons. “What are you sorry for? This is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. Oh, it’s been too long since I’ve wrecked my own classroom.” She heads back to the weapon rack, arms full with trident and sword and saber, and Oscar joins in to help.

 

“So,” she says, as they tidy up the polearms in one corner. “What did you learn?”

 

“That I really don’t like maces?”

 

Professor Dine rolls her eyes. “A first year from Sanctum could have told me that. This isn’t a trick question, Mister Pine — which weapons felt best to you?”

 

Oscar considers this, the weight and heft of the different weapons that had passed through his grip. “The hook swords,” he says, “but also the glaive. And perhaps the quarterstaff, just a little.” He retrieves his cane from where he’d set it down and tucks it against his back. “The quarterstaff and glaive are pretty similar, so those I understand. But why the hook swords felt—”

 

“You’re a dual wielder, you dummy.” Professor Dine straightens the last spear and moves to the chalkboard to wheel it back. “I thought it was obvious, from the way you kept switching hands when you were fighting with just the cane.”

 

“But the hook sword…?”

 

“The only weapon short enough.” She shrugs. “All the others were polearms, which don’t really lend themselves to dual wielding, even if you seemed to be having a great time with the glaive.” Professor Dine gives him a speculative look. “So if you were looking to, say, make yourself a new weapon, I’d probably guess that you’d go for a segmented glaive that you could split apart into batons. Or a cane and a baton, I suppose.”

 

Oscar’s brain is still whirring, trying to keep up. He has a lot to think about now, and his mind is buzzing with edits he can make to his original design. “This was…thank you, Professor Dine, this was incredibly helpful.”

 

“Oh please.” She waves a dismissive hand. “And call me Karna, since you’re not my student. Well, not right now, at any rate.”

 

Oscar nods, and is halfway out the door before he thinks to ask, and doubles back. “Oh, can I ask something else?”

 

Professor Dine — Karna is still pulling sheets of paper from her desk. “Always.”

 

“What are your weapons of choice, if you don’t mind me asking?”

 

She smiles, then reaches below her desk and pulls out a pair of spiked hatchets and holds them up for Oscar to see. They fit perfectly into the two loose loops on her belt, nestled at her hip. “These,” she says happily, “are my Sun and Stars.”

 

————

 

There are good days, when Oscar is caught up in the daily rush and ebb of being in school, days where he’s wondrously happy to be doing things he loves around people he cares about, and who care for him. Those are the days he dashes off letters to Aunt Em, scrawling joyous longform words to paper that she invariably teases him gently for when she messages him back on his scroll when she gets it a few days later.

 

Just around midterm, Morado comes down with a nasty bout of the flu that’s been making its way around campus, and the rest of team COSM  take turns keeping her company at her bedside, or run over to the dining hall to get more soup. Morado grumbles about being coddled, but when Oscar returns from the dining hall, a rapidly cooling bowl of soup in his hands, he sees Safire sitting on the floor, making white-light flames dance along the edge of his sword, and Morado curled up under the blankets watching him with something oddly soft in her eyes, Oscar quietly sets the bowl on one of their desks and makes noises about studying in the library instead.

 

He keeps an eye on Cobalt — he thinks back to his request to the headmaster, and can’t shake the creeping feelings of guilt, that he’s saddled her with a responsibility she shouldn’t have to take on — but Cobalt seems to be thriving at Haven, so Oscar doesn’t press too much. With one less class than the rest of the team, however, he has much more free time to practice, to roam, to wander, and think.

 

The grief catches him at odd moments; as Oscar’s crossing the Haven quad back from class and catches a glimpse of gold autumn leaves, or when he’s studying alone in the quiet hush of the library, and realizes what the growing feeling of unease is not the expansive silence of the space, but the emptiness where a wry voice used to be. If his teammates are around, Oscar swallows hard and plasters a smile on his face and fights through the emotions; when he’s alone, he goes for long walks, like he’s looking for someone or something lost, haunting the hallways of Haven late at night.

 

He makes his way up to the roof one night, which is where Professor Goodwitch finds him. He doesn’t move as he hears her heeled boots stalk across the tiled roof, gazing up at the shattered moon.

 

“Miss Belladonna said that the God of Darkness offered to put the moon back together,” Professor Goodwitch says, tone conversational. She comes to a stop behind him.

 

“I’m glad he didn’t,” Oscar says. “It’s a good reminder, of the dangers we have to watch out for. How close we came to destruction.”

 

“You sound like him, sometimes.”

 

“The God of Darkness?”

 

“No, Ozpin.” She shifts, and Oscar is surprised when she sits down beside him, awkwardly dangling her long legs off the slanted edge of the roof. “I’m sorry that I never got to say goodbye.”

 

“You were holding Vale together. Ozpin understood.” Oscar wonders if Glynda will be at the head of a long line of people who come to him throughout his life, seeking some kind of closure from Oscar that only Ozpin can give. That familiar resentment against Ozpin bubbles up, and Oscar almost laughs out loud at the sick irony of it, that he resents Ozpin’s overshadowing of his own life while missing the man fiercely.

 

“I know. But still.” Professor Goodwitch’s voice is even, composed, always composed. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

 

Oscar blinks, then turns to look at her. The moonlight silvers the edge of her glasses as she touches them absentmindedly. “I miss him dearly, as a colleague and a close friend, but the relationship the two of you had was, well, unique. I can’t imagine the kind of loss you must be feeling.”

 

“Did you know him?” Oscar asks. “The man he was before he became…?”

 

Professor Goodwitch shakes her head. “I still remember the uproar around his appointment as Headmaster — a mysterious man with an obviously forged paper trail showing up at Beacon Academy and becoming the youngest Headmaster in history? The previous Headmaster must have been part of the inner circle as well, and made sure that Ozpin would get the position at Beacon. There was a general changeover in staff when Ozpin took over. Part of it was because the old guard kept grumbling about the new Headmaster, but I think Ozpin knew that trouble was coming and wanted Beacon to be prepared for it.”

 

Oscar mulls the information over for a while — there are some memories in his head, of ceilings a little too tall to be Haven’s and cliffs overlooking a radiant red forest, fuzzed by time and recollection. “Did you ever try to find out?” Oscar says, finally. “Who he was… before?”

 

“Once.” Professor Goodwitch smiles, a sad smile. “He just said it was better not to ask. But the two of them must have come to an agreement, because I never saw Ozpin disagreeing with himself. Or if they did, they kept it behind closed doors.”

 

Oscar thinks back to the early days, when he fought Ozpin every step of the way, the arguments they’d have, one side out loud, the other infinitely patient. Later, as they hunted Grimm through the backwoods of Mistral, the two of them had settled into a comfortable symbiosis — the arguments became silent, so that they wouldn’t alarm any bystanders within earshot or tip off their Grimm quarry, and Ozpin stayed back more, advising Oscar rather than asserting control. There had definitely been times when he’d lapsed — he’d never explained it to Cobalt, but she must know something was going on — but they had come to an agreement, an understanding of sorts. 

 

“What I’m trying to say,” Professor Goodwitch places a hand on Oscar’s shoulder, and he barely suppresses a flinch, “is that the relationship you had with Ozpin was special. And that you should allow yourself the time to grieve. It was complicated and far from perfect, and you were never given a choice when he reincarnated into you, but the two of you understood each other in a way that no one else could.”

 

Oscar’s shoulders hitch, and he drops his head, gazing at his boots and the cobblestone far, far below. “Will I ever be more than the boy who used to be Ozpin?”

 

Professor Goodwitch smiles, and this time, the smile is warm. “You already are. Just ask your teammates.”

 

She gives his shoulder one last squeeze before tucking her feet under her and standing. “Thank you for your time tonight, Oscar Pine,” she says, the brisk, professorial tone re-entering her voice. “I don’t know what answers you’re looking for, but I hope you find them.”

 

Oscar listens to the crisp tink-tink of her heeled boots walking away, and glances back at the moon. If each cold moon-shard had a sound, he thinks, Professor Goodwitch’s heels would probably sound like them.

 

————

 

The glorious spate of fall Mistralian foliage slowly withers and dies away; the leaves dry up and cascade to the ground, forming a crackling carpet that skitters across the courtyards at the whim of the winds, like debris tracing an ever-changing tideline on the cobblestones. Campus gets quieter as students buckle down for their exams, and Oscar is so busy during the day that he doesn’t think about Professor Goodwitch’s words as much as he’d like.

 

Oscar should have known that the peace he’d found, the small corner of the world he’d begun to carve out for himself, couldn’t last.

 

The first snow has just fallen in Haven when it all goes wrong.

 

There is a general grumbling as students check their scrolls, hoping to see that classes had been cancelled, but regardless, flurries of snow danced in the air as young Huntsmen and Huntresses tore through the courtyards, kicking up clouds of white and tackling each other to the ground. Aura, unfortunately, did not prevent one’s socks from getting soaked, which Oscar personally thinks is a some kind of cosmic oversight.

 

He gets a message on his scroll while he’s in Timbras’s workshop, imaging Ozpin’s cane from the outside to make sure he can put it back together if he takes it apart. Frowning, he sets down his tools and opens the message. He can’t imagine Professor Goodwitch contacting him for anything less than urgent.

 

Inside, it simply says “COMPLICATIONS. COME SEE ME AS SOON AS POSSIBLE,” and Oscar becomes even more concerned.

 

Timbras approaches him, and Oscar lets his instructor read the message over his shoulder. “Should I go now?” Oscar asks.

 

Timbras gives him a nod, and Oscar takes a moment to clean up his workstation and grab the cane before heading to the administrative building.

 

During class time, the courtyards are deserted; flakes drift aimlessly from the sky, which looks to promise another few feet overnight. Oscar pulls his shirt around himself more tightly and thinks, not for the first time, that he should consider getting a coat.

 

He stomps off the snow on his boots when he gets inside, hunts through the directory for Professor Goodwitch’s office before heading up to the third floor.

 

She opens the door almost immediately. “Oscar. Thank you for coming.”

 

“With all due respect, professor,” Oscar says, clasping his hands behind his back. “What’s going on?”

 

Professor Goodwitch gestures at her desk, and they both seat themselves. “You should probably know that the Headmasters have been in constant communication for the past few months,” she says. “This isn’t the first time they’ve asked to bring you into the loop, but it certainly is the most urgent.”

 

“They’ve… asked for me before?”

 

Professor Goodwitch sighs. “Yes, but when they asked for you, what they really wanted was Ozpin. And since that is no longer an option, I made the decision not to extend their invitation to you. What you have here is wholly yours, and I didn’t want their attachment to an older world order to interfere with that.”

 

Oscar carefully sorts through his feelings. There’s anxiety, no surprise — the Headmasters of the Huntsman Academies, world leaders in their own rights, talking about him, and Oscar had no idea. Indignation — for Professor Goodwitch to keep this information from him, and for so long. But he also finds a certain kind of gratitude, because these past few months have been calming, freeing. For the first time in years, he’s finally had time to himself. Professor Goodwitch may have made the decision for him, but he’s not exactly sure he would have disagreed with her judgment. “All right,” he says. “Then what’s changed? Why do they need me now?”

 

Professor Goodwitch steeples her fingers. “How much do you know about the Maidens?”

 

“There is one for each season, gifted with immense magical power, which passes on to the next Maiden upon death, who must be in her dying thoughts,” Oscar recites.

 

“And where does their magic come from?”

 

“I—I gave it to them,” Oscar says, then shakes his head immediately. “I mean, Ozpin gave it to them.”

 

Professor Goodwitch nods. “Precisely. And since the gods’ return, there has been little need for the Maidens to step in and use their powers. We have been handling Grimm for centuries without magic, after all. So we didn’t know, until Fall and her team were fighting off a sand basilisk in Vacuo last month. She tried to tap into her powers and completely lost control.”

 

“Lost… control? What do you mean?”

 

“Well, we can’t be exactly sure because we don’t know what Fall was trying to do. She ended up unleashing an immense firestorm, one powerful enough to turn the dunes around her into glass, and she’s been… unconscious, since.”

 

“And you think I might know enough about magic to figure out what went wrong?”

 

“Well, how much do you know about magic?” Professor Goodwitch asks.

 

“Not much. Ozpin was beginning to teach me some basics of control when we… ran out of time.”

 

“And you don’t have his magic anymore, correct?”

 

Oscar shakes his head vehemently. “No. Definitely not. That left along with Ozpin.” He looks up at her. “I’m sorry, Professor, I don’t think I can be much help.”

 

“That’s still not why they’re asking to bring you in, Oscar.” She sighs, then reaches for her scroll. “It’s been a month since the incident with Fall, and we’ve been pursuing every avenue of research we can to figure out what went wrong. Spring has been particularly helpful, but from what we’ve gathered, all the Maidens have lost control of their magic. When they try to do one thing, something else happens. If they try to light a candle, the nearest tree explodes. We’ve had to pull the other active Maidens from the field, just to minimize accidental casualties.The situation has gotten desperate enough that we’ve turned to the only other magic user we know.”

 

Oscar goes cold with dread. He has to call— “Who?” Someone still possessed magic?

 

Professor Goodwitch pauses as she pages through a great deal of text on her scroll. “Salem.”

 

Oscar is immediately hit by a tidal wave of emotion, all gibbering and nameless and too chaotic for him to even name. He closes his eyes and breathes through it. “She’s still alive.”

 

“Salem is… complicated.” Professor Goodwitch sets down her scroll. “After the Grimm was purged from her, she became human again, but it seems that a great deal of her memory from the past few thousand years has been greatly affected. She doesn’t remember everything she did as the master of the Grimm.”

 

Oscar is still sorting through the wreckage this bombshell just made. Shock, he decides, is what he’s feeling, and abandons the process.

 

“She’s very confused,” Professor Goodwitch says. “She’s been coming to terms with what she does remember, and what we’ve told her. She’s remained in Atlas custody for the past six months, and hasn’t given us any trouble at all.”

 

Oscar puts two and two together. “I won’t see her,” he says, looking up at Professor Goodwitch. “If that’s what they want me to do. I don’t care what information they’re trying to get out of her, I won’t do it.”

 

“Oscar, that’s not—”

 

“I don’t want to see her,” Oscar repeats, enunciating every word clearly.

 

Professor Goodwitch sighs. “I know. But it’s still not that simple. Will you let me finish?”

 

Oscar sits back in his chair and folds his arms.

 

“The Atlas specialists say that our current levels of Aura and Semblance are the vestigial remains of humanity’s former capacity for magic. Which means that humanity, as it currently stands, does not have the capacity to handle magic, or even deal with it.”

 

Oscar frowns. “Then how did Ozpin give the Maidens his magic?”

 

“According to Salem, though Ozpin gave the original four Maidens his magic, he was the one filtering it for them, in a sense. The magic was still his; the Maidens just had exclusive access to use it, an access that Ozpin had given up. But now that Ozpin is gone—”

 

“—they no longer have the ability to control it,” Oscar finishes. He thinks back to his first conversation with Professor Goodwitch. And if the God of Light were here, I would be having strong words with him…

 

The effects of four Maidens with uncontrollable magic could be catastrophic. “Oh, no,” he says, and is momentarily thankful that his aunt lives out in the middle of nowhere. “Can’t Salem just teach them to control the magic?” he asks. “Somewhere far from where other people might get hurt?”

 

Professor Goodwitch shakes her head. “They haven’t just lost ability to control their magic, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that they don’t even have the capacity to handle it anymore. The best solution we can think of is to remove the magic from them, and return it to its source.”

 

She’s watching him awfully closely, Oscar thinks, and then realizes. “But Ozpin’s gone.”

 

“If there’s a soul in the entirety of Remnant with the capacity to handle magic,” Professor Goodwitch says apologetically. “It would be you.”

 

————

 

When Oscar leaves Professor Goodwitch’s office an hour later, he’s so drained, physically and emotionally, that he doesn’t realize where he’s going until he looks around himself and realizes that he’s no longer on campus. The sun is just past noon — there’s a sleepy silence on the cobblestone streets of Haven, and there aren’t many people out and about.

 

Oscar thinks back on what Professor Goodwitch had told him. Magic. Maidens. Salem. His hands ache, and he looks down and realizes that they’re clenched in fists. He methodically unfurls his fingers, one by one, making them rest loosely at his side.

 

Their reasoning was so sound, so detached, so logical, that it makes Oscar want to hit something. When Ozpin’s Aura had merged with Oscar’s, he must have changed the shape of Oscar’s soul, to give him the ability and capacity to control and handle magic, which Ozpin would inevitably bring into the merge. Taking away Ozpin didn’t take away Oscar’s capacity, since his soul had already been remolded to the necessary parameters to handle magic. Even the emptiness he feels, that void where Ozpin used to be, could just be an empty reservoir, waiting for long-lost magic to pour back in. It all makes such perfect sense —

 

— and Oscar hates it.

 

But it wasn’t just the lingering shadow of Ozpin’s legacy, or his resentment that he was being asked to take on a burden, again, that no one else could bear. It was the life of the Fall Maiden, who still lingered, stable but unconscious, in some kind of magical coma. Oscar couldn’t help but ask.

 

Professor Goodwitch had hesitated, and Oscar was immediately on high alert again. The last time Glynda Goodwitch had hesitated, Beacon was falling. “As you know,” she said slowly, “the identities of the Maidens are heavily guarded.”

 

“If I’m going to undergo an experimental medical procedure to save someone’s life,” Oscar said waspishly, because what else could Professor Goodwitch throw at him? “I’d like to know who she is.”

 

“Well then, that shouldn’t be a problem then,” Professor Goodwitch said, “because the Fall Maiden is Ruby Rose.” 

 

Oscar has never been more wrong in his entire life.

 

He thinks about what Ozpin said to him once, about fate and destiny and like-minded souls, and as much as he rails and rebels against it now, he knows that he’s already made this decision. In every possible universe, in every possible timeline, he has already made this decision.

 

He skips the Science of Grimm that afternoon anyway, and finds a quiet coffeeshop, away from the main thoroughfare of downtown Haven, and writes his aunt a letter. He tells her everything, scrawls be careful four different times in his letter and they say the answers are in Atlas and slots the envelope into the nearest collection bin. 

 

He doesn’t return to the room until after dark. Despite the fact that he’d been sending team COSM regular updates throughout the day — “no, not kidnapped,” “things are okay, just taking some time to think,” “no, not dead yet, try harder Safire” — they’re all on him as soon as he steps in the room.

 

“Are you okay?” Morado demands.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Safire asks.

 

“Why do I have this letter from Professor Goodwitch,” Cobalt says, holding up her scroll, “that says you’re going to Atlas on medical leave?” She narrows her eyes as she gives him a once-over. “You’re not hurt.”

 

“Not yet,” Morado mutters.

 

His teammates deserve the truth, but Oscar is far, far too tired to tell it right here, right now. He holds his hand out for Cobalt’s scroll. “Can I see that?”

 

She hands it over, and Oscar flashes her a grateful smile before paging through the letter quickly. The language is unemotional, detached, and it doesn’t say much more than the fact that he’s leaving — tomorrow night, apparently, that was new — for a medical facility in Atlas that he’s never head of, and that he’s excused from assignments and exams for the rest of the term.

 

Oscar hands the scroll back to Cobalt. “Something’s… come up,” he says, and makes an effort to meet each of their eyes. “I wish I could say more, but it’s all a little… close right now.”

 

One by one, they nod, and he can see the moment that they choose to step back and give him space. His throat constricts with sudden emotion, just when he thought he’d been drained for the day. He loves his team, Oscar realizes suddenly, this patchwork of ex-bandits and runaways and drop-outs.

 

“I’ll tell you everything when I get back,” he says. “Everything. All the craziness, from beginning to end.”

 

“So long as you promise to come back,” Cobalt says, and Oscar knows this moment, has been it in before.

 

“Promise,” he says, and clasps her hand goodbye.

Chapter Text

For a long, disorienting moment, Oscar recognizes the pilot but can’t remember her name.

 

“Good to see you again, young man,” she says from the cockpit, goggled eyes crinkling in amusement. She’s traded out the patterned blue cloak and skirt he saw her in last for a comfortable black turtleneck and white vest edged with a familiar gray-blue design, an almost-concession to the military regulation of Atlas uniform. “I’m glad you survived the apocalypse.”

 

“I’m glad we all did,” Oscar says back, because being polite rarely goes wrong, and her name is steadfastly refusing to emerge from the tip of his tongue.

 

“General Ironwood sends his special thanks for agreeing to come to Atlas,” the co-pilot says, and Oscar involuntarily freezes up, because he recognizes that drawl, those red eyes and graying hair. Qrow Branwen glances back at Oscar, feet up on the dashboard in customary irreverence. “He’s also very excited to meet you.”

 

Qrow looks better than he had when Oscar last saw him, in a way Oscar can’t quite put his finger on. The shadow of the stubble is still there, along with the ragged red cloak, but his shoulders are more open, less hunched, and that’s when Oscar realizes — there’s no faint, ever-present whiff of alcohol around the man. The endtimes had been good to Qrow Branwen, it seemed.

 

The airship door slides shut behind Oscar, and he jumps at the noise. He tamps down his frustration — he can almost hear Safire teasing him for being so skittish, but years of growing up on a farm and living in the forest didn’t exactly acclimate him to the sometimes alarming wonders of civilization.

 

This will be his first time leaving the continent, Oscar realizes, and shifts over to the seat closest to the window. He sets the cane down beside him.

 

Oscar can only make out every third word from the conversation in the cockpit as they prepare for take-off, so he tunes it out and runs through a mental checklist. Morado had promised to take notes for him while he was gone, and Professor Goodwitch had explained… well, at least part of the situation to his professors, and they’d all sent him homework he could do while he was away. Oscar had most of it loaded on his scroll, but he didn’t particularly feel like getting started on it just yet.

 

The fritz and buzz of the air traffic control tower crackles through the air. “Your flight is cleared for takeoff, Miss Calavera,” a cool, professional voice says, and Oscar resists the urge to slap his forehead. Maria Calavera. The Grimm Reaper. Of course. How could he forget?

 

Sometimes he misses Ozpin in the little things; in the years Ozpin resided in Oscar’s mind, Oscar essentially had the awareness and attention of two people. What Oscar would miss, Ozpin would catch, and what one of them didn’t know, the other could fill in. Even when it came to small things — interacting with Qrow the first time Oscar had found the Huntsman in a deserted bar in Haven — Ozpin would be ever present, solicitously helpful, a crutch for Oscar to lean on.

 

The plane shudders and jolts and suddenly, Oscar is pressed back into his seat by the force of take-off. He watches Haven at night-time, lights blinking gaily against the dark, peel away beneath the hull of the airship. This moment should feel more meaningful, Oscar thinks ruefully, but after having a milliennia-old wizard in his head and helping save the world, everything else — even his first intercontinental flight — pales in comparison.

 

“We’ve reached cruising altitude.” Qrow’s voice drags Oscar out of his reverie. “So you don’t have to keep your seatbelt on anymore. Not that you really had to wear it in the first place, it’s more ornamental than anything, if we’re being honest here.”

 

Oscar’s eyes narrow; something in Qrow’s mannerisms were off, but without Ozpin and his extensive ability to read Qrow, Oscar can’t place what it is. A hand tucked into a pocket, the other drumming against the side of his leg… was Qrow nervous?

 

Oscar barely has time to process this when Qrow heaves a great sigh. “Listen, kid.” Qrow perches on the edge of the seat across the aisle from Oscar’s. “The last time we parted… wasn’t exactly on the greatest of terms.”

 

Oscar thinks back to snow, shouting, the rough bark of a pine tree against his back. “Ah. Yes.”

 

Qrow looks a little dazed, and Oscar frowns, suddenly concerned. “Are you all right?” he asks.

 

Qrow shakes himself out of it. “Has anyone told you how much you sound like him sometimes?”

 

“You’re not the first,” Oscar says.

 

“I’m sorry,” Qrow blurts out suddenly, like he can’t hold it back anymore. “I’m sorry that the last time I spoke to you, I hit you hard enough to throw you into a tree. I’m sorry for doubting you. I’m sorry that I was, well… me. Around you.” He stop short, floundering for the next words, and Oscar lets him agonize for a few moments before speaking.

 

“Ozpin forgave you, you know.”

 

“He…did?”

 

“Well, not immediately.” Oscar taps his fingers on the handle of Ozpin’s cane, only half-absentminded. “It took him a few days, but he forgave you before he forgave himself.”

 

Qrow looks so wrecked that Oscar, despite his lingering grudge against the man, feels sorry for him. “I said such horrible things to him,” Qrow says, voice barely above a whisper. “He trusted me, and I spat in the face of that trust. I shouldn’t have doubted him.”

 

“Perhaps,” Oscar says. “And perhaps not. Ozpin knew what would happen when the truth came out; that’s why he was so set on hiding it. That didn’t make it any easier for him when it did, though.” An understatement — even Oscar remembers what it felt like, hollowed out, helpless, hated, the cold snow seeping through the knees of his pants, the burning of tears and cruel, merciless wind, the whiplash of venomous words.

 

Qrow looks stricken. “I never got to tell him — I never got to say — “

 

“Goodbye?” Oscar finishes for him. He’s had this conversation before. He knows what they’re looking for — a kind of closure, a kind of absolution from the man he once housed. It doesn’t matter if he isn’t qualified to give it, but they seem to walk away from it for the better.

 

“Well, that and — ” Qrow huffs a laugh, bitter and self-deprecating. “Never mind. That doesn’t matter now, he wouldn’t want to hear it anyway.”

 

Oscar frowns, and for a moment, wants to pry, but then Qrow stands up. “You’re a good kid,” the Huntsman says, finally. Qrow’s left hand makes an aborted motion, like he wants to reach out towards Oscar, but then he clasps his hands together and walks away. He stops at the entrance to the cockpit. “I’m glad you made it through all of this alive,” he adds, back still turned to Oscar.

 

Oscar watches him, thoughtful. “Me too,” he says.

 

—————

 

Oscar thought that he would nap on the flight to Atlas, but he’s too keyed up to doze off so he gets started on the readings for Science of Grimm, figuring that it was his best bet for putting himself to sleep. Instead, he gets thoroughly engrossed in the various theories on Grimmdust — the disintegrating powdery remains of Grimm after they are killed — and its properties. The stuff is usually too transient for scientists to capture, but there have been many attempts at explaining how solid, living Grimm can evaporate into nothingness so soon after death. Oscar is just getting to the metaphysical and epistemological discourse on Grimm substance and matter when Qrow’s voice startles him out of his concentration. “Hey, if you’ve never seen Atlas in person before, you don’t want to miss this.”

 

Oscar sets his scroll down and rubs his eyes, suddenly realizing how tired he is. “Are we there already?”

 

That gets a surprised laugh out of Qrow. “Kid, it’s been a four hour flight. Come on, the view from out front’s the best.”

 

Oscar follows Qrow to the cockpit, where Maria guides the airship with a light touch of her hand. Oscar peers out the windshield, until they burst through a last layer of gauzy clouds to see a citadel on a floating island, tethered to the bright warm lights of Mantle on the Solitas coastline. Oscar’s seen pictures of Atlas before, in Aunt Em’s encyclopedias and the occasional travelogue, but faced with the colossal size and scope of the enterprise —

 

“Wow,” he says softly, and Maria chuckles.

 

“You know, I think I’m almost over the grandeur of this,” she remarks airily before pushing a few buttons on the console. “Take the wheel, Qrow, I’m going to take a break.”

 

Qrow settles into his co-pilot’s seat. “You want me to land the ship?”

 

Maria’s already out of the cockpit. Her voice drifts back. “It’s not like it’s the first time!”

 

Oscar perches on her vacated seat, careful not to jostle anything. Qrow grumbles, but then flicks a few switches and keeps a hand on the control column. “Hailing Atlesian Airspace Control,” he says into a microphone. “It’s Raptor 3. We’re back.”

 

There’s a pause before static crackles in the speakers. “Roger that, Raptor 3. Welcome back. You know where your regular docking station is. Try not to sideswipe the other ships this time.”

 

Oscar gives Qrow a querying look. Qrow jabs at the dashboard, turning off the communications. “That was one time,” the Huntsman grumbles. “Maria was distracting me.”

 

“You need to be able to pilot a ship with great precision under duress,” Maria’s prim voice surprises them both as the elderly Huntress shuffles back into the cockpit. “I was helping you simulate battle conditions.”

 

“What happened to taking a break?” Qrow asks dryly.

 

“Took my break with me,” Maria says, holding up a bag of cashews. She pops one in her mouth. “I love having my own plane.”

 

“We fly solo, stealth, and the occasional search-and-rescue mission now,” Qrow explains to Oscar.

 

“And all on Atlas’ dime too. Hunting Grimm is so much more efficient when your entire vehicle is a weapon,” Maria says. “I don’t even have to go outside to gun down a Nevermore.”

 

“You mean, you sit in the plane while I go out and do all the heavy lifting,” Qrow says.

 

“That’s precisely why I keep you young ones around,” Maria says cheerfully. “Careful now, you’re a little close to the freighter on your right.”

 

Qrow lands the ship smoothly enough, despite heckling from Maria, and when the three of them disembark, Oscar is surprised to see what looks like a welcome party at the docking platform. A welcome party, or an armed escort.

 

“Aw, James,” Qrow calls before him as he strolls down the ramp. “I’m touched. You didn’t have to wait up.”

 

A tall, broad-shouldered man, white uniform impeccably starched, temples more gray than black, lets out a put-upon sigh. “Qrow, please. It’s hard enough to deal with you when it isn’t this late at night.”

 

Oscar firmly steps on any hesitation he has, and proceeds down the ramp. The man — who can only be General Ironwood — turns his gaze to Oscar with a laser-sharp focus. “Oscar Pine,” General Ironwood says, extending a gloved hand. “It’s an honor to finally meet you.”

 

Oscar takes it; the man’s grip is firm, but not crushing. Oscar is slightly surprised to realize that Ironwood’s hand is prosthetic. “Likewise.”

 

Ironwood tilts his head, and a dark-skinned young man steps up, dressed in Atlesian military uniform, though instead of the typical charcoal gray, his clothes are accented with a bright blue. “This is Flynt Coal,” Ironwood says. “He’ll be your guide and point of contact during your stay here.”

 

Flynt tips a finger at Oscar in a lazy salute. “Pleased to meetcha,” he drawls.

 

They all file into the line of vans waiting for them outside. Qrow and Ironwood take one of them, leaving Oscar with Flynt. Maria had vanished at some point from the hangar to the entrance, but no one seems concerned about it so Oscar lets it go. He doubts even Atlas and their rigid military codes could keep a hold of her if she didn’t want to come along.

 

As the vans wind their way through Atlas at night, Oscar leans his head against the cool glass and watches the streets roll by. Little details keep jumping out at him — the cloudy gray of the concrete, different from the warmer earth tones of Haven’s pavement. The strict, rectilinear lines governing the buildings. Even the streetlights were different from what Oscar had grown accustomed to in Mistral, all lean pillars and bell-shaped lamps.

 

“First time to Atlas, huh?” Flynt asks.

 

“First time out of Mistral, actually,” Oscar says.

 

Flynt hums in acknowledgment. “Well, Atlas has its good parts and its bad parts, like any other city. I grew up in one of the bad parts, actually.”

 

Oscar glances at him, but Flynt seems unmoved, casual.

 

“My family lived above my dad’s little Dust shop until he got driven out of business,” Flynt continues. “And we had a rough couple of years before my sister was old enough to enlist in the Atlas military.”

 

“I’m…sorry to hear that.” What was Oscar supposed to say in response? All this — flying cities, military states, even urban life — still felt so new to him.

 

“Nah, it’s all good.” Flynt drums a syncopated rhythm on his knee. “She’s making good money as a specialist now, and I got this gig straight out of graduation, so things are looking up.”

 

“What were you training in?” Atlas was the only kingdom to combine their military, politics, and education in a single institution, so Atlesian graduates could be anything from Huntsmen to diplomats to professors of bioethics.

 

“Oh, I was on the Huntsman track,” Flynt says. “But then General Ironwood came to me with a job offer, so I took it.” He gives Oscar a meaningful look. “The reason why I’m spilling my life story to you,” he says, and his voice never deviates from its leisurely, laidback tone, “is because whatever you’re doing here is so classified that Ironwood won’t even let me sneak a peek at the files, and trust me, I’m very good at hacking. And I’m going to have a helluva time tryin’ to be a good guide for you if I don’t even know why you’re here. So I figure if I tell you everything about me, you’ll know what you can ask me, and what you should go to the general for.”

 

Oscar is quiet for a few moments; the caravan of military cars coasts by a large plaza, flanked by intimidating stone buildings. “I’m really not that special,” he says finally. “I just started my first year at Haven. I was taking a remedial class in weapons design before I had to come here. I’m having a hard time in my Science of Grimm class, but I get headaches in History of Remnant, so I guess it could be worse.”

 

“A regular academic, you are,” Flynt says, and though his words are teasing, his tone is not unkind. “Well, I’m only a year out of Atlas myself, so I’m sure I can help you get your hands on any resources in the Atlas library. Oh, that reminds me—” He holds his hand out for Oscar’s scroll, and Oscar hands it over. Flynt scans it quickly with his own scroll, and returns it. “There. You’ll have my scroll and General Ironwood’s, in case you need anything.”

 

Oscar nods his thanks, and then they’ve arrived at a set of gray barracks. Finding his room and moving in is a blur; it may have been before midnight in Atlas, but Oscar’s still on Mistral time, and the excitement of visiting a new place had thinned out to exhaustion. He crashes into bed and can’t bring himself to care about the unfamiliar sheets or the stiff mattress.

 

Outside, the shattered moon glows with the same cold light.

 

—————

 

When Oscar wakes the next morning, he’s disoriented for a full ten seconds before he puts last night back together in his mind. He swings his legs off the side of the bed and pads over to the table where he’d left his scroll; it’s still pretty early by Atlas standards, and he finds messages from Flynt with instructions on how to find the cafeteria if he’s hungry. 

 

Oscar closes his eyes and centers himself for a moment. Back in the early days, just after he’d lost Ozpin, he’d often woken up disoriented, but internally rather than spatially, knowing only that something was missing, something of great importance, or someone —

 

— and then Cobalt would call a cheery “good morning!” or he’d find one of Morado’s butterflies perched delicately on the bend of his knee, and the pressing needs of the day would ground him again, and he’d press on because he’d had to, because there was nothing else he could do.

 

But that was months ago, when he was still raw from grief and too numb to name it. Now, Oscar is two seasons and a continent away; he glances out the window, where a harsh winter sun against a bitter blue sky illuminates the narrow courtyard outside. Oscar unplugs his scroll and takes it with him back into bed, where he curls up under the blankets and pulls up his textbook for Science of Grimm; he’d only had a few pages left before he’d ran out of time on the flight. Sliding back into the dry writing of the book is oddly reassuring.

 

He’s a paragraph out from the end of the chapter when he realizes the other half of his disorientation; he’d spent the past few months living in close quarters with his team, morning chatter and evening somnolence bookending his days, but here, there was only the unending hush of newly-fallen snow, blanketing every surface and muffling all the sound. He’s alone again.

 

He catches himself wishing for a dry, sardonic voice to speak up, and shakes his head. None of that now, he admonishes himself, and goes back to reading.

 

Chapter done, he reluctantly pries himself out of the blankets and gets properly dressed before going out and searching for food. With Flynt’s instructions, he locates the cafeteria — a high-ceilinged room, round tables flanked by chairs scattered throughout the space. Large windows arrowing to sharp points high above him let in the cool morning sunlight.

 

He’s idly perusing the tea selection — he’s not overfond of the drink himself, but Aunt Em loves it — when a disbelieving voice interrupts him. “Oscar? Is that you?”

 

He hasn’t heard that voice in years, but he recognizes it, and turns to see Weiss Schnee standing in the doorway, long white hair pulled over one shoulder in a tightly-woven braid. She’s wearing a long, slate-blue gown, a soft white cardigan thrown on over it in concession to the cold, and she looks no taller than when he last saw her, but somehow, changed.

 

She’s clutching an empty mug in her hand, and Oscar should have guessed it, that of course team RWBY would be here, by Ruby’s side. The shadows under Weiss’ eyes testify to the difficulties of the past month.

 

She sets aside the mug on the counter and moves towards him. “Can I hug you?” she asks quietly.

 

Oscar nods, and she wraps her arms around him, tucking her face into the space where his neck meets his shoulder, and Oscar notices, distantly, that he must have gotten taller at some point because that’s new —

 

“Thank you for being here,” she says in his ear, before letting go and holding him at arm’s length. “You look good.”

 

Oscar isn’t sure how to decode that, but he was well-fed, he was dressed, so she couldn’t be too far off. “You look like you’ve had a rough month,” he says in return.

 

Weiss huffs a laugh. “To say the least. But I’m glad you’re here. We weren’t sure you would come since, well, since last time...”

 

Since the last time they’d seen each other, Oscar had left without a goodbye, had been slammed against a wall and had his existence denied, had dropped off the map for two whole years, but Oscar isn’t that brittle fourteen-year-old anymore, no longer feels the phantom pressure of his shoulderblades against unyielding suspicion. “It’s okay,” he says, sudden realizing that it’s true. “I forgive you.”

 

Weiss’s eyes dart up to his. “Really? We were pretty…”

 

“Unreasonable,” Oscar supplies. “Untrusting. High-minded. Arrogant.”

 

A single eyebrow shoots up. “Well, when you put it like that…”

 

Oscar shrugs. “I mean, you forced Ozpin to relieve the trauma of thousands of years and then took your anger out on him, and when he tried his best to honor your wishes and hid away, you took your anger out on me.”

 

Weiss looks stricken. “Oscar, I—”

 

“It’s not your fault,” Oscar says, then winces. “I mean, it’s partially your fault. But it’s also mine — I’m the one who stopped Ozpin, I’m the one who gave you Jinn’s name. I’m not exactly innocent either. I’ve just had a lot of time to think over the past few years, and Ozpin showed me that forgiveness is a much more rewarding path than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself all the time.”

 

Weiss blinks at him, then her face softens into a slight smile. “Look at you, all grown up.”

 

Oscar shudders. “People keep taking that tone of voice with me, don’t start.” He holds out a gloved hand to her. “If you’re willing to start over, so am I. No hard feelings, especially if you show me how to use the waffle iron.”

 

Weiss takes his hand. “Deal.”

 

They’re halfway through building a waffle tower — after Oscar’s had a good long, disbelieving laugh about the customized Atlas logo cast into the iron — when a sleepy-eyed Blake Belladonna walks in and drops the mugs she’s holding in surprise.

 

—————

 

He’s starting to think that he can do this — just put his head down and bull through any lingering weirdness between him and team RWBY — when General Ironwood sends him a message on his scroll. Between him, Weiss, and Blake, the three of them have pretty much decimated the waffle tower, and Weiss is pressing him for details about team COSM while Blake cradles a cup of coffee in her hands, smiling softly. Oscar can’t tell if the smile is for him or for the coffee, but she interjects the occasional comment, so he knows that she’s still paying attention to their chatter.

 

“They sound like wonderful people,” Blake says, and Oscar puffs up in pride.

 

“They are.” And then Weiss is cooing, he didn’t know she could do that —

 

“Remember how bad team RWBY was when started, Blake? Remember how you were always so moody and Yang was so loud and — ”

 

Blake rolls her eyes. “And the talkative one was Ruby, not you? Yes, I remember, Weiss.”

 

“Hey!”

 

Oscar covers his mouth and laughs quietly as the two of them bicker good-naturedly. Was this what it was like to have sisters?

 

His scroll buzzes in his pocket, and when he pulls it out to check on it, he sees a message from General Ironwood to come to his office at his earliest convenience, with a map of the facility attached. He looks up to see that Weiss and Blake have both turned to look at him. “General Ironwood,” he says by way of apology, and they both nod.

 

They all stand, Weiss gathering the dishes and Blake the mugs. “I was meaning to bring Yang a cup of coffee, anyway,” Blake says, “so it’s about time for me to go too.”

 

It’s Weiss’ turn to roll her eyes. “Of course you were. Go on, I’ll take care of the dishes.”

 

Oscar knows that he’s missing something there, but he doesn’t want to keep General Ironwood waiting, so he takes off down the unfamiliar halls.

 

The place is bigger than he expected — and all indoors — but he navigates the turns and the stairways with scroll in hand and ends up in front of a large white door, unmarked in any way. Oscar knocks tentatively.

 

“Come in.” The response is muffled but clearly audible.

 

Oscar turns the handle and steps into Ironwood’s office gingerly.

 

To his surprise, his foot sinks immediately into a deep, plush rug; Ironwood’s office is welcoming, or at least as much as he can make it. Oscar can still see the blank white plaster walls behind the assortment of maps and diagrams that cover them, but the cold sterility of the Atlas facility is offset by the decor. The desk, bookshelves, and chairs were all made from a warm, honey-colored wood, and Oscar’s eyes are immediately drawn to the books on the side wall — all giant tomes elaborately bound in embossed leather, but without a single title on their spines. Ironwood himself is working at a small terminal, one that he glances up from and folds shut immediately.

 

Oscar blinks. He’s never seen a terminal do that. Ironwood tracks his gaze and hastily explains. “It’s a new model our technicians have been working on, one that’s easily transportable. It’s more convenient to use than a scroll, and since my work usually takes me across campus several times a day, it’s been a great help. They’re thinking about calling it a laptop, which I guess it could be, but I usually have it set up on a desk, but ‘desktop’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”

 

He’s rambling, Oscar notes absent-mindedly. “You called me here, General?” he prompts.

 

That’s all Ironwood needs to settle back into his regular composure. “Right.” He gestures for Oscar to take a seat.

 

“Glynda told me that she filled you in on the events that transpired in the last month,” Ironwood says. “You have my thanks, for coming to Atlas. Rest assured that all of your needs will be provided for, to the best of our ability.”

 

Oscar nods.

 

“This is an experimental research facility, adjacent to the campus of Atlas Academy. I’m going to have to ask you to stay on-site, however, since classes are still in session. If you’d like to access any of the resources of the Academy—“

 

“I can ask Flynt to help me with that,” Oscar finishes. “If it’s all right by you, General, I think I’d rather talk about why I’m here.”

 

Ironwood nods and folds his hands before him. “Of course. Our specialists are currently working on an experimental medical procedure that will allow us to transfer magic from the Maidens back to you. We’ve managed to do this fairly successfully with Aura transfers, but there is a necessary recalibration from Aura to magic that we are still working on with the help of—” Ironwood’s hesitation is so minute that Oscar almost misses it. “—Salem.”

 

Oscar stiffens. “She’s here?” He knew she was in Atlas, but not at this exact place—

 

Ironwood holds out a hand that is imperious and placating at once. “She’s staying in a different wing of the research facility, and is under continuous observation. She hasn’t given us any trouble in the last six months — if anything, she’s seems particularly eager to help.”

 

“And you trust her to do that?”

 

“It appears that Salem feels somewhat… indebted to Miss Rose for removing the Grimm from her.” Ironwood clasps his hands together in front of him on the desk. “We still don’t trust her enough to let her go out into the rest of the world, but she seems to be making a genuine effort.” The general pauses for a moment before continuing. “Listen, Oscar, I know Salem is a sore spot for you—”

 

“That doesn’t even begin to cover it— ”

 

“But the work she’s been doing with our specialists has been incredible; she’s helped us advance farther in the past few weeks than we’ve gotten in months of research.”

 

He can’t believe what he’s hearing, and from an ally, no less. “So we’re just going to ignore the fact that she’s spent the past few millennia trying to drive humans and Faunus to extinction? That every time we fought a battle just to survive and people died, it was because of her machinations?” Oscar doesn’t know when he stood up, but he’s standing now, hands balled into fists, shaking. “Are we going to ignore all the Huntsmen and Huntresses I had to send to the grave? That she’s been murdering my children for hundreds of years?”

 

He’s breathing hard and he’s so incandescently angry — all of his focus has narrowed on to the man before him, the man who was suggesting that his years and years of painful, personal experience were wrong

 

Ironwood’s eyes are wide. “Oscar… who is speaking?”

 

Oscar blinks a few times, and the rest of the office swims back into focus. He consciously forces his shoulders to relax. “I—I’m not sure.” Ozpin hadn’t taken control of his body for over a year by the time he’d passed; even so, Oscar still remembers, vividly, what that felt like, being shoved away from the control of his own body, and this was nothing like it. But the deep anger he’d felt… where had that come from?

 

Oscar seats himself again, movements careful and slow. “I’m sorry. That doesn’t… usually happen.”

 

“I imagine not,” Ironwood says. He looks like he wants to ask something, but thinks better of it. “I know you’re upset about Salem, and understandably so,” Ironwood continues, “but her contributions have been critical to our research, and the priority at the moment is to restore Miss Rose back to full health.”

 

If Oscar’s anger had burned hot a moment before, this doused it in cold water. This was why he was here — not for Salem, not because of Salem, but for Ruby. He has to hold on to that. “I understand. What do you need me to do?”

 

“For now? Just wait for a few days. We’re still fine-tuning the calibrations, but now that you’re here, we’ll be able to take the appropriate measurements from you and get your side of the process ready.” Oscar does not like the sound of that at all. “We’ve got our best and brightest minds working on this project, Oscar, and we’re all counting on its success. In more ways than one.”

 

It’s not a dismissal, but Oscar feels one in the air, so he pushes his chair back and stands. Ironwood rises to mirror him, and walks him to the door.

 

“Oscar,” Ironwood says, just as he’s about to step outside.

 

Oscar glances up at him.

 

Ironwood meets his eyes. “I know this gets said a lot, but from the bottom of my heart — thank you.”

 

Oscar’s cheerful mood from earlier, from catching up with Weiss and Blake, has utterly vanished. He turns away from Ironwood. “People keep saying that, but I haven’t done anything at all.”

 

Thankfully, the general doesn’t stop him as he flees down the hall, the low throbbing of a headache at his temples.

 

—————

 

The cold outside is blistering, but it clears his head as Oscar paces around the narrow courtyard furiously, trying to untangle his reactions in Ironwood’s office. He’d never met Salem — not personally, not in this life — yet her name stirs up a deep well of resentment, of sorrow, of hate, of hurt that he knows must be an artifact of Ozpin in his head, but he can’t seem to distance himself from the emotions enough to look at them objectively.

 

He doesn’t know how long he’s been outside, but Weiss eventually finds him, there, tracing frustrated zig-zag paths across the space, boots kicking up powdery puffs of snow. “Oscar,” she says, slowly. “Do you… need to talk?”

 

Oscar grinds to a halt. “Yes. No. Yes. Agh!” He grabs at his head with both hands. This was easier when he had a voice in his head who he could talk to, who automatically understood what he was going through and offered advice. But then again, that voice in his head was precisely the source of all his problems. “I’m just… having some trouble putting it into words right now.”

 

Weiss nods, and her tone is so gentle it kind of makes Oscar want to scream. “If you need space, that’s fine. You know how to reach me, and, well, everyone else in team RWBY if you need us.” She turns to head back inside, when Oscar calls after her.

 

“Wait.”

 

Weiss pauses, halfway through the doorframe, and glances back at him. “Yeah?”

 

“How do you feel about Salem?” Oscar blurts out.

 

Weiss hesitates for a moment, then sighs and closes the door. She tucks her cardigan around herself and folds her arms tightly. “I mean, we all know what Salem did,” she says. “We saw her… become the Salem we had to fight.”

 

“Yes, but now,” Oscar presses. “Now that Ruby’s removed the Grimm from her.” He doesn’t give voice to the question he really wants to ask.

 

Can we forgive her?

 

Weiss gazes at the ground between them, lost in thought. “You know,” she says, “I sympathized with Salem in the beginning. When she was the girl in the tower, in Jinn’s vision, I saw her and my first thought was ‘I know what that’s like.’”

 

Weiss looks up at Oscar and meets his eyes, gaze clear and crystal-sharp. “I know what it’s like to want freedom so badly you’ll follow anyone, do anything, even sneak out of your own home and break the law to get away. But when she lost Ozma for the first time, and refused to accept it, that’s when I stopped understanding. Because I know what it’s like to lose people, too, and not just because they’re taken from us too soon.” A quick smile tears at the corner of Weiss’ mouth, jagged and bittersweet. “I lost my parents without either of them dying, I just — my dad showed his true colors, my mom couldn’t handle it and drank to cope, and no matter what I did to beg and plead and reason with them, I couldn’t get them back.”

 

Oscar wants to reach out, but thinks better of it, and clasps his gloved hands together instead.

 

“So for Salem to go to the gods and demand them to give Ozma back, for her to lead humankind against the gods when she didn’t get her way, to have humanity wiped out because of her spite and still not take the blame for it — that was just selfish and irresponsible.” Weiss’s gaze has turned flinty. “When I lost people, I didn’t have gods to go to. I just had to deal with it. And it’s made me stronger, even if it was hard to go through.” She blinks, and her gaze softens. “But that’s just how I see things, I suppose.”

 

Oscar shivers, and he suddenly feels the cold again. He’d been standing still, listening to Weiss, and he really needs to get winter combat gear if he’ll be staying in Atlas much longer.

 

“Just because she was wrong doesn’t mean that she can’t change, though,” Weiss says. “And maybe she deserves that chance.”

 

“Have you spoken with her?” Oscar asks. “While… being here.”

 

Weiss shakes her head. “I’ve seen her in passing, but it’s a bit… awkward. Yang’s spoken with her a couple of times, I think.”

 

“I haven’t seen Yang at all,” Oscar says. “How is she taking things?”

 

Weiss sighs. “Well, she’s Yang.”

 

So, indestructible, moody, protective, demanding. “Not well, I’m guessing,” Oscar says.

 

“You know how much she cares about Ruby,” Weiss says. “But it’s been extra stressful for her since she’s… well, you know.” she trails off meaningfully.

 

Oscar blinks. Yang’s protective streak could probably be seen from space, but what else…? “No, I don’t know,” he says.

 

“Because of the magic?” Weiss says, as if it’s obvious.

 

Oscar frowns. “What about it?”

 

Weiss boggles at him for a moment, then glances around surreptitiously. The courtyard remains steadfastly deserted, since the two of them are the only ones crazy enough to be outside when it’s this cold. “Oscar,” Weiss says. “Yang is the Spring Maiden. She has been for the past two years.”

 

“I’m sorry, what?”

 

—————

 

Weiss leads Oscar to the infirmary; large windows let in sunlight that slants across the double row of empty beds, though only the farthest one occupied. Oscar sees the golden waterfall of Yang’s hair, her back turned to the door. There’s an empty mug on the bedside table next to her.

 

“Yang?” Weiss calls. Oscar hovers a little behind her; there’s an air of sanctity in the room that he feels like he shouldn’t step into without invitation.

 

Yang’s shoulders hunch a little, but then she stands. “Yeah?” Yang turns to look at them, and Weiss steps into the room, Oscar following.

 

Yang freezes when she catches sight of Oscar, and Oscar stops too. Her purple eyes, lined with exhaustion, widen, and a series of emotions crosses her face, too fast for Oscar to read.

 

Weiss glances between the two of them. “Oscar got in late last night,” Weiss explains hurriedly, “and he was meeting with General Ironwood this morning, so—”

 

“You came,” Yang breathes, and then she’s coming towards him with an arm outstretched and some memory gets between Oscar and his reactions — he flinches back, and Yang stops immediately.

 

“Oscar?” Yang asks, and Oscar shakes his head.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—I just reacted and—”

 

“No, I get it.” Yang curls in on herself, holding her elbow with the opposite hand. “We were angry, and scared, and really out of line. We shouldn’t have treated you or Ozpin like that, and now we’re asking for your help again, and I still haven’t apologized for last time, and I just—”

 

“Hey,” Oscar says, and Yang looks up at him, startled. “It’s okay.”

 

“You’re… okay with it?”

 

Oscar huffs. “Well, I’m not okay with a lot of this, but if you’re trying to apologize for two years ago, I’m willing to work through it. We can be okay.”

 

Yang’s shoulders slump in relief, and Oscar suddenly wonders how long Yang has been carrying the weight of this worry — that her best hope for her sister’s survival lay in the hands of a boy she’d wronged years ago, and Oscar doesn’t know what that feels like, but thinks he might be able to understand.

 

“I don’t — I mean —” Yang struggles to find the words. “Thank you, Oscar,” she says finally, fervently. “I just… hate feeling helpless all the time.”

 

Weiss lays a hand on Yang’s shoulder. “We all feel like that, Yang, it’s not your fault.”

 

“I know, I just—I’m really worried about Ruby.”

 

Weiss squeezes Yang’s shoulder. “So are we. And now that Oscar’s here, we’re getting closer to waking Ruby up.”

 

Oscar glances over both their shoulders, at the bed in the far corner. “Is that… her?” he asks softly.

 

Weiss nods, and the two girls step apart, allowing Oscar to approach.

 

Ruby looks peaceful, her dark hair splayed over the pillow, brows unfurrowed and relaxed. As Oscar looks closer, though, he can see the curve of deep shadows beneath her eyes, along her jaw. Ruby has never been the biggest person, but she’d always radiated strength to Oscar. Now she looked… frail, the toll of a month-long coma wreaking havoc on her body.

 

Oscar turns away. “We have to wake her up as soon as we can,” he says.

 

“We can definitely agree on that,” Weiss says, voice dry. “But Dr. Erva says that she thinks she’s close to figuring it out.”

 

“Who?”

 

Weiss sighs. “No one told you anything before you came, did they?”

 

—————

 

Dr. Erva is the brisk, business-like owl Faunus in charge of the whole procedure. Oscar meets her for the first time the next morning, stepping into another unmarked room in the complex with trepidation. Despite the early hour, Dr. Erva is already bustling about; she introduces herself — “I’m Dr. Erva to my research assistants, but since you’re not one of them, you can call me Min” — while she performs what looks like an elaborate dance around the furniture in the room.

 

Dr. Erva has a pair of glossy white wings, speckled with brown and banded with black, sprouting from her shoulder blades. Oscar watches in fascination as her wings flex and fold, tucking tightly to her back as she sidles between a table and a workstation, one extending and arcing briefly over a collection of monitoring equipment before mantling neatly onto her back. At least, Oscar thinks they’re monitoring equipment; all he can see are a lot of screens.

 

“So, young man,” Dr. Erva says, whirling to a stop in front of him. She’s half a head taller than him even without heels, and when she stares at him through the frames of her glasses with those sharp, golden eyes, Oscar can’t help but feel a little intimidated. “How are you feeling today?”

 

“Um, fine?”

 

“Great.” Dr. Erva whips out a clipboard from nowhere. “Now how is your soul feeling today?”

 

Oscar blinks. “My… soul?”

 

“Yes, your soul, the origin and source of your Aura, and thus critical to our studies here on Aura and magic. How is your soul doing today, Oscar Pine?”

 

“Fine, too,” Oscar says.

 

Dr. Erva arches a single eyebrow.

 

“Stressed?” Oscar hedges.

 

Dr. Erva hums encouragingly, pen swooping across paper.

 

“I guess I’ve been feeling kind of… off lately,” Oscar says, fumbling for words.

 

“Moving to a new place can do that to you.”

 

“No, since before coming to Atlas.” Oscar casts his mind back, looking through his memories of the past few months from a distant point of view. It was so easy to get caught up in the day to day that he hadn’t realized— “Since Ozpin left,” he says. He grimaces. “I’m sorry. I thought I’d moved past that.”

 

Dr. Erva perches on the corner of a table, her wings relaxing, tips almost grazing the tiled floor. “Grief is a complicated process,” she says simply, not even looking up from what she was writing. “And it can take a while to come to terms with it.”

 

Oscar shakes his head, frustrated. “But it’s been almost half a year, and I thought—it seemed—I thought I’d made progress,” he says in a small voice.

 

“Who decides how long it takes for us to grieve and let go?” Dr. Erva taps her pen against the clipboard. “Some doctors say that grief that lasts longer than a few months becomes pathological. But how did they decide that my mother’s life is worth only three months of my mourning?” Before Oscar can express any sort of condolences, Dr. Erva dismisses the point with a flick of her wing. “You have made progress, Oscar Pine, if you take a moment to think about it.”

 

Oscar does; he thinks about waking up alone in his head in the mornings, about the silence he’s still getting used to, about the aching emptiness in his soul. He thinks about the cane resting heavy at his back, the months he’s spent sketching modifications and feeling guilty about it. He thinks about the people who have come to him searching for absolution, about the forgiveness that came, surprisingly easily, to his lips. He thinks about the considering gaze of bespectacled green eyes, about wildflowers blooming on the side of a volcano, about happy tears. “Maybe,” he says slowly, dubiously.

 

Dr. Erva, thankfully, lets him be and moves on from the subject, pen scritching busily again. “Now, to fill out the rest of your Aura profile — have you unlocked your Semblance yet, Mister Pine?”

 

Oscar freezes. He’d actually rather go back to the previous subject, painful as it was.

 

Dr. Erva glances up. “Your Semblance isn’t documented on file.”

 

Oscar really does not want to have this conversation. He stifles an urge to fidget with his hands, and folds them behind his back. “I never—” He stops, considering just how he wants to phrase this.

 

How to explain that he’d unlocked his Semblance when he was just twelve years old, but the memories surrounding the event were so dark and terrifying that he just covered the scars with gloves and bandages and never let them see the light of day? It’s always been easier to pretend that he just hadn’t unlocked his Semblance yet — after all, there were plenty of Aura-wielders who had never quite figured out their Semblances, and while it meant that as Huntsmen and Huntresses, they simply had one less tool in their arsenal, most were still formidable enough combatants not to —

 

“I ask because I study Aura, and I have done so for the past seven years,” Dr. Erva says. Her voice is quiet, and her gaze has softened from its piercing knowingness to a kinder light. “Semblances are a natural extension of your Aura, and there is nothing shameful about them.”

 

Oscar remembers a broken table leg, Nora muttering —good luck with that — and wonders if Qrow has spoken with Dr. Erva, but then he thinks of the man on the airship — shoulders still hunched, cloak still ragged, but seeming, somehow, unquantifiably better — and doesn’t rule out the possibility.

 

“Ordinarily I wouldn’t pry, but some Semblances can interfere with our work here,” Dr. Erva continues, and she has definitely spoken to Qrow Branwen. “I won’t ask you to tell me more than you want to, but to the best of your knowledge, Oscar, will your Semblance—”

 

“It won’t affect anything,” Oscar says quickly. “Probably. I’m pretty sure.”

 

Dr. Erva nods curtly. “All right. That’s all I need to know.”

 

—————

 

For the next few days, Oscar meets with Dr. Erva every morning (he can’t quite bring himself to call her Min). She asks him questions, always beginning with the same one (“how are you feeling today, Mister Pine?”), hooks him up to machines, and clucks at the readings the monitors flash back at her. Oscar still can’t figure out which noises are approving and which disapproving, since they all sound the same. He learns that she will explain the procedures to him if he asks, which is how he learns about the state-of-the-art Atlas AIS technology (“Aura Imaging Scan,” she says when he blinks uncomprehendingly at her) and the way it spatializes the parameters of the human soul (Dr. Erva is always perfectly composed, but Oscar gets the sense that she gets very excited about her equipment) and helps them externalize and physicalize an aspect of human existence that was previously abstract conjecture.

 

Oscar doesn’t entirely follow, but he smiles and nods, and asks Flynt for recommendations for beginner medical texts. The other boy arches an eyebrow at him, but a small stack of books appears on his desk the next evening when he gets back to his room.

 

During their third appointment, Oscar asks Dr. Erva why he never saw her research assistants. Dr. Erva blinks at him with wide, golden eyes, and then laughs. “Trust me, you don’t want to deal with my grad students. They’re a nosy bunch, and I didn’t want you to get flooded by a bunch of desperate academics looking for a dissertation topic. I’m sure you’ll see them eventually,” she adds. “I can’t keep them away forever.”

 

In the afternoons, he’s taken to seeking out team RWBY to spar — Weiss and Blake are usually more than happy to oblige, and even Yang can sometimes be coaxed away from Ruby’s bedside to coach Oscar in hand-to-hand. The team is somber and reserved without their leader, but when the three of them are together, Oscar can see their postures shifting, shoulders open and happier, and resolves to return Ruby to them as soon as possible.

 

Oscar also finds out what he’d missed between Blake and Yang when he picks himself off the ground after a bout with Weiss and spots the two of them passing in the hallway, Blake leaning happily against Yang and their hands interlaced between them.

 

Weiss follows his gaze and laughs quietly. “I swear, they’ve been in the honeymoon phase for years.” She flicks Myrtenaster out to the side. “Do you want to try that move again? I think you almost had it.”

 

One night, he spends an entire dinner, which bleeds into evening, in the cafeteria with Blake as she enthusiastically shows off all the configurations of Gambol Shroud, which looks a bit different since he’d seen it last. Oscar’s a bit dazed — he’s barely gotten around to thinking about two forms of Ozpin’s cane, and Blake regularly switches between three in combat — not including the variants formed by her usage of ribbons.

 

Weiss rolls her eyes as she passes by the two of them, on her path to the coffee machine. “She’ll keep going if you don’t escape soon,” she calls over to Oscar.

 

“Look, not all of us grew up with infinite Dust supplies,” Blake shoots back, and Oscar is momentarily nervous, glancing between the two of them. Weiss just huffs a laugh, though, and the corners of Blake’s eyes are tilted up in a way that would be a smile on anyone else, and Oscar relaxes.

 

An hour later, Oscar is listening intently to Blake discuss her strategies for infusing Dust into her shadow clones when the thought occurs to him — Safire would love to hear this — and he blinks and looks away momentarily, trying to stifle the flood of homesickness. Blake notices immediately, pausing mid-sentence. “Oscar?”

 

He misses team COSM fiercely, Oscar realizes. He misses Cobalt’s brash brightness, Morado’s wry competence, Safire’s casual concern. He misses exchanging knowing looks with Morado from across the room, working in companionable silence with Safire on their papers late at night, and even Cobalt’s long rambles about what new thing she’s been learning. “I miss my team,” he says, and Blake’s expression immediately softens.

 

“You’ll get back to them soon,” she promises, and he lets the unspoken, unrestful alternatives be.

 

—————

 

“I think we’re ready to give this a proper go tomorrow,” Dr. Erva announces by their fifth appointment, “so I think it’s time to have this conversation.”

 

Oscar looks up from his book — an overview of Atlas’s legal history, though the author has a particular brand of colloquialism and dry wit that Oscar particularly enjoys. For some reason, he’s had better luck avoiding headaches with Atlesian historical texts than others. “What conversation?” he says, a little wary. He and Dr. Erva have reached a comfortable rapport by now; it was hard to stay formal when she was applying electrodes to his scalp and complaining to him about the finer points of feather maintenance. He still can’t bring himself to call her Min, though.

 

She’s come to perch on a counter opposite from where he sits on a burnished metal lab table — there’s an odd lack of chairs in the room, Oscar’s noticed — and her wings hunch over her head to stay out of the nearby sink. Her clipboard is nowhere to be seen.

 

Oscar pauses, and slides a bookmark between the pages. This must be serious. “Dr. Erva?” he says. “You’re making me nervous.”

 

She blinks, and sighs. Her wings ruffle a little before she shakes them out and relaxes them, letting them come to rest on the outside of her arms like a fluffy cloak. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to upset you, but—” she hesitates for a moment, considering, “—I feel that I should tell you about Salem’s role in the procedure tomorrow.”

 

Oscar’s fingers tighten around his book. “Why will she be there?” His voice is steady; he’s proud of himself.

 

“General Ironwood thought it might be more prudent to conceal her involvement from you — he said you’d reacted badly to the idea — but in the interest of full disclosure and informed consent, I want to explain tomorrow’s procedures to the best of my ability,” Dr. Erva says. “The basic idea is, we will be transferring Miss Rose’s Aura to you.”

 

Oscar can feel the color draining from his face, but before he has time to even voice a protest, Dr. Erva continues. “The current state of Atlas’s technology, and our inability to conduct experiments with actual magic, means that we haven’t been able to produce a more sophisticated system for the transfer of magic, but we do know that what we have for Aura transfer works with some reliability. Aura is the manifestation of our souls as well as the vestigial remains of a capacity for magic, so if we transfer Aura, then it follows that we will also transfer magic.”

 

Oscar’s about to comment that it sounds like she’s skipping a lot of steps there, but she gets to it ahead of him. “I know this all sounds like conjecture, but trust me, I’m sparing you from a great deal of technical jargon. My grad students have been inventing scientific words to describe magical phenomena, and they have gotten entirely out of hand. If you don’t believe me, I can pull up the data and walk through it with you.”

 

He hesitates for a moment. “I trust you.”

 

Dr. Erva flashes a smile at him — tired, grateful, genuine. “Thank you. And given the stakes of what we’re attempting, I hope you know that I do not take that trust lightly.”

 

Oscar nods, movement a little jerky.

 

“The reason why we need Salem there, then,” says Dr. Erva, “is because she will be providing a magical filter, in a sense. We’re not actually trying to transfer Miss Rose’s Aura to you, because that would result in the fusion of her soul with yours and truly, none of us are interested in that. With Salem’s intervention, we’re hoping that she can ensure the transfer of magic to you and the clean separation of Miss Rose’s Aura from the Fall Maiden powers.”

 

“And you trust her to do this?” Oscar feels like he keeps asking the same questions over and over again, but he has to know, because he can’t trust his own judgment on this.

 

“I do,” Dr. Erva says firmly. “We’ve been setting up simulations to the best of her ability, and she assures us that she was a formidable sorceress in her time. Not that we really have anyone to compare her to now, I suppose, but…” She trails off, watching him.

 

She’s giving him a choice, Oscar realizes belatedly, and the novelty of this moment sinks into him. He could still say no, still refuse the procedure tomorrow, and she would respect his decision, leave him alone. He could leave Atlas and go back to Haven, back to his team, back to the new life he’d abandoned, halfway made.

 

And Ruby Rose would die, and the other Maidens would hover in a state of increasing risk lest they touch their now-volatile magic, and—

 

“I’ll do it,” Oscar says, and feels the echo of that decision reverberate through centuries of like-minded souls saying the same.

Chapter Text

“I need to see her,” Oscar says. “Before tomorrow.”

 

“Salem?” Dr. Erva asks.

 

Oscar nods. “I’d like to speak with her if I can.”

 

Dr. Erva absentmindedly runs a hand down one of her wings, smoothing the feathers that had ruffled in surprise. “I gave all the researchers the afternoon off, considering there’s not really anything we have to do before tomorrow. I can send a message to her scroll to see if —” She catches sight of Oscar’s nod. “All right then.”

 

This is the right decision to make, Oscar knows, but he’s not ready for this. He’s not ready to meet Salem face to face, to see the woman who had ripped up and torn apart his world, his life, so many of his lives, but he probably won’t ever be ready to meet her so he might as well do it now and get it over with—

 

"If it's not too intrusive," Dr. Erva says, without looking up from where she's tapping out the message on her scroll, "can I ask why?”

 

"I need to know if I can trust her." Which he doesn’t. His behaviors are backed by experience.

 

"And how do you plan on doing that?"

 

Oscar's fingers tighten around his book. "My Semblance." He hesitates, only for a moment. “Will you come with me?"

 

Dr. Erva finishes the sentence she's writing, then glances up at him. "To see Salem?"

 

"Yes."

 

Dr. Erva blinks slowly, golden eyes careful and considering. "I suppose I could."

 

"I'm not sure how much of me is...me," Oscar says. He wraps his arms around his book, shoulders hunching defensively. Dr. Erva dips her head in acknowledgment; Oscar had told her as much, over the past week, about his relationship with Ozpin and Ozpin's memories, about the headaches and the way he'd lost his temper in Ironwood's office. "And if you can be there, just to — to make sure I — “

 

Dr. Erva nods. "I understand. I can observe, and mediate if necessary, though I don't think that will be the case."

 

Oscar hopes so too.

 

— — — — —

 

Dr. Erva leads him through the identical blank hallways, out of their building, and into the next one over. As they cross the courtyard, Oscar glances up at the window that he knows is his, and the cold realization of how close he’d been to Salem all this time creeps up his spine.

 

Dr. Erva swipes her ID on the scanner by the door, and a uniformed Atlas guard nods at her politely, giving Oscar an appraising look as he follows her in. At least they didn’t post guards at his door, Oscar thought.

 

Salem’s doorway looks identical to the all the rest of the doors in the research facility. Dr. Erva stops, just to the side of it, and knocks on the door. “Salem?” she says. “We’re here.”

 

“Come in,” the response floats through the door, and Oscar suppresses a welling-up of emotion at the sheer familiarity of it. Before he can think too long about what might happen, he takes a deep breath, pushes the door open, and steps inside.

 

Salem is seated at a plain white desk, a mirror of the standard-issue one in his room. She stands up in one fluid motion, and Oscar reacts on instinct, pressing his back against the wall. His cane is out, in his hand, fully extended before he even realizes it.

 

“Oscar,” Dr. Erva says quietly from where she still stands in the hallway.

 

Salem is staring at him, green eyes as wide and beautiful as he remembers. She’s dressed in a long white gown, sashed with gray; her blonde hair pulled back at her temples to let its length cascade down her back.

 

She looks like she hasn’t changed at all from the time he first saw her.

 

“You’re armed,” she says.

 

“You keep trying to kill me,” he says.

 

She shudders and looks away from him. “It only happened once.”

 

His hand tightens on the cane. “Someone else might have pulled the trigger those other times, but you pointed the gun. You always pointed the gun.”

 

Salem slowly sits back down, and Oscar straightens up out of his pre-battle stance, though all of his muscles are still tense. He closes his eyes, lets out a deep breath, and forces himself to click the cane shut and tuck it behind his back. Dr. Erva quietly enters the room and shuts the door, seating herself discreetly on a nightstand in a corner.

 

They just look at each other for a while. Oscar pushes down his emotions, clinging to concentration with a ferocious tenacity. He can feel Ozpin’s memories flickering beneath the surface of his consciousness, but he can’t afford to be distracted by them now. He needs to remain in control.

 

Meanwhile, Salem has never seen him before, so her eyes skim over his appearance, taking in details. Finally, she breaks the silence. “How old are you?”

 

“Eighteen,” Oscar says, and watches surprise, disbelief, and an expression he can’t read flash over her face as Salem takes it in.

 

They haven’t been such close proximity to each other millennia; they lapse back into silence, collecting information from just being physically present in the same room. She holds herself carefully, he notices, like she’s afraid of breaking something if she moves too suddenly.

 

“How much do you remember?” Oscar finally asks.

 

“More and more,” she says. She’s still, so very still.

 

Salem has always been like this, he remembers — every movement carefully deliberate, almost choreographed in the affections they telegraphed. It was like she consciously performed her own body language, delicately laying a hand over her heart, or extending an open palm when she sought affirmation. But as they’d grown closer, he had become better at picking up the way she held tension in her shoulders, the minute shift in her eyes that signaled the move from indifference to distress, from joy to rage.

 

Now, he considers that he might never have understood the language of her at all. After all, he hadn’t noticed the changes in her demeanor, the small warning signs that should have told him that the woman he’d loved had become, instead, a goddess of destruction.

 

“And?” he asks.

 

He doesn’t know what answer he’s looking for; he’s not even sure what question he’s asking. Does she remember their long, shadowy chess match from their corners of the world, sending emissaries and assassins to fight each other? Does she remember the lives they’d had together, before they had become bitter duellists in a centuries-long war?

 

Does she remember her death at his hands? His death at hers?

 

Was she sorry?

 

She tilts her gaze up to meet his, and he’s struck, again, by the verdant greenness of her eyes. “I killed our daughters,” she whispers, and there is nothing but horror etched into the lines around her eyes.

 

It’s not an apology, but it’s the beginning of something that could be, and Oscar knows more about forgiveness than he wish he did. He can work with this. He musters up the courage to —

 

“What do you want from me?” she blurts out. “Why did you even come here?”

 

Oscar blinks. “I don’t want anything from you,” he says. If anything, he wants not to be here at all.

 

Salem looks confused. “You’re not here to demand an apology? To see me punished, or executed, or—?”

 

Oscar recoils. “I don’t want your life,” he says. “I don’t want anything to do with you. I also don’t want Ruby Rose to die, so I’m here because I need to know if I can trust you.”

 

At Oscar’s words, some great tension seems to melt out of Salem’s posture; she all but sags in her seat. “I don’t know what I can do make you believe me,” Salem says. “But I swear that I have no intention of sabotaging tomorrow’s procedure. I owe Ruby Rose a debt I can never repay.”

 

Oscar searches her face — her green eyes are wide and earnest, and Oscar wants to believe her, just like he’s wanted to believe all the men and women he’s worked with over the centuries, but his behaviors are backed by experience, and there’s one more thing he can do to verify if she’s telling the truth.

 

Deliberately, methodically, he tugs on each finger of the glove of his right hand and slides it off. He feels more than sees Dr. Erva’s gaze sharpen in interest, but he doesn’t take his eyes off of Salem. “Say that again,” he says, and extends his bare hand to her. “And hold my hand when you do.”

 

Salem stands, cautious, and approaches him slowly, staring at his hand and the ropy scars that slash across his palm, twine around the back of his hand. When she glances back up to meet his gaze, there’s a question in her eyes.

 

“My Semblance,” Oscar says, “will let me know if you’re telling the truth.” He hears a sharp intake of breath from Dr. Erva’s corner.

 

That wasn’t, strictly speaking, entirely accurate; his Semblance allowed him to feel the emotions of anyone he touched, all the confusion and chaos and mixed joys and sorrows that were the everyday amalgamation of people’s lives. But the people who had stolen him away when he was twelve years old hadn’t cared about that — when they’d discovered that he’d unlocked his Semblance, that he knew things from touch that no ordinary person could know, they’d just wanted him to be a human lie detector. Never mind that “truth” and “lie” weren’t emotions at all; never mind that he felt the terror and anger and helplessness of their victims just as keenly as if they were his own; never mind that they didn’t even care about the truth, and would just hit him with brick, with branch, with blade, until he’d said what they wanted to hear—

 

Never mind all that.

 

Months after he’d escaped and found his way back home to Aunt Em, the two of them had sat down around the kitchen table and tried their best to figure out how to deal with Oscar’s Semblance, since, as far as they could tell, he couldn’t turn it off. That was when Aunt Em had dug out a pair of gloves, too big for Oscar’s hands, and some spare leather they could use to strap the excess close to his palms so they wouldn’t interfere with his dexterity. That was when he’d begun experiencing the world through a layer of remove.

 

Ozpin had known, of course. Eventually, Ozpin had come to know everything.

 

Your Semblance, Ozpin had remarked one night as they stared up at the Mistralian night sky, listening to the crackle and pop of the campfire, is literally empathy. You can’t touch anyone and not feel what they’re feeling.

 

“So I feel for everyone and no one feels for me. That’s been working out just great,” Oscar had said to the curl of smoke rising into the sky, and Ozpin had let the matter go with that quiet hum that indicated that he disagreed, but wouldn’t push the argument tonight.

 

Salem takes his hand, and Oscar suppresses a gasp. It’s not just the activation of his Semblance — he hasn’t touched another person, skin-to-skin, palm-to-palm, in years. His palms tingle with disorientation, and it’s like the world has flared into a spectrum of too-bright color, where everything he sees is lined with —

 

worry — fear — frustration — surprise — guilt — shock — grief — nervousness — courage — guilt — grief — guilt — grief — guilt — grief — guilt —

 

“I swear by everything that is still good in this remnant of a world that I will try my best to save Ruby Rose’s life tomorrow,” Salem says clearly, and Oscar feels earnest swell up and drown out the other emotions, though a double-beat of guilt and grief still runs underneath like the pulsing of a tectonic heartbeat.

 

He lets go of her hand like he’s been burned, and turns away, sliding his glove back on with fumbling fingers. “Okay,” he says shakily. “Okay.”

 

—————

 

After they leave, Oscar feels the twinges of a familiar headache layering itself under his skull, revealing itself as the adrenaline burns away. He has some painkillers back in his room, which Dr. Erva had given him when he’d told her about the migraines earlier that week. As they step into the courtyard, he starts counting his steps, steps it’ll take him to get back to his room and —

 

“Why does your Semblance bother you so much?” Dr. Erva asks him, halfway through the courtyard.

 

Oscar avoids meeting her eyes, focusing instead on the blank cement where he sets his feet. Thirty-seven, thirty-eight. “It’s not useful,” he says, and oh, his voice is more vicious than he intends for it to be. “I have to wear gloves all the time because I might accidentally touch someone and get overwhelmed.”

 

“Semblances don’t have to be weaponized to be useful,” Dr. Erva says. She’s so damned reasonable all the time, Oscar’s noticed, always ready with the right thing to say even if he doesn’t want to hear it.

 

“Yes, well, what’s the point of them then?” Oscar says, testy. Fifty-one, fifty-two.

 

He can hear the shrug in her voice. “Does there have to be one? They’re just a part of you, like your fingers or your hair or your eyes or your nose, in the strength you use to push that door open or the muscles that work together so you can walk. Some people never discover their Semblances. Some people never look. Do my wings have a purpose?”

 

That pulls Oscar up short, and Dr. Erva walks around to stand in his way, so he has no choice but to face her. “To fly?” he guesses.

 

She laughs, shakes her head, and spreads her wings to their fullest extent. The feathers shine, glossy and brilliant, in the bright winter sunlight, and the sheer wingspan of them could envelop Oscar easily. “So many of my classmates told me that I had to become a Huntress, that it’d be such a waste of wings if I spent all day cooped up in a laboratory. And I believed them for years before I finally understood the truth.” She mantles them against her back once again. “I can do whatever I want with my wings, because they’re mine. And you can do whatever you want with your Semblance, Oscar, because it’s yours, and yours alone. Don’t let anyone tell you that your Semblance is useless, just because you haven’t turned it into a gun.” Dr. Erva huffs. “Gods know we have enough of those around here already.”

 

She pulls the door open back into their building and holds it for him. “Go on, get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

 

—————

 

When Oscar wakes up the next day, too early by several hours, he lies under the covers in his slowly brightening room and thinks. Not about anything in particular, the way he does when he’s wrestling with a problem he has to solve, but just lets his mind drift through past, present, and imaginary future, echoes of phrases slipping in and out of his mind as they come and go. In a few hours, his life could be irrevocably changed, he thinks. Or maybe nothing would change at all.

 

A yawning gulf seems to open up within him, and he falls in, deep, deeper, deeper. He feels it surrounding him, closing in on him, consuming him. Gods damn you, Ozpin, he thinks.

 

I miss you.

 

With Ozpin in his life, in his soul, in his head, he’d had a purpose, a mission, a centuries-old responsibility laid on his shoulders for him to bear, and a dry, sarcastic voice that would comfort him, advise him, tell him where to go. In some ways, that had been easier than what he faces now — a great unknown, a never-ending series of decisions to make, an unending sequence of crossroads with a million choices, all of them shrouded in mist. He was happy that Ozpin had gotten the eternal rest he’d wanted, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t still selfishly wish that Ozpin were still here, to guide him and advise him.

 

The ringing of his scroll’s alarm startles him out of his thoughts, and he flails in surprise, blankets suddenly tangling around his limbs. Oscar practically falls out of bed and just lies on the floor for a bit, staring at the blank ceiling, marveling at how little life seemed to care about the great ironies of it all, before he finally gets up to ready himself for the day.

 

—————

 

There’s an observation deck, protected from the laboratory floor with thick glass and steel girders, and Dr. Erva has exiled all the non-essential personnel there, for which Oscar can’t decide if he’s pathetically grateful for or a little resentful. On one hand, it means that he isn’t mobbed by the rest of team RWBY, who Dr. Erva could barely keep out of the room; on the other hand, he can feel all of their gazes watching him, along with General Ironwood and Qrow Branwen and a whole host of people he doesn’t know but can only assume to be Dr. Erva’s many grad students, as he picks his way across the mess of wires spidering along the floor.

 

The set-up of machinery strikes a chord of memory; two upright, coffin-like pods lean towards each other, connected by thick tubes of cables and pipes, and it all looks familiar and unfamiliar. For a moment, the room’s ceiling is too low, everything too bright, and the hair of the girl in the other coffin is too dark —

 

Oscar shakes off the memory and strides purposefully to the empty pod. Dr. Erva stands off to the side, keying some things into the terminal that controls the whole set-up, and she spares him a distracted smile before going back to her work.

 

He doesn’t look at Salem, who is positioned behind the machinery, precisely at the halfway juncture of the cables linking the two machines, though he can feel her gaze on him.

 

A few moments later, Dr. Erva finishes her typing with a definitive tap and turns to him. “Are you ready?” she asks, much too quietly for anyone else to hear.

 

He doesn’t trust his voice, so he just nods, and to his surprise, she reaches out to him and pulls him into a gentle embrace. “You might be the bravest person I know,” she whispers into his hair, and he feels rather than sees the rustling of feathers as her wings envelop him too, shielding them both from the outside world.

 

Oscar lets out a shuddering breath and lets himself lean into her touch for just a moment, before she gives him one last squeeze, and the two of them break apart. “Don’t forget me when you have enough magic to take over the world,” she says, eyes amused behind the wire rims of her glasses.

 

“I won’t,” he says, trying for lighthearted but without the energy for a real quip, and steps into his pod. His back settles against the cool metal, and the door hisses shut over him.

 

Now is not the time to discover that he’s claustrophobic, he admonishes himself, so he tries to relax as Dr. Erva, voice muffled by the glass, asks Salem if she’s ready. Then machinery hums to life around him, the metal vibrating gently as it powers up. For a moment, nothing seems to change, but no, that’s not right — everything starts to glow softly, and it feels like some kind of electric pressure is building inside the glass coffin, not unpleasant but definitely unnerving.

 

The hum of the machinery stutters a bit, then shifts into a high whine that makes him wince, makes him reach up to his head to cover his ears but he can’t tell if the pounding headache that has slammed into his head from nowhere is from the steadily building electric pressure, or the ear-piercing sound, or his body’s instinctive reaction to all things Ozpin which would certainly include magic, oh, no, he didn’t think this through, did he, surely Dr. Erva thought this through though and he can trust her, right?

 

The light is getting brighter and brighter so he screws his eyes shut to block it out but it’s still there, stealing into the cracks in his body and his head will explode if it doesn’t let up —

 

He opens his mouth to scream but can’t draw in any air, and the pressure just builds and builds and everything he sees starts turning red like dancing petals across his vision until —

 

It’s like something cosmic shifts into place; the colors slam back into their normal spectrum, but the light is still there. His body is tense and muscles taut, ready for a fight, but there’s nothing to fight here and the light may be bright but it doesn’t hurt —

 

He blinks. The light doesn’t hurt, he marvels, and just like that, it all comes rushing home in a roar, the magic surging through his body and igniting nerves in his fingertips and toes that he didn’t even know existed, wrapping around each rib and shooting down his spine. He feels like a live wire, like a completed circuit, like if anyone touched him now he’d go up in a crackle of lightning.

 

There are words around him, near him, but he doesn’t hear them clearly as the door cracks open and he stumbles out of his pod. He feels shaky but his legs are steady, and the light is dying away now. Dr. Erva is asking him something, and he tries to pull himself back into focus to hear, and barely catches the end of it. “— right? Oscar?”

 

Oscar flicks open his right hand like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and sparks dance in his palms, the magic twining around his fingers with an electric enthusiasm. “I think it worked,” he says unnecessarily.

 

—————

 

It takes a few hours for him to come off of the high of gaining magic, most of which he spends answering Dr. Erva’s questions. He barely registers the hubbub around him — at some point, the observation deck people had migrated onto the laboratory floor — or their movement into another room, or when the people steadily disappeared until it was just him and Dr. Erva. Apparently, the rush of power was a common symptom of magic transfer that all the Maidens had experienced, but the electricity was something new.

 

“All the other Maidens say that magic usually manifests in fire, not electricity,” Dr. Erva says, and Oscar is too giddy to really care. He feels like he could raise mountains if he wanted. He feels like he could punch the sky.

 

At some point, Salem had been in the room, and Dr. Erva had turned to ask her about it. Salem had frowned a little but didn’t seem concerned. “Magic is our soul’s connection to the world around us,” she’d said, “it manifests differently for each person.” She’d just shrugged helplessly when Dr. Erva pressed for more detail.

 

To his mind, it feels like mere minutes have passed, but his body suddenly feels the weight of hours when the thrill of it all begins to wear off. He suddenly blinks, hard, and looks up; the room blurs a little, then shifts into focus. “Where’s Ruby?” he asks. “Is she okay?”

 

Dr. Erva looks up from where she’s typing busily away at a terminal. They are the only two people in the room right now; Oscar doesn’t even know when Salem had left. He distantly remembers that there had been other people in the room, too, but can’t seem to recall who. “Ruby’s awake,” Dr. Erva says. “Finally. A little worse for the wear from the coma, but she’s awake.”

 

Oscar breathes a sigh of relief, and almost chokes in surprise when he exhales sparks. “Have I been doing that all day?” he asks, a little horrified.

 

Dr. Erva chuckles. “You’re doing much better than earlier, trust me.”

 

He looks around and realizes that they’re not in Dr. Erva’s lab, as he’d thought. There’s a total lack of equipment in the room, actually.

 

“You were buzzing with enough power to short-circuit the entire compound, so we figured a room with minimal technology might be best,” Dr. Erva says, and aside from the simple light fixtures overhead and the terminal Dr. Erva’s working on, there don’t seem to be other electronics in the room.

 

“Well,” Oscar says, and he thinks there are less sparks than before, and calls it progress, “I’m glad it worked.”

 

Dr. Erva smiles. “Me too, Oscar, me too.”

 

—————

 

As soon as Dr. Erva deems him fit for human company again, Oscar visits Ruby in the infirmary.

 

Team RWBY is there, sitting around Ruby’s bedside, catching her up on what she’s missed. When Oscar steps in the room, their eyes light up. “Oscar!”

 

They tackle him in a hug — well, all of them except Ruby, who just smiles from where she lies, propped up on pillows. Blake lets go immediately with a hiss. “You shocked me,” she says, accusingly, and Oscar rubs the back of his head apologetically.

 

“I’m working on it?” he offers.

 

“You could almost say that he’s… feeling electric?” Yang says, a hand on her hip.

 

They all turn to stare at her. “Wire you all staring at me?” Yang says, with a wide grin on her face. “Blake started it first.”

 

“I did?” Blake says.

 

“It’s been ages since you’ve made a bad pun, Yang,” Weiss says. Then, with a wicked grin, she adds, “We’re so delighted that you’re back to normal.” Ruby covers her eyes.

 

“Ugh, guys, it may have been ages for you but it feels like yesterday to me!”

 

“You know, since you and Yang grew up together, I thought that you’d be fused to it by now,” Oscar says, and Ruby glares at him, betrayed.

 

“Give the magic back, Oscar, even the coma was better than this.”

 

Weiss, Blake, and Yang shift around Ruby’s bed, opening up a space for him. He approaches, hesitant.

 

Ruby smiles at him, eyes soft and happy; she looks exhausted, and much gaunter than could be healthy, but there are spots of color in her cheeks, and she looks wonderfully alive.

 

“How are you feeling?” Oscar asks.

 

“I feel so much lighter,” Ruby says. “And not just because I’ve lost a lot of weight, apparently.”

 

“You’re going to have to do a ton of physical therapy,” Yang says, apologetic. “But I’ll be here to coach you through it, sis.”

 

Ruby reaches for Blake’s hand. “Please don’t let her,” she stage-whispers to Blake, who looks vaguely alarmed. “She’s the meanest drill-sergeant around.”

 

Blake’s expression seems torn between laughing and freaking out about having to choose between her loyalty to her girlfriend and her team leader when Weiss rescues her. “If you don’t want Yang to do it, then I’m more than happy to volunteer,” Weiss says, and Ruby squeaks and ducks under the covers.

 

“Oh no, that’s even worse! Oscar, just magic them away!”

 

As if on cue, the bulb overhead fizzes and explodes. All five of them freeze.

 

“Was that you, Yang?” Oscar asks at the same time as Yang says, “That wasn’t me!”

 

They glance at each other over Ruby’s bed.

 

“That might have been me,” Oscar admits reluctantly. “I’m still working on controlling it. The magic is… very enthusiastic.”

 

“I can see that,” Weiss says.

 

“Looks like both of you will have to do some training before we get out of here,” Blake says.

 

This time, Oscar and Ruby groan in unison.

 

—————

 

Dr. Erva makes them all wait a week before she allows Yang to undergo the same procedure.

 

“The odds of us getting it perfect the first time around were microscopically tiny, and there are still side effects that might show up,” she says when team RWBY — minus Ruby, who’s still working on regaining the strength to walk around her room unassisted — shows up at her door. “Not to mention that we’ll have to make adjustments for Yang’s Aura profile.”

 

Oscar still has his daily sessions with Dr. Erva, and she peppers him with questions about his experience of the procedure, about how the magic feels to him, and as always, about how he’s feeling. He answers as best as he can, and when she hears about the pressure in the pod, she frowns and mutters something about having a grad student check on that.

 

Now, he spends his free time trying to figure out how the magic works, his book on Aura theory fallen to one side. With the initial, uncontrolled bursts, he’d been worried that maybe even Atlas’s finest scientific minds were all wrong and he didn’t have any more control of the magic than Ruby did, but the more he practices with it, the more it begins to make sense. The magic feels like a deep wellspring of power, simultaneously within him and outside of him. It sounds strange when he tries to put it into words, but when he mentions it to Ruby as he’s visiting her one day, she nods.

 

“That’s how it felt to me, too,” Ruby says. She’s leaning on his elbow for support as they take slow steps between the beds, down the center of the infirmary toward the door at the far side. Her goal is to make it to the door and back for today, but Ruby’s already breathing hard from the effort. The coma had taken a severe toll on her body, and she has a month of muscular atrophy to work through. “Like I had to reach inside to pull it out, but once it was burning, all the energy seemed to come from around me.”

 

“Maybe magic isn’t related to Semblances at all,” Oscar says, “since Semblances are powered by Aura, and when you run out of Aura, you can’t use your Semblance anymore.”

 

“But you can still use magic even after you’ve run out Aura,” Ruby says, frowning. “Huh.”

 

Oscar’s chewing on this new existential dilemma when Ruby speaks up again. “Hey, Oscar?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

 

Oscar blinks and looks at her. “Um, sure?”

 

“During the — transfer,” Ruby says. “Did you… see anything? Or feel anything weird?”

 

Oscar frowns. “There was a lot of light, and everything was really loud, and toward the end it started turning red, but nothing special, I think?”

 

“Oh.”

 

They take another two steps. “Why, did you see something?” Oscar asks.

 

Ruby shakes her head. “I don’t know. I’m not sure if I saw something, but I felt — I felt so relieved, but I had no idea why. It’s like… It was like I was feeling someone else’s relief. But that doesn’t make any sense.”

 

He flinches, and she immediately looks up at him. “Oscar?”

 

He thinks about the red that had flooded his vision — he’d dismissed it as a side-effect of the pressure, the intensity of the moment, but come to think of it — “Actually,” he says. “I think — I think the red I saw was rose petals.”

 

Oscar tells Dr. Erva the next day, and she taps her chin thoughtfully with a pen. “Semblance bleed-through. Interesting.”

 

“Is that a problem?” Oscar asks.

 

Dr. Erva fixes her unblinking gaze on him. “Well, do you feel like you can burst into rose petals?”

 

Oscar thinks for a moment, pokes the new energy inside him. It can do a lot, he feels, but he’s not sure about that. “No?”

 

“Then you’re probably fine. There might be a slipped decimal somewhere, though, I’ll need to double check.”

 

Oscar’s gotten pretty good at not zapping all the lights when he enters a room by the end of the week; he’s not sure why electricity seems to be the most instinctive form of magic for him, but there’s something about the brilliance of it, the restless energy that seems to match the way it feels. Magic itched to be used.

 

Yang finds him in the courtyard one day, as he looks speculatively up at the blue, blue sky. “You know,” she says, coming up beside him, “you could probably control the weather if you wanted.”

 

“Really?” Oscar hasn’t dared to try and tap fully into the magical reservoir; he gets the feeling that Ironwood would be having strong words with him if he did anything too noticeable.

 

“Yeah. I saw my mom do it once — made it go from a sunny day to totally overcast.” Yang looks down, and there’s something unreadable in her purple eyes.

 

“The Spring Maiden was your — ?” Oscar puts it together a second too late, and clamps his mouth shut.

 

“Yeah. And then she passed it on to me.” The gears in her arm click and whirr as Yang shifts.

 

“I’m sorry,” Oscar says, and means it. After it all, it feels petty to hang on to things like long-past betrayals, and even Ozpin had forgiven, much before Oscar even knew.

 

“It’s fine,” Yang says. “I had a lot of problems with her anyway.”

 

“Even so,” Oscar says. “You’re still allowed to grieve.” He blinks. Where had that —?

 

Yang starts, and looks at him like she’s seeing him for the first time. Oscar hates that look — well, he doesn’t hate it exactly, but he does wish that people would stop being so surprised at him all the time. Then again, he just surprised himself. “You would know, huh,” Yang says, and there’s a hint of a wry smile at the corner of her mouth.

 

“I would,” Oscar agrees.

 

 

—————

 

Transferring Yang’s magic goes a lot smoother, and while Oscar is still dizzy for a good hour or so after the procedure, there’s less of a giddy high. He taps into the magic, and just lets it pour and pour and pour into him, and marvels at how it doesn’t seem to end.

 

Having magic changes the way he sees the world; he down the hallway once, and for a brief moment, sees all the wiring running from light to light, through the walls, into the skeletal structure of the entire compound, before it vanishes at the next blink. When he glances upwards while crossing the courtyard, he somehow understands the swirl of cloud passing by overhead, can taste the raindrops it holds, and almost reaches up to unravel it. He spends an evening lying on the floor of his room, feeling the distant vibrations of the floor, and the floor below him, feels the echoing cavern of the basement and the slow, stately symphony of the earth. He curls a thread of magic around a large chunk of bedrock and thinks about how easy it would be to drag it to the surface, to see it explode out of the ground and send cobblestones flying —

 

Oscar sits up. The room is shaking, he realizes, and lets go of the magic immediately. The vibrations grumble to a halt, and the next day, the Atlesian news stations report it as an engine anomaly in the mechanisms that keep Atlas aloft in the sky, that technicians were investigating the source of the problem. Oscar almost can’t admit it to Dr. Erva.

 

She frowns at him from over her glasses, and he positively quails. “I’ll be sure to let General Ironwood know,” Dr. Erva says. “At the very least, it’ll save his technicians some time looking for a problem that was never there.”

 

Oscar winces. He hopes he won’t have to be present for that conversation.

 

“You’re only going to get more power, Oscar,” Dr. Erva says, “and that means you have to be careful about what collateral damage you might cause.”

 

“I know,” he says, chastised. They’ve contacted the Winter Maiden, a seasoned Huntress from Vacuo, and she was due to arrive any day now. Once he’s recovered her magic, he could probably drag Atlas out of the sky with an afterthought.

 

“You need to practice with it,” Dr. Erva says. “Ask Salem to teach you.”

 

Oscar stiffens. “Why?” he asks, testy. “Can’t I just hold on to it, and not use it?”

 

“I suppose you could, but it seems a shame.” Dr. Erva’s tone remains even, casual. “You could do so much more with it. Salem’s shown me some complex sygaldry that could revolu—”

 

“It’s my magic, isn’t it?” Oscar says. “So it’s up to me if I choose not to weaponize it.” He regrets turning her own words against her the moment after he says it.

 

Dr. Erva turns away from him to tinker with a nearby monitor. “So long as no cities fall out of the sky,” she says, and the silence between them stretches awkwardly for the next ten minutes, until Oscar makes some excuses and beats a hasty retreat.

 

——————

 

“So… I spoke with Salem yesterday,” Ruby says, shattering the companionable silence between them into slivers of ice and air.

 

They’re standing outside in the small courtyard — Ruby’s idea, though Oscar had protested that she hadn’t recovered enough to handle the cold of the congealing Atlesian winter, but when Ruby made up her mind, heaven and earth would move before she changed it — breaths puffing out in small clouds as they stamp their feet against the pinpricks of numbness creeping through layers of boots and wool socks. Though Oscar had been doubtful when Ruby suggested going outside, her cheeks are glowing, pinked from the chill, and her silver eyes catch the sunlight. Her recovery has been been progressing by leaps and bounds; she’s still young, after all. Oscar forgets sometimes how young Ruby Rose is.

 

How young they both are, he corrects belatedly.

 

Ruby looks at him expectantly when he doesn’t immediately respond. “Okay,” he says, keeping his tone noncommittal.

 

“She seems…” Ruby casts around for a word, and Oscar tucks his hands into his armpits to keep them warm. “Sorry.”

 

“Okay.” He kicks the heel of his right boot against the ground, absentmindedly cataloguing the notes of gravel. Beneath that, the hum of the earth. Beneath that, the low rumble of the engines that keep Atlas afloat.

 

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, since… you know, the past three years have been all about stopping her. And, well, now she’s stopped. And I think she’s really sorry about everything she’s done.”

 

Oscar knows this already, from the familiar-foreign slide of palm-to-palm, skin-to-skin.  “Okay,” he says.

 

“Don’t you care?” Ruby bursts out. “I mean, we all know who she was to you before she turned evil, and now that there’s no more Grimm in her, I thought — I just thought that…” She falters, as if she hadn’t expected to get this far. “That maybe…she could become a friend again? Or at least, an ally.”

 

Oscar takes a deep breath. Inhale, exhale. He would stay in control in this conversation.

 

“Oscar, she’s trying,” Ruby says.

 

“And who was she, to me, before?” he asks, voice carefully even.

 

“Sorry?”

 

“You said that everyone knows who she was to me before she turned evil. Who was she?” Oscar uncrosses his arms and turns to face Ruby squarely. “And for that matter, who am I?”

 

“I—” Ruby stops, and he watches understanding well up in her eyes. The chill begins to set in again. “I’m sorry,” Ruby says, finally. “I didn’t think this through from your perspective. Which, I guess, has always been our problem when it comes to you and Ozpin. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have assumed.”

 

This is the most comprehensive apology Oscar has received so far from those he’d traveled with three years ago, but he feels no victory, no savage satisfaction in hearing it. Instead, he just feels tired. “Thanks,” he says, curt, acknowledging the apology before he moves towards the door back inside.

 

“Oscar, wait!” Instinctively, he turns towards the sound of Ruby’s footfalls, and practically catches her as her knees buckle from trying to run after him. There’s a moment where both of them are in danger of tipping over before they regain their balance.

 

“Ooooh,” Ruby says. “I didn’t think that one through either. Pesky legs. You’d think after three weeks they’d figure out how to walk again. Thanks for catching me.”

 

Oscar’s frustration evaporates in the face of his concern. “I told you that you weren’t ready to come out yet!”

 

“If I admit you were right, will you help me get back to my room?”

 

Oscar huffs. “Of course.” He holds the door open for her, and she enters, leaning heavily on his arm.

 

The heated air of the hallway wraps around them like a warm embrace, and Oscar feels pins and needles set in places that had gone numb without him noticing. They’re halfway down the hall when Ruby pipes up again. “She is trying, though.”

 

If Oscar had a hand to spare, he would have slapped himself in the forehead, because Ruby has just masterfully maneuvered him into continuing this conversation. “Ruby?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Just say what you’re trying to tell me.”

 

“I’m not trying to tell you what to do—”

 

Ruby.”

 

“Fine.” The door to the cafeteria comes up on their left, and Ruby taps his hand. He helps her turn into the room, and Ruby drops heavily into a chair. “I think you should talk to Salem more.”

 

Oscar takes the seat across from her. “Why?”

 

“Because,” she says, then pauses to assemble her thoughts. “I think you’d have a lot to talk about.” When Oscar opens his mouth to retort, Ruby raises a hand to forestall him. “And yes, I mean you, Oscar Pine.”

 

He will sit still and hear her out, Oscar promises himself, even if every bone in his body wants to get out of the room, out of the conversation. “Like what?” he asks.

 

“Well, how to use magic, for one,” Ruby says.  “Once you get the Summer and the Winter Maiden’s powers, the two of you will be the most powerful magical beings on the planet. Uh, aside from the gods, of course, but they’ve been pretty hands-off since they’ve gotten back. And being able to control your magic is super helpful for fighting Grimm!”

 

“But what if I don’t want to use the magic for fighting Grimm?” Oscar says. “What if I want to use it to rebuild Beacon Academy? Or make giant sand sculptures? Or…what if I don’t want to use it all?”

 

“I can’t argue with using magic to rebuild Beacon,” Ruby says slowly. “General Ironwood mentioned sending in team RWBY to clear the Grimm out and start up the school again, and having the power of the Maidens — well, the power of magic on our side would be a big help.” She pauses. “I don’t think that’s why you’re scared of magic, though.”

 

Oscar recoils. “I’m not scared of—”

 

“Oscar,” Ruby cuts in. “What are you doing at Haven right now?”

 

“I’m… training to become a Huntsman.”

 

“And if I told you that there was a very powerful tool for fighting Grimm, one that would let you become an even better Huntsman than you already were, what would you do?”

 

“I would want to… learn how to use it,” Oscar says slowly.

 

“Exactly. Now, why would magic be any different from anything else you’d use to fight Grimm? It’s like having a bonus Semblance, except it’s stronger than a Semblance and a weapon put together, and you can also do some really cool things with it, like there was this one time…”

 

Oscar listens with half an ear to Ruby’s story about using her Fall Maiden powers to call down lightning in the middle of a pitched sea battle, but he falls in and out of her words. Ruby isn’t completely right — he’s certainly not afraid of the magic, by any means, but he could see now that bristling, instinctive discomfort at the idea of learning how to channel his magic, to add it to his repertoire as a Huntsman, because once he did, he’d have to acknowledge that he was different from Cobalt and Morado and Safire and all the other students at Haven, that he had this unfair advantage of being able to use magic if he ever got stuck, or overwhelmed in a fight, that he couldn’t be a normal Huntsman like the rest of them, and would always have this lingering shadow of Ozpin that would color all of his achievements and failures —

 

“Oscar?” Ruby asks, gentle, and Oscar shakes his head a little, coming out of the vortex of his thoughts.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says. “You gave me a lot to think about.”

 

“Well, I’m going to give you one more thing to think about,” she says. “I really do think you should talk to Salem. Not just to learn magic, but I think… I think you should talk about Ozpin.”

 

Oscar looks away.

 

“If there’s anyone else in the world who might understand Ozpin, it would be her.”

 

“She didn’t understand him,” Oscar says. “I don’t think she ever understood him.”

 

“Then help her,” Ruby says. “You’re not the only one hurting from this, Oscar.” She makes a movement, like she’s about to reach for his hand, and Oscar flinches.

 

“At least promise me you’ll try?” Ruby says, apologetic and demanding at the same time.

 

Oscar closes his eyes. “I promise. I’ll try.”

 

——————

 

Aunt Em arrives precisely fourteen hours, thirty-seven minutes after the Winter Maiden — the ex-Winter Maiden, now — departs. Oscar has been sending her regular updates by scroll, once a week, but he had no idea that she had boarded a plane to Atlas already. He’d been holding off on telling her to come, Oscar realizes, making excuses to himself about wanting to get more used to the magic, wanting to work through the awkwardness in his relationship to team RWBY, and then the whole issue of Salem had come up.

 

He sees them for what they are, now — excuses. His life was simpler when his carefully separated worlds — his family, team RWBY, team COSM, and his time as Ozpin’s reincarnation — hadn’t crashed together. And maybe — just maybe — he wanted Dr. Erva to test out the procedure as many times as possible to make sure it was safe as it could be before Aunt Em went through it.

 

All of this hits home in a flash when Aunt Em strolls through the front gate of the Atlas experimental research facility, broad-brimmed sunhat perched a jaunty angle, coat-tails billowing behind her. She’s wearing a long, white, sleeveless coat belted around her waist, layered over a dark, no-nonsense base layer for warmth. In that moment, Oscar suddenly remembers that his aunt had been studying to become a Huntress before she’d switched tracks to became a freelance legal contractor.

 

Oscar immediately abandons his sparring match with Blake and takes off running. “Who is that?” he hears Yang say.

 

“Aunt Em!” Oscar yells in delight, launching himself at her.

 

Aunt Em sidesteps neatly at the last moment, but catches him by the forearm as he goes sailing by, and the two of them corkscrew into a tight hug. “Oscar!” she says, laughing and readjusting her glasses, knocked askew by the force of their collision. They pull apart, looking at each other, and oh, it has been years since he’s seen her last, hasn’t it? He’s actually taller than her now, and she has to tilt her chin up, just a little, to look at him. “You’re getting a little big for flying hugs, aren’t you?”

 

Oscar rubs the back of his head, sheepish. “Old habits die hard?” he offers. He can barely contain the grin on his face. Why hadn’t he gone back and visited? She had only been a train ride away!

 

He notes his frustration, forgives his past self, and files it away. He would do better from now on, he resolved. He’d bring team COSM to the farm on free weekends, let them meet Aunt Em, maybe conscript them into helping with some fieldwork—

 

“You didn’t tell me you were coming,” Oscar says, trying for accusing and failing.

 

Aunt Em rolls her eyes. “Well, if I waited on you to invite me to come, I’d be in Mistral until my hair turned gray. Plus,” she says, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “I had an excellent guide.”

 

“Guide?” Oscar looks around, and finally notices Glynda Goodwitch standing off to the side, mouth quirked up in one of her invisible smiles. “Wait, how did you two—?”

 

“Your aunt reached out to me, not long after you left for Atlas,” Professor Goodwitch says. “I can’t tell if I’m offended or impressed that the two of you kept the identity of the Summer Maiden secret for so long.”

 

“Wait,” Yang says, as she and Blake catch up. “Your aunt is the Summer Maiden?”

 

“Oh, hey Professor Goodwitch,” Blake says.

 

“Huntresses.” Professor Goodwitch nods back. “Congratulations on graduating.”

 

Oscar and Aunt Em glance at each other. “Ozpin told us to keep it secret, so we did,” Oscar says.

 

“If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you been the Summer Maiden, Miz, uh, Pine?” Blake asks.

 

Aunt Em considers this for a moment. “At least twenty years,” she says, finally.

 

“Twenty years?” Yang boggles.

 

“I worked remotely from a farm in the backwoods of Mistral,” Aunt Em says. “Flying under the radar wasn’t exactly hard.” Her voice is light, but Oscar knows that’s only a version of the truth.

 

“As exciting as this all is,” Professor Goodwitch’s voice cuts in, “how about we move this conversation indoors? It is, somehow, still an Atlesian winter out here, and I need to speak with James about our arrival.”

 

They all file indoors, and for a moment, Oscar thinks that Aunt Em is going to leave with Professor Goodwitch, but Aunt Em seems content to follow Oscar, Blake, and Yang to the cafeteria, answering their questions good-naturedly.

 

In the cafeteria, they run into Weiss and Ruby, both nursing cups of peppermint tea, and another round of introductions ensue. Weiss glances between Oscar, Aunt Em, Oscar again, Aunt Em again, and tries to stifle a chuckle behind a hand.

 

“What?” Oscar asks.

 

“Nothing!” Weiss says. “Just, uh, you can really see the family resemblance.”

 

Oscar and Aunt Em glance at each other again. “I suppose,” Oscar says.

 

“The Pine genes make themselves known,” Aunt Em says loftily.

 

If Oscar’d had any concerns over how Aunt Em would interact with team RWBY, they were quickly dispelled; Aunt Em fit effortlessly into the lively play of conversation, deftly volleying questions and responses with the girls.

 

“The procedure?” Aunt Em asks.

 

Ruby shrugs. “I was out of it, but it seemed fine.”

 

“Quicker and easier than falling asleep,” Yang says.

 

“That’s a lie,” Blake says. “You fall asleep the moment your head hits the pillow. Magic transfer takes at least half an hour. ”

 

“Embarrassing childhood stories about Oscar?” Weiss asks.

 

“That time a baby gosling imprinted on him,” Aunt Em answers promptly.

 

Oscar buries his face in his hands.

 

“Wait, but that sounds so cute!” Ruby says over the sound of Blake and Weiss cooing in harmony.

 

“It was,” Aunt Em agreed. “It became hilarious when Oscar had a fully-grown goose following him to school every day, who would hiss at anyone who came near him.”

 

Oscar decides that now is an excellent moment to strategically slide under the table, face burning, but lets himself be pulled back up by Yang and Weiss on either side of him.

 

There is something about this moment, like summer sunlight crystallized into warm, living glass, that feels joyously beautiful and gut-wrenchingly delicate at the same time, like if he breathes too hard or speaks too loudly, this rare breath of laughter will shatter into a thousand frozen shards. Never in his wildest dreams could he imagine this — his aunt, talking and chatting and guffawing uproariously with team RWBY, sitting in a cafeteria in a research facility in Atlas of all places — but now that he’s in this subtle, surreal, gem-hearted moment, he can’t help but marvel at the eternity of tiny coincidences that brought them to this time and place and space and time.

 

Just then, Ruby glances over at him in the middle of telling a story about Yang’s attempts to bake cookies when they were children, and Oscar remembers his promise to her.

 

Salem has none of this, he realizes. His childhood may have been cut short by the arrival of Ozpin in his life, but at least he’d had most of one — and he still has Aunt Em, and team RWBY, and team COSM back in Haven. At least he’s been given the great fortune of living at the same time as people who love him.

 

He makes up his mind.

 

——————

 

When the magic of all four seasons returns to Oscar, gravity loses its hold on him.

 

He all but floats out of the pod when it hisses open, a pod that will no longer be relevant, now that he has completed its purpose, or its purpose has completed him. He drifts through the air at a thought, the barest hint of an intention, and vaguely recalls that no, this isn’t what normal people do, so he settles back down to earth. How heavy was he usually, when the gravitational pull of Remnant still called to him? Oscar feels like he has forgotten how to walk, and tries his best to approximate it.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Dr. Erva start moving towards him, for their usual post-procedure debrief, then hesitate. On his other side, Aunt Em climbs shakily out of her pod, assisted by a lab-coated grad student. Oscar notes it all absentmindedly, and moves forwards towards his intent.

 

Salem.

 

He comes to a stop before her position among the thick wires and cabling. Salem has her eyes closed, leaning heavily against the wall, taking deep, controlled breaths. Doing this, Oscar realizes, costs her more than a little, and he hasn’t noticed this because of his stubborn refusal to have anything to do with her.

 

She opens her eyes and flinches back from him, wide green eyes searching his face. Dispassionately, he notices her apprehension, and almost laughs out loud. What does she have to fear from him, an eighteen-year-old ex-farmhand, half-trained Huntsman and untrained wizard?

 

He doesn’t laugh, but he does let out a short huff of breath, and sparks flood his vision. Oscar frowns, then glances down at himself.

 

His entire body is wreathed in an aura of green, pulsing energy. Closer to his body, the intensity of the light actually whites out, emitting an occasional shower of sparks. He’s also floating, despite his best intentions, a good foot off the ground.

 

He must look like an avenging angel, skin brimming over with power. He feels divine, the magic surging beneath his skin, practically begging to be used —

 

He concentrates on his right hand, and all the power flows to it, building in intensity until it’s almost too bright to look at. At least the magic drains away from his feet, and he drifts down to the floor, stumbling a little when his feet touch.

 

Salem looks from his hand to his face, and something seems to smooth out of her furrowed brows. She looks — strangely — relieved.

 

“I have a favor to ask,” Oscar says, and a few sparks escape with the words.

 

“Ask,” Salem says, voice steady.

 

He holds out his hand — the one wrapped in a blinding light that gave off no heat — and some deep, wordless instinct tells him to offer it to her, palm up. As he does so, the light contracts even further, until it forms the shape of an ornate glove, woven finer than any fabric yet infinitely complex, a network of tiny sigils circling around and around his hand. “Will you teach me?”

 

Salem’s eyes widen. “Do you know what you’re doing right now?” she demands. “Do you know what you’re offering to me right now? What you’re asking me to give to you?”

 

“No,” Oscar says, truthfully. “But I trust you to make the right decision.”

 

Salem passes her hand over her eyes. “Gods,” she says, shakily. “Of course I’ll teach you. Put that away, before someone actually does something stupid with it.”

 

Oscar nods, and the glove unravels, snaking up his arm and dispersing under his skin. His vision goes white for a moment—

 

—and then he recovers, staggering against a nearby table and jostling the equipment. He’s breathing hard, like he’s just fought off a pack of Boarbatusks, but now his head is clearer than it was a few moments ago. What was that?

 

He feels utterly drained, the kind of bone-deep exhaustion he usually felt only after a battle, after being on constant edge for hours and finally feeling the knots and tension unknit. He raises a hand to wipe his forehead, only to realize that his hand is shaking too badly.

 

Only then does he realize that the room is dead silent.

 

Oscar glances around; everyone is staring at him — Aunt Em, the grad students, Dr. Erva, General Ironwood, Qrow Branwen. Everyone except Salem, who looks…shattered. In the crowd, he catches Ruby’s eyes, and she nods at him, a proud smile pulling at the corner of her mouth.

 

Dr. Erva, as always, rescues him from the moment.

 

“Anba!” she barks, and the grad student by Aunt Em snaps to attention. “There’s a post-procedure sequence that we both know, and it does not include rubbernecking. And everyone else— ” Dr. Erva rounds on the crowd, wings flaring just a little. “Unless you’re planning to help with clean-up, I would advise you to move your conversations elsewhere.” Dr. Erva finishes her sentence gazing directly at General Ironwood, and Oscar frowned. Was he missing something?

 

Suitably cowed, the spectators filed out of the space, conversation bubbling up again.

 

“First things first,” Salem says, and Oscar turns back to look at her. “What you had just made was a contract glove. If I’d taken your hand, you would have combined our ability to access magic, which would make the two of us twice as powerful and twice as vulnerable as we already are. I would have been able to draw on all of your power, and likewise, you would have been able to use mine. That was an exceedingly reckless move, Mister Pine.”

 

Oscar blinks. He wasn’t entirely sure he understood Salem, but that sounded suitably dangerous.

 

“But as a gesture of trust…” Salem hesitates. “There could be no greater. Why?”

 

Why what? Why his change of heart? Why the sudden trust?

 

“Because there’s no one else,” Oscar says finally, and Salem nods, then turns away.

 

——————

 

When Oscar returns to his room, he stops, just inside the door, and takes a deep breath.

 

It was hard to believe that he had only been in Atlas for a month; so much had changed. His worlds had collided, and somehow, no disastrous conflagrations had erupted. He now held an immense wellspring of magic, enough energy to level a city — or to build one. And he had reconciled, put to rest some open wounds of the past. Especially with team RWBY — they had spoken, they had forgiven, and though there were still layers of deep hurt that he knew remained untouched by both sides, at least they were all now forging something new, some shared ground that all five of them could stand on together.

 

And now, there was Salem. Salem, who was simpler when she had just been an object of fear and loathing, a being of pure evil and destruction. Things had been simpler for Oscar when she could remain a shadowy threat, someone Oscar could blame all of his troubles and traumas on. But now, Salem was this person of flesh and blood, body intact but memories in pieces, waking from thousands of years with nothing but hazy recollections, the only certainties in her world that the love of her life was dead and that she had been the agent of his suffering, not knowing if she could ever be forgiven but hoping against hope for only that.

 

Yes, everything had been simpler before Oscar had taken her hand and realized that Salem, too, was just another person, with all the cracks and fissures and imperfections that came from living in the remnants of this world while human. He was tired of handing out forgiveness, from being magnanimous and understanding and generous and kind, and he suspected that this would only be the beginning of a lifelong struggle, of fighting against all odds and everything destiny could throw at him, of fighting against influences that would corrupt him, fighting to remain a smaller, more honest soul.

 

He exhales, and moves through his room to the window. Outside, clouds blanketed the sky in a striations of gray, their textures rolling and tumbling into each other. He tastes the faint scent of snow in the air and follows it, giving the sensation a gentle tug with the magic at his fingertips.

 

Oscar watches the first few flakes of snow drift down from the sky, and as they settle gently into the courtyard below, he discovers a deep, inexplicable certainty sitting low in his chest, a certainty that, despite his doubts and distrust, despite past betrayals and past lifetimes, he has made the right decision.

 

Ozpin, that feeling says to him, would be proud of you.

Chapter Text

The Blight came just a few days before the old year died, and it spread faster than anyone could have guessed.

 

Initially, it was nothing but strange rumors emerging in the desolate regions of Sanus, dismissed by most. Odd rumors and ghostly myths often surfaced in the blasted landscape, which was still recovering in centuries-long increments from the destruction wreaked by the Great War.

 

When refugees in earnest arrived at the gates of Vacuo, however, the world began to take notice. Amalia Rosas, Headmistress of Shade Academy, advised the council to quarantine the refugees until more information could be ascertained, and sent out a team of fourth-year Shade students to investigate the rumors. Sending senior Shade students had been the Headmistress’s time-honored and time-tested method of circumventing the bureaucratic red tape the council would inevitably run into whenever they tried to commission professional Huntsmen and Huntresses for jobs. And, Headmistress Rosas figured, it would give her students more field experience. It was a good practice, and a relatively uncontroversial one.

 

Disturbingly, the team returned mere days later, two of them carrying their team leader in their arms, a third on the edge of hysteria. It took a good three hours for Headmistress Rosas to get a coherent story out of the students, who were all severely shaken despite years of experience fighting the stuff of nightmares.

 

It took only three minutes for her to contemplate the extent of the news, and reach for her scroll.

 

When General James Ironwood of Atlas answered her call, he noted that, despite the deep tan the desert sun brought to her complexion, Headmistress Amalia Rosas, a woman who could rival Glynda Goodwitch in her sheer unflappability, was unnaturally pale. “What is it?” he asked, immediately.

 

“The end of the world,” she said. “Maybe.”

 

——————

 

Oscar misses the remainder of the semester at Haven; after consulting with Professor Goodwitch, Dr. Erva, and General Ironwood, they all agree that a better use of his time would be travelling with Salem to work on training his magic. Professor Goodwitch sighs, but promises to take care of the paperwork that would allow him to return to Haven the next semester without putting him too far behind. “You’ve been away from your team for far too long already,” Professor Goodwitch says, “but I suppose that this is about as extenuating as circumstances can get.”

 

On the day they all leave, they part ways in the hangar that Oscar vaguely remembers from a late-night flight in, its rows and rows of gleaming steel planes that looked like they were illuminated with a soft inner light. Aunt Em reaches up and pulls him down, kissing the top of his head, the way she always used to each morning before sending him off to school.

 

“What, you’re not going to try and come along this time?” Oscar asks, only half-joking.

 

Aunt Em steps back and smiles, shaking her head. “Not this time,” she says. “This trip has been adventure enough for me.”

 

Oscar waves as she strides up the ramp of the plane. Aunt Em jogs a bit to catch up to Professor Goodwitch, getting the professor’s attention with a light tap on her shoulder. Professor Goodwitch turns around, and Oscar turns away, since both women are too far away for him to hear anyth—

 

—hold on a moment. Was that an honest-to-gods smile on Glynda’s face?

 

Oscar blinks, mind briefly short-circuiting.

 

“Oscar!” Team RWBY piles out of another one of Atlas’ transport vehicle, and he’s immediately pulled into another round of goodbyes. Team RWBY’s plans, Oscar had learned, were angled towards Mistral. A recent scroll call had informed them that Jaune Arc, Nora Valkyrie, and Lie Ren were due to arrive in Haven any day, and Ruby was making excited noises about getting the gang back together. From there, the seven Huntsmen and Huntresses would take the land route back to Vale, dealing with bandits and any Grimm infestations along the way, while Ruby gathered her strength. The real work would begin, Ruby had explained to Oscar, an excited gleam in her eyes, when they arrived back in Vale. Finally, finally, both General Ironwood and Professor Goodwitch had given them the go-ahead to work on clearing out the Grimm infestation in the wreckage of Beacon Academy.

 

It would take years to actually get Beacon back to the point where it would be ready to accept students again, Blake had noted, but they were proud to be the ones taking the first step towards rebuilding the place that had been so fundamental, so integral to their lives.

 

And to meeting each other, Yang had added, and Weiss had rolled her eyes good-naturedly in the background.

 

For now, the girls all give Oscar one last hug, extracting promises from him to keep in touch via scroll, and head off to a different plane, where the familiar outline of a long-limbed Huntsman waits for them, short cape drifting behind him.

 

With the pleasantries done, the general hubbub in the hangar dies down, echoes fading away into the high corners of the space. Oscar lets out a breath, lets go of the past few weeks, and turns to face Salem, waiting quietly behind him, a large pack slung over one shoulder.

 

“Ready?” she asks.

 

“No.” Oscar hefts his own pack. “Let’s go anyway.”

 

——————

 

It had been four hours since General Ironwood had accepted an unexpected call from Headmistress Amalia Rosas; two hours ago, the leaders of Vale and Mistral had joined them in conference, Chieftain Belladonna of Menagerie following not long after, morning sunlight streaming through the background of his video feed while the sky bled deep into sunset behind Ironwood. It was midnight in Vacuo, and Amalia looked exhausted.

 

And in these four hours, none of them had been able to come up with a solution. The Blight couldn’t be fought, Amalia had repeated, again and again — it merely bleached, broke, ruined everything it came in contact with. According to eyewitnesses and corroborated by the team of Shade students, the Blight sucked all the color out of every living thing, leaving only desiccated, crumbling corpses behind. Not even the creatures of Grimm were spared; there were rumors of the gargantuan skeletons of Nevermores and sand basilisks, ash-white and chilling, half-buried in the desert sands. They didn’t even dissolve to dust, the way Grimm were supposed to upon death — the skeletons merely stood there, haunting monuments to the impassive, indiscriminate nature of the Blight.

 

The evacuation of Vacuo, at least, was underway — half an hour ago, they’d agreed that each kingdom would dispatch the airships they could spare to ferry Vacuo citizens out of the infected continent, but that still left many questions unanswered. Ironwood was fairly confident that Atlas could handle a good fraction of the Vacuo refugees, but Vale and Mistral expressed concern over their limited resources. How would they feed everyone through the winter? Where would they put the refugees? And though each of the leaders recognized the severity of the issue and the necessity of the measures taken, how would they explain it to their constituents?

 

And beyond that, there was still the problem of the Blight. What had caused it? All the reports agreed that it destroyed by leeching the color out of its victims, leaving them grayscale ghosts of their former selves. Did it feed on Aura? If so, how did it destroy the creatures of Grimm, which had no Aura? Would it stop when it reached the ocean, or would it continue to spread, deep into the trenches underwater, and eventually make landfall onto the other continents of Remnant?

 

Could they escape it? Could they fight it?

 

Were they doomed?

 

——————

 

Oscar and Salem hike into the eastern reaches of Solitas, despite the deepening cold. Few people are reckless — or foolhardy — enough to travel away from Mantle and Atlas during the winter months, which made it perfect, Salem told him, to work on channeling his magic.

 

Oscar sees her logic, but as they tromp through snowdrifts, the sky a blanket of steel wool, his teeth chattering, he can’t help but wonder if they could have gone somewhere warmer to train. Weren’t there parts of Vacuo that were both desert and deserted?

 

Although, he idly muses, tugging his orange scarf higher on his face to keep his nose warm, if they’d gone to Vacuo he probably wouldbe thinking longingly of the cooler weather in Atlas.

 

After five days of travelling, Salem deems them far away enough from civilization that their magic probably won’t catch any settlements in a blast radius, and they make camp in the snow, a lonely little outpost surrounded by the gunmetal gray of winter. As Oscar watches, Salem glances up at the sky. Flakes of snow tumble intermittently downwards while Salem paces out a space, tapping a hand thoughtfully against her chin. Eventually, she takes off a glove and crouches down to the snow, laying her fingertips on the powdery surface.

 

A faint buzzing sensation against his skin alerts Oscar to the presence of magic a moment before Salem summons it. A soft lilac light glows about Salem, slowly collecting and building in intensity, before it streams down and away from her into the ground. The sensation of Salem’s magic, unlike his experiences in Atlas, is less an impression of sheer power, and more of a deliberate movement, like an artist tracing the bold arc of a brushstroke across canvas, made with the careful certainty that this action was correct — was, in fact, the only possible realization of this course of events.

 

Nothing happens for a brief second; then, the area she’d walked around immediately crystallizes into ice.

 

As Oscar watches, Salem builds them a shelter out of ice and snow — rounded walls, to deflect the winds from any direction — with a steep, sloping roof for piled snow to slide off. He watches her raise walls within the structure, delicately smooth out joins and corners, even carve a few windows, which she then sheets with ice. The delicate interplay of magic and material mesmerizes Oscar, like watching the inner workings of some complex machinery, following the interactions of cogs and moving parts in the long process of creating a seamless whole. Except Oscar can now see the seams, where Salem threads magic through the joins between walls and ceilings, how she alternates layers of snow and ice and binds them together, and the absentminded smear of a palm against the gaps, sealing holes against the rising winds.

 

Hours must have passed — or perhaps it was minutes — but time is hard to tell when the world around them undulates through various shades of grayscale. When Salem finishes, she leans on the doorframe with one hand, exhaustion visible in the tired slope of her shoulders. “Come in,” she says to Oscar. “This will hold for the night.”

 

“For the night?” Oscar asks, incredulous. He picks up their bags and carries them inside. It’s no palace, but there is something glacial, unmovable, about the space. It felt ageless, even if he’d just seen it raised before his eyes.

 

“Magic is a force of change, a kind of constant motion,” Salem says. “It’ll unspool itself in a day or two. Then it’ll be up to you to fix it.”

 

Oscar sets their things down and gives her a look.

 

“We are here to train you,” Salem says, and Oscar sighs.

 

——————

 

“Is there anything else we can do at this time?” General Ironwood clasped his hands behind him, spine straightening in a way he knew the other leaders would read as stalwart, militaristic. Even he could feel the affectedness of the posture, though, the weariness of the past few hours sitting heavy in his bones. Amalia Rosas had it even worse off; she looked positively ragged, and her video feed was slowly brightening with the pre-dawn light in Vacuo. “Atlas will leave a channel for communication open, and I’ll have someone monitor it at all times. Everyone will send updates on their statuses at six-hour intervals, and we all know the emergency procedures.”

 

Each face nodded on their screens.

 

“All right then,” Ironwood said grimly. “I bid you all a good night — or as it may be, good morning. And good luck. May the kingdoms of Remnant rise to meet this threat together.”

 

“Pray for our futures, if you have the time,” Amalia said, before her screen blinked out. Vale and Haven followed soon after.

 

General Ironwood sighed, and slumped down into his chair. “Gods, what a disaster.”

 

“I believe,” a cool voice said from behind him, “that this would classify as a full on calamity.”

 

Ironwood spun his chair around to face Glynda Goodwitch, her channel open on a separate feed. He’d patched Glynda into the channel a few hours ago, and she’d observed quietly, sending him occasional notes on what to bring up with the other leaders. Even if Glynda Goodwitch had given up her not-inconsiderable influence in Vale for a much more low-profile position in Mistral, it would be a mistake to assume that she wasn’t still an important figure in Remnant politics.

 

“Is there anything else we can do, Glynda?” Ironwood sighed. “Aside from pray?”

 

Glynda tilted her head, as if something had just struck her. Ironwood sat up immediately. “What is it?”

 

“Pray,” Glynda said, thoughtful. “James—”

 

“Yes?”

 

“When was the last sighting of the Gods?”

 

Ironwood frowned. “Probably at their return,” he admitted. “Both team RWBY and Mister Pine witnessed their appearance. We’ve heard reports of sightings since then but nothing more than hearsay.”

 

Even miles away and filtered through pixels, Glynda’s green gaze seemed piercing. “If there’s ever been a time when we could use divine intervention, now would be it.”

 

——————

 

For the first week, Salem lets Oscar maintain their snow shelter simply by channeling more magic into it instead of rebuilding it from scratch every time. Every morning, Oscar kneels on the glassy floor, places a palm against the ground, and closes his eyes, drawing on the magic within and without his self. For a few moments, it feels like fumbling about in a dark room — and then he finds it, and magic blazes through him, filling his awareness with a brilliance almost too bright to look at. Green energy races down his arm and dashes away through the snow-and-ice walls, coursing through unseen channels laid down when Salem created the house a few days ago, and as Oscar breathes through the energy rush, the snow-house filtering back into view through the incredible glow surrounding him, the world seems to glitter with a little more radiance than the watery wintry light would suggest.

 

And that’s only just the beginning of his day.

 

Salem, as a teacher, is exacting but fair. She says little, so he learns to read the pursing of her lips, the slight frown that tugs at the edge of her mouth, the shapes of her eyes through varying levels of disappointment. She has him perform the same, menial exercises with his magic — small light shows that dance on his palms, intricate choreographies that demand every ounce of control he has.

 

He gets frustrated — he can’t help but feel that what she’s teaching him isn’t useful. What use would pretty glowing patterns be if he’s facing down a creature of Grimm?

 

“Concentrate, Oscar,” Salem says. “Destruction is easy — any fool who’s obtained magical abilities can use them to destroy a city. Control is what you need to learn.”

 

Oscar imagines that she and Professor Song back in Haven would get along swimmingly.

 

The next morning, he’s rudely awakened by a blizzard slamming through the walls of his ice-room, shocking him awake with an unceremonious face-full of snow.

 

“Salem!” he yells, half-awake, searching for her in the blinding white. What had happened? Were they under attack? The house wasn’t supposed to dissolve this early; he had until mid-morning at the very least, he’d put enough magic into it just yesterday to keep it standing until—

 

He thinks he catches the faint aftertaste of magic in the air, like an electric burn before the smoke. “Salem!” He yells again.

 

He can’t see anything in this storm, so he takes a steadying breath, frigid air searing his chest with chill fire, and draws magic to him.

 

A bubble of energy bursts into existence around him, and the howling wind immediately dies away, though his body shivers furiously from the onslaught of cold. The snow caught within the bubble’s radius slams into its sides and slides down to rest, piling up against translucent walls crackling with green and orange sparks.

 

He asks the magic, brimming beneath his skin, if there are threats around. Hazily, a response comes: no, it can sense no hostility in the vicinity. More importantly, it tells him that Salem is nearby — a steady presence of magic not far away. Her magic doesn’t seem to be agitated, or distressed, but rather…

 

expectant?

 

Oscar thinks back to the hint of magic on the stormwinds, and almost rolls his eyes. A test?

 

And yet, this certainly seemed like something Salem would do. But what was she trying to test him on?

 

Briefly, he entertains the idea of drawing in the magic, letting it fill him to bursting, until it floated him above the storm. With magic, flying was as instinctive as catching himself when he missed a step — even when he’d had just a fourth of his power, he knew with absolute certainty that he could rise into the sky, ascend beyond the reach of anyone who would try to stop him, ground him.

 

He could fly out of here right now, but he dismisses the notion and instead, struggles through the layers of snow that had built up in the mere moments since the house had come down. Oscar locates where he thinks the center of the house had been, and crouches down. He presses his palm into the snow, and yes, there it is — an answering whisper of magic, his magic, applied every day to the same spot.

 

Oscar thinks about the paths that the magic had run, the patterns it’d made — patterns, he realizes, that the magic still remembers, though it’s slipping away now, bit by bit, as snow piles up around him and the wind whips through newly-vacant space. Could he rebuild…?

 

He doesn’t think about it, doesn’t let himself think about it, doesn’t give the immediate backlash of doubt any time to gain a foothold in his mind, just inhales deeply, filling every cranny of his lungs with cold air that seems to spark with energy as it clashes with the warmth of his living body.

 

And exhales, long and slow and deliberate.

 

Magic, green and gold, swirls away from him in a spiral, outlining a ghostly version of the house in shimmering sheets of light. For a moment, pure energy shimmers about him, curtains and walls of almost-reality. Then, like the water crashing through the walls of a dam, snow whooshes up to fill the space held by light.

 

The storm stops. Or rather, the storm continues, but at a safe distance, its winds howling outside ice-sheeted windows. Oscar rises from the ground, dusting snow out of his clothes.

 

Salem steps in the door, stomping the outside from her boots. “Well done,” she says.

 

He’s about to sling a retort back at her, but then notices the smile on her face — a deep, subtle expression, seated somewhere deep behind her eyes, underneath the slightest quirk of her mouth. She’s proud of him, Oscar realizes, and his annoyance banished like the wind trapped between the walls of a haven, and they dry their clothes and warm themselves with magic in companionable silence.

 

——————

 

“Stop the snow,” Salem says one morning, days later. Weeks? Time was hard to track out here.

 

“Sorry?”

 

“The snow,” Salem says, gesturing around them.

 

The skies are overcast, the contours of clouds barely visible overhead, and though Oscar wouldn’t characterize this as a storm, the flurries of snow fluttering from the sky smack his face in insistent clumps. Nothing compared to the sheeting winds of the blizzard a while back, but…

 

“You want me to stop a snowstorm?” Oscar says, aghast.

 

Salem just looks at him. She hates repeating herself, Oscar’s found out.

 

Oscar glances at the sky. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get much worse, but it also doesn’t look like it’s planning to let up any time soon either. “I don’t suppose you’d accept a blizzard, would you?”

 

“Starting a storm is easier than stopping one,” Salem says serenely. “And you’re far beyond that level of skill. Any amateur magician can flatten a forest, or call down lightning. Real sorcerers can bend these forces to their will.”

 

Oscar sighs. “How should I begin?” he asks.

 

This is the rule with Salem as an instructor — she was demanding but not unreasonably so. Questions of fair and genuine intent were encouraged.

 

“Remember where magic resides in our world.” Everywhere. “Remember how magic engenders movement and change.” Like a kind of energy, an energy of the soul that seethed and sparked and leapt easily to hand. “Remember how you handle magic. Then decide.”

 

Salem doesn’t seem to be in any particular rush, so Oscar walks away, boots crunching through the frosted layer of superficial snow. He finds that walking helps him think, so long as he doesn’t stray far enough away that he has to drag his thoughts back towards navigating himself homewards in the featureless tundra. He reaches for the magic, and it responds eagerly.

 

Magic was a kind of motion, a movement, an energy that hummed in parallel with every extant thing. Oscar lets a clump of snowflakes capture his attention and follows its path upwards and backwards, closing his eyes to filter out the constant flood of visual stimuli. He chases the threads of magic into the sky, until he’s hovering in the lower strata of the clouds, where magic attends to the freezing of water, the crystallization of snow.

 

Literally. He blinks his eyes open to find that he’s unconsciously risen from the ground, a vast expanse of empty space below. From this height, he sees that the terrain is not as anonymously blank as it feels — patches of trees, spaces of exposed rock all scatter the anonymous whiteness of Atlesian tundra into cracked eggshell patterns.

 

He gulps, and tears his gaze away to return to the clouds. Now that he can trace the fine lines of golden magic woven through them, he can see how the magic infuses their wandering paths, their tangled lattices, the interfacing of wind, the provenance of water. Oscar laces his own green magic along these parallel paths, veins upon veins of magic, petering out at the edge of his heightened senses. Then he wraps a hand around a nearby snarl of magic-and-weather, and twists it sharply, activating the energy lines.

 

His magic cracks, sparking in a massive chain reaction across the sky, sheet lightning manifesting across the area of the snowclouds. Immediately, all the magic, green and gold, vanishes, and he’s plummeting out of the sky with a yell.

 

A suddenly blue sky.

 

He frantically reaches for the magic, but it’s slow in coming, like the receding waters of a draining reservoir. Please, no, please! Oscar batters at the magic, air howling by his ears, tearing through his hair, as he crashes downwards. He claws desperately at his magic until there—!

 

The energy lances through his body just a few feet above the treetops, and his tumbling fall slows down just enough that he slams into a snowdrift at embarrassing rather than fatal speeds. All he sees is white, punctuated by green flashes as his Aura flickers around him.

 

He groans, and tries to roll over, but the weight of the snow above him refuses to shift. Firmly shoving away any panic, he begins the process of summoning the magic again, though he’s really tapped it out this time.

 

Before he can coax a few sparks to come to him, the immense weight burying him vanishes. “You know,” Salem says drily, “I said ‘stop the snow,’ not ‘clear the skies for three miles in each direction.’ ”

 

Oscar heaves himself out of the snowdrift, only to tip over and land on his side. He flops onto his back, arms flung outwards, blinking at the sky. “But do you see any snow?”

 

“I do, in fact, see lots of it. For starters, your hair—” Salem cuts off, frowning. “Do you hear that?”

 

They both freeze, and for a moment, everything is utterly still. The snow and clouds that Oscar had just cleared away had also muffled the landscape; now, a distinctive noise, somewhere between a hum and a whine, echoes towards them.

 

Airship.

 

Wordlessly, Oscar climbs to his feet, brushing snow off of his coat. Sure enough, in the distance, the familiar sleek edges of a Raptor model glint in the winter sun, angling inevitably towards them. In that moment, the comforting, lonely isolation of the Solitas tundra, which had lulled Oscar into forgetting his worries back in Atlas, back in Haven, back in the rest of the world, shatters like glass from a gunshot.

 

“I suppose the world is ending again,” Oscar says, finally.

 

Salem then lets out a short laugh. “Let’s hope not.”

 

They left unspoken what they both knew — it had to be something serious, something unsolvable, to send for the last two magic users on Remnant.

 

And not much could be worse than the literal end of the world.

 

——————

 

Qrow fills them in on the crisis — the Blight, its symptoms, its rapid expansion, its inevitability — while Maria pilots the airship, swift and sure.

 

“But what do they think that we can do about it?” Oscar asks, paging through some of the images in the data brief on his scroll. It feels strange in his hands, his scroll — he and Salem had traveled beyond the reach of even Atlas’s best signaling technology for weeks, and he’d had to charge it for a few minutes before it’d even agree to start up.

 

“I don’t know, kid,” Qrow sighs. “But no one’s got a better plan, so you two get to be the cavalry.”

 

Oscar glances at Salem, who sits in the back of the airship, gazing pensively out the window.

 

“You should get some rest, though,” Qrow says. “It’s a long flight to Vacuo.”

 

Oscar nods, and tries to make himself comfortable along a row of seats. At some point, the humming of the airship must lull him to sleep, because he blinks awake, registering their change in altitude before noticing that the humming has shifted to a lower pitch.

 

They stop over briefly in the capital city to re-fuel in late afternoon, and pick up some important guests. Glynda Goodwitch, accompanied by an exhausted-looking woman who’s introduced as Headmistress Amalia Rosas of Shade Academy, join them in the airship. From what Oscar can gather, Headmistress Rosas had only left ground zero at Professor Goodwitch’s behest, though the headmistress still obviously considered their time in the city a waste.

 

“Amalia,” Professor Goodwitch says in a tone of voice Oscar immediately recognizes, and subsequently realizes is a voice born of the patience earned through dealing with generations upon generations of Beacon students convinced of their own immortality, youth, and invulnerability to sleep deprivation. “Anything that gets you even three hours of sleep is not something I’d consider a waste of time. And I doubt that your presence would have made a difference, so you might as well get some rest.”

 

Raptor 3 drops them off a scant few miles away from the city, and from the air, Oscar can see where the continent ends and the Blight begins, a ghostly expanse of white stretching away and away and away into the horizon. Beside him, Salem inhales sharply.

 

“Do you recognize it?” Headmistress Rosas asks, leaning forward. Oscar can hear the desperate edge of hope in her voice. “Do you know how to fix it?”

 

“In a thousand, thousand years,” Salem says, “I’ve never seen this before. And that scares me.”

 

——————

 

There’s a space of transition, barely noticeable to a regular eye, where the rich gold-and-brown grains of Vacuo sand are mixed with he bone-crystals of the Blight, a gradient towards emptiness. General Ironwood strides across it to meet, flanked by a few of his specialists; Oscar blinks away the sensation of deja vu, of another time, another place, another life where Oscar was greeted by the general while descending from an airship. The party walks across the space of transition, the sun arcing towards its setting, surveying the desolation. To Oscar and Salem, the wrongness is glaring, obvious — the Blight crystals shine with an eerie light, uncannily familiar yet utterly strange at the same time.

 

“You don’t see it?” Oscar asks Qrow.

 

“For the third time, kid, no,” Qrow says. “I don’t see the sparkly magic glowy sand.”

 

Oscar glances at Salem, who’s been silent since they disembarked, deep in thought. Sensing his gaze, she looks at him.

 

“I’ve been thinking,” she says. “All the books I read in the years I was locked away in my father’s tower. All the years since — well, what I have of them, at least. And I’ve never heard of, read about, or seen something like this.”

 

“Well, it’s not Grimm, we can tell you that,” General Ironwood says. “We’ve collected samples and run tests. Grimm, as far as we can gather, is a special kind of animate matter related to Grimmdust, which we have notoriously little information on, since it’s so difficult to gather samples for study. The Blight, however, lacks the same transience, and is more of a…parasite. As far as we can gather, the Blight takes the fundamental structure of all matter it touches and drains something vital from it.”

 

Headmistress Rosas stops them all with a gesture. “We probably shouldn’t go any farther,” she says. “The Blight keeps grows at a rate of approximately two feet an hour, and it’s best not to get too close to the critically dangerous parts of it.”

 

“Can people stand on fully Blighted sand?” Salem asks.

 

“They can, provided that their points of contact with Blighted material are covered,” General Ironwood says. “Blight will infect clothing and other inanimate material, but it seems to spread slower when taken away from the main body of Blight. People can even survive touching Blighted material with bare skin, provided that contact is short, and that they are able to retreat to normal ground to recover.”

 

“So people can recover from… infection,” Professor Goodwitch says, a tone of mild surprise in her voice.

 

Oscar studies the ghostly glow rising from the sand. It hovers, mist-like, like magic. No, not exactly like magic… like Aura?

 

“We have had some Huntsmen and Huntresses recover after brief contact,” Headmistress Rosas says. “Exactly what the tolerance of a human or a Faunus is — how many hours or minutes they can go in contact with the Blight, and survive — is not something we’re particularly eager to test, Professor Goodwitch.”

 

The longer he stares at the crystals and their alien light, the more movement he can sense. Almost like a gentle, pulsing rhythm to the light.

 

“Understandably, Headmistress Rosas. I was not trying to criticize, merely gather all the relevant information for ease of conveyance to all of our allies.”

 

Like a heartbeat — a regular rhythm, though it didn’t seem to follow the double-beat of a human heart, but rather, a more complex pattern. A syncopated waterfall of counts.

 

“Oscar?” Qrow says, softly. “Are you all right?”

 

Like the Blight was —

 

alive.

 

It hits him, all together, all at once — Blight, magic, Aura, alive. Oscar kicks into a dead sprint a moment before he consciously realizes he’s even moved, and then he’s dashing past the group, ignoring shouts of alarm. He ducks one hand and dances around another, racing into fully-Blighted land until the white glow envelops his boots, illuminating everything from underneath. The Blight crystals he kicks up catch the last light of the setting sun, like snow crystals, like shattered glass, slivered with blood. He drops to his knees, pulling the glove off of his right hand at the same time. He catches a faint hubbub behind him, but shuts their voices out. Before he can think better of it, Oscar presses a bare hand against the Blighted sand.

 

For a moment, he feels nothing, except rather foolish. His epiphany had struck him, a bolt from the blue. It had felt so right that he hadn’t even considered that it could be wrong. Could it be?

 

Then, a void opens up beneath him, and he falls in.

 

——————

 

He’s falling through a dark space. Not dark, in the way a dark room was dark, for lack of light. This darkness is thick, velvety, muffling — a darkness of substance, a material night.

 

Oscar blinks, and his eyes strain to adjust. Suddenly, the darkness isn’t complete anymore, but rather, studded with light. With a shout, he realizes that he’s falling into the night sky, the ground above him, receding away, an endless void below, rushing towards him.

 

He thrashes for a bit, instinctive panic kicking in, but before he can do anything, he finds himself slowing down, like a pendulum reaching its highest point on a swing. He drifts to a stop and hangs there, suspended between earth and heaven, substance and emptiness. For a moment, Oscar is seized by awe, a frozen, breathless kind of beauty.

 

Then the void stirs next to him, and he jumps — well, as far as he can jump.

 

What…

                       are…

                                               you?

 

The voice is ageless, sexless, substanceless, and Oscar doesn’t so much hear it as he feels it around him, vibrating into every inch of his skin.

 

“My name is Oscar Pine,” he says, tentatively, and his voice sounds thin, reedy, spoken out loud as opposed to the way the void-voice seems to carry through the texture of the very air around them. “I’m a… human. I live on this planet.”

 

Oh? The voice of the void sounded… amused? A human? So this is what Arran and Manu have been up to?

 

“I… don’t know who you’re talking about,” Oscar says.

 

Don’t you have gods on this pitiful excuse of a rock?

 

The Gods? They had come back, Oscar supposed, but they weren’t exactly around. “Not really,” Oscar admits.

 

The void laughs, and reality seems to quake, stars fritzing in and out of their spots in the sky, rattling Oscar’s entire body. He grits his teeth and tries to hold himself steady. Instinctively, he summons magic to his fingertips and engages his protective Aura, and the rush of warmth and power soothes him. He hadn’t been sure if he could do that in this… whatever this place was.

 

The void stops laughing, and Oscar gets the disturbing feeling that it has suddenly bent all of its vast attention upon him.

 

Fascinating, the void finally says, drawing out each syllable, so that it’s more like

 

fa

                       sci

                                             na

                                                                   ting.

 

Any fear or apprehension Oscar feels immediately evaporates. Over the past few months, he’s grown hypersensitive to the tones of voices, to absolutely hate it when someone appraised him with unsympathetic, evaluating eyes and declared him interesting, intriguing, fascinating. There was something fundamentally dehumanizing about it, and he’d had more than his share of being dehumanized in his life so far, dismissed, treated as some scientific specimen or exotic phenomenon.

 

“I don’t know who you are, or what you are,” Oscar says, and his voice comes out even, determined. “But you need to leave my home.” He’s done, he’s decided, with being a pawn in the games of other people. Other people didn’t care what you wanted — you had to fight for that yourself.

 

Leave? the void sounds mildly surprised. But I just came. And I come for all worlds, in time. I am peace.

 

Oscar blinks. “What?”

 

I am the calm after a storm, the stillness of a midwinter’s night, the everlasting settling after the last breath. I am the cessation of chaos, the enveloping emptiness, the gentle hand that snuffs out the light.

 

I am the eternal preservation and desolation of all things.

 

I am Oblivion.

 

And for a moment, Oscar can see it — a yawning chasm, a blackness deeper than the most complete darkness. His whole body stretches toward it, and he knows that, beyond, there is peace, calm, stillness, rest. Beyond that chasm, none of the troubles that plague him in the daytime, none of the doubts that haunt his sleeping hours, can find him.

 

It sings to him, sweet, seductive, inevitable.

 

No.

 

He’s done playing the games of other people. Or otherworldly entities, for that matter. “No,” he says out loud.

 

The void freezes around him, stars mid-twinkle. A patch of night sky beside him shifts, the eerie Blight glow swirling around a presence. Excuse me?

 

“No,” Oscar says, louder. “You have no business on my planet. You’ll leave, or else we’ll have to kick you out.”

 

Kick me out? the void says, incredulous. You have no idea —

 

“I don’t really care,” Oscar says.

 

You fool, the void hisses, and the cold night air around Oscar crystallizes in an instant, stabbing into his flesh. The pain lances straight into his muscles, into his marrow, into the very core of his being, and he barely bites back a scream. You petty mortal, you have no idea what you’re dealing with. You have no voice in this matter—

 

No thought, just instinct. Magic and Aura surge in tandem, forcing back the piercing cold for a moment, sputtering brave sparks against the dark. Oscar gasps for breath.

 

The void-figure beside him reels, its glow dimming for a moment.  What did you—? It turns upon him, then says, with disgust, Investiture.

 

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” Oscar says. He tries to keep his voice steady, and it only sounds a little strained. “But you need to leave.”

 

I will leave when I see Arran and Manu DEAD—

 

The void-figure leaps at him, and Oscar braces himself, magic at the ready—

 

—and Oscar is torn, bodily, from the ground, tumbling backwards and flailing wildly. There is sand beneath him and dark sky above, the earth gripping him possessively once more. His hand brushes someone else’s and he gets a jolt of incandescent fury.

 

“Oscar Pine, I swear by the stones of Remnant that if you—” That was Salem’s voice.

 

“I spoke to it!” he blurts out.

 

“I don’t care!” Salem yells back. “You will not die on me!”

 

Oscar freezes. “What?”

 

“Look!” Salem grabs his hand with hers — bare skin on skin, a spike of rage, more ferocious than a forest fire, uncontrollable as the tides of the sea — and holds it before his face. He blinks a few times before he registers what he’s seeing. “Look, Oscar!”

 

The skin of his hands are usually a few shades lighter than the rest of him — from wearing gloves all the time — but as he focuses, his mind almost refuses to process what his eyes see.

 

His right hand is now a ghostly bone white.

 

Oscar rotates it at the wrist, bending the fingers slightly. Small forks of the same pale, otherworldly color lance upwards along his wrist, like a series of tiny lightning forks shadowing his veins. The joints of his fingers feel prohibitively stiff, and as he tests his joints, he grits his teeth at the ache that runs through them, a distant echo of the pain he’d felt in that strange void-space.

 

Salem’s still holding his Blighted hand, and he finally realizes that the burning fury he feels is not directed at him, but rather for

 

I didn’t realize she cared so much, Oscar thinks, dumbfounded, but now was not the time for belated realizations.

 

He scrambles to his feet, wincing as he does so. His knees and shoes are also bleached, colorless, though he thinks his legs are fine beneath the material of his pants. “I spoke to it. They need to know.”

 

“You spoke to what?” Salem asks as she picks herself off the ground. There’s a crack and a quick flare of light, almost ultraviolet, and a shower of Blight crystals cascade off her dress as if repelled.

 

“Oblivion. The void. The Blight, or whatever we want to call it. It’s sentient, I spoke to it, and—” Oscar shudders, remembering the cold pain it offered in one hand and the seductive peace it offered the other. “—and we need to stop it.”

 

——————

 

“It’s sentient?” that was Headmistress Rosas, voice rising in disbelief.

 

“I spoke to it,” Oscar says, just as Professor Goodwitch responds to the headmistress of Vacuo: “—sentience matters little, if we can’t reason with it.”

 

“But if we could find a way to reason with it, to help it achieve its goal without destroying all of Remn—”

 

General Ironwood shakes his head. “From its conversation with Oscar, that seems to be fairly incompatible with its purpose here—”

 

“I’m more curious about the names it mentioned,” Qrow says. “Arran and whatshisname. It sounds like the Blight here has a personal vendetta against them. If we could figure out who they were, then maybe—”

 

“The other name was Manu, and are you suggesting trading lives, Qrow?”

 

“No! It just sounds like they might know more about what’s going on, and maybe they have more informa—”

 

“I wouldn’t count on that.” Salem’s quiet voice slices through the hubbub like a scythe through grass. Or Grimm. Oscar’s seen them move easily through both.

 

All turn to face her. “You… know who Arran and Manu are?” Headmistress Rosas says.

 

Salem looks between each of them. “I thought it was obvious.”

 

Oscar gets it a moment before everyone else. “ ‘Don’t you have gods on this pitiful excuse of a rock?’ ” he recites.

 

“This isn’t a problem that we can fight our way out of with numbers or missiles,” Salem says as horrified realization dawns on everyone’s faces. “It’s a problem on the level of gods.”

 

To Oscar’s surprise, General Ironwood turns to Professor Goodwitch. “Any news from team RWBY?” he asks, a question which makes no sense.

 

The edge of Professor Goodwitch’s mouth turns down as she pulls out her scroll. “Not in the past three hours. The last update I received from them came as they were leaving Haven via airship, to go—” she casts a brief glance at Salem. “—to the Realm of Darkness.”

 

Salem gives no reaction to the name of the former domain. “Even if they can find the gods,” Salem says bitterly, “we can’t rely on the gods. In the past, they’ve been unafraid to destroy Humanity. We can’t count on them to save us.”

 

“But they came back,” Oscar says. “They returned to us.”

 

Salem just looks at him with those sorrowful green eyes, and any frail hope Oscar had for the gods to intervene vanishes.

 

In the past, they’ve been unafraid to destroy Humanity.

 

A shattered moon. An expanding wall of incinerating power. A hail of meteors, each one deadly on their own, slamming into the ground.

 

In the center of it all, a blonde woman falling to her knees, her scream lost in the destruction.

 

“All right then,” Qrow says. “No gods, no negotiations, no weapons worth a damn. What’s the plan?”

 

Wordlessly, Salem holds out a hand to Oscar. He stares at it in confusion for a moment, until he sees — lines of white light spiraling and etching themselves in the space just around her skin, thin as gossamer, a network of finely-woven symbols.

 

A contract glove.

 

Headmistress Rosas frowns. “What—?”

 

Oscar takes Salem’s hand, and the entire world dissolves.

 

——————

 

Here is the plan, Salem’s voice says in his head.

 

Though to say that Oscar heard Salem’s voice wasn’t entirely accurate. It was like saying that Semblances were magic — sure, they shared superficial traits, might even look similar, but when you got down to actually studying them, practicing with them, using them, they were nothing alike. What Oscar really experienced was a barrage of information, sensory, emotional, logical, experiential.

 

He sees, from Salem’s point of view, a world wreathed in patterns of light and energy — the magical signature of the desert around them and the tectonic plates below them, the sky above and the restless wind surrounding them. For a moment, he sees each person standing close by wreathed in a colored light from the outside — Aura — though some of them bore strange, sparkling distortions — vestigial magical traces, he realizes, watching them gather around Qrow and Glynda. Though he doesn’t turn his head, he knows that the vast chasm of the sky above them, littered with stars, is also criss-crossed by zig-zagging flows of power, coursing leisurely through the heavens, not unlike the latticework of energy and magic he briefly glimpsed while floating in the heart of a snowstorm.

 

This is how Salem sees the world, Oscar thinks, and marvels. Sure, magic was fairly intuitive even for new, untrained users, but now he was starting to grasp just how complex, how unknowable of a force it could be. Salem had studied it for most of her life, even before that life became artificially extended, and still she didn’t know everything about magic.

 

At the same time, time comes undone; he sees a room paneled with shelves of rich, dark wood, filled with old leatherbound volumes that fuzzed a little around the edges with frequent handling. He sees, feels, becomes, in quick succession: an uncontrolled bonfire, eating through houses in a village; a peaceful hearthfire, crackling merrily, a faint sense of contentment and the scent of tea; a shallow sea, glinting gold in the sunlight; utter darkness, tinged purple, unbreathable; glass windows, caught in a frozen moment of infinite shattering; someone he doesn’t recognize, blinking at him with wide, silver eyes; someone he does recognize, gazing earnestly at him with warm brown eyes; wings tearing out of the back of a Grimm; a hand veined in red; a child looking up at him, innocent and curious; the crumbled remains of a castle, ash drifting in the air; the whip-crack of a lashing tail; the screech of a Nevermore; a far-off tower, shining with a faint, defiant light; a young man, running off into a growing mist.

 

With a start, he realizes that was him.

 

Here is the plan, Salem says again, although this time, Oscar catches his mind processing the direct input of magic-to-magic into a voice that he can comprehend. Distantly, he can feel that their hands are still clasped; the explosion of imagery was the result of their magical access crashing and mingling through the contract glove. He briefly wonders what Salem saw from him, and then she is showing him something.

 

A large salt crystal, dark in its heart, wreathed in light; Salem manipulates the image, and a finely-crafted lacework of tiny sigils bursts into vividness around the crystal, melting into its planes of matter. A moment passes, and then the crystal shatters, exposing a golden-brown boulder at its center and a dark, inverted after-image of the sygaldry used.

 

Oscar sends his incomprehension towards Salem; she responds by zooming out and away from the rock-and-crystal, so fast that Oscar fights down a wave of nausea. The boulder recedes into the size of a brick, and then a pebble, and then a grain of sand, and then they’re standing where they were, sky vast overhead, people standing next to them, the Blight glow lining the edge of their living faces with a ghostly pallor, the moment frozen in time.

 

Then it hits him.

 

We’re going to cast out the Blight from every grain of sand?

 

A hint of smugness; Salem was proud of herself for figuring out how to eject the Blight from individual sand kernels so quickly.

 

But the amount of power needed… Oscar contemplates the entire desert of Vacuo, rolling out and away from them like a gold-and-white sea. The sygaldry required to liberate just one grain of sand had been so complex, not to mention—

 

The afterimage of the sygaldry glows in his mind again, a reverse-image of the flash of light it had imprinted on his eyes. It darkens, hovering before him, magical text escaped from a page. Slowly, like transferring a precariously-balanced platter piled high with weighty items, Salem passes it to Oscar, until he’s holding the sygaldry gingerly in his own mind. Salem, he says, I’m not sure if I—

 

I taught you control, she says. Leave the power to me. All you have to do is maintain control of the sygaldry.

 

But you haven’t even taught me sygaldry!

 

And there won’t be any time for me to teach you if you don’t HOLD ON TO THAT—

 

And just like that, both of them crash back into the physical realm, time resuming in the play of cool desert air on their skin, movement from the other Huntsmen and Huntresses around them, sound coming back to life.

 

“—is that?” Headmistress Rosas finishes, and Oscar gulps down mouthfuls of air. He feels like he’s run across the entire continent of Vacuo in the fragment of time that’s passed. He feels like he’s experienced entire lifetimes in between one moment and the next.

 

“You may want to take a step back for this,” Salem announces to all of them, pulling her hand out of Oscar’s grasp. Oscar’s hand tingles, the nerves in it still sparking from residual magic. Even without touching Salem, he can feel her immense magic reserves, over-above-around her.

 

Salem glances at Oscar. “You too.”

 

Her gaze is unreadable, which feels strange to Oscar after the split-second-eon of complete synchronicity. He nods and takes a step back, hesitant. He closes his eyes, breathes in slowly, and fixes the sygaldry in his mind.

 

With his eyes still closed, he can see the flows of magic against the dark of his eyelids. Salem draws it in from the earth and the sky, lines of power tracing themselves like vivid fire against the black. She fills, and fills, and overfills, until Oscar thinks that there can be no way a single human body can hold more power without spontaneously combusting. Involuntarily, he takes another step back, then another, as the overwhelming energy lashes outwards like heat from a bonfire.

 

He fixes the sygaldry in his mind. The hardest part is holding it steady, keeping all the pieces of its fine detailwork distinct from each other. Beside the immense bonfire of Salem’s power, various components begin melting into meaningless slag, and Oscar hurriedly tends it with tendrils of magic, delicately shifting them back into place.

 

Oscar holds it together.

 

Blinking his eyes open to a squint, Oscar glances around and sees that Glynda has already ushered everyone a good distance away; in the immediate vicinity, there is only him, Salem, and the immense funnels of magic spiraling into her from the sky, the ground, the air around them both.

 

He feels her hesitate, just for a moment, and knows instinctively that she’s reached a limit. The power she holds is already vast — if she let it burst into the heavens, the skies would light up like day, and the blazing heat would scorch all the lands of Remnant. If she hurled it into the earth, every single volcano, roots drinking deep of the crust, would explode in geysers of molten stone and roiling flame.

 

Salem hesitates, then takes in more power. Oscar feels a sharp tug in his gut and gasps as magic surges through his veins too, electric, lighting up every crevice of his body before it leaps into Salem, a conduit made possible by the contract acknowledged between them. His ears are filled with a wild rushing, and the blinding light emanating from Salem shifts red, an ugly, dangerous color, dimming as it veers towards lethal.

 

Salem bursts into flame.

 

Oscar freezes in shock; Salem crumbles, ashes tumbling to earth, but at the same time, a shimmering figure pulls itself out of the dust, rising with stooped shoulders, laboriously climbing to its feet. Salem stands up again, still drawing in power, then combusts once more, ashes falling, re-solidifying halfway to the ground. Around her, the sand shudders, cracks — and begins to crystallize into glass.

 

Oscar fixes the sygaldry in his mind, hopeful, horrified, mesmerized as Salem dies and un-dies, a divine curse carved in awful, awe-inspiring reality before him. He watches her through slitted eyes, dashing away tears at the brightness of it, seeing double — the physical world they both stand in, and a reality consumed by interwoven sygaldry, living calligraphy twisting and writhing in the air around them.

 

Oscar feels like he’s been standing here for eons, every muscle locked in place with the effort to keep from breaking. Beside him, Salem moves through cycles of birth and rebirth, and gradually, the glare becomes dimmer, and dimmer, and dimmer, until Salem kneels against the rough-glass ground around her, breathing heavily, almost approachable again.

 

Oscar blinks; the sygaldry now overlays his vision of the physical world, distracting, dizzying. He assesses his balance, catalogues the space around him, and takes a step forward, careful to avoid a long, graceful hook of a sigil-stroke by his foot.

 

Salem looks up and meets Oscar’s eyes, and he stops in his tracks. The blinding light had retreated inside Salem — she was hardly a woman of flesh and blood anymore. Magic strained at the breaking point of every fibre of her being, reverse-sublimated into a human form.

 

Salem had rewritten herself, altered every cell, into a being of pure magic. The womanly form he saw was purely cosmetic.

 

She looks at Oscar with familiar green eyes, otherworldly from the glow, and smiles at him — sweet, soft, sad, apologetic. Then she tilts her head back and opens her hands —

 

— and explodes into light.

 

Magic lances into the ground like lightning, races across Blighted lands like ribbons of flame unspooling in every direction at once. The bone-crystal Blight glow briefly resists the glowing energy — then the magic settles into the ground. There’s a moment of utter calm.

 

Then Oscar is hurled from his feet by a sharp whip-crack of magic, released through the sieve of the sygaldry held in his mind. The power slams through his body, like tons of water hurtling through a hole bored in a dam, stripping and sanding and scouring away any rough edges until his body is no longer a vessel for Oscar Pine, Huntsman-in-training, former vessel of Ozpin. All he knows, now, is to cling to the sygaldry, pre-written rules for the way the world should be, holding them in place to channel more magic than any mortal should rightfully be able hold. His consciousness is shredded into tatters by the force of the magic passing through him, and disorienting flashes scratch the pieces into even more confusing fragments. He is buried beneath miles and miles of sand, suffocating; he is hovering in the bitter, enveloping cold of the sky, star-bright and ethereal; he is the entirety of the Vacuo desert, the Blight like a creeping mold descending into the marrow of his bones and leaching away his essence.

 

And then the magic fills every corner of the world, every corner of him, and jettisons the monochrome invasion into the air, dead white dust hovering in an intangible above the ground, exposing the dusky, vibrant gold of the natural sand below.

 

Oscar comes back his body slowly, then all at once. He’s lying on the sand, which is still warm from both the more natural causes of a day under desert sun and the less natural cause of conducting an unmentionable amount of magic. The vast vault of the night sky spins above him, nauseating; trails of light arc and swivel in familiar, graceful curves — the afterimage of the sygaldry that he’d held mocks him gently, following his gaze with every blink. Every part of his body hurts; he wants to groan, but stops himself because he feels like that would only make everything hurt more. He’s never been struck by lightning in his life, but he imagines it’s something like how he’s feeling now.

 

Distantly, he hears laughter. It’s shaky, breathy, barely recognizable as laughter, but he turns his neck slowly — every stiff muscle screaming in protest — to see Salem, fully human again, the afterglow of reformation dimming away as she laughs, barely propped up on her hands and knees. Her blond hair has fallen over her shoulder, curtaining her face away from Oscar, but as he watches, she dashes a shaky hand over her face and eases herself back onto her heels, swaying a little with the effort.

 

“I wish I could see my father’s face about now,” she says, which makes absolutely no sense to Oscar, but then there are boots in the sand around them as General Ironwood and Professor Goodwitch and Headmistress Rosas hurry over, a hubbub of noises and questions bubbling up around them. Oscar lets Qrow gently help him to a sitting position, blinking muzzily at Qrow’s murmured “hey kiddo, take it easy, all right?”

 

The miasma of Blight, ejected unceremoniously from the land around them, swirls in the wake of each passing person. Still dizzy, Oscar peers at it, swatting a slow, dreamy hand through it in a vague attempt to clear the air around him. The motion nearly tips Oscar over again, and Qrow catches him. “Whoa there.”

 

“Something’s not—” Oscar struggles to form the thought as the words escape his tongue. Treacherous little things. His eyes track the patterns of Blight absently as his power-fried brain tries to put it together. “There’s something— Salem—”

 

“She’s fine,” Professor Goodwitch says, “though only the gods know how after that kind of stunt.”

 

Oscar shakes his head, which is a mistake, because this time he actually does pitch over onto the sand as the world performs several somersaults and then a backwards flip for good measure. “No—the Blight—” Lost for words, he just points along the current of the swirling Blight-dust, and Qrow follows it, frowning. “There’s nothing there, Oscar.”

 

But there is. Oscar watches with growing horror as a the tendrils of Blight-dust spiral inwards, spinning and coalescing into a mass swirled with darkness and ghostlight. As he stares, the dust collapses in on itself, building a vaguely humanoid being from shadows and remnants. Deep within, fragments of bone-crystal sparkle, stars in a vast river of voidlight.

 

They’d cast out Oblivion from the land, but it wasn’t gone.

 

Oscar cries out a warning seconds too late as Oblivion sweeps one grotesquely elongated hand through them all, hurling them across the space. For a brief moment, Oscar is sickeningly weightless before he crashes into the ground, skidding a short distance across the sand. His muscles, still stiff and uncooperative from magical burnout, twitch unresponsively as instinct shouts at him to duck and roll, to take the weight of impact across his shoulders and back, and he lands awkwardly on his right shoulder, wrenching it. The pain shocks him back into wakefulness.

 

Broken? No, nothing had snapped. Dislocated, maybe.

 

Oblivion looms over them. There are shouts, and gunfire, and someone leaps at Oblivion before it swats them away with a dismissive hand as it bears down on Oscar with so much hatred that Oscar, struggling to sit up, is flattened back into the sand.

 

Oscar fights to regain control, to stand up, to do something, but Oblivion’s overbearing aura forces him down, igniting Oscar’s too-raw nerves with a sheer overload of power, an unfamiliar force, neither magic nor Aura but something else entirely.

 

DID

      YOU

              THINK

 

                         YOU

                                    COULD

                                                 STOP

                                                                  ME

 

 

No one else shows any sign of having heard the immense, booming voice, but Oscar gasps from the sheer force of it shuddering through his bones. Oblivion reaches downwards, ghastly fingers groping towards Oscar. Oscar opens his mouth to scream, but finds that he has no air, and frantic, begins clawing, thrashing at the ground to get away.

 

And then Salem is there, still wobbly and weak, but she stands between Oblivion and Oscar, glowing slightly. Oscar doesn’t know how she can hold magic so soon after expending so much — his body recoils instinctively, hand from a hot kettle, when he tries to reach out towards the power — but she does, trembling with the effort. Salem’s Aura flickers into place moments later, frail purple tendrils tangling around her body.

 

Oblivion pauses for a moment, and Oscar redoubles his efforts, scrabbling towards already-overdrawn magical reserves. It sparks against his fingertips, searing hot, and he pulls back before he grits his teeth and presses forward again.

 

Oblivion extends a finger towards Salem, and a storm of magic erupts around her, forcing Oblivion back. The void-creature, pauses, as if considering, then slams its entire palm against Salem’s resistance, which—

 

—shatters.

 

Oscar stares. He’s never seen magic shatter before, and it seems so inherently wrong, a false premise, an impossibility.

 

Salem falls, barely catching herself on one hand. She begins to raise her head when Oblivion leans down, almost lazily, and taps a finger against her spine. She collapses, boneless.

 

Oscar batters against his own reflexes, against the world, against the dried-up hollows of magic around them. Give me something, give me something, give me something! Salem would rise in a moment, but Oscar would sooner chew off his own hand than just lay here, paralyzed, useless—!

 

Salem doesn’t rise, and that gives Oscar pause. There weren’t exactly rules about Salem’s immortality, as far as he knew, but he’d never seen her take so long between reanimations.

 

Salem? He dissipates his protective Aura shielding and lets it bolster a thread of magic he’s managed to hang on to. Oscar extends it towards her, waiting for magic to spark, acknowledging the existence of their mutual contract, acknowledging the existence of the party on the other end of the agreement.

 

Nothing.

 

It made a chilling amount of sense, Oscar thinks numbly, that another divinity would be able to undo Salem’s divine curse.

 

The world fills with a screaming, blinding light, beginning at ultraviolet and moving only beyond. It takes Oscar a moment to realize that the light was exploding from him, and another moment to realize that the screaming was also him. Distantly, he sees two shooting stars slam into the ground nearby, one a celestial gold, one a burning darkness, before he falls back against the sand and everything fades to white.

 

——————

 

A gently glowing world, endless white expanse stretching as far as the eye can see, as the mind can comprehend. A soothing, spaceless, timeless calm. Drifting, peaceful.

 

He has been here before.

 

By which he means that the gentle curves of the space know how to embrace his cracked-open soul, accepting him with all his edges, welcoming him back.

 

He floats there for a moment, a hundred moments, a thousand moments, slipping in and out of awareness with no sense of how much time was passing between each one. He half-wakes, half-sleeps, half-dreams, but every time he slips into a different state, everything around him remains blank, white, featureless, unwritten.

 

He’s half-awake, or half-dreaming, when three beings emerge into existence, not far away from him. All of them are shaped familiarly; the first, glowing gold, with great antlers spreading from either side of its eyeless head, hands folded before it. The second, gleaming with a rich, dark purple, curling ram horns spiraling tight against its eyeless features. Why don’t any of them have eyes? the thought floats through his awareness and out of it again.

 

The third being is infinitesimal compared to the sizes of the first two, with long, flowing blonde hair, half of it swept up into an elegant, neat bun. Unlike the naked bodies of the other two, this one is sheathed in a dress, white and gray, cascading in graceful ripples to its feet. This being blinks a few times, as if surprised to find itself here, then bows to kneel before the other two.

 

“Holy ones,” it says in acknowledgment.

 

“Rise, Salem, eldest daughter,” says the golden being. “It has been some time since we last met.”

 

Salem climbs to her feet. “I’ve lost count of the years.”

 

“As have we,” the dark being says. “We hope that this time, our meeting will be more favourable to all.”

 

Salem inclines her head politely.

 

“Thanks to your efforts, we had enough time to arrive and expel Veshali from this world,” the golden being says, “Much more destruction could have and would have ensued without your intervention. You have pleased us, and we would grant you a divine favor, if it be amenable to our natures.”

 

Salem stands before them, shoulders back, posture proud.”My favor remains what it was at the beginning — I would reunite with Ozma.”

 

The dark being bends down, as if examining Salem with his eyeless face. “Have you learned the importance of life and death, human? Have you learned from your own folly and disobedience?”

 

“I have learned, Gods of Light and Darkness,” Salem says, voice loud, clear, queenly. “Through becoming immortal, I understood mortality. Through becoming inhuman, I understood humanity.” She takes a deep breath. “Life and death must exist in a balance.”

 

“Oh?” the God of Darkness positively drawls, straightening up and folding his arms across his chest. “How novel. How long did it take you to figure that out?”

 

“I’m not done,” Salem says, and her tone brooks no more interruptions. “Life and death must exist in a balance, but they are not equal.

 

“If death, darkness, destruction are left unchecked, they will destroy all life. And after they have destroyed all life, there would be nothing left for it to consume — except itself. And so, death may seem greater than life, in that the end of all things belongs to death. And yet, without life, death has no meaning — just an unceasing desert of bones that will eventually turn to feed upon itself and become dust.”

 

The God of Darkness looks almost taken aback with the ferocity of Salem’s words. She turns without hesitating to face the God of Light, a tiny challenger in the face of his vast form.

 

“Likewise,” Salem continues, “life is meaningless without death. Life unceasing eventually burns itself out, until existence is a pale, meaningless mockery of what life is meant to be, until even death is preferable to continuing to exist. Without death,” she says, every phrase an elegant pass of a knife, “life has no significance. Without death, life has no meaning.”

 

“Where I went wrong, all those years ago,” Salem says, moving into the final, fatal thrust of her argument, “was that I failed to understand the significance of Ozma’s death. I fixated on my need to bring him back, rather than asking what his death taught me. In doing so, I demonstrated a fundamental incomprehension of the importance of life and death.” She pauses, only briefly, and closes her eyes. “In short, I was mortal, and fallible, and weak; I was traumatized, bereaved, and lost. I was human, and I was punished for being human with inhumanity.” Her words dance on the line between insubordination and penitence, and when she finishes, she gazes at the gods with defiant, clear green eyes.

 

A stunned silence falls after Salem finishes, the last of her words ringing out into echoes, the echoes losing themselves in the unending fabric of the timeless space. The moment stretches on, and on, and on, until he almost drifts away, the scene before him ossifying into a tableau.

 

One of the divine beings finally speaks, yanking him back to the waking dream.

 

“Well, brother?” the God of Darkness says. “Does she pass your test?”

 

“There was rather more reproach in there than I expected,” the God of Light says.

 

“One last question,” the God of Darkness says, turning to Salem. “If you understand the importance of life and death now, why do you persist in asking for the same miracle, the same disruption of the balance to bring your lover back to life?”

 

“You misunderstand,” Salem says. “I do not ask for that. I ask to reunite with him, in the afterlife.”

 

And just like that, the drama playing out before him dissolves as he is stricken, suddenly sent back to a moment more than a year ago, when he knelt on the side of a volcano amidst pale flowers as a painfully familiar voice spoke to him: let me rest. I’ve lived for so long.

 

The memory is fleeting, but enough that it takes more than a few moments to dissolve into grainy specks of grief and rawness that cling to his consciousness, salt rubbing into old wounds. When the vast emptiness of the antechamber to the afterlife returns to him, he catches the thread of conversation again.

 

“These words,” the God of Light says slowly, ponderously, “are accepted—”

 

“—and your wish is granted,” the God of Light finishes. Both gods step aside, to reveal a doorway behind them where there had been none.

 

Salem strides forward with no hesitation. “A word of warning, eldest daughter,” the God of Light says as she passes him. “You may find Ozma in the afterlife, but he is not the man you once knew.”

 

“Nor am I the woman he once loved,” Salem says. “I look to him not for love.”

 

Before Salem reaches the doorway, she hesitates. “Can you… can you tell Oscar—?”

 

“Another favor?” the God of Darkness asks silkily.

 

“A scrap of human decency,” Salem shoots back. “If you see him, can you tell him that—” She fumbles with the words for a moment. “That he did well?”

 

The gods tilt their heads in impassive unison.

 

“I’ve never had a student before, and I’m—I’m proud of him,” she says, finally. “And sorry.”

 

“He knows,” the God of Light says. “He’s always known.”

 

“Or he will know,” the God of Darkness says. “Time is funny like that.”

 

Salem nods once more, briskly, then strides forward through the door without a backwards glance. As she passes, the doorway flares and vanishes, its existence a faint afterimage that, too, fades away.

 

The whiteness stretches before him, away and away and away and away. He begins to slip back into another eternity of half-sleep.

 

“Oscar,” says the God of Light, and reluctantly, Oscar blinks his eyes open to face the immense antlered divinity.

 

He has the strange sensation that, before he’d opened his eyes, he hadn’t even necessarily been there, that the movement wasn’t so much blinking as it was manifesting, then sets aside the feeling before it broke his brain too much.

 

There’s a moment of disorientation, as his soul settles back into his body, and now, Oscar stands where Salem had, looking up at two towering divine figures. Sequence returns to him — magic, Salem, the Blight, the explosion of light, though when he tries to trace events more closely, his memories shatter into twisted, burnt out images of charcoal sigils.

 

“What happened?” Oscar asks.

 

“You fought, you lost, and you won,” the God of Light says. “The Blight has been removed from your world, as has Veshali — that is, Oblivion.”

 

Your world. As if Oscar could lay claim to the entirety of Remnant. As if the Gods didn’t have a hand in creating, shaping, and breaking this world.

 

Oscar takes this in. He doesn’t really have anything to say, so he lets the silence stretch on between them.

 

“I am… sorry that this grief has befallen your world,” the God of Light says eventually. “For the past few millennia, my brother and I have been travelling far and wide. It may be that Veshali caught wind of our movements and followed us back here in search of… for his own purposes. Though our experiments live on many planets, the lion’s share of our Investiture resides here. This planet, broken though it may be, is our place of greatest strength, and of our greatest weakness.”

 

There was that strange word again, that Oblivion had used. Investiture.

 

“Though with the passing of Salem, the ability to access that Investiture dwindles from Humankind,” the God of Light says. “It appears that you are the last one endowed with an access to magic.”

 

All this time, the God of Darkness has been regarding Oscar with a strangely weighty stare, considering that the divine being had no eyes. Finally, the God of Darkness speaks. “You’re the Last Vessel,” says the God of Darkness. “Of Ozma.”

 

“No,” Oscar says without thinking. A familiar flood of grief-sorrow-bereavement wells up within him, pressing the breath from his lungs, but he breathes through it, setting it aside, an action slowly growing easier with time. “I’m Oscar Pine.”

 

They regard him, vast faces blank and unreadable. “Rare is the mortal whose path crosses ours twice,” the God of Darkness says.

 

“Oh?” Oscar’s voice comes out flatter than he intends. “And why do you think that is?”

 

Both divine gazes sharpen, and the God of Darkness tilts his head to one side, evaluating.

 

“We have been distant in the past,” the God of Light states. No apology, just fact.

 

“Did you mean when you doled out immortality as punishment to a grief-stricken woman, or the millennia you literally left the planet?” Oscar asks, suddenly aware of a deep, deep pool of anger bubbling up within him. “One wonders how that woman wandered so far away from ways of the gods that they wiped the world of their own creations in response to her actions.”

 

The pause before the gods speak again positively reeks of affront.

 

“Do not presume to castigate us, mortal,” the God of Light growls. “Do not think that because we’ve shown mercy now, you can speak to us so recklessly. We do what we must for reasons we know.”

 

“And I suppose your behaviors are backed by experiences, too,” Oscar says bitterly.

 

“What is that supposed to mean?” the God of Darkness snaps.

 

“It means,” Oscar says, raising his chin, “that I could understand why you’ve done what you’ve done, why you do what you do, potentially, one day, when I know everything—”

 

Gods need not explain themselves to—”

 

“Maybe,” Oscar says, interrupting. “I could even forgive.”

 

Maybe?” sputters the God of Light at the same moment the God of Darkness recoils, scoffing, “Forgiveness? From a mortal?”  Derisiveness positively oozes from every word. “You presume that we care for such things.”

 

“I do presume,” Oscar says, “because if you don’t, then you don’t deserve to be our gods.”

 

The silence after Oscar’s words are the silence after a thrown gauntlet, the hesitation of the world before a lightning strike; then, a horrendous tearing noise fills the air as great midnight-purple wings rip free from the God of Darkness’s back. The dark god’s hands clench, and unravel into fearsome claws tipped by cruel, dagger-sharp points.

 

Oscar refuses to be intimidated.

 

“You should explain yourself quickly, mortal,” the God of Light says, his voice quiet and menacing. “Or I will not stop my brother from whatever he plans to do to you.”

 

“Gods deserve to be worshipped,” Oscar says, simple, matter-of-fact. “For the actions they’ve taken, for the virtues they embody. And I, for one, refuse to worship genocide, or bow my head at an altar of abandonment. I don’t give up on the world, even if it’s wronged me. I have to believe that something out there is still worth staying alive for, that someone out there is still worth fighting for.”

 

He may have had a rocky introduction to the world of Remnant outside his family’s home, but he thinks of his aunt, his team, his mentors, his friends. He thinks about autumn in Mistralian forests and the austere beauty of an Atlesian winter. He thinks the uncomfortable labyrinth of forgiveness and the exhausting promises of legacy.

 

He thinks about Ozpin, how the world tried to force Ozpin to be broken and beaten and bruised and banished, about the scars Ozpin carried on an immortal soul, and how despite all of this, he never gave up on trying to save Humanity.

 

There is a long silence, one in which Oscar absentmindedly beings counting his breaths, wondering which one will be the last one before the gods smite him for his insolence.

 

“It is possible,” the God of Light says, finally, “that my brother and I ought to have a conversation about our roles on the planets we inhabit.”

 

“Oh, shut up, Arran,” the God of Darkness says, mantling impossibly large wings against his back. “You’re just mad that someone managed to be even more holier-than-thou than you are.”

 

Oscar feels a wave of relief wash over him, almost dizzying. Had he been nervous? In the moment, all he’d felt was a piercing, crystal clarity, but now, his body sags in relief. “So you’re not going to kill me?”

 

“Kill you?” The God of Darkness looks a little scandalized. “I only had plans for some light singeing!”

 

“And I,” the God of Light says, “just got chewed out by a teenager about morality.” He shook his head. “Perhaps letting Veshali win wouldn’t have been that bad.”

 

“Oh come off it,” the God of Darkness scoffs. “We both know how much you like self-reflecting. There’s a reason why the Shallow Sea looks so much like a mirror—”

 

“In either case, Manu,” the God of Light says, a little testy. “I think it’s time we sent Oscar home.”

 

“That would be nice,” Oscar says. He thinks about what General Ironwood and the others must have seen — Salem, the unkillable, dissolved by the void-Blight while protecting Oscar. Then whatever blinding light Oscar had unleashed. They would all be worried.

 

He would have to break the news to them.

 

He was the last magic user on the planet.

 

Oscar swallows the unexpected lump in his throat, just as both divinities step forward toward him in unison.

 

“Return home,” they say together.

 

“With our thanks,” says the God of Light.

 

“With our mercy,” says the God of Darkness.

 

“With our blessing,” they conclude, in unison, and between one blink and another Oscar is —

 

— standing in the middle of a courtyard, wintry air crisp and clear in his lungs, just the slightest hint of a green spring softening its chill edge. The ground beneath his feet is cobblestone, and the bare branches of trees peer over the sloping roofs of nearby buildings.

 

There are people streaming by him — chatting as they pass down pillared hallways, open to the brisk outdoors, each breath puffing small clouds of steam before them. A boy, arms wrapped around a pair of thick textbooks, bids goodbye to his friends and hops off the sidewalk, striking across the quad past Oscar.

 

He’s not in Vacuo anymore.

 

He’s not at ground zero of the Blight anymore.

 

He’s in Haven.

 

Academy.

 

I think it’s time we sent him home.

 

“Oscar?” an incredulous voice emerges from behind him. “Is that…?”

 

Oscar spins around to find Cobalt, blue eyes wide. She’s bundled up in a lumpy brown coat, a scarf half-tucked into its lapels, her cheeks rosy in the chill. He can just spot her weapons, belted loosely at her waist, peeking out from the hem of her coat.

 

“It is you,” she breathes, then throws her arms around him in a ferocious, bone-crushing hug.

 

“It’s me,” Oscar agrees, hugging her back. She feels more solid than he remembers, but then again, he remembers a wiry, tightly-wound coil of a girl, one that always seemed on the verge of fighting everything that stood in her way, regardless of how much bigger than her it was.

 

“They told us you were gone,” Cobalt says, face still buried in his shoulder. “You were gone and never coming back and we were never going to get those answers about what you were doing and why you needed to go to Atlas because they’d just shake their heads all sad and everything and tell us it was still confidential and Morado was talking about transferring to Atlas Academy to play the long game and infiltrate their military just to get to the records and Safire agreed because he’s a pushover when it comes to his girlfriend — oh that’s a thing, they’re dating now but let's be honest, we both saw it coming from months away — but I said we had to at least finish out the year at Haven because it’s only our first year, but also because if you came back, you’d have to come back here and—and—I wanted there to still be a space for you, I wasn’t ready to give up on you yet and—”

 

Oscar gives her a squeeze, before they separate to hold each other at arms’ length. Cobalt’s nose is red now, too, and she sniffles a bit, still smiling. “I’m sorry I made you worry,” Oscar says. “I’m back now.”

 

“I know,” Cobalt says. “These?” She wipes her eyes briskly. “Happy tears.”

 

Oscar lets Cobalt take his hand as she leads him back across the quad — she’s just returning from Science of Grimm, she says, and stopping by in the room to drop some things off before heading to Legal Policy, and Morado and Safire are going to be so glad to see him, and the three of them were going to hold Oscar to his promise of telling them the story, the whole story, of what he’d been up to in Atlas and what had gone down in Vacuo

 

And Oscar knows that coming back won’t be easy: he’s missed almost half a term of material, and apparently the world had thought him dead for the past two months, and there would be confusion to clear up and conversations to be had with General Ironwood and Headmaster Almon and paperwork to fill out with Professor Goodwitch and probably follow-up sessions with Dr. Erva, and he’d have to figure out how he felt about Salem for the short time he knew her and once he had that figured out, figure out how to move on from her passing even while the aching emptiness of Ozpin’s absence still catches him by surprise sometimes. There would be scroll-calls with team RWBY and letters to send to Aunt Em — oh gods, Aunt Em, that would be a hard conversation, he should probably start preparing himself emotionally for that wreck he’ll be in the Haven CCT tower, he can practically taste the tears that he knows will fall, will continue to fall, will always fall, but if the world was kind they would mostly be happy tears from here on out—

 

—but for now, for now, he’s back, he’s home, and he knows it in his bones this time that this is true.

Chapter Text

Autumn, he thinks, will always be his favorite season. Like spring, it promises change. Unlike spring, it holds none of the uneasiness of expectation, the weight of unripe destinies. Autumn possesses all the carefree momentum of a downhill rush, the cascade of events that culminate from previous causes — the joy of free-fall, of giving into gravity and the inevitable passing of the year.

 

That, and autumn was just plain beautiful.

 

It’s autumn now, both within and without the Forest of Forever Fall. Oscar lets something more than instinct guide his footsteps among the towering, red-tinted trees, boots crunching through layers and layers of constantly falling foliage. He’s discovered in the past few years that if he doesn’t think about it too hard, Ozpin’s latent memories can navigate him through places he’s never been, spaces he’s never roamed through. It’s a delicate balancing act, though, keeping his thoughts away from where he’s going without tripping over gnarly, hunched tree roots in his path. It feels a little like trying to pick up an object without looking directly at it.

 

This time, he’s chosen to take the long way round to his destination, headed vaguely southward and westward. Oscar doesn’t know exactly where his feet are taking him now, just the hazy promise of an excellent view not too far away.

 

There is a rustle of leaves and feathers, and with a soft whumff!, Dr. Erva lands on the forest loam beside him, mantling snowy wings to her back.

 

“Have you told anyone?” she asks him without preamble, jogging a few steps to catch up to him. “That you still have magic?”

 

“No,” he says. “Have you?”

 

Dr. Erva huffs. “Doctor-patient confidentiality. Of course not, though not for the general’s lack of trying. But,” and here she hesitates, just for a moment. “Can I ask why?”

 

“Truthfully?” Oscar stops and turns to face her. “I got tired of talking about magic.”

 

Maria Calavera blinks opaque blue goggle-eyes at him. “I suppose I can’t argue with that,” she says in her good-natured grumble. “The older I get, the less patience I have for dealing with young folk talking about this distractingly important thing or that all-consuming, world-ending thing. Magic, I suppose, is just another distracting, all-consuming, world-ending thing.”

 

Oscar hums in agreement and carries on through the woods. He catches himself consciously-unconsciously angling away from the sun, veering farther and farther away from any semblance of a beaten path. Before he can think too hard about where he’s going, he yanks his thoughts neatly away.

 

“So you’re just going to let everyone think that magic is gone from the world?” Weiss asks.

 

“I can neither confirm nor deny the continued existence of magic,” Oscar says on autopilot. “But I… may have emphasized my preference not to be disturbed as I concentrated on graduating from Haven Academy.”

 

“If people knew that you were the last magic user on Remnant—” Blake says.

 

“—and held the power of all four Maidens combined,” Yang interjects.

 

“—and whatever access Salem gave you near the end,” Ruby chips in.

 

“—everyone would be trying to get you on their side,” Blake finishes. “You could be the next King Ozymandias. You could unite the entirety of Remnant if you wanted to.”

 

Oscar sighs. “I know.” The warrior-king of Vale had been one of Ozpin’s previous incarnations, after all. “That’s precisely why I don’t want anyone to know.”

 

“You don’t want people to come courting you,” Professor Goodwitch says, eyes narrowed in thought. “Kingdoms would fall over themselves to try and secure your services.”

 

“There’s that,” Oscar agrees. “And if I end up choosing to follow any one banner, I want to be free to choose which one seems right, rather than whichever one got to me first.”

 

“Isn’t that a little selfish, then?” says Qrow. “To hold on to this power, but not use it?”

 

“I never said I wasn’t using it,” Oscar says. “I use it to hunt Grimm when I need to.”

 

“Yes, but,” Professor Song says. “You could be doing so much more than hunting Grimm with your power.”

 

“You could build entire cities,” Professor Goodwitch says.

 

“Or you could destroy them,” Timbras says in his quiet, steady voice.

 

“Roar,” adds an Ursa, interrupting rather rudely, except it sounds more like “hrrarreerrer” with some unpronounceable, guttural consonants in there.

 

Long years of muscle memory means that Oscar has rammed the long blade of Remembrancer deep into the Ursa’s chest before he even consciously clocks the threat; moving with the casual grace of countless hours of rehearsal, Oscar disengages the bottom half of the glaive and slams the sturdy haft of an ex-cane in a reverse-grip against the Ursa’s head.

 

“Hm,” Professor Dine says, watching the Ursa dissipate into Grimmdust. “Not bad.”

 

“Thanks,” Oscar says, just a little out of breath. He really needs to work on that bad habit of holding his breath while fighting.

 

“But you could have just zapped that Grimm with your magic.”

 

Oscar sighs, then carries on through the forest. This view had better be worth it. “Sure, I could have,” he concedes, “but doing it the old-fashioned way makes it feel more earned.”

 

“Oh, absolutely.” Yang is back again, nodding in agreement with a jaunty, almost rakish grin. “You’re also avoiding the question.”

 

“You haven’t asked a question.”

 

“What,” General Ironwood says in a voice that has led armies to victories as well as annihilation, “are you planning to do with all the power that you have?”

 

“Ever since Ozpin,” Oscar says, “I’ve spent my life doing what needed to be done. What other people needed me to do. Which, to be fair, involved saving the world, so it’s something I would have wanted to do anyway.” He pauses, then re-engages the two parts of Remembrancer, sliding them back into a single polearm which retracts neatly into a compact package that he tucks behind his back.

 

“But I can’t keep giving parts of myself away,” Oscar continues. “I don’t… I don’t want to always be the sacrifice.”

 

“Damn right,” Morado says.

 

“Of course, if the world needs me to do something, I’ll do it.”

 

Safire snorts. “Of course you will.”

 

“But there’s no needing going on right now,” Oscar says. “At least, not that I know of.”

 

“You’re not going to be able to avoid it forever,” Salem says, and sudden return of her cold, lovely voice sends a wintry chill up Oscar’s spine, incongruous with the glorious firebursts around them. “If you use magic to help other people, word will get out. And once word gets out, the world will come after you.”

 

“And I’ll handle it when it does,” Oscar says.

 

“It won’t be easy,” Cobalt says.

 

“When is it ever?”

 

“You’ve got me there.”

 

They walk together in companionable silence for a while, footsteps beating out irregular heartbeats against the ground, punctuated by the crackling of leaves, the soughing of an unseen wind overhead.

 

“So…what are you going to do now?” asks Aunt Em. “Now that you’re a big strong Huntsman and all. Licensed and everything. Powerful beyond belief.”

 

Well, I’m overdue to visit home, for starters, Oscar thinks, and then they’ve stepped from the Forest of Forever Fall onto a narrow strip of treeless ground where it slopes gently up before dropping precipitously over the edge of a cliff. Ozpin’s memory-instincts had been right; this was one hell of a view.

 

Trees like a million torches, a sea of flame, ripple and eddy far below. A flock of dark birds, too far away to be identified, startles into the sky and circles before landing in a slightly different part of the canopy, sending up faint caws. In the distance, the jagged edges of Beacon Tower are softened by a haze of scaffolding surrounding it. “At the very least,” Oscar says as he reaches the edge of the cliff, pointing towards Vale in the distance, “I think I could make re-building that go a lot faster.” Team RWBY, as well as a minor host of other Huntsmen and Huntresses, had spent the better part of a few years cleaning out the Grimm infestation, and now civilian crews could move in and begin the literal process of rebuilding the school that Ozpin had held so dear to his heart.

 

There it is again — that swell of homesickness as he gazes out over a fantasy forest, for a time and a place Oscar had never experienced. He breathes through it, keeping his eyes wide open.

 

You didn’t need to be magic to feel it in the autumn air, crisp and alive all around, the sky leaping joyously towards the horizon, blues and reds and oranges and golds, fireworks of life, fireworks of life passing, promises of rest, renewal, and more springs and autumns to come.

 

But he was, so he felt it, all of it, surging and coursing around him, welcoming him here, welcoming him back.

 

“Are you ready?” asks Ozpin, coming up beside him.

 

Oscar quirks an eyebrow at him in an expression he knows Ozpin can read, if only because the two of them shared it. What for?

 

Ozpin concedes with a quiet laugh that Oscar, too, knows how to read.

 

For the rest of your life, of course.

 

Oscar lets the grin overtaking his face be a reply, and takes the three steps at a run before launching himself off the edge of the cliff into free-fall, into freedom, into future, into flight.