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'Till We Have Faces

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Oscar wakes to the uncomfortable feeling of a hot, animal breath on his face. It falls against his skin nauseatingly, and does nothing to soothe the pounding in his head that matches the thumping of something outside... a machine?

The image of Watt’s lab comes back to him. Bodies held up in glass cylinders and robots looking so like kind young women that the only thing that gave away their animatronic nature were the soulless gazes staring into nothing.

His eyes fly open, and he starts back at the sight that meets him.

Red eyes, one glowing with hatred and one dead and unseeing, meet his in mismatched malice. The Grimm pulls back with measured movements to glower down at him over it’s gorilla-like nose. It’s powerful jaws are working under layers of rotten skin and its bones protrude, a contrast of white against black.

A Beringel, he recognizes, old memories not his own surfacing with a supply of bloodcurdling experiences to remind him of the danger he is currently in.

“Ah, the stowaway awakens,” a lazy voice drawls somewhere to his left.

Oscar wrenches his gaze away from the Grimm watching him.

The nighttime lamps from the airship’s interior dye the grey suit of Arthur Watts a sickly blue. His mustache quirks in a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. But Oscar doesn’t keep his attention on Salem’s henchman’s face for long; his gaze is naturally drawn to the cane in his hands.

“That’s mine!” he exclaims. He jumps to his feet and advances on Watts.

But the Beringel’s massive arm shoots out and blocks his path, nearly knocking him over in the process. And Oscar rears back.

“I’m sorry, wonder boy,” Watts says, putting Oscar’s cane back on the table, amongst mechanical tools he’d been using in an attempt to pry it open. “But this little piece of equipment that your, ah. What does he call it? The person you’re paired with, that was it,” he amends, voice bending to condescending tones, before continuing. “Well, he invented something quite fascinating, and I’d loathe to give up such a puzzle.”

Oscar bites back an angry retort, even as his heart rebels. Losing his temper now would be anything but wise.

He turns his face away, taking in his surroundings; the location of the door, the outside world. The sky is a sea of darkness, thick clouds barely lit by a pale red glow from the ground far below them, and it creates the illusion that the “borrowed” Atlesian airship is the only world left to them.

Somebody cackles to his right. “He didn’t take your bait, Watts. What a clever boy.”

A cold chill runs down Oscar’s back, and he turns slowly to a thin man with wild madness radiating from his smile, and a long metallic scorpion’s tail twisting slowly with animal interest.

Tyrian Callows squats on his toes on a passenger seat so the trails of his long black coat falls across the familiar combat shoes of an unconscious Ruby Rose.

The world stills around him, and Oscar can barely hear Watts’ reply at the sight of how her skin runs sickly pale under the electrical lights, mouth twisting down and expression lifeless. Still and pretty as a princess; as she has never been before. A rose fallen amongst its brethren.

Electric light caresses the dark metal of Tyrian’s stinger and reflects as it swings dangerously close by her face, illuminating the purple venom from within. And this time, Oscar doesn’t stop to think.

“Get away from her!”

He pushes the Beringel out of the way, and, in his hurry to get between Ruby and Tyrian, he barely noticing the way it topples over into the opposite wall so the whole airship trembles. Protective fury burns in his veins, and all he can think of is that pale look of death on her face, now; how they’d knocked her out and stolen her away.

He isn’t even afraid of the man who’d so easily knocked him out before, as he’d attempted to sneak onto the airship. Even as Tyrian rises, eyes sparking with madness and intrigue, Oscar feels none of his usual fear. All that matters is getting between Ruby and Tyrian.

“You better do as he says,” Watts’ drawls lazily.

“Hah?” Tyrian blinks in genuine confusion, eyes growing wide as he looks around Oscar to what the dishonored scientist is doing, uncaring of the boy standing tense in front of him. “Why?”

“Because he just eradicated the last of our Mistress’ winged Beringels with a distracted blow,” Watts says. “And you might want to look at his eyes. He might just be a host, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less dangerous than Ozpin.”

Tyrian hums with renewed interest, swinging his head back as if it were on greasy hinges, childlike and erratic to have a closer look at Oscar. His lips split in a gleeful grin. “I bet you’d just love to get your hands on this one,” he comments to Watts, before jumping off his seat and bowing theatrically. “Of course, the prince should be allowed to check on his little flower. It’s only right.”

Behind him Watts is saying “yes, a soul as grand as that one would be interesting to get a closer look at. Think of the strength in so many combined lives. But I’ll leave the dissecting to our Mistress, though I doubt she’ll be happy to see him.”

Oscar barely hears the warning behind his words; as soon as Tyrian is out of reach, all the anger trickles from his heart, and he hurries to Ruby’s side. He falls to his knees by the seats, grabbing Ruby’s wrist and removing the leather piece hiding her pulse. It’s strong against his fingers, and Oscar sighs in relief.

He knocks his forehead gently against her shoulder, weak and mellow.

“You’re okay,” is a prayer across his lips. And he closes his hand around Ruby’s.

If only he could close his eyes, feel the heat of her skin, listen to her quiet breathing, and block out the rest of the world, the knowledge of where they’re going. If only he could forget the terrors they had left behind in Atlas, the chaos and the panic, and inevitably, the Grimm. But even Ruby Rose’s presence is not such a powerful place of solace, especially not when she is still vulnerable and unconscious, especially not when Salem’s people have no sympathy for their enemies.

“You know, wonder boy,” Watts says, drawing Oscar’s attention once more. “I realise you’re young, but you really do show off your weaknesses a little too naively for my taste.”

“Don’t call me that,” Oscar retorts. “And so what?”

The Atlesian exile snorts a laugh. “So what, indeed. You really are a child.”

“I’m fifteen,” is probably the most immature proof he’s ever given against his lack of childishness, but even as he’d felt old, angry and powerful, suddenly all that drains away and he looks up at Watts, at Tyrian, at their situation and feels the vulnerability in his age.

If only Oz were here, perhaps he wouldn’t feel so weak.

Oscar tightens his hold on Ruby’s hand out of sight.

“And yet you are already much like your predecessor,” Watts continues with a mocking nod of the head. “Arrogant, too full of magic for your own good, and putting all that you care about on display so it is easy to tear it all down at once.”

With that he turns away, and as if to prove his point he picks up the cane once again in order to figure out its secrets.


Ruby shifts in her sleep, restless and uncomfortable, as the ship begins to descend.

Oscar turns slowly, subtly, in his seat on the floor to watch her progression towards wakefulness. And as her eyes begin to flutter open, he places a finger to his lips to warn her.

It’s a physical pain to see the way her eyes light up with starlight in recognition, followed by the way recent events return to her, shattering the natural smile. He hates the confusion and the worry, the question on her face. What are you doing here?

Oscar glances at Tyrian and Watts. They’re leaning across to the cockpit, talking to the pilot.

“I followed you,” he whispers, when he’s sure they won’t be overheard.

She gives him a funny look and he frowns. “What else was I supposed to do?”

As if he was going to let her face Salem alone.

Ruby studies his expression before smiling at his stubborn silence. “Thank you. It’ll be easier to find a way out with more of us here,” she says. “How about the others?”

Chaos had broken loose when the winged Beringels had landed on Atlas, and though Ruby and Oscar had been able to deal with Cinder, with everything else that had gone wrong just then, there had been no chance to alert anyone else of what was happening. It was either take a risk and do it quickly, or watch her get dragged away and know that there’d be no chance of recovering her.

And with Oz still giving him space there really was no chance.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs, looking down and away from her.

There’s a pause, a moment of silence, and then Ruby slowly sits up. She draws his attention naturally, and when she has it she smiles that smile of confidence and surety. “Well, we’ve got each other, and we’ve got our wits. We’re going to be okay, Oscar.”

And her eyes glow with starlight, beautiful and enchanting, and impossible to deny. So that Oscar finds his first real smile that day, and his hope in her as he’s always done it before.

“Ah, Miss Rose,” Watts says, alerted by her voice. “You’ve joined us once more, then. Excellent.”

He steps away from the cockpit to address them, sidestepping and revealing Tyrian once more, bouncing on his feet and smiling maniacally. 

“I do apologize, but we’re going to have to show you the discourtesy of blindfolding you,” Watts continues, as if he is a Schnee host to the guest of honor explaining the awful state of the nine course supper they are about to eat. “I’m sure you understand. We can’t have those eyes of yours play tricks on our Mistress’ beloved creations.”

Ruby gets to her feet. “You mean Salem,” she corrects him coolly.

Behind Watts the smile falls from Tyrian’s face with deadly speed. “Do not speak her name so lightly!”

But Ruby ignores him in favor of turning back to Oscar, offering him her hand. He accepts it gratefully, and places himself beside her in the feeble hope that if they stand together, at least they will not look so outnumbered.

“I’d like my scythe back,” Ruby is saying in the mean time. “And Oscar will need his cane back, as well.”

Watts smiles as an adult does, watching a child play in its ignorance. “I’m sure you can understand why that is an unreasonable request, Miss Rose.”

“What trouble could it cause you?” she retorts, bluff pathetically obvious between the lines. “Once we land we’ll be outnumbered, and we’re very aware that Salem cannot be killed

“Fine,” Watts says. “You may have your scythe back, but I’m keeping the cane. He doesn’t need it, anyway.”

When Ruby opens her mouth to protest, Oscar places a hand on her arm. “It’s okay,” he murmurs. “We need to choose our battles.”

“Are you sure?”

He nods. I’m sorry, Oz.

But the way Ruby presses her lips together and turns back to glare at Watts says she’s far from done with this battle. And it’s difficult not to be moved by her conviction, her loyalty, and her understanding of what that cane means to them.

They land.

Crescent Rose has returned to Ruby’s hand, and her eyes are hidden away behind a black handkerchief. She clutches lightly at Oscar’s hand as they step from the ship, but when their feet hit the ground, she releases him once more.

“I should be able to see with just my aura from here.”

“Okay,” Oscar says, but he stays close, even as he turns to take in Salem’s Realm.

This is no longer the Realm of the youngest brother, the God of Destruction; it hasn’t been for millennia. Colossal dust crystals in purple and black reach far towards a blood red sky that, with the sun’s absence, paints the entire world in hues of death and decay. Grimm crawl everywhere; on mountains and plains, along the staircase leading up to a castle; one that looks remarkably familiar.

Oscar squirms uncomfortably at the sight of the formidable structure.

“What is it?” Ruby asks from his side.

“It’s…” Oscar’s voice trembles. “It’s the castle from Ozma’s first life. From their empire.”

He suddenly wishes he were the one with the blindfold stealing his sight. He doesn’t want to see this; he doesn’t want Oz to see this. Even in his memories.

A protectiveness for the old soul warms his blood unexpectedly, dread following with every step he takes towards Salem. For once, Oz’ absence is a good thing; they’ll have to get through this without him. He doesn’t deserve to face her like this. In this castle, this mockery of what they had once built; happiness on top of the broken bones of a thousand suffering enemies.

It’s Ruby that drags him from his thoughts, nudging him gently with her elbow. And when he looks up at her, mellow and hopeless, she smiles with the strength and constancy of a guiding star, her light radiating with as much ease as if he were still able to see her eyes. “Then we know what to expect.”

It’s a reassurance, the real message resting in between the lines of her words; it’s going to be okay. I’m here, and whatever happens, when he sees what we’ve been through, it’ll be from the safety of the sun’s protection once more. And her confidence is beautiful, is enchanting; her courage contagious, a light she casts just by being who she is, so that those around her may walk with surer feet.

But then Tyrian cackles as if she’s told the joke of the century and Ruby flinches from the sound, facade cracking apart for a second, revealing wounds that never healed right.


They’re led through a labyrinth of halls, tall windows casting long, deep shadows in an abandoned palace where shields lie shattered in the corners. Only Grimm roam here, snuffling docilely out of sight, a mockery of human life to fill the silence. And below the castle fog rolls in, diluting the world so they feel disconnected from even the planet itself, so they have no chance of knowing where the fountain of destruction lurks to suck the life from the world.

There is no knowing exactly when their journey will end. Every great black door is a threatening gate, every hall full of similar shadows. And always the promise of a meeting he has expected, but never thought he would face alone, with the one person he knows Oz would never wish for Salem to come face to face with.

My last hope. The final card that I could never burden. A candle too easily snuffed out.

Please, please, please...

The words of a winter waste so many months ago whisper again in his mind like an echo of the hero’s despair, before it fades away again.

And then they stop.

Watts knocks politely on the door, and a woman’s voice begs them enter.

“We’ve returned, Madam,” Watts says, the aristocratic lilts to the Atlesian dialect bending his tones to polite obedience. “Our secondary mission was a success without inconvenient mishaps during the journey.”

“Excellent.”

Salem’s voice is an excruciating familiarity in Oscar’s ears; soft and melodious, betraying none of the cruelty that rests in her heart, but hiding it behind a beauty that could not be tainted by despair.

But in spite of its welcoming tones, Watts hesitates at the door. “Uh... Ma’am,” he says, glancing at Oscar. His fearless subservience trickles away, like drops of water falling to a fountain of darkness; the sure knowledge of his Mistress’ rage. “We brought… the boy, as well.”

“Of course, you did,” Salem says, voice smooth like water over jagged stone. “I would expect nothing less. Bring them both.”

Great arched windows frame a council room for a queen, the length of a long table leading the eye from the door down to a large sculpture made of dark Dust crystals, decorated by live candles. But what draws the eye is the deathly white woman sitting in one of the chairs closest to the door, her black dress draped elegantly down her body, and her eyes expectantly on the intruders to her solitude.

Tyrian scuttles in first to give his praises to his goddess, and Oscar does his best not to shiver at the sight. Disgusting, simpering devotion; was that what they had sought all those lives ago? Or is it simply what Salem’s followers have become when there had been no Oz to counterbalance her more alarming tendencies?

“I must stress, of course,” Watts says, as he strides in before Oscar and Ruby. “That it was his own idea to come and that we had very little to do with it.”

There’s a tenseness to his remark, to his steps; caution in the face of the most powerful being on Remnant. They’re afraid that Oscar’s presence will reflect badly on them, somehow, that Salem’s temper may be provoked.

Salem scans their group one after the other, and when her red eyes land on Oscar’s he sees the shadow of beauty there, the trace of humanity lost so long ago, the mask of kind understanding that might have fooled his heart had he not already known that true kindness is unselfish and that beauty glows with the light from the stars.

“I assumed as much,” she says. “You would never leave a lone Rose to the darkness of destruction, isn’t that right, Oscar?”

Oscar shifts his footing at Ruby’s side. “You mean, you knew I would follow.”

Salem’s smile brightens. “Yes,” is the only thing she says, before turning to Ruby. “Ruby Rose. You stole my Fall Maiden, or so I hear.”

Ruby stands, tall and unbreakable before Salem; her one power stolen momentarily from her. But she never flinches at the accusation. “The Fall Maiden was never yours, and Cinder stole her magic first.”

It’s surreal to see the fear ripple through the room; Watts winces and takes a subtle step away from Salem, and Tyrian charges forwards, towering suddenly over the blinded warrior in fury, so even Oscar jumps back in alarm.

“Do not speak with such bluntness to Her Grace,” he screeches.

And though he stands so close his breath parts her bangs, Ruby never reveals her fear; never lets him have that power. Instead she lifts her head, elegant and dangerous, as if she might look him in the eye and remove him from her presence.

Salem remains seated at her chair, observing the spectacle with the calm of one who is merely watching the slow decay of rotten fruit. Not with distaste, but with morbid fascination. “She’s not wrong,” she says, finally, and it’s all Tyrian needs to simper back, out of reach. “Cinder’s failure is her own; she simply did not have what is needed in order to stand on her own against a Silver Eyed Warrior. Watts.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Give Oscar back his cane,” she says simply, without ever turning. And before he can complain she continues. “Ruby Rose, you may remove your blindfold, as well. I’m sure you both understand the position you’re in. I’m so pleased that you’ve chosen to grace me with your presence, both of you. It makes it infinitely easier to gain a look at those wonderful Silver Eyes of yours, Ruby, in a way that is completely safe to Oscar.”

The threat is spun with spider thread, near invisible. Until it catches the light of silver eyes and glows in the dark, standing out with lethal clarity.

Silver Eyed Warriors could kill Salem. It’s the obvious answer; the one Oz had refused to speak of, to even consider. Why else should she hunt them down? Why should she give them so much attention, if it had not given her pleasure before? Why now?

“You seem confused, Oscar,” Salem observes, as Watts hands the cane back.

He fumbles with it, lifeless metal engraved with rose thorns, unfamiliar and far away. “I… what?”

And Salem laughs, voice like bells, full of delight. “Don’t tell me my dear husband didn’t tell you.”

Oscar flinches back at the possessive drenched in hatred, and it’s only the hand on his shoulder that keeps him steady, keeps him from fleeing on an instinct not entirely his own. It’s not his connection he knows, not even Oz’ anymore. But to Salem those chains are still a reality, and her words somehow make them so, somehow empowers them so he nearly feels them slither around his limbs, his throat, until fear’s all that’s left to choke his heart.

Yet when he looks up it is to meet Ruby’s gaze, to fall into a sea of starlight, where Salem’s grip on him shatters, where he can breathe easily, hear her voice even when she doesn’t speak. You’re your own person. And she doesn’t own you.

Mellow sweetness runs through his veins like warm honey, steadies him, until he can breathe with confidence, with the hope she naturally radiates.

“Told us what?” Ruby demands, only when she’s sure Oscar is alright.

“Why, the origin of the tools of the God of Creation, of course,” Salem says, throwing her hands wide. “The purpose of those pretty silver eyes of yours.”

Oscar does his best not to flinch, not to hesitate at the weakness in Oz’ truths. He could not have been specifically hiding information on the Silver Eyed Warriors from Ruby, or Jinn would have shown them. But there is still so little love lost between them, so much silent distrust, even after all these months that this might be the way to get to Ruby, to place doubt in her mind.

Had it been their duty to share that information? Had it honestly been such a bad thing to not reveal that last hope, when they have always sought a different way? A way not to burden her with an impossible task, the weight of the sky?

“Oz didn’t need to tell me what I can figure out on my own,” Ruby says simply. “We’re here to preserve life, to protect humanity. To be a balance to the darkness of destruction.”

To defeat you.

But she doesn’t say that. And she doesn’t need to, proud and beautiful and confident.

Even when Oscar’s presence at her side has made her fragile; a single butterfly left outnumbered against the wolves and the soulless. Now, even her light is robbed from her, her power to act and change the course of fate. Because Oscar had acted rashly, because he had put himself in a position where he would function as a weakness.

“Yes,” Salem says. “As all your lovely companions have said before you, and isn’t it tragic that such a belief is what leads to your very destruction? When it was given to you by your Creator?”

And that’s all it takes. Ruby hesitates, eyes growing wide at the possibility, conviction broken. Salem steals her choice for a moment, and places doubt in her mind. And it’s so wrong, that Salem should get to Ruby of all people; that her power should extend even to her light, polluting it.

“That’s ridiculous,” Oscar says, before he can stop herself. “Ruby isn’t who she is because some god cursed her with her personality. Ruby is Ruby because of the experiences she’s had, the people she loves, the ones she’s lost. That’s not constructed. It’s real.”

Watts scoffs with quiet disapproval, and Tyrian laughs, cackles, at that private joke again. And Salem smiles indulgently. “Always such a gallant soul,” she says, getting to her feet. “But perhaps you ought to reflect on your own situation. Can you know with surety that your attachment to your little flower is your own, when Oz’ devotion to roses has never faded?”

It’s a slap in the face, a reminder of his greatest fear; that he will fade away, that all there will be left one day will be Oz, and that Oscar won’t even notice. That he will become so much like his companion that there will be no difference; that even when he had first met Ruby he was already less himself.

His fingers curl around the cane, brushing along the carvings of rose stalks and thorns.

You have silver eyes.

Even when he has Oz’ reassurances, it’s so easy to doubt.

But he remembers Jinn’s warning, too; The hearts of man are easily changed.

“What does it matter?” he retorts, feeling childlike and small. Stubborn as the weeds of summer. “My attachments are my own, and I choose to believe in them.”

Salem’s easy smile falls.

She exhales a long breath and rests her chin in her hand. “Tell me something, Oscar,” she says. “Where is Oz?”

The disgust that drags on the tones of the diminutive sends a chill of anger down his spine. Protectiveness has always made him rash, has always blinded him, and now he spits “Not here,” without remorse, with relish, knowing that for once she will not be able to hurt him.

“No wonder,” she murmurs. And then she smiles, white teeth flashing in the gloom. “Now, we can’t have that. Hazel, if you would be so kind.”

The name brings a flash of pain, memories real upon his body, followed by fear and shock. Haven returns to him unbidden, a battle he cannot keep at bay, words of accusations and rage ringing suddenly in his ears. Threats to his life. And Oscar attempts to whirl to face the man towering suddenly behind him.

But a large hand lands on his shoulder, stopping him mid-spin so he cannot see the man who wishes him dead. “Remain calm, boy,” the older voice rumbles. “And I will let you walk away today.”

“Oscar—“ Ruby begins, silver eyes flashing dangerously, her hand on her scythe.

But before he can tell her to listen, please don’t do anything stupid, we’re outnumbered, Salem cuts her off instead “now Summer’s last little rose, it would be such a pity to leave you blooming alone, would it not? When you could so easily join your scentless mates of the garden.”

Ruby and Oscar both freeze at her words.

They slowly turn to Salem, disbelieving her mercurial change in mood, but she stares back with rage so cold it burns bone deep, and when she has their full attention she snaps her deathly white fingers.

The world winks out of existence

When it re-merges out of the darkness, they’re standing at the floor of a mountainous valley. The moon is gone from the sky, but there is an inexplicable light in the realm of destruction, one that illuminates paths and rocks, large cliffs towering over their heads, and monsters prowling amongst colossal Dust crystals.

It’s familiar, yet somehow different from what he had seen in Jinn’s story. Time ought not to have an impact on a place such as this. Except it had; Salem’s castle towers above them, framed by a sky devoid of stars; the proof that humanity will change the face of even destruction.

And then his eyes fall on the blotches of darkness along the floor, like shadows from clouds under an unforgiving sun, black like ink. They ripple like mud, catching that eerie light of this inhospitable world.

Oscar exchanges a startled look with Ruby.

They aren’t standing at the bottom of a cavern; they’re standing on the floor of the Fountain of Destruction.

The God of Destruction had used the Fountain to create Grimm, a mockery of his brother’s art, creation without life; soulless and forever hungry. Salem had followed in his footsteps, but she had built on his monsters, created more and more terrible creatures, who served only one purpose for millennia, a near eternity, until there was almost nothing left, until the Fountain had nearly dried up.

It almost gives Oscar hope, nearly makes him regret Oz isn’t here to see this. A weakness, a potential. A ray of light in the place they least expected it.

And then Salem towers over Ruby, tall as a goddess, red meeting silver, her long black robes swallowing all life around her.

Unwillingly, Ruby takes a step back.

“Hazel,” Salem says, without looking up. “Do make sure Oscar Pine doesn’t move. I want him to say at my side, until I’ve seen Oz’ despair as he wakes and realises his last Rose is withered.”

Salem’s cruelty is complex and well-planned; just as she’d made sure to direct his hope, to tell him that it existed, to show him where it lay, she’d also torn it from between his hands with precise, calculated timing. She’d waited, let him hold his breath, let courage grow until it’d become vulnerable to assault, until it could be shattered like fragile glass.

“No.”

His voice breaks, but he barely notices as he starts forwards, desperate to stop it. Make it stop. Please. Don’t take her away. But he’s not alone this time, he’s no longer free to act as he pleases, and Hazel’s hand clamps down on his shoulder with real force, pain blooming like flowers down his back.

Ruby turns from Salem at his voice, eyes widening as if broken from a spell. Anger ripples. “Let go of him,” she begins, reaching for Crescent Rose.

“Ah, but my dear,” Salem says, grasping her chin and gently nudging her attention back, away. “It is his own choice to fight against this. He would come to no harm if he simply stopped struggling against the inevitable. Like you, he would be free.”

She tilts her head slightly, as she studies Ruby’s face, and frowns. “Such beautiful eyes,” she murmurs. “The gods have truly gifted you with a wonderful curse.”

She reaches almost lovingly, a mother’s touch, deceptive and kind, to correct the red hood around Ruby’s neck.

And with a flick of the wrist, fast and merciless, she grabs Ruby’s throat, lifts her into the air as if she were nothing, and flings her at the nearest lake, the remnant of the God of Destruction’s desires.

The blackness sucks her in, and she vanishes.

Ruby!

Other women flash in his mind, with eyes like starlight and smiles as bright as the world they protect, with black hair and courage fueling their beautiful, reckless spirits. Blood like rose petals splatter across their skin, soaks into their clothes.

So many, too many.

Maria.

Summer.

Ruby lying unconscious on the floors of Haven.

The image of Salem drowned in the fountain of destruction replaces it, pain and hatred, selfish greed, all that remained at the end. A human destroyed, to leave only immortal destruction.

But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Not the world, not the gods, not silver eyes. Only Ruby.

Oscar turns on Hazel, green aura rippling along his skin, and before the older man can raise his guard, he grabs him by the front of his shirt and flings him straight into Tyrian and Watts. 

Without doubt, without hope, heart too full and desperate, Oscar sprints across the distance, the Dark Realm rushing past him in a blur, vanishing.

“Stop him!”

But there’s nothing left to stop him, leaping into the unknown with only one sure thought to direct him. He’ll walk through hell, if it means she won’t slip from his sight, if he can ensure a single star remains in the night.

The sky rips in half.

And darkness swallows him whole.

Chapter Text

A single drop of silver starlight breaks the darkness and steals towards the surface of the fountain of destruction.

Quiet reigns; the oppressive, deafening silence of in-existence; the void before the world remains at the heart of destruction. And always chaos seeks to return to it, seeks to drive all things back to where they once were, to right a balance more ancient and cruel than what the gods could ever have imagined.

Ruby watches with mild curiosity as another drop of silver breaks away and seeks back towards creation. She feels detached, as if she’s entered a room full of Apathy, destruction stealing her emotion and spirit before it breaks apart her body. 

She’d been so frightened only a moment ago.

Like waking up to a nightmare realm, her relief at having Oscar at her side had all at once been turned to despair at the realisation of how horribly outnumbered they’d been. She’d stood before Salem with hope in her hands, a fragile truth she hadn’t dared believe in until it’d been confirmed by her enemy, only to have it shattered and turned to stardust between her fingers.

All she had been left with was a facade of courage and pride, and a desperate mind frantically searching for a way to get them both out alive, with no result.

And now… none of it matters.

Another drop of silver flitters towards the sun, like air bubbles too light for the heavy pressure of deep water, where only monsters lurk.

If Oz is smart he’ll stay out of sight of Salem long enough for him and Oscar to come up with a plan of escape, and with only one of them between her clutches, there’ll be more chances to slip away.

Ruby wishes they’d had a chance to talk things out. He’d stayed out of their way for months while in Atlas, and only meddled when absolutely necessary.

Ruby wishes she’d been able to hear Yang and Blake laughing together in seeming secret behind a pillar, full of youthful love and happiness, freedom finally theirs to grasp. One more time.

She wishes she’d punched Whitley for Weiss just once. She wishes that she’d hugged her Uncle Qrow once more, that she’d found one more opportunity to thank Maria.

Now all she owes her is an apology. She’d failed her, the teacher who’d empowered her. She’d been supposed to make up for all their loss, to ensure no Silver Eyed Warrior would ever be harmed by Salem again.

And in a way she has, but she’s failed their duty, as well.

If only—

Silver tears spill over and fall towards the sky.

And this time Ruby reaches for them, despair engulfing her like a wave. She can’t just let them slip between her fingers; her friends, her light, the opportunity afforded to her by the gods to make right an ancient wrong. She can’t just let go of—

Rays of sunlight break the darkness of the fountain, piercing all the way down beyond creation, beyond the world, where no light should have the power to shine. Warmth touches her skin, the fresh caress of spring after an endless winter.

Life.

Life always returns.

Oscar descends towards her, body pulled down by the desires of destruction, leaving green flecks of aura, his soul, behind. It tears on him painfully, destruction, breaking him apart at the edges. But his eyes are on Ruby, unfailing and obstinate, and Ruby—

Ruby wants to yell, or cry, or hug him. She’s supposed to be the one protecting him, not the other way around. She’s the leader, the one with the plan. The reckless one who faces the monsters in the dark with nothing to lose.

But still she’d lost herself to the dark.

And Oscar, brave and beautiful, had risked everything to bring it back to her.

Her light.

Ruby lifts her hand out towards him, as the lake begins to pull her down to new depths, greedy and intent on devouring her whole, to steal her light and her power. But she won’t let it, won’t let it separate her from another loved one, won’t let it tear them both to pieces, shatter their souls and scatter them beyond life and death.

The lake may be the remnant of the God of Destruction’s desires, but Ruby is a child of the God of Creation, a warrior of light, and she’ll hold it at bay with her very spirit if she has to, if it means protecting Oscar, if it means they’ll see the open sky again.

Oscar’s hand reaches Ruby’s and light sprouts between them, overpowering the darkness and stealing them from destruction.


Oz awakens to the roar of a crowd. It hits him square in the face like an ocean storm, powerful and undeniable. And his eyes fly open to reveal what seems to be humanity in its entirety; thousands upon thousands of faces; men and women, children with their parents. Full of joyous excitement, moved by a single unified emotion.

The sun falls kindly on their faces in the huge courtyard, illuminating castle walls and open gates; green banners and flags rimmed with gold. It warms his face and bids him smile, even in his confusion.

And then cool metal settles on his head, a circle of gold to trap him in his duties, and a voice pronounces a sentence worse than death.

“...name thee Odin, our gracious King, and thirteenth monarch of the Kingdom of Vale and all its territories!”

Panic burns him like a sickness, flashes of pain and memories. He can’t be here again. He can’t hold this kind of power again. He failed so spectacularly last time; thousands killed, and many more subjugated under his pride and vanity. His children, golden and beautiful. So he mustn’t be here again; he doesn’t belong anywhere but in the shadowy fringes of history, a slow guide towards unity and restoration.

But the sun finds its way into every nook and cranny of the world, chases away all shadows eventually, and so he looks up into the face of humanity and embraces the duties of another life, another long stretch of road, mapped for him by the gods.


Ruby lands in a pile of sand with an ‘ompf’.

She closes her eyes to feel the grit of the ground below her skin, the warmth of the world surrounding them, and the life in her hand. Oscar’s grip on her hand is tight, and she returns the gesture, the reassurance of his remaining presence enough to help her bite back the teary relief threatening to spill over.

They escaped.

They got out from under Salem’s claws, out of the depths of destruction.

They’d managed it, somehow. Together.

Ruby pulls herself up, and the smile that had found its way onto her face vanishes at the sight that greets her: fingers digging into sand darkened by ash, and so much blood that even the desert hadn’t been able to swallow it.

The air is thick with smoke wafting gently over a battlefield that stretches as far as the eye can see, beyond the horizon, stretching forever into the distance. But not a soul remains here, no life exists on the plains of desolation; only traces of what destroyed it. Weapons everywhere; swords and arrows, spears and axes, digging into the ground, into the corpses of a million soldiers of four different armies. And fires burn, too eager to devour the world to be deterred simply by the sand and the ash, clutching at the skin and uniforms of the long dead, but never tearing away the remains of life.

Sparks from the flames twirl into the air in a still image, a snapshot of the carnage of a war Ruby has only heard of in history classes, from Ozpin and Maria.

Destruction reigns here, dead bodies breaking apart at the edges and Dust floating up to join the sparks of fire. And at the centre of it all…

Ruby, nauseated by the sight, heart a horrified beat in her chest, pulls back, her hand brushing over sand and meeting stone. And she starts, turning to look behind her.

At the centre of it all stands a lone pedestal, like an altar, built in bricks burnt with the scars of battle. A black orb hovers above it, crackling with lightning and reshaping itself. The sight sends a shock of fear through her, a reminder of nightmarish darkness moving over her skin, slowly devouring her spirit.

The Relic of Destruction.

“Oscar.”

Ruby grabs his shoulder and shakes him with urgency. She doesn’t have the strength to drag him away, but she wishes desperately that she did.

“Come on,” she says. “Wake up, Oscar.”

It barely registers with her that they’re both somehow physically whole, fear leading to a rush of adrenaline and a lapse in proper analytical thought. They’re not done fighting yet, and she isn’t going to be calm until—

Oscar groans, green eyes fluttering open, and for just a moment she sees that remnant of destruction running across his skin, over his eyes, black lightning a mockery of the golden light that usually reflects the difference between the two minds inhabiting his body. The sight brings a rush of panic and pain, her heart shrinking in her chest, but it’s gone as quickly as it had come.

Ruby blinks, and rubs her eyes.

“What happened?” Oscar begins.

He struggles to sit up, and Ruby hurries to offer him a hand. 

“I’m not entirely sure,” she admits, pulling him into a sitting position. “Are you okay, Oscar?”

His eyes stray from her, landing on the hand that’d just held hers.

“I...who?”

He blinks in confusion down at it as if he doesn’t entirely recognise it.

“Ah. I see. We reincarnated again.”

Reincarnated?

Ruby’s relief drains out of her. “We?”

The person occupying Oscar’s body looks up at her as if he’d forgotten she was there. “You...” he says, turning fully in happy astonishment. “You’re a Rose, aren’t you?”

Ruby pulls back as he leans closer, reminded uncomfortably of Salem’s words. “Uh...” she stammers. “Well-well, yes. My family name is Rose, if that’s what you mean.”

His smile falls, and he tilts his head to regard her pensively. “And you know our full story. But you’re not my Rose,” he observes. “A child? Grandchild, perhaps.”

Ruby opens and closes her mouth in flustered confusion at being referred to so intimately in Oscar’s voice. “I... who are you?” She demands in an attempt to divert his attention.

Oscar’s green eyes blink at her, innocent and all-knowing. Then he smiles. “I am Oz,” he says simply. “But I am not your Oz, so to speak.”

He pauses, closing his eyes for a long moment, listening to something far away that only he can hear. “Our soul seems to have cracked, like fragile glass, from exposure to the Fountain of Destruction. And I am the remnant, the memories of just one life...”

He looks aside, his eyes taking in the carnage; the thousand lives lost and put on display, the dust of creation floating from their corpses as if destruction is slowly corroding what is left.

“What you see around you is the consequences of my actions,” he says. “My hesitation to do what is right. And my choice to go against my duty in a desperate attempt to end a war that had already taken so many lives.”

There’s an echo in his words, of a different person; one she knows and understands. One whose wit had guided her and raised her, one whose regret had tied him to a tower for a lifetime. This is Oz as she knows him, this is the sorrow and regret of a man who has made more mistakes than any man, woman or child.

“A war?”

He nods. “The war.”

“You’re the last king of Vale, aren’t you?”

His eyes light up with pride. “You are smart. What gave me away?”

This, too, is humor that she recognizes and it’s calming to hear after so long. Somehow, the days in Anima’s northern territories feel very far away, and even if this is Oz, she can find none of her old resentment. Only a smile.

“Well, this is clearly the Vault of the Summer Maiden,” she says. “Which was built by Ozpin’s predecessor, or so my Uncle Qrow told me. My uncle also tells the stories of the war a little differently than most of my history teachers ever have; that a lot of odd events happened during the final campaign in Vacuo, like unusual weather conditions and the sudden emergence of Grimm out of nowhere.”

The Warrior King they called him, she remembers. Terrifying in battle, but dignified in victory.

“The Relic of Knowledge gifted humanity with knowledge, so logically the other Relics must do something similar,” Ruby says aloud. “But you would never allow another monarch to touch the Relics and risk the destruction of life on Remnant. And doing it yourself sounds like the kind of decision you would carry with you for another eternity.”

The king’s expression softens at her understanding, so that for a moment all she can see is Oscar. “And so I am uncovered. Again.”

It shakes her, her heart and soul trembling at how alike they are, and how much that terrifies her.

They still don’t know how long Oscar is going to remain himself. Oz’ vanishing act might just have prolonged the process. And now he’s back. In a sense. Their soul had cracked, into how many pieces she doesn’t know. The consequences of that have yet to take effect, and she doesn’t—

“I—“ she begins, leaning a little closer, a little too eagerly. “I’m sorry to change the topic, and this might be rude, but… please. You said your mind shattered into pieces. What happened to my— to Oscar. Is he okay?”

She needs him to be okay. She needs him to be the primary mind in control of his own body. If he is lost to the thousand voices of Oz’ mind she doesn’t know how she’d be able to bear it.

He smiles, soft, affectionate understanding of the bonds that tie them together. Perhaps better than she does. “He’s okay,” he says. “And trust me, Miss Rose. We’ll do our best to strengthen the mind belonging to this body, so that he will be in control as he should be.”

Ruby sags with relief, her forehead nearly touching his shoulder. If she closes her eyes, she can feel the heat from his skin, sense the nearly lost difference in height, the mass of his body, and imagine that it’s Oscar beside her once again. As it will be soon.

A hand nudges her chin up, brief and careful, and Oz begins to say “But the fountain’s effects will linger until the blight can be—“

And then his eyes widen with surprise and horror, his mouth falling open with the shock of what he sees in her face, long enough for Ruby to blink and pull back.

“Wha-what?”

But the person in Oscar’s body isn’t deterred. He grabs her face with both his hands, carefully directing her to meet his gaze. He studies her eyes for a long moment, with an unnerving intensity that makes her want to flee, to scatter into rose petals and never reshape again. And yet, the growing concern she sees in Oscar’s eyes is as real and as nerve-wrecking, but for all the wrong reasons.

“My apologies for intruding in your personal space, miss Rose,” he says, once he releases her.

He gets to his feet as abruptly as he had let Oscar’s hands fall from her face, and turns from her to the Relic of Destruction.

“What’s wrong?” she demands, following him. “What did you see?”

Oz doesn’t turn to face her. “Your eyes are blue.”

Around them a breeze gently runs between the scattered remains of the king’s regret, tugging reluctantly on tattered banners and robes, splitting apart against the blades of the fallen, and dancing alongside smoke and fire.

“…what?”

“I didn’t think about it too deeply, at first,” Oz says, voice strained. “I didn’t think the darkness of the fountain could steal it away. Because you used your light just fine when you saved yourself and Oscar. But the silver is gone from your eyes…”

Ruby’s heart withers in her chest and she stands, lost, in the middle of a battlefield.

She doesn’t doubt Oz’ words. He has no reason to lie to her, has no reason to bend a truth such as this.

“Was Salem right?”

Even to her own ears, Ruby’s voice sounds weak and far away, as her mind. This whole situation feels disembodied and surreal, as if she’s still stuck in a nightmare realm with no path to escape.

Oz turns slowly, just enough to look back at her, to meet her eyes. And she sees that it truly is Oz, the part of him who has walked the past the longest, fallen beyond his original righteous path as a hero, to one full of regret and despair.

“Yes,” Ozma says. “I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t tell me,” she whispers.

“I simply wanted to find another way, so you would never have to face her as I have. And now, that plan, too, has failed.”

He turns away again, displaying his pain to no one but himself. And Ruby cannot fault him this, cannot fault him for something she adores in Oscar; the sure knowledge that he will always seek the path that leads to least casualties, to least pain. Preservation and protection of what is alive now always more important than anything else in the world. Even the future.

And yet, the Vault of the Summer Maiden is a testimony to the exact opposite. To carnage and violence, to death and destruction at the hands of the God of Creation’s chosen.

Ozma sighs heavily. “We can’t wait around for Summer to come find us,” he mutters. He produces the cane hanging from Oscar’s belt and holds it in his hand, head bent as if praying in melancholy heartbreak. “I’m sorry.”

With one swift move he unfurls the staff, as if unsheathing a sword. He holds it up in offering to the orb so the cane levitates above it. And slowly small black vines begin to snake their way up the weapon, encircling it like a wicked replica of the plants that grace the other relics, withering with chaos and decay. The cane changes before her eyes then, the wood expanding into a black blade. The rose stalks along the silver bloom and grow down the blade, adorning it in a thorny warning of its piercing might.

Oz exhales with painful anticipation and grabs the hilt with his gloved hand. Destruction crackles like lightning around his hand and dyes even the glove black. But the blight stays in the cloth.

“Get behind me,” he says. “You are still a child of Creation, and the sword will know.”

Ruby swallows thickly and does as she’s told.

With one mighty swing, Oz cleaves the sky in two. He cuts away the king’s regret, and tears down his own illusions, creating a straight path back to reality.

At the border between those two worlds, he falls to his knees in the sand, the sword clattering out of his hands. He gasps with the effort of using such powerful magic and clasps his palm over his eyes.

Oscar’s voice trembles with fear and despair. “So many voices.”

And Ruby is at his side in a flash, rose petals falling in her haste. “Oscar?”

He looks up at her, eyes drowning in unshed tears. “I think so? I was somewhere— somebody— I don’t—“

And it’s such a relief to recognize the mind behind the green gaze, the boy she knows and adores. “Of course it is,” Ruby says, touching her hand to his cheek. “You’re okay.”

It’s almost impossible to see his wobbly smile beyond her own tears, and without another word, without having to speak of mutual longing or desire, they reach forwards, falling into each other in obvious relief. Ruby’s fingers dig into the folds of Oscar’s clothes, and she feels the tears slide gently down her shoulder beyond her hood.

“We’re okay.”


That’s how the headmaster of Shade Academy finds them.

The elevator opens soundlessly at the other end of the vault, and a woman thunders out, weapon drawn.

What the bloody—“

Ruby and Oscar pull apart at the sound of her voice, and Ruby is half way to her feet in the space between reality and illusion, before she registers the vault beyond.

The sun glows, not from above, but below them in a fountain stretching out across the entire floor, reflecting the vast blue sky. Clouds float lazily through the air, driven by a gentle breeze, free and endless.

“Who are—“ the woman begins, drawing their attention back. “Did you cleave apart the vault from the inside?

She’s middle-aged, the same lines of age marking her face, as Ozpin and the other headmasters. A blue scarf frames a dark face and falls down her back to hide her hair. Her arms and shoulders are left bare by a black tank-top, revealing broad shoulders and the tense muscles of a practiced huntress. Golden bracelets encircle her arms from wrist to elbow, and in her hands is a complex mechanical sword, its bronze blade curved in a beautiful arc.

“Hello Shahrazad,” Oscar says, wincing as he climbs to his knee. “Sorry to intrude.”

Ruby glances at him. “Shahrazad?”

“The Headmaster of Shade Academy,” he responds quietly. “Oz just told me.”

“Oz?” Shahrazad repeats, her eyes narrowing skeptically. She twists her weapon in her hands, and for a single heartbeat Ruby thinks it’s enough to make her trust them. But the weapon transforms in her hands, gears working, into a magnificent bronze bow, which she directs at Oscar. “Prove it.”

“Wha— No.” Ruby scrambles to her feet, irritated and protective, Crescent Rose unfurling under her fingers. “Isn’t the vault splitting apart enough proof for you? We’re not your enemies, professor Shahrazad. We’re—“

“I have no idea who you are, or how you got into the Vault without the help of the Summer Maiden,” Shahrazad cuts her off, mercilessly. “The fact you know of Oz, or would attempt to impersonate his next reincarnation tells me one of two things; either the boy at your side really is Oz. Or you’re working for Salem.”

We just escaped Salem!” Ruby exclaims. There’s no energy left in her for diplomacy, the only thing keeping her on her feet is the sure knowledge that Oscar is even more exhausted than her, that his soul has somehow been split apart and that he isn’t in any shape to protect himself. He needs peace to solve this, not another presumed ally turning against him.

She opens her mouth to continue, but Oscar grasps her hand, stopping her short.

“It’s okay,” he says, eyes soft. “I needed to do this anyway.”

His hand slips from hers and he holds it up. A golden orb emerges in his open palm, and plants grow from it, up and up, until the light releases them, leaving a black scabbard engraved with silver rose stalks.

It lands in his hand, and he holds it up for Shahrazad’s inspection. “Is this a satisfactory demonstration?”

The headmaster exhales a sigh of obvious relief, and lowers her weapon. “Of course,” she says. And then she smiles with obvious humor. “You know you could’ve just told me something only I would know. Isn’t that what usually happens in the cliches? Although, the fact you’re still a show-off is possibly the most revealing thing.”

Oscar smiles awkwardly. “I hope I haven’t entirely adopted that trait yet.”

That gains him a full laugh, loud and full of life. And just that; that sound of joyful laughter from an ally is enough to convince Ruby that now, for the first time since the Fall of Beacon, they are truly free of the nightmare.


Ruby barely remembers their journey through Shade Academy to the dorms. She remembers the high ceilinged hallways, and the red and orange colours, and Oscar whispering “autumn coloured,” as if it has meaning.

But she’s just relieved when Shahrazad unlocks a door to an unoccupied room with the words “wash, sleep. I’ll have food sent up for you later, and we’ll talk.”

Oscar drops the Sword of Destruction in a corner unceremoniously, and retreats to the bed the furthest from that corner to sit down heavily and close his eyes. Ruby leaves him to calm his raging mind, and for a moment of quiet for herself.

She drops her hood on a different bed, and pushes the door open to an adjacent toilet (a luxury Oz had not afforded the students at Beacon). But she closes her eyes to hide from her reflection, and bows her face over the sink. The cold water is pleasant against her skin, another touch of reality, of the physical world that she’d managed to return to.

Ruby exhales, breath trembling across her lips.

She wishes she could wash her skin, to scrub at it until the feeling of the waters from the pools of destruction no longer remain like a memory on her body. But there is no shower or bathtub to aide her here, and she doubts that water will free her from the past.

Instead, she steels herself, finds the courage to lift her head again and face one more ugly truth.

Blue.

Endlessly blue, like the sky from Patch, like her father’s eyes. The silver is gone; her mother’s gift drained from her spirit. And all that remains is blue sorrow.

“Why couldn’t you have lied to me again?”

Tears, huge and overpowering, brim over from that sea of sorrow, trickling down her face. And though Ruby tries to pull herself together, tries to draw it all back, there’s nothing she can do to stop it; the night’s events, all the wrong steps she’d taken, all the harm she’s caused against her will.

Ruby had been the last. She’d had the solution in her hands all along, and like drops of air under the surface of a lake, she’d let it slip through her fingers without even fighting to keep what was hers.

She’d snuffed out humanity’s last light of hope.

And though Oscar tries to draw her from her despair, fingers gently grasping her hand and urging her to turn away from her reflection, all she can think when she sees him is the words of the last king of Vale; that their soul had shattered in the process.

“I’m sorry!”

It bursts out of her before she can stop herself, and Oscar startles at her words.

“I’m sorry! If only I hadn’t gotten caught. If only I’d been a better leader. If I’d thought of a plan of escape earlier. I’m so sorry, Oscar.”

“Wha—“ he opens and closes his mouth in astonishment. “No. Ruby. You can’t blame yourself for what happened. We were outnumbered. Salem wasn’t going to give us a chance to succeed.”

“But— but you’re—“ her windpipe ties itself into painful knots and she swallows thickly. “And my eyes— I can’t—“

“Hey,” he says, intertwining their fingers with one hand, and touching his other hand to her face as if to bid her focus. “Don’t think about that now. None of us are in any shape to think of a solution right now, but it’s there. Trust me.”

Always the optimist.

Somehow, Ruby manages to find a smile, and she brushes away her tears, so she can face him properly.

But the night’s events tears on him as well, and he can’t entirely hide the sorrow reflected in his eyes. Oscar is being strong for her, is doing his best not to loose hope in spite of the way the fountain had torn at his soul and his mind.

The least she can do is return the gesture, and be strong for him in turn.

“Are you holding up alright?”

Oscar smiles. “By the seams. I’m reminding myself that we’ve done impossible things before,” he quotes. “And that we were able to do them because we didn’t do them alone. That helps.”

The laugh that escapes her is wobbly and watery, and Ruby throws her arms around his neck in a hug. “I’m glad you’re here, too.”

He can’t entirely hide the sniffle of fear and insecurity that escapes him then, but he rests his arms around her waist and pulls her closer, and she lets him hide the rest of his sorrow in her shoulder.

Later, as Ruby watches his eyes flutter closed and exhaustion claiming him under shared blankets, the sun rises in the window behind him. Golden light brushes through his hair in a gentle caress, making his skin glow with warmth.

And a single white butterfly settles in the windowsill.

 

Chapter Text

“Oscar…. Oscar!”

A hand pulls him roughly out of deep sleep, and Oscar startles up in bed, mind reeling.

“Wha—?” he stammers. “I was… there was—? I— Ah!

Ruby is leaning over the bed, smile bright and beautiful and so close their noses are nearly brushing. Oscar’s face flushes bright red, and he tumbles back, flailing.

Ruby catches his hand and drags him in the opposite direction, out of bed. “Come on, sleepyhead, you have to see this!”

She always did bounce back quickly, a voice consoles him in the back of his head.

But Oscar shakes his head and smiles at her strong back, as he stumbles after her, doing his best to keep up with her semblance partially activated in her excitement. No. This is just Ruby being Ruby; optimistic and bright, refusing to let things get to her when she’s done the impossible before. There’s always a plan, and even if she hasn’t figured out the steps yet, she still trusts that they’re there.

Ruby knows the path she’s walking on, even when she cannot see the ground.

“Come see,” she says, stopping abruptly by the window, and pulling the curtains back with a flourish. “Welcome to Vacuo!”

Sunlight falls from a clear blue sky in late afternoon, its gold spreading across a flourishing city that stretches out down the hillside, along a sparkling blue river and up another hill to three large triangular buildings. Pyramids, his inherited memory supplies. Their smooth white surface lead up to three massive golden tips pointing towards the sky, and cast long azure shadows, reflecting the vast blue of the sky onto the desert floor.

Oscar stares at it in awe.

This isn’t Mistral, or Atlas. There is no visible hierarchy in the city, no gated societies or separated quarters, no physical dividers between people. This feels more like Vale.

Like home, the voice he recognizes as Ozpin’s now supplies.

“Whoa,” he says aloud, awestruck.

And beside him, Ruby’s smile brightens. “Right? We slept all day, but it seems worth it since this is our introduction to the kingdom.”

The golden light falls across her face, casting a crown of light through her hair and making her skin glow in a soft caress. For a moment even her eyes seem silver again, under the love of the sun. And Oscar—

Oscar can’t breathe at the sight, can’t find the strength to hold his heart back when she’s smiling at him so brightly, in spite of all they’ve been through. Beauty in strength, in everything that she is. So that when she blinks and the illusion is broken, her eyes don’t seem like a curse upon humanity, but a promise that their future is vast and endless like the open sky.


There’s a buzzing in Oscar’s ears, a constant chatter of voices, thoughts and conversations too low in the background for him to hear clearly. But always it remains, like a trickle of water from a faucet that hasn’t been turned off properly. Only now it’s a thousand faucets and he feels like he’s drowning.

And it doesn’t stop at sound; always, wherever he looks there’s the shadow of memories not his own, the dust of nostalgia tinting every hall and room. So he thinks he’s stumbling over a paint bucket full of red colour for a newly built hallway, only to sidestep it and find that the paint is old as time, flaking in corners and the bucket hasn’t been there in sixty years. Half constructed pillars tower suddenly complete, their decorations long faded under an unforgiving sun. Busy construction workers and soldiers become exhausted students, curious but lazy after a long day of work. Everything is new and old at the same time, and it leaves him with a dizzying feeling of being less real. Again.

Winter and spring had passed them by as things had escalated in Atlas, as everything had slowly begun to go wrong, and although Oscar had spent every waking moment living in that presence, though he’d gotten pulled in and dragged along with events, the disembodied feeling of having a timer attached to your life as you know it, of the constant awareness at the back of his head that at some point he would simply cease to be Oscar Pine and become something else, had never vanished.

Even when Oz had stayed out of his way, locked away in his head, it had been impossible to forget.

And now?

Oscar glances at Ruby at his side, and as if sensing his gaze on her face she turns to gift him with a smile that brightens his mood with ease.

Well. Even if his spirit is split apart, even if the thousand voices seem to confirm his worst fears better than Qrow or Jaune ever could, he doesn’t regret descending into chaos. Not when it was for Ruby.

Unlike the headmaster’s office at Beacon, which was placed at the top of the tower, Shahrazad’s office is in the very middle of the pyramid-like structure of Shade Academy. Its humble interior of pale wooden furniture and cotton pillows are kept in a cool environment thanks to the location of the chambers. In the middle stands a large collection of light crystal dust, which reflects the city and its wide reaching sky onto the empty walls, as if they were made of glass.

Both Ruby and Oscar pause in the door to gape at the sight that meets them, awestruck by the beauty of the room.

Shahrazad preens from her chair, teeth flashing. “I see you know how to appreciate proper grandeur. All that gaudy furniture in Ironwood’s office might cost a lot of money—“

I’d like to point out I had nothing to do with that, the King of Vale pipes up.

“—and Beacon’s office was just a bad attempt at minimalism, and don’t get me started on the colour schemes in Lionwood’s office.”

Hey!

That’s the part you’re against?” Oscar exclaims in exasperation.

Well, comes the bemused reply. It was a dedication to

He doesn’t hear the rest, because Shahrazad rolls her eyes and says “I could think of several other things to criticize, but most of them would have to do with Lionheart’s behaviour, rather than his lack of a spine when it comes to changing the decor in his office. Not that he had much of a spine in general.”

Oscar and Ruby share a look.

“Oh, come now,” she says, crossing her legs and leaning back in her seat. As she does so she waves them in to join her. “I’m a huntress, and I know how Oz handles betrayal. Or rather, doesn’t.”

She meets Oscar’s gaze across the distance, and he feels a chill running down his back at the look of ferocious anger in eyes darker than the night.

“We—well,” he begins, lowering himself into a chair with some delay. “There was no need to cause a—“

“—panic, I know,” she cuts him off. Rolls her eyes. “See, Ruby Rose, this is what you have to learn to deal with. Hesitation, kindness, too many experiences by half that ends up giving him a bad case of a soft heart. It’s up to his companions to nudge him when that stops him short.”

Ruby straightens under the criticisms and her eyes flash like lightning. “That soft, kind heart is what ensures they don’t step off the wrong path,” she retorts, and it’s so clear what she’s thinking about; that day in the snow that had carved such a rift between herself and Oz. All those memories he had kept hidden, even from the companions he shares his soul and his lives with. “But you’re right. We’re here to support them when they need us. So, Professor Shahrazad; are you going to support us?”

Shahrazad smiles the smile of a predator, white teeth flashing.

She approves, Ozpin interprets and his voice bends to tones of amusement, hiding obvious relief to hear Ruby’s loyalty expressed so openly.

“First,” the headmaster says, “now that you’ve rested. I want the full story of what happened to you, and how you ended up inside the Vault of the Summer Maiden.”

Oscar feels a ripple of worry and concern not his own before Ozma whispers Do you mind? So Oscar doesn’t need to ask whether he’s going to lie. It’s there, the intention hidden in the shadows. But too many broken souls are urging caution in the back of his mind not to see the contours of the speech in the darkness.

Oscar glances at Ruby. He means to ask her to start, so that she may set the pace for the story, but she isn’t looking at him. She’s looking down and away, the pain of what had happened in Atlas, what Salem had put them through, still too raw for her to speak of.

I’ll start, he insists.

If anybody should put voice to what happened it should at least be a friend.

As you wish.

“Ironwood is... compromised,” he says. “We don’t know how much, and I can’t say how things have escalated since we left Atlas two days ago, but Salem’s scientist, Arthur Watts, has been whispering in his ear.”

“No surprise,” Shahrazad says, rolling her eyes. “Man has no smarts for the long game, and he’s been misguided for too long.”

There’s a trace of Oz’ contempt in the way she uses that word—misguided—but it isn’t nearly as veiled as Oz’ comments had always been. Direct and merciless, there’s little respect for James Ironwood left in Shahrazad.

Oscar smiles without humor. “That may be true but I— we didn’t expect it to become this much of a weakness.”

She raises an eyebrow as if to say ‘you never do’ but then simply waves her hand, urging him to continue with his report.

So he does his best to pick his words concisely, to describe the attack on the Schnee residence, the battle with Cinder and Neo, and the discovery of Watts’ lab that had followed with as much kindness and respect of Ruby’s loss that he can manage. He’s only ever heard of Penny, hasn’t had the courage to dig through Oz’ memories for more than a mental image of the girl. Ruby’s past is her own, after all. But the lab hidden away in Atlas’ military facility had contained more than parts for diplomatically dubious mechanics; large containers of glass had held the remains of young women and men, whose aura were slowly being drained out of them, their eyes long dead. And the glass eyes of near finished robots had stared up at them with the light of a stolen human soul.

Beside him, Ruby lowers her gaze, and Oscar knows she’s seeing those things again too, burnt into her memory as they must be.

Her face doesn’t turn nearly as pale as it had then, and yet he still feels the will to go on drain out of him, attachment and sympathy stopping him short so he loses his voice.

He wants to reach for her, to speak the words she needs to hear. But there is no remedy for the shock of realising your best friend had been the product of an act so cruel and inhuman. There are no words.

But he can’t run away either; he won’t let Oz recount the next part of the tale. Instead he covers it as quickly as he can. The kidnapping, the meeting with Salem, the Fountain.

“I’m not sure what happened,” he finishes reluctantly. “But Oz’ guess is that the Fountain rejected us because of our relation to Creation, and sent us to the thing most like its God in this world; the Relic of Destruction.”

Silence reigns for a long moment, as Shahrazad takes in his report. Finally she says “Well, at least you got away. Even if it meant Oz tearing apart my vault with that damn relic. And speaking of, you’re going to be putting that back, right? Because I won’t have it used in my kingdom again.”

It happens so suddenly and so quickly that Oscar barely has time to realize what’s going on until it’s done. A waves of protectiveness and anger bursts forwards, a thousand souls rushing forwards and pushing him aside, crying out at the same time.

No.” 

A pretty, dark-skinned woman with stunning blue eyes smiles up at him. Two children throw their arms around his neck, dragging him down into a hug full of love and affection.

And then he’s back in the office, disconnected from his body, unchained. Ozma is standing before him with a hand on his shoulder, and when Oscar lifts his head to meet his warm gaze, the hero smiles, ancient and young all at the same time. Before turning away and merging with his body.

“The Relic of Destruction has possessed my cane,” he says, grasping the shocked silence that follows his exclamation and the opportunity it affords him to speak his case, “and I’m not very keen on letting go of that one thing that reminds me more than ever of the happiness time has forced us to release.”

Ruby looks up at Ozma in something akin to surprise, and it’s a relief to see the open acceptance of his words, the return to normalcy that this distraction has paved the way for. Even if her blue gaze paints every emotion that crosses her face now with a tint of sorrow.

Shahrazad, on the other hand, meets Oz’ stare without wavering, matching his stubbornness to such a degree that Oscar wonders whether or not they will ever reach an agreement.

Finally she shakes her head and says. “Fine. So long as you promise never to use it.”

“Deal.”

And,” she says before he can direct the conversation. “You need to look for a way to separate the two again. If what Oscar said about the state of the Fountain of Destruction is true, then it is probably for the best that the Relic isn’t here if Salem comes knocking—and gods know she’s going to try soon, since my school is the only Academy left on her hit list.”

A twist of a smile. Relief. “As you wish.”

Shade’s headmaster returns his smile. “It’s good to see you again, old friend.”

Oz bows his head in fond acknowledgement. “You as well.”

Flashes of an easier time, of youth and happiness, of innocent adventures; memories Oscar hadn’t seen when they’d met Ironwood, nor Lionheart, smiles and laughter he’d never heard from his companion before, but are now falling into his mind as a result of the way their soul had shattered.

Don’t get lost.

Ozma’s voice whispers to him, and he looks up in surprise to find the old soul looking back at him, warning him.

So he swallows thickly, looks to Ruby, and grounds himself in reality.

“The Relic aside,” Shahrazad continues. “What exactly do you plan on doing now?”

“I—“

Oz hesitates.

Exhales silently. “I’m not sure yet,” he says. Lies. “Miss Rose’s condition is still ambiguous and we need to know the exact nature of it before we can take steps for her to return to full strength. As for myself and Oscar, hopefully our current predicament will sort itself out on its own.”

Um… Oz?

Shahrazad exchanges a look with Ruby, before turning to raise her eyebrow at Oz. There isn’t a single person in the room that doesn’t realize he’d just bent the truth. Again.

“Well,” she says. “You are welcome to stay here as long as you need. It is technically your school, after all. And while you’re here, you can clean up your own mess and do something about the damn vault.”

And Oz smiles. “Thank you,” he says, relief and nostalgia giving strength to his words.

Shahrazad rolls her eyes in fond exasperation and returns his smile as only an old friend would.

It only truly falls again, when they are about to leave, when Ruby turns in the door to say “um, Professor Shahrazad? Judging by your earlier words I can guess what the answer will be, but you wouldn’t happen to know of some way to contact the people in Atlas?”

With her back to him it’s impossible for Oscar to see the expression on Ruby’s face, but Oscar can guess the way it looks. Fear and hope mingling, but hidden away by a mask of calm.

Her friends, her team, her sister. Her family. All lost to the distance, the silence only an ocean can bring.

Her hand trembles on the door-handle.

“No,” the headmaster says. “I’m sorry, Miss Rose.”


It’s Ruby that leads the path back to the Vault the following morning.

She’d remained silent throughout the evening, the heavy burden of ignorance weighing down on her shoulders and mind, until it’d left her incapable of speaking of anything at all.

She’d tried, of course she’d tried; because she’s Ruby. And she still feels guilty for not living up to that impeccable mantle of leadership that Oz had taught her. So she’d tried commenting on the food in the cafeteria, or the lights of the city, Shahrahzad’s odd sense of humor. But it’d all rung empty even to her own ears and she’d trailed off before her smile could have an effect on the blue sorrow of her eyes.

There’d been nothing Oscar could say to that, to fill that unconquerable silence. All he could do was watch over her as sleep had filled her with momentary calm, as dreams had dragged her from lonely reality, all the while listening to the whispers of all those that came before him, soft like the warmth of Vacuo’s nights.

Those whispers had only ceased as Ruby had rolled onto her side, fingers gingerly grasping his shirt as if searching for somebody familiar, a reminder that those she cares for are still alive and safe.

Sometimes, somebody says, a father, a husband, all we can do is be there, and they’ll figure the rest out themselves.

“Yeah…” Oscar murmurs to the still night around them, relieved all at once to feel his vocal cords shape a sound that is all his own and nobody else’s.

But the sorrow hasn’t left her gaze by morning, and the silence still weighs on them. And Oscar is left to stumble after Ruby in the busy hallways, doing his best to not fall behind in the rush of students, feeling small and young and insignificant under the curious gazes of older huntsmen and huntresses in training.

Oscar keeps his gaze on Ruby’s back, broad and holding up the world, and it eases the discomfort if only a little. Even as it conjures its own distance.

The Vault makes things easier. This is where he belongs, working in the shadows of the world, weaving it all back together with the words of Ozma’s guidance to direct him slowly, one step at a time, towards that final destination. Just as they’d done it in Atlas, building an adjacent chamber in the vault for the Relic of Knowledge when they couldn’t find the Winter Maiden.

And all for the better…

The thought gives Oscar pause, and he lowers his arm, retreating from the work he’d been doing to reduce the chaos of nothingness leaking from the rip they’d torn between the vault and the world.

“Ruby, I—“

His aura ripples along his skin, crackling like lightning and stealing the breath suddenly from his lungs. Oscar gasps, falling to his knees in the shallow water and clutching his chest, pain all he feels for a moment.

“Oscar!”

The voice is far away, distorted.

But the hand on his shoulder is real and steadying.

When he raises his head it’s Ozma that kneels directly in front of him, warm gaze overflowing with a concern he won’t speak of just yet, knowledge he keeps at bay for the sake of protection.

“What happened?”

Ozma shakes his head.

“I—“ Oscar begins, drawn to her voice. And the expression she wears is so like the old hero’s that it makes him laugh. “I wanted to tell you things were going to be alright, and then I broke the spell too abruptly and ended up worrying you instead. I’m sorry.”

That’s all, he wants to say. It wasn’t anything else. You shouldn’t be making that face. Not you.

And seeing humor light up her gaze, seeing a smile return to quirk the corners of her lips, makes the tiny lie, the half truth, worth it.

“So long as you’re okay,” she says.

“I am,” he says, looking down at his hands. He can still feel the ripple in his aura, the unstable sensation of Oz’ magic not doing what he wanted. It’s easier than he thought it would be to keep the fear at bay. “And Yang and the others are, as well,” he adds, as he looks up once again.

He opens his mouth to continue but Ruby cuts him off. “I know,” she says. “I know Yang and Weiss and all the others are perfectly capable of protecting themselves; I know that with Watts and Tyrian transferring us to Salem, none of Salem’s lieutenants were left in Atlas.

“But,” and her face crumbles, “but I'm afraid of what they’ll do so long as we remain missing, and with the CCT down there’s no way of reliably getting a message through to them that we’re okay.”

Oscar swallows thickly. There’s no easy answer to their predicament, and she’s right; their friends might very well do something extreme to get them back. And if they follow the clues of their disappearance they’re going to find their way to Salem…

He can only hope that they’re smart enough to capture Watts or Tyrian or even Hazel when they return to finish their assignment, and hear the truth from them. But what would that really reveal? Only that Ruby and Oscar had died at the hands of Salem in the depths of destruction and despair.

No. They need to get a message through to Yang. Somehow.

He looks to Ozma, but again the only reply he receives is a shake of the head. Not even magic can reach to the other side of the world.

“We’ll figure something out,” he promises her, doing his best to smile. “We always do, right?”

“Yeah,” she murmurs, returning his smile, soft and pretty, before climbing to her knees. “Can you stand?”

“I think so.”

But he’s still grateful when she offers him a hand out of the water. It’s warm and safe, skin against skin, a human connection that returns all the strength he’d momentarily lost.

They return to their earlier activities, with Oz and Oscar working to reduce the tear in creation before they can set up the door to the vault once more, and Ruby quietly watching over them. It gets easier over time, to weave the world back into place, to push back chaos and destruction. But for every step he takes Oscar gets more and more exhausted, the pieces of his soul rattling at his core, so his breathing becomes labored and his sight blurs. And there are moments when he swears he can see green lightning flickering along his arms, or black energy crackling between his fingers. Only to blink, rub his eyes, and realize it is simply chaos playing tricks on him.

Finally, Ozma places a hand on his shoulder. We’re nearly done, he says, take a break and let me do the rest. 

“Are you sure?”

Ruby lifts her head, hearing only half of the conversation. “What’s wrong?”

I’m sure.

Oscar exhales a tired breath, closes his eyes, and lets Ozma take control of his body.

As his spirit materializes, free and unattached to the world, Oz turns to smile at Ruby. “Nothing’s wrong, Miss Rose,” he reassures her. “We’re almost ready to reconstruct the door to the Vault, is all.”

“Ah,” Ruby murmurs.

Oscar floats back to the rock she’s seated on, and plops down at her side, unnoticed. Down here, where the darkness lies like a gloom in the air, her eyes still glow with the blue life of a summer sky, reflecting the vibrancy of the lake below her feet. It lights up her face, even as her frown directed at Oz’ back deepens.

The wizard slams his palms together with a sharp sound, and pulls them apart. And as the gap between his palms widens a great old staff of black metal grows, with a huge jade stone at its tip.

Hey, you could’ve shown me how to do that, Oscar complains.

At the same time Ruby says “you really are a show-off,” under her breath.

It startles a laugh out of Oscar.

“I heard that,” Oz retaliates, so Ruby nearly falls over backwards into the open sky.

How?

“Oscar’s sitting beside you,” Oz says, smiling over his shoulder at them both. “You made him laugh.”

Ruby blinks in surprise, back straightening at the news, and she twists in Oscar’s direction as if in the hopes that she’ll be able to see him. And then she smiles as if she could, “I’m glad.”

And Oscar doesn’t know how to handle that. His heart feels too full all at once, softened and pained, so all he can do is stare back at her; at her kind smile and sorrowful eyes.

Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have a body here, perhaps it’s because she cannot see him here, but he finds the courage, with bated breath, to reach towards her, fingers nearly brushing against her cheek, the illusion of warmth that cannot reach beyond the realm of creation taunting his mind and his heart.

Up ahead Oz swings his staff, and in one great movement of light and magic, sparks flying and lightning crackling in his wake, he weaves the world that he’d torn apart back together, so that desert nightmare and watery reality mold into one another with only a foggy barrier to keep them separate.

It starts Ruby at his side, so she turns away. And Oscar’s hand falls down, passing through her shoulder and back with ghostly detachment.

That hurts.

His heart aches at the distance that can never be breached, at the worlds that can never truly be woven back together. At her back, moving from his side.

“Why did you lie?”

Oz freezes.

It’s nearly imperceptible, but it’s there; startled insecurity, fear of consequences. Yet hidden in the shadows of false confidence.

When he turns around to face her, he’s smiling. “I have no idea what you’re talking—“

“Okay, so you didn’t lie,” Ruby amends, cutting him off. “But you evaded the truth. In Shahrazad’s office. Why?”

Oz tilts his head, studying her with wide golden eyes. And as he does it occurs to Oscar that he has no idea what the eldest soul is thinking. Before the Fountain of Destruction he’d at least had an inkling of what was going on in his companion’s head, like a faucet dripping into his own emotions and thoughts. But the cracks carved in their souls are deep and impassable, and suddenly they feel like two completely different people again.

“If you could tell,” Ozma says slowly, melancholy sorrow softening his words. “Why didn’t you tell her? After what happened in Argos, I thought—“

“Oz,” Ruby sighs, cutting him off in exasperation. And the single syllable, the diminutive shocks him enough to achieve just that; to rob him of his silver tongue. “It was never about the lying. So you kept secrets. We all do. That’s not why I was angry.”

“Why then?”

Ruby narrows her eyes at him, and for a moment they flash with old silver, with life and energy that had been lacking since they’d fallen into the Fountain of Destruction. “Because you left, Oz. Because you dropped a responsibility I wasn’t ready to handle into my hands without my consent. Because you dragged Oscar into all of this, and then left him to fend for himself before he was confident in his own abilities. You ran away from all the ideals you taught us, and you didn’t even look back.”

A breath falls between parted lips, green eyes widening in a moment of vulnerable realisation, and it’s there; the trace of attachment and reverence that Oz reserves for the people that remind him what kindness and light looks like. For the people he shares his soul and his magic with, for the people he relies upon, even when they had never expected such trust or attachment.

And even Oscar finds himself staring at the fire in Ruby’s eyes, at the protective anger suddenly flaring up, impossible to hide. She’d been angry for him; she’d seen Oz’ actions not as a betrayal of them all, but as a betrayal of Oscar. She’d never felt entitled to the truth; she’d felt entitled to respect, and she’d decided Oscar deserved that same respect and deference.

Ozma’s expression softens into a real smile, then. And he catches Oscar’s eyes behind Ruby. She really is remarkable, isn’t she?

Of course, Oscar returns. You could stand to trust her a little more.

That’s your job.

“Hey,” Ruby snaps. “Stop communicating so obviously with Oscar when I can’t.”

Ozma laughs. “Of course,” he says. “For now I think I owe you an apology, Miss Rose. Though I would like to add that you were both quite ready to take over where I did not have the courage to continue.”

She exhales a sigh and turns her eyes heavenward for a moment. “Apology accepted.”

“I’m glad. And as I’m sure Oscar will confirm for you later, I have already apologized to him,” he adds. “Though for now I really do need to stay in control, so that I may finish my work here. Then you may have him back.”

Ruby opens her mouth to retort with more cheek, but Oz’ last comment throws her off, wide blue eyes blinking in rapid astonishment. And then she pulls back a little, gaze lowering bashfully. “Right,” she says, but then as if she remembers herself, she straightens her back again. “Of course. Take your time. Do your thing.”

So that for once, Oscar can hear the amused laughter echoing in the distance, unvoiced and for him only.

“Actually,” Oz says, his voice halting her from returning to Oscar’s side. “I could use your help with this next part, Miss Rose.”

He holds out his hand to her, beckoning her to join him by the gate, and that single gesture sends Oscar back to the council room in Salem’s palace.

“Always such a gallant soul,” she whispers now, memory too present, words too easy to engrave on his heart with that eternally keen blade of fear. “But perhaps you ought to reflect on your own situation. Can you know with surety that your attachment to your little flower is your own, when Oz’ devotion to roses has never faded?”

And it makes it infinitely harder to watch Ruby join Oz, to watch from the sidelines as he instructs her and guides her as he had done it even before Oscar had known either of them. One day he won’t be himself anymore, one day, all that made him Oscar Pine will be a part of Oz. All that will be left, once again, is Oz. And that’s all that Ruby will see eventually too, all that she will have to care about, as she regains her power, as she begins to walk with confidence once more on the path that only belongs to her.

Because he has no doubt that she will regain everything that Salem took from her. That’s simply the kind of person Ruby is.

“—since the Summer Maiden isn’t here to aide us right now,” Oz is saying out in the pool. “We will need somebody else to act as key to the vault. For now.”

“Why?” Ruby demands, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, I can see why you’d want to recreate the vault; it’s a good distraction from the fact that the relic is with you. But why can’t you just recreate it as it was?”

Oz smiles, and there’s that tinge of pride; a teacher watching their favorite student prove herself once again. “Unfortunately, I need the signature of a Maiden’s magic to be able to use her as key,” he explains. “But since we’ve got another powerful magic user of rare ability here, the effect would be the same.”

Ruby hesitates, arms crossing. “But…” she stops, glancing to where Oscar is sitting with eyes pale and blue. “But I lost— How can I help when I’m no longer—“

And she looks so lost, standing there with her feet in an open sky, between illusion and reality, death and freedom. There is no more chaos here, but it has left its marks, its scars; wounds incapable of healing entirely.

Oscar starts towards her before he can stop himself, her name on his lips, even though he knows she cannot hear him, even though he knows her eyes see nothing but empty space.

But Oz beats him to it.

“Ruby,” he says, grasping her hand and gently urging her to unfold her arms, to relax. “What you did in the Fountain of Destruction wouldn’t be possible if it had already stolen your light. It’s still there. You just haven’t had the chance to test it.”

And it’s the same emotion, same solemn concern that Oscar had felt, portrayed now on his face, from Oz’ heart. It’s the same attachment and the same dedication that draws them both to her, the same protective instincts driving them to help her regain her smile and her power. It’s the same reverence that leaves them watching her back as she spreads her wings and soars, banishing every remnant of darkness left in their world.

“Alright,” Ruby allows, exhaling some of the tension left in her. “What do I do?”

So perhaps he really is nothing but a reflection in a mirror; the image of something that already was, a part of a whole. Not entirely himself even when their souls have been broken apart by the caress of destruction.

Oz smiles with relief and directs her to stand at his side on the edge of the sky, the bloodied battlefield at the tips of their feet. He shows her how to hold up her palms, flat against an invisible door. And then he repeats the position himself, eyes flashing with golden light.

That magic calls out to all his companions, beckoning them to join him and aide him in what he’s doing, so that Oscar finds himself naturally standing in-between Ruby and Oz, and thousands of other parts of their soul joining forces around them.

So that for a moment it feels like he’s the one back in control of his body.

White rose stalks begin to grow from the ground between the pond and the battlefield, the borderland of life and death. Thousands of magical plants, glowing with silver light rise above their heads, intertwining and creating a wall as solid as the world, as steadfast as the ages, a remnant of something far older; a result of harmony between the two chosen by the God of Creation.

And just as they’re about to succeed, as the door comes into being, black lightning sparks between Oscar’s hands.

Wha—

Ruby’s eyes fly open, her head turning to him at her side, as if she actually sees him. “Oscar?”

I— he begins, looking down at his own hands, then around to Ozma in his own body. 

But as he does more lightning sparks, running down his arms, crackling in the still air.

Green eyes fly open, a mirror image of himself, and fear burns through him.  “Oscar, I can’t take my hands off this, you need to—“

The rest of Oz’ words drown out as Oscar finds himself back in the waters of destruction, all sound extinguished except for the bubbles of silver that surround him, quickly leaving him behind, returning to the surface.

And Oscar looks down at his hands he sees the way purple and black decay eats away at his skin, polluting his spirit, and—

Oscar!

Oscar blinks and gasps, the air of reality returning to his lungs, the world returning to his eyes. Cool light burns up his hands—his hands—but it’s being polluted by something, a blight on his hands, purple and black smoke rising from his skin like miasma.

“Wha—“

You rejected all of us, Ozma explains with the urgency of one who knows the world might collapse at any moment. You’re going to have to keep it under control until you can finish the spell.

“But—“ Oscar looks up at the warrior at his side, helpless, and mind anywhere but on the task suddenly resting in his hands. “I can’t—“

Where was he? How did he end up back in the Fountain? What’s happening to him? Why is he—is he turning into a Grimm? Like—

“Yes, you can,” Ruby says, her voice cutting clean through the turmoil of his mind, steady with confidence. And she reaches through Ozma’s spirit, blue eyes un-seeing, and places her hand over Oscar’s against the wall. “Whatever’s happening we’ll figure it out later. But, right now, you can do this. Oscar, you have to do this.”

The purple blight eats slowly into her skin, pollution traveling from Oscar to Ruby, and it hurts. His heart clenches in his chest so painfully he can barely breathe. And above them the magic wavers.

CRACK.

Black lightning sparks around him, and large fissures break apart from where his hands connect with the gate.

“Oscar.”

But when he looks up at Ruby she finds a smile for him, and for a single moment he can see the silver flash in her eyes, the traces of her light still resting within her. It’s gone with another flash of black lightning, but the smile remains, Ruby remains, her hand on his. And that gives him reason to hope.

Oscar takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He twists his hand so it’s back rests against the gate, and their palms connect, fingers naturally intertwining. Human contact. The warmth of skin against skin. Life. And that’s where the light finds him, emerging from his soul and blossoming between their fingers, roses crawling up the wall, glowing in gold and silver, green and red, stealing away the darkness for a moment.

The door emerges between the roses, an illusion of a simple metal gate leading to a garden full of flowers and sunlight. Haven.

And then the light leaves him behind, all the magic he’d found within himself draining away, stealing his strength.

Oscar falls to his knees in the water with a gasp, fingers slipping from Ruby’s and touching only the cool blue of his distorted reflection.

“Oscar!” Ruby exclaims, kneeling beside him, a hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay? What was that?”

But her voice already feels far away again, his consciousness straying from his body, so that it is Oz that responds for him.

“That, Miss Rose, is why I didn’t immediately tell Shahrazad about the blight.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The sun sets on their fourth day in Vacuo, as Ruby and Oscar finally make their way from the shade of the Academy down into the valley. The huge, step-pyramid casts long shadows across the city at dusk, but they fade into the darkness quickly as night casts its presence across the world. And Vacuo’s citizens respond by lighting a thousand and one lanterns to keep the night at bay. Warm light falls from windowsills where families are sharing meagre meals, from inns full of tradefolk, and from the lines of lanterns lighting the paths and streets leading down to the centre, where the Night Market is coming alive.

With most of the population living in nomadic tribes or as part of caravans, and spending their lives traversing the desert, commerce never truly ends in Vacuo’s major city. The Night Market becomes a place where the clans and caravans sell their produce; either what the desert has brought them, or what they bring back from the lands bordering Vale. Here, they also buy the supplies they cannot come by in the extreme heat between sand and sky; what their cattle does not produce, or their fields cannot grow. And Schnee Dust Mines, gold mines, and traders from Mystral and from Menagerie ensure that the market sees plenty of obscure products that make the Night Market of Vacuo far more eccentric than its counterparts in the other kingdoms.

Men and women wearing anything from armor to long full-body robes of silk call out offers on anything from weapons to Dust lanterns, to odd looking potions and carpets, to goat milk, alchemical fruits, or spices.

“…shark eggs! We’ve got scythe sharks, wolf sharks, blue widower—“

“How about some alchemical fruits, fresh from the desert plantations of Menagerie!”

“Lanterns! Alchemical, Dust imbedded or friends with fire. Only scorpions scuttle about in the darkness with no need for the light! You’ll find no finer lanterns in the—“

And Oscar leans back in awe at all the colors and the impressions, the noisy life that bursts towards them as soon as they step under the veiled roofs of the bazaar.

“Whoa,” he breathes, awe nearly knocking him over backwards. “Shahrazad said to go here, but I had no idea it’d be so—“

In the moment he takes to pause, to search for words to describe the place which cannot possibly exist, Ruby places a hand on his lower back to support him so he doesn’t lose his balance.

When he looks up she’s smiling, eyes dancing at the sight. “Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like it, either.”

She’s right, of course. He’s seen plenty of markets; harvest always brings about festivals and commerce, even in lonely villages in the midst of nowhere. And he’s sure growing up on Patch must have brought plenty of fish markets, spring, summer, and autumn celebrations as the tide brings in different types of fish. Then there’s Vale; the Vytal Festival, and Mystral’s centre of commerce. But none of it quite makes up for the life, mischief and joy found in Vacuo’s streets, sunny even under the moon’s broken vigil.

It’s those experiences that save them from being completely overrun by the enthusiasm they’re met with, obvious outsiders that they are in their winter clothes from Atlas. And though Oscar and Ruby take their time to stare or listen in awe at every stall that hails them, they eventually find their way to the large stall full of clothes and gear for huntsmen and huntresses that Shahrazad had told them about, with the Lien she’d handed them still intact in their pockets.

“That reminds me,” Ruby says, side-eying him over a rack of shirts. “You told Professor Shahrazad that you didn’t have any money. How did you get money for your new clothes in Argus?”

Oscar smiles sheepishly, and scratches the back of his neck. “Well… I— your uncle was passed out on the stairs when I first got back…”

She gapes at him, blue eyes growing large with childlike glee. “You didn’t.”

It’s the smile she can’t keep down that gives him the confidence not to hesitate. “I did. It wasn’t that much, anyway— do you have any idea the kind of salary Ozpin paid him for his missions—“

Ruby’s laugh cuts him off. Loud and impossible to contain, she clutches her stomach and laughs. The joy and glee that his story brings her lights up her whole face, and Oscar can only watch, heart too full, and smile tugging at his own lips.

It feels like it’s been an eternity since he’s heard her laugh.

When they leave the large store behind it’s with their winter clothes bagged; Ruby had replaced her black shirt and dress with a short-sleeved white dress, the collar of which is dyed in red, as is the skirt. Dark, fingerless gloves crawl up her arms, and her boots extend up to her thighs with new socks.

“Ah,” she sighs, stretching her arms up so her red hood falls back onto her shoulders. “This is better. I’m not spending nearly as much of my aura on keeping cool now.”

“That’s true,” Oscar agrees demurely, keeping his eyes on his new black gloves as he adjusts the small belt buckles on his upper arms before he lets wide green sleeves fall down over them.

He’d found something that’d reminded him of home; a pale green shirt with a white sash, inspired by traditional designs from Mistral. And a pair of pale brown pants to keep the heat of the sand from feeling too attached to his clothes.

“I’d only just gotten comfortable adjusting my aura like that,” he murmurs. “So I’m glad I don’t have to concentrate on that all the time. Not that—“

His windpipe ties itself into knots and keeps him from repeating Watts’ observation; that he’d had plenty of energy to use for that sort of frivolous activity, since his soul is a combination of so many, that he is imbued with that kind of power.

Ruby tilts her head down to catch his gaze. “What’s wrong?”

And Oscar finds a smile for her. “Nothing,” he lies. “Where to next?”

“Well,” Ruby says, accepting his words and rustling her bag full of bullet cartridges. “We got all the immediate supplies we needed. So let’s go see if we can find our team and mode of transport.”


The evening Oscar had woken after the incident in the Vault, Shahrazad was already present in the dorm room she’d lent them.

Ruby jumps from her seat at the table, rose petals following in her wake in her haste to return to his side. She cautiously helps him sit, blue eyes wavering with badly hidden concern. “How are you feeling?”

Oscar rubs his eyes. “Drained,” he murmurs. “Confused. I thought… Oz?”

Images, souls, of several different incarnations flicker before his eyes, changing places and molding together, and finally Ozpin manifests, sitting at the foot of his bed. He pinches his nose and exhales a quiet sigh, wearing an expression that mirrors the way Oscar feels.

One second, the former Headmaster pleads. You’re not the only one who just returned to consciousness.

“Oh,” Oscar murmurs. He looks helplessly at Ruby, who catches on without him having to say anything out loud.

“I’ve already explained everything that happened, as I understand it, to Professor Shahrazad,” she says. “About— you know. Properly about the Fountain and the effect it had on you and Oz.”

Shahrazad puts down her tea cup, painted green porcelain clacking against its saucer with finality. “There’s no need to tread so carefully around him,” she says. “They’re all like this, tiptoeing as far from the truth as they can get away with without coming across as entirely untruthful.”

Ruby’s head swivels towards the headmaster, blue eyes flashing with fury. “Oscar isn’t—“

“Give him time, Miss Rose,” Shahrazad cuts her off, waving her hand in carefree dismissiveness. “They are like-minded for a reason, the people Oz pairs with.”

Ruby opens her mouth to protest, but Oscar places a hand on her arm, feeling the tense muscles below. “It’s okay,” he murmurs demurely. “She’s not wrong. Oz did ask me to keep quiet, and I obliged him.”

There is security in the strength that lies below his palm, and it warms him to know that she’s so determinedly placed herself between himself and criticism, that she has his back even now, when he doesn’t entirely deserve it. When he’s becoming more and more like Oz for every day that passes.

And yet he can’t help, selfish and greedy, but to feel happy at her loyalty, her kindness.

“Relax, Miss Rose” Shahrazad says, and a smile blossoms on her face. “I’m not angry with him; I’m simply holding him responsible for his actions. It’s good form when you’re working with Oz and his companions. Don’t forget it.”

Ruby and Oscar exchange a look of open disbelief. They’ve both seen people’s usual reactions to Oz; friends and allies. Something about their mission, about who they are, tends to invite betrayal, to provoke anger. And perhaps, as Ruby had said to Oz, it’s not the lying, perhaps it’s something else. But neither of them have seen somebody so easily dismiss amoral behaviour before.

Shahrazad simply leans back in her chair and laughs heartily at their disbelief. “What?” she demands when she calms down, tilting her head and smirking. “What did you expect I would do? This is Vacuo; people lie and cheat and steal here. It’s just another way to survive, which we recognise compared to other kingdoms. And I know Oz well enough to know his tactics. I’d have been more surprised if you’d told me the truth from the very beginning. I might even have been disappointed.”

Laughter falls in response to her proclamation, and Oscar turns in his seat to see Odin, the King of Vale, sitting where Ozpin had been, grinning from ear to ear.

Oh, she never changes, he says when he catches Oscar’s eye, the deep blue of the endless ocean keeping him captured, though it burns with the fire of mischievous life and the spirit of adventure.

It’s an emotion Oscar recognizes; from hovering on the sidelines of endless practice matches in Mistral, and from rarer training sessions in Atlas, but always faced with the brightness of silver starlight.

“So,” Shahrazad says, drawing his attention back to the living. She crosses her legs and leans forward, chin coming to rest in her open palm. “What’s your plan of action?”

“I—“ Oscar pauses.

The King of Vale waves his hand, and somehow it’s all he needs to know what he wants to say. “The Fountain of Creation,” he says slowly, eyeing Shahrazad’s expression through his lashes. “You’ve been taking proper care of it, yes?”

The headmaster of Shade academy doesn’t quite choke on the question, but she does startle, her eyes growing wide so she’s not entirely capable of hiding that she knows what he’s talking about.

Ruby looks from Oscar to Shahrazad and back again. “She knows about—“

“Of course, I know about the Fountain of Creation,” Shahrazad snaps, sitting upright. “Where did you think our riches came from? The insane Dust supplies that all the other kingdoms wanted their dirty fingers in. The food and animal life that kept us fat and lazy. The Oasis of legends.”

“I—“ Ruby opens and closes her mouth, not used to being treated as an incapable student. “I mean, it’s not like Oz told us these things because he—“ Her blue eyes grow wide and she snaps her mouth shut, closing her mouth on guilty realisations. “I just wasn’t expecting somebody else to know the full story.”

The argument in the snow, and their confrontation, had become a taboo in Atlas; a dark cloud hanging over their heads that they had all quietly agreed never to mention again. Not even Oz had brought it up properly since his return, only sticking to what he needs to know be assured of her opinions on the subject.

But clearly Oscar isn’t the only one who has revisited that scene in moments of quiet isolation. Ruby has her own feelings, and he wonders now if she perhaps feels guilty for how she’d handled the situation.

“Ruby,” Oscar says. He lifts his hand to touch her arm again, but hesitates. She’s right there at his side, so close their knees are nearly brushing. But somehow his heart trembles in his chest at the very thought of touching her now. He can still see the blight on his skin, ugly and purple. And though it’s only a memory now, he still puts his hand back in his lap.

Instead he looks over her shoulder at the King of Vale, who tilts his head and smiles, memories passing beyond the breaks and cracks of their soul.

More ugly truths.

Oscar exhales a quiet sigh. “Ironwood aside, because I— we never trusted him,” he begins. “There were things that were impossible to hide from the headmasters. Of course, there are things even I didn’t know until recently, and therefore couldn’t share with them. But because they’re headmasters they needed to know.”

Ruby looks up, blue eyes searching his face. But in her scrutiny she leaves herself open, emotions on her sleeve, and he sees the guilt again that remains of that day, the insecurity of what is the right course when balancing on the edge of secretive shadows.

Finally, her face brightens, and she smiles, opening her mouth to say—

“Of course,” Shahrazad begins, speaking before Ruby can get the chance. “The people of Vacuo know their own truths, without the aide of old wizards. That’s why he hasn’t been able to keep quite as many things from Shade headmasters as he’s managed with others. Though judging by Lionheart’s reaction over the years, who’s surprised? Now, what do you want with our Fountain?”

It draws their attention from each other and back to the conversation at hand. To the problem of Ruby’s missing light, and the blight on Oscar’s soul. If there’s one thing that can aide them, purify the contamination, it’s the Fountain of Light.

Shahrazad hums, “The Fountain of Creation,” she says, once Oscar has finished relating Ozma’s plan. “Is located at the centre of the desert.”

She produces her scroll and activates its GPS. An image of the south-western parts of the continent of Sanus appears in the air above the tea table. “After the Great War we relocated the kingdom away from that area,” she says, pointing to the northern coast where a marker appears. “Both to keep outsiders from interfering with it, and because it was too close to the battlefields of the War. And even we wanted to forget the—“ she glances at Oscar “—the terrors of the last battle.”

Oscar swallows thickly and looks down at his hands, unmarked now of the sins of his companion. “I’m—“

But Ruby cuts him off. “Where exactly is the fountain?” she asks, placing a hand on his lower back in silent support. “And what would it require for us to get there?”

“You’d need a guide,” Shahrazard replies. “A daft one, actually. Since we’re in the middle of the summer and the desert is the most unforgiving now. No caravan will take you all the way to the centre of the desert, though they may traverse that way during the rest of the year.”

As she speaks, Oscar looks to Ruby. Her focus is entirely on the headmaster, eyes sparkling with intent, and her shoulders straightening in calm confidence. A huntress with a path to tread once more. The light of the dying sun falls like a caress across her face, illuminating the smile tugged away at the corner of her lips, and Oscar—

Oscar forgets to breathe at the sight, mesmerized and enchanted. Wrenching away his gaze and following her example, focus, is one of the most difficult, painful things he’s had to do. 

But Shahrazad’s humorous voice, the voice of adventure and duty, still manages to cut through to him. “But I already knew something like this was going to happen, so I’ve already located a team, arranged the papers for you, as well as transport. All you need to do tonight is get out of those damn winter clothes of yours, and go introduce yourselves to the caravan that will take you most of the way there. 

“We’ll even call it your license exam, shall we?” she adds with a grin of challenge. “Come back alive, and I’ll make proper, official huntsmen of you.”


And somehow the caravan they’re expecting isn’t at all what they’re expecting. After asking around for the name of the right clan, they’re finally directed away from the caravan district to the harbor down by the river that flows past the city of Vacuo. The Charon clan’s matriarch had borrowed a large river barge from an old friend that would transfer their goods inland much faster and safer than the camels.

The river barge is larger than either Ruby or Oscar could imagine and they gape up at the two story construction and its long deck already loaded with goods and produce.

“This should get us most of the way much faster than I expected,” Oscar breathes in awe. The river eventually breaks off towards Vale and doesn’t get near the Oasis surrounding the Fountain of Creation, but they’ll be able to cross half of their distance on this, which will ease their load tremendously. 

“Finally some good luck,” Ruby agrees, and nudges him with a smile. She glances around at the mass of people, then, searching but not finding what she’s looking for. “She said our new team would meet us here, but I don’t see anybody that looks like huntsmen in training.”

Oscar frowns at the crowd. There are plenty of people here with weapons; mercenaries, shady huntsmen who don’t answer to any council, bodyguards for the caravan. Faunus and humans mingle here as if there’d never been bad blood between the two species to begin with; horned fishermen conversing casually with female mercenaries, a little girl pickpocketing from a distracted man with too many scars to count, somebody pulling up their hood. A scorpion tail. Eyes flashing from a dark alley.

Oscar turns his face away. “Since that’s the case how about we go ahead and introduce ourselves?” he suggests, focusing his attention back on Ruby, on strength and calm cheer, on beauty in an open sky.

And the smile she gifts him is enough for Oscar to forget the shadows once more. “Sure.”

But nothing is ever that easy.

A hardened young man, not much older than Ruby, stands in their way at the entrance to the barge. He looks down his long nose at them with stormy, skeptical eyes, and crosses his arms. “The Charon clan already has protection. I don’t care what the Academy says,” he adds. “And you two look like outsiders. How am I to know  if you’re really students of Shade?”

He raises his eyebrow in mock challenge to Ruby.

“Look,” she says, rummaging through her bag for her scroll. “We’ve got student ID and a letter of recommendation from Professor Shah—“

“And this is how I know you’re not from Shade,” the guard cuts her off with scathing mockery. “No person in Vacuo gives a shit about documentation. Half the children here could forge them better than a clerk from Mistral. If you want to work for us, you’d better prove you’re up to the task.”

Now it’s Ruby’s turn to cross her arms. “And how do you suggest we do that?”

White teeth flash, sharp like a panther’s grin in the dark. “You’ve got your weapon, haven’t you?”

Somewhere in the back of his head Oscar can hear the sigh of exasperation that comes with old experience. They never change.

Oscar opens his mouth to protest, but he sees the grin on Ruby’s face, the promise of thrill in sparkling eyes. And he closes it again.

Crescent Rose unfurls like an old lover under her expert hands, twirling in the air, rose petals following in its wake and stopping the entire harbor in their tracks. The blade falls at Oscar’s feet with a heavy clunk, dust flying up in its wake, and Ruby drops the handle into his hands before saying “I don’t need my weapon to take you on. I could do it with my bare hands.”

Now her opponent raises both his eyebrows. “Is that so?” he says, stepping away from blocking the tiny bridge. He towers, nearly twice as tall and definitely twice as wide as Ruby. But she grins up at him, unafraid.

And all the fragility and insecurity that had shrouded her like a heavy curse since Salem’s realm falls off her, so she stands once more, beautiful and invincible, in the midst of humanity.

The crowd parts around them, creating a make-shift ring as if this is a common occurrence, as if fights simply break out on the streets of Vacuo as often as joyous greetings between friends.

They do, Oz confirms for him. That practice certainly hasn’t changed since after the war.

This isn’t a tournament match. There is no warning before the fight commences. The crowd cheers as Ruby dances out of the way of her heavier opponent, and even Oscar feels the thrill of that crowd, of watching her from the sidelines as she blossoms once again, elegance and genius merging into something else; the product of training, the crystallization of raw talent. A prodigy, a warrior born.

She’d spent so many days and evenings in Mistral and Atlas obsessing over nothing else, putting her mind only to the one task of improving where she still had room to grow. With Oz gone, she’d enlisted Yang and Ren’s help, and eventually Oscar when she’d found him practicing alone again. He’d been dragged away from the doorframe, from watching over her, to improving with her.

And yet here she is, dancing around her opponent, anticipating his every move, rose petals falling in her wake, her semblance activated only so much that it enhances her speed and gives her an edge. Here she is, leagues apart from anybody else, from anything he expected her to be, beautiful and powerful.

“What the— Isn’t that Ruby?”

A man in a red coat with blue hair pushes his way through to the front of the crowd, gaping in surprised awe at the fight.

And Oscar has just enough time to register that this is Neptune Vasilias, a familiar face from the Vytal festival, before he has to stop him from intervening. “Let her finish,” he says, and though he can tell the older huntsman doesn’t recognize him, he trusts that the scythe in his hands is enough identification. “She’s proving a point to herself.”

“Who are—“

“Hey, Oscar! Long time no see!”

An arm, heavy with trained muscle, falls across Oscar’s shoulder and Sun Wukong leans against his back. “Whoa, Ruby’s doing a lot better at hand to hand than I remember.”

Out in the ring Ruby ducks a series of blows from her opponent, sidestepping with careful precision, and when he swings a heavy arm down towards her head, she lifts her own to meet it in a block. Red flashes along her arm and down her legs, unstoppable force meeting immovable object, creating an air current that blows up sand from the road and pushes up her hair and hood.

The guard glowers down at her, and she smiles cheekily in return.

Enraged, the guard grabs her by the wrist and throws her in an arc. But Ruby simply scatters into rose petals, a tornado of red twirling through the air. She pauses briefly to wave at Oscar and the others, before dematerializing again.

“It has been more than a year since you were all at Beacon,” Oscar says, grinning. Somewhere in the back of his mind Ozpin is preening at the improvement of his student.

“True, true,” Neptune begins, nodding along. As Ruby throws an ash tray at the guard, Neptune does a double-take, his head turning in Oscar’s direction. “Wait. How do you know that?”

“Idiot,” a girl snaps, appearing as if out of nowhere beside Sun. She bows in front of him and Oscar in order to narrow her icy blue eyes at Neptune. “Were you not paying attention? This is clearly Oscar Pine.”

“Oh,” Neptune says, looking from the dark-skinned girl to Oscar and back again. “Oh! Nice pun, Ilia.”

They highfive, cheeky grins splitting their faces, before Neptune adds more solemnly. “In my defense Professor Shahrazad preluded that entire explanation with telling us we have to spend several days on a boat.”

“It’s not a boa—“ Sun begins to correct.

But just then, Ruby charges at her opponent, hands catching the ground just before she barrels into him, so she somersaults over him. She twirls on her heal, landing a high kick against his back so he flies straight at a nearby stall.

“Whoa!” Sun exclaims.

He slams his hands together, producing two golden replicas of himself that charge forward, catching the guard just before he smashes into the stall.

Ruby turns to grin at him. “Thank you!”

Sun releases his two clones. “No need to start more than one fight at a time!”

Around them money casually changes hands to the chagrin or glee of individual audience members.

Ruby crosses the ring once more and offers her hand to the Charon guard. “So do we pass?”

“You’ll do,” he responds, accepting her hand and letting her draw him to his feet. He rubs the back of his head and frowns down at her. “I guess Beacon really knows how to train their students.”

Ruby startles at being recognised, but quickly recovers. “Of course. Though one day out here is like a year behind the school bench!” she says, and adds, “But we’re lucky that Professor Shahrazad is helping us fill the gaps where we need them.”

With that she turns and smiles brilliantly in Oscar’s direction.

And Oscar—

Oscar flushes at the sudden attention, fingers slipping from his hold on Crescent Rose, and he fumbles with it. “Ah!”

So Ruby is at his side in a flash to catch the scythe before it falls over his feet. “Thanks for holding on to it for me,” she breathes.

Rose petals fall around her, framing her bright smile. There’s a sheen of sweat on her face, and her cheeks are flushing from the exercise. But her eyes sparkle with life and energy, rather than the melancholy of yesterday, and Oscar can barely breathe, windpipe tying itself into knots as he looks up at her, mesmerized and enchanted.

And then he becomes aware of the four others in their group, watching him from behind Ruby’s back with expressions of differing degrees of knowing amusement, and he fumbles to find his vocabulary. “A-always,” he says, voice breaking awkwardly. “I promise not to drop it next time, too.”

And he gets a spark of mischief for that, a brighter smile, before Ruby turns away with the squeal of “Sun!” and throws her arms around the golden boy’s neck.

“Whoa!” he exclaims and returns the hug, childishly twirling her in a circle, so they’re both laughing with glee when he puts her down.

“What about me?” Neptune demands. “Don’t I get one of those, too?”

Ruby grins at him. “Aren’t you too cool for reunion hugs, Neptune?”

“Good point.”

“This is Oscar,” she adds, nearly on the same breath, dragging him forwards and to her side so they’re facing the three students of Shade. “He joined us in Mistral. I think you met briefly after the Battle of Haven?”

And just like that she’s dragged him into the limelight, so much younger than the rest, and the ability to smile naturally deserts him. “Uh. Hello,” he says. He forces himself to look across all their faces, recalling their names; Sun Wukong, Ilia Amitola, and Neptune Vasilias. “So… how much, exactly, did Shahrazad tell you?”

The three share a look. “Everything,” they say, synchronized and deadpan.

Everything?” Oscar repeats, squawks. His heart stutters with fear in his chest and he does his best not to choke on his word or take a step back.

Even if they’d fallen somewhat into old roles after arriving in Atlas he can still sometimes feel Jaune’s fist in his shirt, or Qrow’s against his jaw. It still hurts to think about, and he’d almost decided never to share Oz’ secrets with anybody ever again. Only… Shahrazad hadn’t given him a choice.

“Well,” Neptune reasons. “It’s not as if you’d have been able to keep that from us with where we’re going. And we’d need an explanation for why you needed to find the Fountain in the first place.”

Oscar glances at Ruby and she shrugs. “So wait… you’re just going to accept it?”

“It’s a lot easier to accept when you already know some of the story,” Sun says. He smiles kindly at Oscar.

The other two nod.

“It certainly explains who Adam was working with,” Ilia observes. “And how he got all those supplies, and why he was so obsessed with the schools.”

“And considering the Grimm can develop intelligent thinking,” Neptune adds. “It’s not so surprising that they’d have a Master. As for the rest? If all this is true, why not everything else? And either way, we’ll have plenty of proof at the end of this mission, won’t we?”

“Oi!” the Charon guard calls, cutting off their conversation.

Their entire group turn on their heels, having completely forgotten him. He’s learning from the railing of the barge.

“The boss is ready to see you!”

Neptune flinches, and glances down at the water. His tan pales considerably and he looks pleadingly to Ilia and Sun. “Can you just go handle this without me?”

Sun grins. “Nope!” he says.

“He’s afraid of the water,” Ilia explains.

“And Shahrazad wants him to challenge his fears so it doesn’t get in the way of his work as a huntsman. It’s good for his moral education,” Sun adds cheerfully. He leans closer to Oscar and Ruby to whisper “Although actually she just likes messing with him.”

They then proceed to grab one of Neptune’s arms each and drag him off towards the entrance to the barge.

Oscar watches them go. Their easy acceptance is a shock to say the least. He still isn’t sure how he should feel about Shahrazad sharing their secrets so easily, or without their consent. It’s never gone this well before; there’s always been preparation, time for the ones who’d accept the explanations somewhat, and never before Ruby and the others have they shared the full story.

There is no choice, he knows.

But to think they would not turn their back on them, that they have chosen to be a support instead. Even with eyes wide open…

“See,” Ruby says, placing a hand on his back, gentle but steady. “There are still far more people willing to prevent harm than cause it.”

When Oscar follows her voice, looking up at her, he finds her smiling. “Yeah,” he agrees. “They’re a good reminder that humanity always gives you reason to hope.”

Chapter Text

The Fall Maiden breathes her last breath in a house full of warmth and love. She has lived a long peaceful life, the lines across her face like rivers, tracking every story and every righteous decision made for the sole sake of her loved ones and for the people of Remnant.

Her family, friends, and patients watch over her passing with tears brimming over and running down their cheeks in silent, respectful grief, all the while reassuring the blinded old woman that they are smiling.

A young woman, Oz’ trusted companion and right hand, drops her hood over the head of a girl sitting by the old woman, hiding her grief-filled expression as she bows her head over the old woman’s lifeless hand.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, when his knight returns to his side in the shadows by the door.

She turns piercing silver eyes on him. “She’s passed, Oz. What are we still doing here?”

“Paying our respects to an old friend,” he says, receiving an eye-roll for words he’s used several times that week as he’d aided in tending to the dying Maiden. “And waiting.”

The girl under the hood never lifts her head, even when her family begins to stir around her, sorrowfully weighed down by the heavy presence of a missing loved one in their lives.

Neighbors and patients promise the family to take care of food and livestock for them while they prepare for the funeral. And Seren Rose, his companion’s oldest friend, the only one they’d dared to share his secrets with, joins them with demure cheer to reassure them that when the Grimm come she and Oz will take care of them for the villagers.

With this much grief in the air, it’s only a matter of time…

When the room has been deserted, death chasing life so easily from its side, Oz pulls himself up and returns to the side of his fallen Maiden, where he kneels.

He places his hand over the old woman’s unseeing eyes and whispers a faint prayer, unsurprised at the answer he finds to his query.

The rustling of Seren’s hood alerts him to movement at his side, and he just manages to catch a pair of red-rimmed brown eyes peering up from under the white cloth before she lowers her head again, hiding as fast as she can.

He smiles, and settles down properly onto the floor. “She was quite the formidable warrior in her day,” he says, kindly. “Before she decided that she could serve humanity better by healing than destroying.”

It’s all it takes to nudge her curiosity. “…how do you know that?”

“Hm?”

“You’re not that much older than I am,” she says. “You can’t possibly have been there.”

In the back of his head, his companion laughs.

“My grandfather fought at her side. I’m here to pay his respects in his place.”

Liar.

Something in his tone, the melancholy of the ages, or the misinterpretation of grief, draws her out once more. “Did he pass away, too?”

Oz nods. “But the lessons I learned from his lifetime are worth honoring, and I do my best to walk his footsteps as he would have wished.”

Nice save.

But even his companion falls silent when the girl lifts her head properly, light catching like gold in ringlets of hazel. Determination glows in her eyes and becomes a fire full of magic.

“I want to do that…” she says. “I want to walk in her footsteps the way my grandmother would have wished. Is there a way I can do that?”

Oz smiles at the Fall Maiden, reborn.

He looks back to his old friend, his dear, beloved Maiden of autumn who had chosen so well once more, and closes his eyes.

Odin reemerges and kneels in front of her, fingers grasping hers and holding them up in a salute of honour. “The knowledge you seek to make that choice is already within your grasp,” he says, turning her hand over so its back comes to rest in his.

In her palm a single flame flickers to life.

“But on this day, know that your grandmother has granted you the gift to do so much more.”

Her eyes grow wide with astonishment, and tears trickle silently down her cheeks. And Seren Rose joins them at the Fall Maiden’s back, her silver eyes watching kindly over them like a guiding star.

 

***

 

Ruby’s eyes flutter open slowly, sleep still dragging on her mind.

She’d dreamt…

Images of a room full of grief… gold and silver…

They’re wisps of smoke between her fingers, and as she reaches for them they scatter.

A white butterfly has settled on the curve of Oscar’s ear, a pale glow falling from its wings.

The sight is a note of warmth and hope to her heart, and she reaches across to touch it, only for it to set off, flying out of reach, high into the air and beyond them both to the open blue sky.

Ruby watches it vanish, silver dust glittering in its wake. Her hand falls gently over Oscar’s ear instead, fingers digging in-between dark locks of hair, short and soft, spiking demurely, much like the boy at her side.

Quiet and steady, he hasn’t strayed from her side once since they’d left Mistral. Even when he’d gone elsewhere, listened to the call of his own goals, he’d stuck with her and returned. And he never calls attention to it, does his best to stay unnoticed, standing by on the other side of the door as she practices, jumping into pools of darkness, and always, always following her lead no matter which direction she wishes to go, knowing that it is the right way with even more surety than she feels at times.

She’s proving a point to herself.

Ruby smiles, and brushes her fingers over sunkissed skin.

If she closes her eyes she can still see him stopping Neptune from interfering. She hadn’t even realized that that was what she was doing, that that was what she had needed. She’d picked a fight and she’d told herself it was for the sake of their mission, because her uncle Qrow had always told her that people of Vacuo only respect those who can survive. But Oscar’s words and actions had brought back Maria’s first real lesson:

I owe my life to my training and my Semblance. At the end of the day those are still your most powerful tools.

Ruby had forgotten something so simple. That her real power comes from her Semblance and her skill, not an archaic power that only works against the Creatures of Destruction.

But…

Such beautiful eyes, Salem whispers unbidden. The gods have truly gifted you with a wonderful curse.

…if she isn’t a Silver Eyed Warrior, what is she?

“Ruby?”

Hooded green eyes watch her drowsily from under her hand. Her hand which is still resting against the side of his face, fingers touching warm skin with entitled familiarity.

She pulls it back, ignoring the rose petals that fall between them on the mattress. “Ah— Good morning,” she says, flustered.

As Oscar closes his eyes and burrows his head further into the pillow, she hides her hand behind her back, fingers curling around the memory of human warmth.

“‘morning.”

And it’s so cute, so suddenly. Heart-stopping and adorable, soft and sleepy. His hair stands out to every side, a birds nest more chaotic in the morning, promising to only be partially tamed in the future hours. She still remembers the feeling of his skin like a caress under her fingertips, soft but giving away slowly to the first traits of adulthood, beautiful and sun-loved, and she’s caught by the sudden desire to touch him again, to breach the gap between them.

But then he struggles to open his eyes once more, and she’s struck by the goldrimmed green, the first rays of sunshine over the treetops, by the feeling of soaring above an endless ancient forest, white winged and free from the dangers and distractions of the world, under a clear blue sky.

“I…” he begins, rubbing his eyes, and drawing her back down to earth. “I dreamt about…gold and silver.”

“More memories?”

He nods demurely. “King of Vale again,” he says. He pauses, eyes straying as if listening to something. “Oz says it’s probably the place triggering them, and—“

His stops himself, looks back up to meet her gaze, and then shakes his head.

The place? So Vacuo? They still don’t completely understand how the cracks are affecting him, or what will happen to the blight. Oz, as usual, has operated on a need-to-know basis, and is probably trying not to cause panic. But she wonders if traversing the desert, if wandering on sand that has devoured all that blood and death won’t cause worse memories to resurface.

“Are you okay?” she murmurs instead, relenting and brushing her fingers over his cheek. He’s here now, and he’s still Oscar.

He nods, smile sweet and boyish. “Yes,” he says, “thank you.”

They lie there, breathing in the warmth of the summer morning, protected from the unbearable heat by the shade of the Academy. They won’t be here for much longer, and the idle peace, brief as it is, is already beginning to feel heavy, like the summer air back on Patch right before a storm, promising thunder. 

The Captain of the Shadow, the barge they had been charged with protecting, had looked up at them with sharp eyes, her tiger’s tail swishing with interest. She had not pressed them for the full extent of their silence, only pointing out that once they land on the shore by the last village before the true desert they are going to have to find supplies for themselves.

“If you’re truly going that far inland, you’re going to have trouble finding anybody willing to lend you their camels,” she’d observed. “Grimm are fierce after that point; we often hear tales of Sandwhales larger than this ship, and King Tai Ji Tu hiding in the dunes. The Schnee mines are, in spite of the Atlesian closed country policy, still guarded by their soldiers and specialist operatives.”

Ruby had shared a look with Oscar. “You don’t mean to say that there are Schnee Dust mines that close to where we’re going?”

The Captain laughs. “No. After the War, Shade isn’t letting anybody that close to where you’re going,” she says, in that tone of voice that indicates she knows exactly what they’re looking for. She draws their attention to the map between them, showing the points between the break of the river and their desired destination on the map, shaping a triangle between the village, the mines, and the Fountain of Creation. “It’d be quite out of your way, but if you run out of supplies, they’re your only chance of survival.”

“Yeah,” Ilia says. “No thanks.”

The Captain smiles shrewdly at her. “I realize the White Fang doesn’t have much love left for the mines, and I understand why,” she says, tail swishing angrily. “But you may find yourselves in a situation where you will have to make the choice to act or continue on your journey. Survival is the rule of our land here, and we don’t always get to decide how, so we know when to keep our questions and opinions to ourselves. But you aren’t caught in the web of those restriction, are you, Miss Amitola?”

It had been an odd set of warnings, most of which they had all heard from Shahrazad already. But somehow her words had made their journey more real, had painted their obstacles in shapes just discernible enough to suggest that the desert heat won’t be their only problem on the way.

“How about you?” Oscar asks, demurely pulling her out of her thoughts. “How did it go yesterday?”

Concern seems to be the only colour of his eyes these days, the promise of action and a clear path once more having done nothing to soothe the pains of yesterday or the scars of today. The apology is always on his lips, as it is on Oz’, and though Oscar’s remains silent Ruby can still hear it, as clear as a heartbeat, as his presence by her side.

But at least she can give him this…

“I’m okay.”

“Liar.”

“Hey,” she complains, half laughing and tapping his shoulder gently with her knuckles. “I mean it. Ilia was a great help, and there isn’t much else we can do now.”

They’d spent most of the day before catching up with Sun, Ilia, and Neptune, recounting everything that had happened in Atlas and Salem’s Realm. Ironwood’s obsessive behaviour, Schnee family politics, Cinder and Neo, Watts.

Penny.

At which point Ruby had looked down at her hands, and Oscar had fallen silent, the story coming to a halt.

The others share a look amongst themselves. “So,” Sun says, voice careful. “If you were kidnapped… in the middle of all that. Doesn’t that mean we have no idea what happened to Blake and the others?”

Blake and Yang and Uncle Qrow… Who were all in the midst of battle when she last saw them. Weiss, Nora, Ren, and Jaune. Who would have had to help fight all the grimm; grimm that had made it too easily past the military barricade.

Ruby closes her eyes painfully.

“Yeah,” Oscar says for her. “That’s the problem. One of the problems.”

“Not that much of a problem,” Ilia says.

Ruby’s head flies up to see the other girl lean back in her chair with a confident smile stretching her lips.

“Really?”

“The White Fang has methods of communication independent of human interference,” she explains, now she’s sure she has Ruby’s full attention. “And I happen to be one of the leaders of the Vacuo branch.”

“Part-time leader,” Neptune points out.

“—while she studies at Shade,” Sun adds with a smirk.

Shut up!”

But they’re all grinning at an old joke, friendship and familiarity seeping into their bones. At some point in the half year they’d been apart, Sun, Ilia and Neptune had become a team in their own right, shared battles and adventures, and grown a strong friendship as a result. And it radiates from them, reminiscent of what Ruby and Oscar had been ripped from.

But they’re a promise, a reminder that those things can be found again, that reuniting with loved ones isn’t impossible even in this vast, endless world.

Ruby and Oscar share a smile at their radiance.

Later that day she’d followed Ilia back down below the shade of the Academy. They pass through the market, observing the people of Vacuo in the type of awkward silence that Ruby had forgotten existed when you’re only just getting to know somebody.

She doesn’t actually know anything about Ilia, other than she’s an old friend of Blake’s. Since she’d come with her from Menagerie, she must be a branch leader of the new White Fang, what hadn’t fallen apart after Adam Taurus left it behind…

“So, uh,” she tries, as they depart the joyous salesmanship of the market for a quieter street. “Since you’ve known Blake for as many years as you have, I take it you aren’t a native of Menagerie?”

Orange and yellow lanterns line the houses, casting a golden glow and vanquishing the dark shadows back into their corners. Behind insect nets and thin curtains, people are laughing or talking. They pass a window from which a woman is giving an impassioned speech, muffled and faceless.

Ilia smiles and shakes her head. “I lost my parents to a mining accident in Mantel,” she explains. “And the reaction of my … human friends made me angry enough to join the White Fang.”

Another division. One that they had created on their own. One humanity is mostly responsible for. Ignorance breeds contempt and contempt hatred. “I’m sorry,” she says.

And as she does she can hear Oz’ words in Oscar’s mouth. The constant apology for what they feel they could have prevented, the insistence on blaming themselves for every wrong in the world.

Though she also understands the bitterness that had washed over him in the snow so many months ago. Oz does his best to keep a steady faith in people, but his steadfast insistence that choice is the greatest gift humanity was given also leaves him painfully aware of all the harmful, misguided choices they make. And how it divides them all.

Ilia shakes her head. “Don’t take responsibility for everything your species has done, it’ll just make you incapable of doing anything for fear of doing the wrong thing,” she says. “But Blake spoke highly of you, as does Sun and Neptune. And if helping you means getting rid of people like Salem. If helping you means getting rid of somebody that’s played a factor in leading the Fang astray, then that’s not the wrong path.”

She pauses by a blue painted door, and holds up her fist for Ruby. “Let’s just keep doing our best, together.”

Ruby grins, bumping her fist into Ilia’s. “Deal!”

She doesn’t think she’s ever met somebody able to talk so openly about her opinions and misfortunes. Ilia doesn’t hide who she is or what she’s done, and she isn’t afraid of holding humanity responsible for their prejudices or crimes. But she’s wise, and she’s kind. And there’s no ill intent behind her words, no insecurity or need for loyalty motivating her to share.

Just by being herself, free and confident, Ilia manages to give others the courage to act.

As Ruby follows her into the White Fang headquarters, she reflects that Oz could learn something from this woman.

The White Fang Headquarters is a mess of activity. The front room is a combined common room, press room, and kitchen, where people are reviewing poster designs spread out on the couches and tables, in the company of a pair of children eating dinner with their father, who’s simultaneously barking out design corrections and gently reminding them to eat properly.

People greet them with open smiles and yells of recognition to Ilia, questions and reminders flying in a jumble of words that swallows their leader for enough time that Ruby can find a quiet place to write her letter to Yang, uninterrupted.

As she once again explains everything that had happened, all the terrors and sorrows of the past week, she observes the people that come and go. Individuals with suitcases, and tired families in tattered clothes, a sand-dusted huntress that stoically makes a beeline for the couch and faceplants with relish, and canvassers returning proudly with empty hands.

Life really is beautiful.

Talking to Ilia, and being reminded of Maria’s philosophies, has left Ruby more optimistic about their journey and assignment, and she’s able to finish the letter with confidence.

… by the time I get your response, we’ll be back in Vacuo, safe and sound. And we’ll be able to meet you all back in Atlas.

I love you.

Ruby.”

As she seals the letter closed, Ilia reappears with a young man at her side. Beautiful hawklike wings protrude from his back, empathy for her plight clear in his golden eyes, and promises of swift speed falling from his lips, so Ruby thinks she could hug him.

Afterwards, she really had hugged Ilia. “I will owe you forever for this,” she’d said.

To which her new friend had only smiled.


“So you see,” Ruby says, tilting her nose up in an imitation of Weiss’ haughty demeanor once she’s finished recounting the story to Oscar. “I really am okay!”

Which gains her a laugh, soft and boyish. “Okay, okay,” he says. “I take it back. I’m sorry I called you a liar.”

For once the dark shadows of his concern are vanquished, leaving sweet, unselfish happiness for her behind. Beautiful and breathtaking, he smiles for her, jade eyes dancing.

And in that still moment as the sun makes their tiny little world glow with gold, Ruby grasps that little spark of joy, cradles it in her heart, so that she might never forget it.


It starts with a muted crash and the deck tilting violently, boxes, tables and people sliding across the wooden floors as if they were on high sea. When it falls back down Ruby’s feet leave the deck just long enough for her stomach to drop.

She shares a look with Oscar, and neither have to say the word grimm to know that that is what had happened.

“Oh, come on,” Neptune is saying, when they make it on deck. He’s standing at the railing with Sun and Ilia, waving his hands in exasperation at the grimm in the water. “Did there have to be so many?”

“That’s why we’re here, right?” Ruby says, coming to a halt and drawing out Crescent Rose.

The desert sun beats down on the dark flanks of hippopotami as they make their way into the water from the bank. Except these are black as night, with long boney spikes protruding from their backs, the size of small cars. Their small, piggy eyes are intent on the barge, the water a paltry obstacle to their destructive goals.

“I mean—“ Neptune begins.

But just then a huge hippopotamus, a monster the size of a bus, emerges from the depths of the river right in front of them, blocking out the sun. All five of them follow the slow ascent of its front leg, frozen at its sudden emergence.

Ruby shakes her head. “Sun!” she barks.

“On it!”

She directs the barrel of Crescent Rose at the deck right beside her, using the momentum of the shot to propel her into the air. Rose petals fall in her wake as she unfurls her scythe, cutting the Grimm’s leg off before it can come thundering towards the deck.

It screams in pain and lifts it other arm to attack her on her way down, but Sun uses his semblance to hurl himself into the air just then, and directs his guns at its eyes, blinding it. Another ear splitting scream, and the Grimm topples over backwards, water swallowing it in its muddy depths, but not before creating huge waves that crash across the deck of the barge.

Neptune squeals with honor, and flies back across the deck to the other side of the barge, barely avoiding the people scrambling to protect their merchandise, in his haste to avoid the water.

Sun lands beside Ilia and they both turn in unison towards their teammate. “Neptune!”

“I—I’m just — I’m just going to be protecting this sec—“ he begins to explain, but is interrupted once again by a Grimm crawling with haste up the side of the barge, its feet unnaturally sprouting long claws for just such a purpose. And he swings his gundao with precision, cutting it in half. 

“As I was saying,” he says, turning his back on the river to continue the useless charade. “I am not afraid of the water, but I am going to protect the deck as I am clearly more useful here.”

Three more hippopotami climb aboard, nauseatingly retracting their claws, and before Neptune can react to the emerging threat, two barge workers have pulled out their own weapons and beheaded the grimm, effortlessly refuting his point.

Sun and Ilia share a look and stalk across the deck towards their teammate.

Without ceremony they grab him each by an arm and drag him to the railing. “If you want to fight dry,” Ilia begins.

“You can do it from land,” Sun continues gleefully.

And they hurl Neptune at two of Sun’s golden clones, who throw him high into the air, screaming.

“Oh, that looks fun!” Ruby says, watching Neptune’s descent across the river so he’ll be able to attack the hippopotami from behind. “Lets all do that!”

“Uh… Ruby—“ Oscar and Ilia begin in one voice, looking at her with ranging degrees of incredulity.

But Sun is grinning like a maniac. He slams his hands together creating two more clones, and Ruby jumps onto their hands. They catapult her into the air, combined Semblance throwing her that much further into the air than would have been humanly possible.

She directs her rifle, and gets several clean shots in at the grimm below, before Sun sends Oscar hurtling towards her, as well. Ruby just has enough time to put away Crescent Rose before catching him.

They cling to each other for a weightless moment.

“Sorry about this.”

She grins, feeling oddly like she could grow wings. “Are you going to be alright without a weapon?”

“We’ll think of something.”

Ruby nods. “Ready, then?”

And Oscar mirrors the motion, still a little green. “Ready.”

With a laugh, Ruby uses her Semblance to twirl them through the air, hands connected. She throws Oscar directly at a congregation of grimm right by the ship.

And while Ruby is caught by one of Sun’s clones, Oscar tumbles downwards, flailing for a heart-stopping moment. But just in time, he seems to draw inspiration from Yang. He raises his fist, green light illuminating his body, and slams it into the Grimm at the very centre, so it explodes, the air pressure expanding in a circle, destroying a dozen other Grimm, and sending Oscar back up into the air.

He somersaults, landing on the ship deck.

“Incoming!” Ilia warns as Sun sends her flying next.

Ruby grins, setting off from her perch, using her rifle to thrust herself further up, creating space for the other girl.

She lands on the shoulders of one Grimm, cutting off the head of another, and another, before somersaulting off her pedestal, shooting it as she goes, so it evaporates in her wake.

Ruby lands on a different grimm, bumping into Ilia at the same time, nearly pushing the smaller girl off into the water.

“Ah!”

“Sorry!”

They grab hold of each other’s wrists in order to regain their balance, standing precariously. Below them the Grimm twists and turns its head in confusion, trying to figure out what’d hitchhiked a ride on its back.

“Do you always fight this recklessly?” Ilia demands as they let go of each other.

She flicks her wrist so her whip extends towards a grimm making its way towards the ship, penetrating the skull. Powerful electricity runs through its body, killing it instantly.

Ruby does her best not to gape at the intriguing weapon’s design and instead focuses on Ilia’s words. “Somehow that’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” she laughs. And then pauses. “Speaking of, I’ve got an idea—“

But in that moment the Grimm below them has had enough, and it roars, enraged, and rears, swinging its paw at them, claws out. Ruby meets it half way with her scythe, cutting it off easily, and Ilia flicks her wrist again, this time reshaping her whip into a gun and shooting it in the face, using the thrust to set off and land on the next grimm.

Ruby scatters into rose petals, following the other girl.

“No throwing people,” Ilia says before Ruby can share her plan. “I’m not as crazy as Oscar or you.”

And Ruby laughs again. “He’s getting better,” she says, incapable of hiding how much she’s preening on behalf of his growth. “But you’re one to talk, being on a team with—“

“Sun?” 

The Grimm under their feet topples over as Sun kicks it with both feet, pushing it out from under them. He sticks his tongue out at them, twisting in the air and shooting several other Grimm before landing on a new Grimm.

“Hey!” the two girls complain in one voice, setting off, each in their own direction.

The battle carries on, more Grimm replacing the ones they’d already dealt with, in spite of their back-up from the barge, which continues down the river, and Neptune on the coastline. And Ruby is once again made aware of how much her uncle had protected her and the rest of team RNJR as they’d journeyed through Anima.

Nothing happened, Velvet’s voice from so long ago echoes in her mind. There were just so many of them.

And Ozpin’s voice joins in. You must understand; the things that await you beyond the protection of the kingdom will not care.

Unfortunately there is no more huntsmen to stay close to, no teachers to judge their performance or give them hints as to how to solve their problems. Only their own experiences.

“There’s no end to these,” Oscar observes, suddenly right at her side. “And the more we fight these things, the more the negativity of the battle will attract new Grimm.”

When Ruby looks over her shoulder at him he’s sweating bullets, too much of his aura used up, or the battle simply keeping him from protecting himself against the heat of the sun, merciless against those that drop their guard even for a second. His hair and shirt stick to his skin, and he catches his breath with difficulty.

“Right,” Ruby says. She can’t keep hesitating, or it’ll only cause others more pain. “Time to see if Oz is right.”

“…what?”

Before he can stop her, she’s propelled herself back to the ship, rose petals scattering in her wake. She twirls Crescent Rose between her fingers, replacing her scythe against her belt, and takes a deep breath.

Ruby stands, defenseless on top of the railing, blue-eyed and far from home. But she can hear the battle of the Charon clan behind her, and see her friends in front of her. She’s not alone.

She’s done this countless times before, against worse threats. She’s faced wyverns and leviathans, Grimm that would steal her friends and loved ones from her. She’s preserved life over and over again, until it’s become second nature, until it’s become who she is. And it’s still so easy to picture those things worth fighting for; her team, her friends, her sister and family. Smiles, laughter, fun and hugs. Lovers and companions. Maria giving her a thumbs up, Yang and Blake holding hands, Jaune doing a victory dance over a plan well executed, Sun and Ilia dragging Neptune towards the barge, Oscar at her back, and—

The light emerges, still within her grasp, her power still there.

Watts’ lab reappears unbidden below her eyelids. A hundred Pennys stare soullessly out at her, hanging from racks, like dolls on a shelf, and the one full of life returns to her mind, torn in two by the cruelty of a fallen Maiden.

Salem smiles sweetly at her.

Such beautiful eyes. The gods have truly gifted you with a wonderful curse.

And drops of silver tears soar towards a black sky, out of her reach.

The white rose shatters like starlight between her fingers.

“Ruby, move!”

Oscar’s voice pulls her from the memory, and Ruby’s eyes fly open just in time to see the second arm of the enormous Grimm coming down towards her, claws intent on tearing her to pieces, and—

Ilia knocks into her, so they tumble off the railing, barely avoiding the swing of the Grimm’s last arm.

Ruby gasps, the air bursting from her lungs as she hits the deck hard. Pain explodes, and for a moment, nothing else exists.

As it recedes she feels the crackle of electricity over her skin. But it’s not followed by the scatter of dust or accompanied by light. Instead destruction glows black in the air, crackling over the deck, stealing every Grimm with it, leaving only the ashes of war behind.

Oscar stands between the Grimm and her and Ilia, his back tense with rage, and before she can stop him he’s charged forwards. He catches the railing with his hands, green light running down his arms and giving power to his thrust as he throws his body straight up into the air, spinning for a better vantage point.

But the green light of his soul is replaced by the black lightning of destruction, rippling down to his fist.

The Grimm scatters on impact.

The world stills around them, the Charon clan pausing to gape up at the show of power so impossible, even to those used to seeing the impossible. Even the soul has limits in this world, limits that humanity has learnt to see between the obscurity of magic and chaos.

Ilia, too, is staring in shock at Oscar as he descends, landing where Ruby had stood, light replaced by darkness.

“No, no, no,” Ruby says, heart in her throat, pushing Ilia aside and scrambling to her feet. “Sorry!”

Oscar reaches for the Sword of Destruction, its black branches growing eagerly, extending to meet his fingers, embracing his desires with relish.

But Ruby gets there first, fingers closing around his wrist and dragging him off the railing so they crash painfully to the ground. Ruby takes advantage of the surprise that renders her companion momentarily passive, and she scrambles to her knees again, pulling Oscar up as she does.

“What— Ruby!”

“Let me see your eyes,” she says, ignoring both his protests and the confusion of her teammates. She grabs his chin and pushes it up. Please, please, please. The heat of his skin nearly burns her, and she barely knows what she’s so afraid of, but—

Oscar’s eyes flutter open, green ringed with gold, his spirit still as intact as it’d been the last few days. As she’d always known it to be. Relief floods her system, and all she wants to do is hug him.

But as always, the big picture intrudes.

“The grimm—“ he says, beginning to turn away, to look out at the river.

“On it,” Ruby says, grabbing his shoulder to hold him back. “Ilia! Sun!”

“Right here,” they say, in nearly one voice, one standing right by her side, the other sitting on the railing, tail swinging, their eyes wide with agitation and confusion.

“Lightning,” she says simply. “If Ilia and Neptune can electrify the river at the same time, with high enough voltage we should be able to get rid of all of them at once. That’s what I was trying to say earlier.”

The two nod in unison, and following her orders, they vanish in a flash.

She follows them with her eyes, even as she says to Oscar. “Are you okay?”

“I should be asking you that,” Oscar murmurs, but when she turns back to glare at him, his expression softens into one of guilt. “I don’t know what happened. I— you were—“ he cuts himself off, looking helplessly into her eye before dropping his head entirely. “I’m sorry.”

Ruby exhales a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.

The relic lies motionless once more at his side, its branches having retreated for the moment. But it casts long shadows in the light of Ilia and Neptune’s joint attack, and Ruby knows that the danger is far from gone.

“It’s okay,” she says. She gently touches her knuckles to his cheek, and when she has his full attention she offers him a smile. “I’m just glad you’re okay. Thank you for being there.”

She gets a proper smile in return this time. “Always,” he says, confident in his vow as he hadn’t been before their journey began.

Ruby smiles again, shaking her head, and throws her arms around him in a hug. She presses her face into the crook of his neck, and closes her eyes. Oscar hesitates for a moment, but then she feels his hands sliding gently over her back and pulling her closer. Here, for a single moment, she can forget her smile, and hidden from the world, she can feel the guilt and fear of the battle.

There had been so little light left that just the memory of Penny had shattered what little she could do.

Oz might be right that she is not without her light, but it is weak and almost entirely gone. The Fountain had stolen too much.

What if they won’t be able to regain it when they arrive? What if it is truly so lost that she will never again be able to fulfill her duty to the world, the task of protecting humanity that so many had left in her hands?

“Hey, what about us?”

Ruby and Oscar start at Neptune’s voice, and they part just enough to look up at him, Sun, and Ilia.

“Yeah, we handled all the rest!” Sun complains.

Ilia rolls her eyes at the two boys.

And Ruby and Oscar share a look, then a smile. “Well, come here,” Ruby says, as they lift their free hands.

Laughing their new team join them on the deck of the barge, engulfing their two youngest members in a hug that feels like temporary safety. Like haven.

Chapter Text

There is a whisper of conversation in the back of Oscar’s mind, constant like the waves on an unknown river, gentle like the breeze over the desert. Ever present and never fading. And perhaps it would be possible to get used to, in-between battles and confrontations, unheard through carefree laughter and heartfelt conversations, but the voices are a reminder of everything that’s gone wrong since Atlas, all the mistakes he’s made, the chaos that has carved cracks deep into his soul.

As well as the fear that when they heal—

Sun murmurs something in his sleep and kicks his blanket off his hammock so it falls to the floor with a gentle thud.

Around him, Oscar’s teammates all slumber, rocked gently in their sleep by the kindness of a river and the haven of the boat that carries them ever closer to their destination. Their understanding and acceptance of what he had done, or nearly done, during yesterday’s battle is a balm on old scars that still ache.

“That’s one of the effects of the Fountain of Destruction, right?” Sun had concluded when Oscar had timidly attempted an apology after he’d recovered somewhat.

“… I mean, yes, but—“

“So, even more reason to get the both of you to that other Fountain,” Ilia cuts him off, looking from Oscar to Ruby.

Ruby who had smiled, melancholy blue gaze falling to the floor of their room and hadn’t returned to the sky even as they had reported to the matriarch, who had been pleased with their performance, but less pleased with the general state of the barge and their supplies.

“I’ve never seen that many grimm congregate on that bank before,” she’d observed, glowering at the GPS hologram between herself and her employed huntsmen. “It’s not a good sign—“

Oscar swallows thickly, and Ruby glances up just to catch his eye. They’re caught unexpectedly in Oz’ old predicament. The Relic of Destruction, like the Relic of Knowledge, must be attracting Grimm, something that will be putting the people around them in danger as they proceed further into the heart of the desert. But do they tell the others that, and risk having to explain to more people what the Relics are? Or do they keep quiet?

It’s Sun that saves them. “That’s not exactly a new phenomenon, though,” he says. “You must have noticed that the Grimm have been getting worse since the Fall of Beacon. And as far as I know that’s a global phenomenon; when I travelled to Menagerie, our ferry got assaulted by an ocean dragon.”

That twists the conversation in a completely new direction and Oscar and Ruby sigh quietly in relief, while Ozpin offers gently: Humanity will find logical explanations, independent of the Gods’ influence, when silence gives them no other choice. You did well.

But it’s a bandaid on an infected wound, keeping the surface together, but handling none of the problems underneath, and they both know it. Whatever had happened in the Vault and on deck the day before, they’re no longer single incidents. They’re becoming a pattern, and a dangerous one at that.

Oscar picks up the Relic of Destruction, careful to only touch the scabbard and not the handle or the branches. The traces of Oz’ old cane is carved into the metal; rose thorns intertwined amongst each other and glowing with a pale white light in the dark. The only light the night will permit.

Oscar sighs and runs his thumb along the silver roses that decorate the scabbard, tiny and easy to overlook, he hadn’t even realized they’d been there before it was too late. But there’s no need to waste magic on changing it now…

As he sits up, placing the sword back down on the floor, his eyes fall on the pained expression on Ruby’s face. Light from the broken moon paints her skin a deadly white and catches like silver in the tears trailing silently down her face as she dreams of darkness and nightmares.

Oscar might lie sleepless and quiet, but he isn’t the only one who carries burdens of despair and regret.

I wish I had Ren’s semblance, he murmurs helplessly to Oz, remembering how the other huntsman had secretly been helping Ruby handle her nightmares on the road to Argus.

Even if you do not, the Wizard offers back, there are other ways to soothe the aches and fears of those we care for. And you are not incapable of doing that.

Oscar sighs quietly, a habit not entirely his own, and jumps down from his hammock.

Ruby’s is hanging so close to the ground that when he sits down, legs crossed, he can comfortably brush her fringe from her eyes, and the water from her cheeks. But the salt that soaks into his glove is soon replaced by more tears, and Oscar resigns himself to a sleepless night of watching over somebody he cannot yet reach.

I realize this isn’t good, he says to Ozma, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the pillar. But if I had the chance to go back, I’d do it again.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

No. It’s scary.


The stifling heat wakes him before anybody else the following morning, and he stretches stiff muscles with new purpose. The sun falls across the faces of his teammates, safe for a moment. Even Ruby’s expression has softened, her tears vanished with the night.

And Oscar finds a smile at the sight.

He lifts his hand to touch hers, to give it a gentle squeeze, grateful to see the pain vanish, but he stops. His hand halts in mid-air, over her sleeping form, as he realises what he’s doing, heart a heavy beat in his chest.

It had been easy to reach out when lit only by the moonlight, when the night is nothing more than a living dream and he had been driven by desperate concern. But watched over by the sun, every action, every emotion feels more real, heavy and inescapable. And Oscar—

Oscar catches his breath and pulls his hand back, wishing he could hide his impulses even from himself.

He spends the morning trying to distract himself from the burn in his cheeks by enlisting Sun in teaching him how to properly use his Aura to ward off the desert heat, something the older boy is all too eager to get started on.

“The concept is the same as what you probably learned in Atlas to keep out the cold,” he explains. “Sun and ice are simply two sides of the same coin. You just need to learn to twist the dial to the other extreme.”

They’re sitting, legs crossed under an open, cloudless sky. The heat is a physical reality against his skin and on his shoulders, and any movement feels like carving through a wall of force that is always telling him to relax and forget his urge to move forward. Not apathetic, but careless.

“Yes, I’ve… Oz—pin taught me as much,” Oscar says, he holds up his hand and closes his eyes. Hesitating. When he opens them again, he allows green light to run down his limbs to his fingers and cool descends, keeping the heat at bay.

“It looks like you’re still having trouble activating your Aura,” Neptune observes. He’s found a place in the shade, as far from the water’s edge as he can get, looking slightly green from belated sea-sickness.

Oscar shakes his head. “No, I just… after yesterday—“ he stops himself and shakes his head. “Even though I know it takes more to provoke the blight than simply using my Aura. I shouldn’t have to be afraid of it.”

“That’s right!” Sun says, encouraging and openhearted. “So what exactly has been stopping you from using it all the time?”

“I—“ Oscar struggles. What was it? On his way to Atlas and during his stay there it had become second nature to use his Aura to protect himself from the cold. But then he’d only known how to turn the dial one way, whereas now—

A phantom manifests by Sun’s side, bowing down to study the older boy with curious emerald green eyes. His green silks flutter in the breeze, revealing the Valisian crown on his back. He hums under his breath before saying He’d make a good teacher, this one.

Oscar narrows his eyes distractedly at the last King of Vale. What are you plotting?

He receives a bright grin for his suspicion. Nothing, nothing.

Oscar shakes his head and turns his attention back to those that surround him, alive. “I don’t know if this is it, but I think I’m having trouble turning the dial all the way. I spent so long in Atlas it feels odd.”

“So,” Sun says, sharing a grin with Neptune and Ilia. “All you need is a little more practice.”

And as if they’ve practiced it, they produce three baskets full of wobbling water balloons, vibrant and promising fun. At least for anybody but Oscar.

Uh-oh.

The King of Vale laughs for Oscar’s ears only.

Sun and Ilia spend the rest of the morning in a rigorous competition over who can hit Oscar with the most water balloons, while he runs laps along the deck of the barge, trying to sidestep their attacks. On top of quickly getting soaked, he also has to do his best to avoid getting in the way of the crew, both those intent on keeping up their work, and those who have allowed themselves a lazy morning to be amused by the youngest member of their group of huntsmen. And while he’d originally assumed that the cargo would prove as convenient hiding places, with Ilia and Sun’s agility all those tall boxes quickly become vantage points from which it’s easier to hit him.

He’s quite the merciless teacher, the King of Vale comments as Oscar skids around the watch tower into open space.

That’s not a good thing! he retaliates, outraged, as two water balloons hit the deck just behind him, water splashing against his bare feet. He has half a mind to give up control, just so he can catch a break. And to wipe the grin off his companion’s face.

At least there aren’t more of them at a time…

That depends on who you are, the king says. You saw how I handled Miss Rose’ training.

Oscar skids to a halt and turns in open astonishment to round on the phantom—“That was you?”—and is immediately rewarded with a water balloon square in the face.

He splutters, undignified, and allows the king’s laughter to engulf his mind for a moment, before brushing the water away and checking that his Aura is still intact.

There are worse things than a merciless teacher, Oscar, his companion says, gliding to his left with a secretive smile. After all, it creates a nice contrast to your kindness, does it not?

He vanishes, leaving room for the sight of Ruby Rose, sitting alone in the shadow of the railing, blue eyes staring unseeing into space. A reminder he hadn’t needed, that he isn’t the only one burdened by the reality they’d fallen into when the Fountain of Destruction had swallowed them. Ruby had been incapable of using her light the way she’d become accustomed to after she’d met Maria, and though he’d seen it in her eyes, the silver returning, it’d faded just as quickly, shattering in her grasp. Guilt and fear are too easy to see on her face, something he should’ve expected; one successful fight against a thug isn’t going to raise her confidence indefinitely. Especially when the root is still causing her heartache.

“I’m probably not kind enough,” he murmurs to dead ears.

He’d also caused her more trouble yesterday. She’d been the one who’d saved him from the blight. Again. How can he begin to think about Ruby, when he’s still the one who relies on her? When he’s still the one burdening her?

“Give her time,” Sun says, appearing by his side and dropping a towel over his head, blocking his view of Ruby for a moment.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, patting his face dry with it. “I just wish there was something I could do.”

“There probably isn’t,” Ilia says. “You can only be there for her as she figures things out herself.”

Oscar sighs and swallows back words of protest and responsibility he cannot tell whether are his own or Oz’. Words he knows she would disapprove of.

“But—“ Ilia adds, mischievous grin tugging at her lips, white flashing, “—I’m sure there’s a thing or two we can do as a team.”

Oscar blinks in confusion, but before he can say anything, Sun nudges him. “How’s your aura?”

“Still holding up.”

He gets a raised eyebrow from Ilia and an impressed nod from Sun. “Well, since you’re still doing fine. Let’s get back to it.”

Sometimes being a combination of countless souls just means more work, even if that combination is shattered beyond repair.


In the days that follow they see plenty of Grimm, but none in a mass so great and unconquerable as that first day on the River Morgante. Small packs and larger individuals attack their barge regularly, but being in such a large group of warriors make them easy picking. Only a single Nevermore cause them real trouble, but once the battle is over Oscar can complement himself on not having broken his hold on his aura even once.

It feels good to be useful, to not be a burden, or to need to hang back and observe as the other huntsmen and huntresses in his group handle the heavy lifting.

This is what he’s here for, this was what he was meant to do; fight grimm and protect life. Preserve it, and protect the ones that can end the plague of wrath and destruction once and for all.

It helps to see Ruby’s guilt subside as a result, as well. She throws herself wholeheartedly into the battle, and when they are off duty or have free time between attacks, she only needs a nudge form Ilia and Oscar before she joins in on their practice sessions, challenging each of them in turn for variety, even going so far as getting Neptune to join in in spite of his sea-sickness.

She’s still not as much of an expert at hand-to-hand combat as Sun or Ilia, nor nearly as agile, but she keeps pace with them easily with a weapon in her hand and rose petals falling in her wake.

And one evening, as the Charon clan decides it’s time for some music, Ilia drags her off her chair and onto the dance floor. The orange lantern light might illuminate their little spot in the desert, might fall with warmth on the faces of their companions, but it is Ruby’s smile that lights up the world, beautiful and blinding like the brightest hour of the day.

Red skirt twirling around her legs as she spins in sync with Ilia, laughter erasing any awkwardness she might have felt upon being dragged onto the dance floor, and companionable affection, the cheer of humanity, outshines the way her bare feet lack their usual elegance so that all that is left is the childlike fun that flowers under the tender care of trust and safety.

Ruby is more beautiful here than Oscar has ever seen her before, enchanting and mesmerizing, her light no gift handed to her under conditions or with curses cast in the bargain. Her light comes from who she is, the way she loves all that cross her path so that they can walk the tricky road of life with laughter in their hearts and confidence pulling them always forwards.

He had been right about that. And he will never regret those words to Salem.

Ruby does what she can, because she is able.

And when the blight is healed from her heart, the light she will regain will only enable her to do so much more.

Ruby will always be Ruby.

And Oscar—

Oscar has no idea what happens next. If Oz hadn’t locked himself away he might already have been gone, have vanished with the merge into the subconscious of the ancient mage, left behind as only a memory of an attachment to a world he’d wanted to save. And what happens the moment he steps into the Fountain? When their soul is healed, when the cracks vanish, will he vanish with them?

Does he really want that?

Oscar swallows thickly and pushes his chair back, acting as if he doesn’t hear Sun’s voice over the music, and retreats.

He has no definitive answer, not really. And he should ask Oz now that he’s back.

But what can Oz tell him? Oz that has been split into a million fragments, a single personality severed into countless people once more, whom he still thinks of as just that one individual.

No. Oscar is still too afraid to voice those questions, even to his own mind, the unknown only illuminating the worst nightmare.

He closes his eyes to hide from the world, and Salem smiles at him once more.

“Oscar!”

But Ruby’s voice is like a snare on his heart, pulling him back around. Her smile, eyes crinkling, framed and illuminated by the life of humanity, is enough to eradicate almost all the darkness that had made him retreat in the first place. Almost enough to make him forget, heart too full, caught in a web of attachments.

“Why not come dance?”

She holds out her hand, sunkissed by the desert, strong and elegant.

And Oscar has reached across the distance before he thinks to stop himself, enchanted by that astronomical pull, an offer from the stars, because she’d remembered him, because she’s always accepted his presence as the most natural thing.

And then he sees the black cloth covering his fingers.

Can you know with surety that your attachment to your little flower is your own, when Oz’ devotion to roses has never faded?

The illusion shatters, painfully, and Oscar takes a quick step back, hand falling away. “I—“ he begins, caught instead in an ocean of blue. Drowning. “I’m sorry. I don’t really know how—“

His voice cracks, and he begs her helplessly not to turn away, not to abandon him for this tiny rejection. When all he’d really wanted was her smile, and she’d been all too willing to gift him just that.

“That’s okay,” Ruby says, a miracle in human form. She leans forwards a little, coming face to face with him, and holds up her hand as if to impart a secret. “To tell you the truth, I’m not all that good at it, either.”

And she’s so beautiful, and so kind, easily understanding every shy restraint, every fearful hesitation, handling them all with easy grace and empathy. Just like that she’d broken the tension, just like that she makes him laugh. “That’s a lie,” he declares. “You looked like you belonged on the dance floor.”

And to his surprise Ruby goes still at his words, eyes growing wide and cheeks coloring.

Oscar’s heart freezes in his chest. He’d just implied that he’d been watching her, hadn’t he? He’d just complimented her outside their invisible boundaries, hadn’t he?

“Ah— no, I—“ he flounders, cheeks burning in a blush. “I didn’t— that came out—“

“It’s okay!” Ruby cuts him off, floundering just as much. “I— thank you! But…”

She looks around, casting about for something to grasp on to. “Here,” she says, when she finds what she’s looking for.

And she grabs his hand and tugs him along, picking up a blanket from a chair as she goes.

Oscar follows her without thinking twice, letting her lead him wherever she pleases.


An ocean of stars light their way along a night river. They shape currents that connect and separate, fading into the unknown across the desert’s sandy hills, a land painted in silver, stories told of faded fairy tales, or keeping them company, watching over them, as their story writes itself.

The river’s gentle sway, its quiet night time reflection of that sky, that endless universe, is disrupted only by the barge’s crossing. It leaves a streak of white in its wake, lazy waves that lap against the shorelines on either side, soon fading into that quiet stillness again.

The night’s cold is kept at bay somewhere behind them by light and laughter, by dancing and flirting, children knowing only the cheer of the moment, friendships to last a lifetime, lovers finding joy in each others’ arms. And where the light of humanity only casts its gentle residual glow, where the ancient presence of the broken moon illuminates the world instead, Oscar and Ruby sit huddled against a wall, keeping each other warm in the shared comfort of a single blanket.

“This feels like home,” Ruby murmurs.

Her eyes glow with a the reflection of a thousand stars, like mirrors in the night, seeing only the beauty of the world.

“I can almost smell the salt, and hear dad and Uncle Qrow arguing about the finer points of combat.” When her eyes close it is with a laugh, to smile at a memory. “Though the waves on patch were always more lively than this. After Yang went off to Signal I spent hours just staring out across the ocean towards Vale, imagining what it’d be like being able to fight monsters and go on adventures like my older sister.”

The image is difficult to conjure up in his mind. He’d seen the ocean in Argus, but it was an unruly, angry ocean, guarded by cliffs and looming walls, unwelcoming and grey, as it cleared their path to an icy tundra. But he knows—remembers—that the stretch between Vale and Patch is clear blue skies and lush green forests, willow trees hanging from tall cliffs, their petals gliding across azure waves.

How old would she have been then?

The students of Signal begin their first term when they’re twelve, Ozpin informs him helpfully.

Thank you, Oscar responds, and before he can stop the addition he’s thought sullenly, now leave me alone

It makes him feel bad for being so childish, so selfish, but he doesn’t want to share this moment with Oz. With any of them. He just wants to be himself for as long as he’s able. And he doesn’t want to share his time with Ruby with him, when Oz is all that will soon remain to interact with her.

And Oscar only feels worse, when a burst of warmth and understanding erupts from Oz, from a thousand old souls; empathy that comes from having been in the same situation, consumed by selfish affection. He closes his eyes and lets the feeling of being patted on the head wash over him, guilt all that’s left behind when the cracks of his soul light up, a thousand walls in his subconscious that cannot be trespassed, and his companions fade from his mind.

“What’s wrong?”

Ruby tilts her head towards him, the stars gone from her gaze, replaced by an earthly concern painted blue.

Oscar smiles and shakes his head. “I’m just having trouble picturing a Ruby who isn’t a capable huntress.”

She laughs softly and nudges him with her shoulder, soft companionship. “Well, believe it! I was really garbage at it to begin with, too. Uncle Qrow taught me the basics, but it wasn’t until Beacon I really began to improve. Oz’ teaching techniques were really merciless, but they worked.”

Oscar groans and leans his face against his knees. “Not you, too.”

“It’s true, though!” she says. “I might’ve passed my exams at Signal that winter, but I still got knocked out by Grimm during a training session with Yang a few weeks later. I didn’t really know how full of monsters the world was,” she adds in a quieter tone, all the cheer leaving her voice.

And it occurs to Oscar that Ruby, capable as she is, scarred as she is, grew up with peace. She grew up hidden from the dangers and distractions of the world, capable of dreaming up a better world, a more exciting world. She never had to worry about whether their supply of food would last the winter, or if Grimm would tear the crops down. And though they know the same grief of the loss of a bright parent’s smile, at least she did not run away from home with the heavy pain in her chest of leaving her only family to fend for themselves.

Oscar wonders if he’ll ever be able to make it up to his aunt, for what he did to her on that early summer day. He wonders if he will be himself when he does.

“Even if the world is full of monsters,” he says, “even if it is a merciless teacher. It is also full of kind, bright people, and beautiful places. Case in point.”

He gestures at the world at large, at the silvery hills and bright stars, and she laughs. “Yeah, you’re right.”

But when he looks back up at her, she’s only just turning her own face to look out at the world. Hope, pathetic and ridiculous, sprouts in his heart, a rose with scrappy roots, petals so vivid with color that it steals all his attention. 

Oscar holds his breath, afraid that if he does, he might let something escape, might give up his heart to somebody who doesn’t really want it.

He must have misunderstood.

“Life is beautiful,” Ruby says, “and it must be protected. With whatever tools are still at our disposal.”

Her smile vanishes, and her eyes bend with melancholy guilt, endlessly blue like the sky above them. And it washes away all Oscar’s selfish fear, makes him forget his own heart.

He wants to tell her that it’s going to be alright, that Ozma has to be right; that they’ve fought alongside so many Silver Eyed Warriors before that they know. Her light isn’t gone. It cannot be gone.

But that isn’t what Ruby needs. She can find reassurances in her own logic, and she can hide her fear with the expert ability of one who has hidden it from even herself for most of her life.

“Are you okay? After what happened the other day…”

The smile of a liar begins to form on her face and she opens her mouth to reassure him. But she catches his eye as she does, and sighs heavily, the mask of leadership washing off of her. “I…” she begins, leaning her forehead against her knees. “I can’t stop thinking about Penny. And Pyrrha… And Sa— and the Fountain.”

Misery laces through her voice, the broken whispers of guilt, silent apologies that echo like a thousand mirrors across the desert. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

“I couldn’t do anything,” she continues. “Back then I couldn’t get past Mercury, I didn’t get to the tower fast enough. I— I couldn’t do anything in Watts’ lab for all those girls who will eventually become like Penny. …I couldn’t stop her from stealing it away.”

She looks up at him, eyes flooding with pain, and Oscar—

Oscar, who’d been lifting his hand, hesitating to touch her, to show some semblance of companionship where he could offer it, is paralyzed once more by all that pain, by all that guilt she shouldn’t have to carry on her own.

Silver tears frame her face, tracing her skin like a caress.

“She hurt you, and I couldn’t stop her,” she whispers, voice breaking. “I’m sorry, Oscar.”

And whatever reservations he’d had, whatever worry over selfish attachments that might have stopped him, they’re easy to brush aside now. “No,” he says, crossing the distance and pulling his arms around her neck to hide her sorrow from the world. “No. Ruby. I— Nothing that happened in her realm was your fault, they were the results of choices I made. And none of those choices were mistakes.”

Even as her fingers dig into his shirt at his back, pulling him closer, she still protests. “But—“

“I can’t speak for Penny or Pyrrha,” he cuts her off gently. “But you said it yourself, that if it had been the other way around they would have kept fighting for you. And because I know you, and I know the type of people that gravitate towards you, I know they never regretted what they did, what they were able to do. And neither do I.”

It’s odd. For so long she’s been taller than him, stronger than him. Formidable and beautiful, fierce like a true huntress. She’d been able to make the decisions they’d never been able to find the courage to make, she’d seen the flaws in his strategies and made them better. In every way Ruby Rose shines brighter than Ozma, the God of Light’s Chosen, and every incarnation that came after. And she still does.

But that moment in Haven, when she’d lain lifeless and fragile on the floor before Jinn’s statue, comes back to him now, reminding him that she is full of flaws, and very mortal. Human.

The person pulling him close now under the kind gaze of the stars, the person who’s crying quietly into his collar is nothing more and nothing less. Not a god. Not an ideal. Not something to strive for. Just human.

And though she’s still his superior in every way, selfless and fierce, reckless and a massive nerd, perhaps he can offer her just this. Solace and a reprieve. Safety to let her mask of leadership fall.

Tomorrow they will be reminded, once more, of all their troubles, and so long as his body is alive they will rely on her in a battle she’d chosen with her own kind heart. But when the noises of humanity fade, he can at least offer her this. Unselfish and devoted.

“You’re right,” she murmurs finally, pulling back with renewed strength and drying her own tears. Her eyes are still washed by blue melancholy, but she finds a smile full of soft warmth for him. “Thank you.”

Oscar opens his mouth to respond, to say something more. But she grabs his hand under the blanket, and he snaps his mouth shut. His heart skips a beat in his chest at the gesture. And he thanks the gods for the darkness hiding the way his face burns with a blush.

“I won’t keep carrying everything on my own from now on,” she says, holding him prisoner with eyes reflecting the silver of the stars. “So promise me you won’t either.”

Oscar smiles at the irony. “You know me,” he jokes, “I’m never alone.”

And promptly gets jostled for his words. “I mean it!”

“I’m sorry,” he says, laughter in his voice. Even as he prepares himself for the lie. “I promise.”

There’s one thing he will never share with her, an attachment too deep to ever voice, to ever burden her with. But he can let it guide him, forever gravitating towards her star, following her wherever she wishes to guide him.

After all, Ruby always knows the right thing to do.

She beams at him, and it’s stunning the way such a small vow could bring so much light back to her face. That she’s this relieved to have struck such a bargain with him. “Good.”

Ruby sits back onto the floor to face the world once more, fingers still intertwined with Oscar’s, and breathes a blissful sigh. She doesn’t say anything for a long time, simply enjoying the warmth they share, protecting them from the cool wind that brushes their faces, through their hair.

Finally, as the moon travels above their heads, she leans her head against his shoulder, body sliding down so her shoulder pushes into his arm. And Oscar holds his breath, keeps perfectly still, thinking that perhaps she has fallen asleep, calmed by the gentle sway of the river.

But her hold on him never slackens, and she murmurs for his ears only. “You know, I’m not that good a dancer myself. Maybe we should learn together.”

So Oscar spends half the night with his heart in his hands, wondering if she’s going to allow him to keep even that to himself.

Chapter Text

"The light will guide us
A Rose will grow to be a seed
From every life another leads,
born the way we're meant to be"


In the boundary between night and day, the sky glows with the blood of the sun’s fading light. Its last rays flitter through wrinkly trees blurring the edges with a red glow. And cool settles in over those trees, pressing the heat and water of the desert down towards the ground so it vanishes under a layer of mist that mutes the footsteps of humanity and monsters.

Ozma stumbles over a root and rolls to the ground, and the Great Tai Ji Tu on his heels flies over his head, it’s fangs flashing even in the twilight, body crashing through the trees so they splinter and topple over.

His staff tumbles out of his grasp and he scrambles for it, just managing to pick it up with still unsure teenage fingers, fumbling with the handle made for adult hands. He turns on his heel and sprints to his right, away from the body of the formidable white snake.

Only to come face to face with its black counterpart.

Heart in his throat he rears up, raising the staff to counter it with a spell, but—

“Out of my way!”

A pair of strong hands grasp his shoulder, and a girl jumps over his head, flying into the air to face the great Tai Ji Tu. Her white hood floats in the air behind her, spreading out like wings. She laughs in the face of true horror. And light bursts forth from her eyes, so bright it burns away the sunset and the trees, the monsters of the forest, and steals the breath from Ozma’s lungs.

There’s a vague memory in the back of his head, triggered by that beautiful light, of a golden god and a dragon, a woman with hair like a spun harvest, and jealous fingers incapable of keeping him from death’s door.

As the light fades into glum twilight once more, he falls to his knees before her, his staff tumbling from his grasp. He lifts his head, tears trickling from eyes of gold, as he beholds a girl younger than himself with eyes like silver and hair as black as midnight.

Hope.

He may have found his spark at last.

“What are you doing?” she demands. “The other one is going to be furious I stole its mate.”

She grasps his hand and drags him to his feet. He never stops to consider the situation, simply follows her, feet thundering in quick succession over the ground. Out of the darkness and into the setting sun.

The trees part for them and a thousand white butterflies soar from nearby flowers towards the sky. They reveal prosperous fields of fruit trees, grape vines and peach trees crawling up to hide in the nets prepared for them, where fruits ripe and vivid with life hang leisurely to taste the warmth of the sun. Between them run waterways full of fresh water, reflecting the pink and purple of the sky, and beyond those a mountain with a golden staircase, guarded by shelves carved into the rock where artificial ponds reflect the sky, feeding water to short grass-like plants that grow cheerfully in the cool water in spite of the desert heat.

Ozma stops to gape at this marvelous sight, humanity at its finest. Strong, wise and resourceful, even the unforgiving wilderness of Remnant could never truly keep them from bettering it, from creating visions of wonders.

The girl tugs on his hand, looking back over her shoulder at the forest. “Come on! The others are just—“

“It’s okay,” Ozma says, at the thunder of the undergrowth getting torn apart behind them.

He drops her hand, and turns to face the great white snake, courage found once more.

As it bursts forwards, jaws open, fangs catching the last red gleam of the sun, Ozma calmly lifts his jade staff and a wall of thorny plants follow in the wake of his movement, catching the snake, slithering around its neck faster than it can attack. And when it’s caught, all the thorns straighten into stiletto needles, mercilessly piercing the Tai Ji Tu’s flesh and body.

The grimm shatters, and turns to dust.

“Wow,” the girl says behind him, drawing out the sound. And then she hits him over the shoulder. “That’s some Semblance you’ve got there! Why’d you even need my help?”

Ozma smiles and scratches the back of his neck. “Ah, this isn’t a semblance,” he says, smiling down at her as a white butterfly settles on her shoulder. “This is magic. Like what you did in the forest.”

She blinks up at him. “Magic?” she begins, her striking silvery eyes wide with wonder and starlight. “It’s not ma—“

“Rose!”

And miraculously, humans and faunus appear, weapons in hand, to greet them. And all their eyes are that same striking shade of silver, that same mark of the God of Light that he’s never before seen in humanity, except for the shadow of his gift in their Semblances.

“I’m okay!” she says, smiling brightly at her fellows. “I got a bit of help, so I didn’t even need yours.”

He doesn’t know what to expect, but not the warm greeting he receives, the smiles and pats on the back. “You crossed the desert all on your own? That’s unusual, don’t you think?”

Ozma smiles demurely. “Well, more than unusual, it was pretty difficult.”

That gains him plenty of laughter, and he’s drawn away from the edge of the forest by these openhearted, silver eyed people.

“So who are you?”

“Why did you cross the desert?”

“I’m just a simple traveller,” he responds, as they make it into their village. “Looking for answers.”

Only after he’s been given water and shelter, only when he’s explained himself properly, and told them of his battle against the Grimm and their master, does the girl he’d met in the forest, Rose, guide him up the mountain.

“We’ve lived here for as long as our memories go back,” she explains to him. “It’s safe, and the water from the fountain keeps our food fresh and people strong. And though the grimm keep finding us, we never let them get far.”

They pause on a ledge to overlook the oasis surrounding the mountain. It stretches out in every direction, a flood of green from a volcano of life, before it meets the blue of the sky and the golden sea of the desert. A paradise of peace and tranquility, so different from the rest of Remnant.

“That’s a wise decision,” he observes. “I imagine you’d want to protect such a precious hope, so you wouldn’t be forced to leave it.”

She nods, silver eyes watching the horizon. “Sometimes. But people do leave, too. They say something draws them to the wider world, to the open sky and the people we do not yet know. We do our best to teach everybody what they might need to know to survive, to handle the Grimm, and we see them off with love in our hearts, hoping that it will not be the last time we hold them in our arms.”

The memory of four young women intrude, their smiles as vivid in his mind as the day he’d last said his goodbyes to those carrying his heart and his soul. Only fiery red, the burn of autumn, ever returned to cradle an old man in her arms once more, to see him off in his last moments.

Empathy drives him to place a companionable hand on her shoulder.

“Even if it is, they can still give us strength to move forwards,” he says.

She smiles. “Yes. And there is no harm in looking back on all the laughter we shared together. Our memories are gifts from the people who loved us, after all.”

And not for the first time, a silent breath passes between his lips in astonishment. Beautiful and remarkable, unselfish attachments still take him by surprise, and the philosophies that follow in the wake of such noble emotions still elude him until he meets them in another person.

At the top of the mountain he crosses into the Domain of Light. Its beauty has not faded even as the world remains only a remnant of what it once was. White butterflies greet them here, circling them and guiding their gaze to the centre where a large golden tree spreads its wide branches over a fountain that reflects only the fair blue of the open sky. When leaves fall from it, they catch an invisible wind which carries them to the ground surrounding the fountain where they settle among their fellows to create a floor of gold.

Once, only a path of white stones cut through that golden floor, but since then several huge boulders have split the ground apart, so deep crevices crack the earth, filling with the water of the Fountain, leading it from its domain, down the mountain to the crops below.

Ozma doesn’t say a word as he beholds the abandoned land of light, and only his companion hears the disappointment that flows from his heart.

Even if the solution is not in the waters of the Gods that abandoned us, he offers kindly. Perhaps salvation was always in the hands of humanity, and you might find it here, in the lands that now surround us.

The warrior sits calmly at his side, her silver eyes watching the world with vigilant kindness, reflecting not the light of that world, but the love in her own heart that makes the world glow.

Many broken moons pass him by in that land. Ozma is welcomed all the time with openhearted kindness, and he soon finds a routine in this paradise below the Domain of Light. He learns to help with the crops, to tell his stories in shapes like phantasms and fairy tales, and to fight without his magic; using sword and scythe, so that his survival is no longer dependent on methods from the old world, but so that his life is protected by what the new world can teach him. Here, he matures once more, grows to know a companion that had helped him cross the desert, and finds new allies in people with Silver Eyes.

Here, he learns once again that love is not just about jealous familial ties or possessive physical relations. Here, he learns that love can be reserved for the world at large, for the people you know, care for and want to protect.

And it is a single rose that reminds him once more that his devotion to the world cannot end with a life lived in hiding.

She grows up, an ally, at his side, and when her fierce reckless soul can no longer be contained, she storms into his home one evening, her silver eyes burning.

“Enough running away, Oz!”

Ozma looks up in astonishment from the scroll he’d borrowed from one of the elders in the village. “Excuse me?”

And barely has time to catch the satchel she throws at him, heavy with food and other supplies. “We’re leaving.”

Her grin makes her entire face glow, and he barely has a chance to say goodbye to that house that has been his home for years, before she’s dragged him from it for the last time.


The dream changes, fairy dust and butterfly wings blowing away the colors of that paradise, to a courtyard in a far off land, in another time so many millennia in the future.

The sun travels down the steel blade of a double-edged word, catching in the jade imbedded in the hilt, as it clashes into the pristine black wood of a staff.

Oz grins down at a Fall Maiden who meets his gaze with singleminded pride and irritation. And then he tilts his staff so the younger girl’s sword slides gratingly down the side of his weapon.

Saga’s hazel curls fly up around her face as she stumbles past him, and as Oz dances around, ready to slip his foot into her path to make her tumble entirely, she swings her arm, producing a wild gust of wind that sends her back, out of his reach. She dances like a fairy on air, magic aiding her swiftness and the lethality of her movements.

And Oz just barely has time to duck the strike of her weapon, as she rams into him once more, this time from above.

His staff creaks below the force of her blow.

“Hey now—“ he begins.

Saga pulls back her blade, giving him only enough time to duck under the swing of her arm, twist on his heel and land a high kick against her back sending her off balance and flailing.

“—that was uncalled for,” he finishes as she faceplants in the dirt of the training ring.

Seren coughs to hide her laugh, and Saga scrambles into a seated position. “What was that for?” she demands, hair in disarray, dirt all over her tunic, and brown eyes full of fire. “And don’t laugh!”

Seren jumps down from her seat on the fence of the training pavilion, the sun glowing in her black hair and shrugs with the elegance of a white knight. “It can’t be helped,” she says cheerfully. “We’ve all been there.”

“Seren’s family were the first to teach me,” Oz explains, “that you cannot rely on your magic to simply win the battle for you. It has to be your skill in combat, your intellect, and your Semblance that empowers you. Whatever magic either of us possess can only be fully utilized once we’ve mastered the basics.”

Saga purses her lips in a pretty pout. “But I thought I was here to learn to use magic.”

“Unfortunately, you cannot learn one without the other,” he responds, offering her a hand up.

As her fingers slide across his palm, he closes his eyes, letting go of control so that Odin can step into his place. And it is the king’s strong grasp that helps her to her feet. “Don’t worry,” he says with more openhearted kindness. “He’s always this strict. It’s the best way to learn.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she says, smiling more fully up at him now that his eyes are not stained with gold. “But isn’t it weird? Having another person’s soul in your body? In your head? Why do you let him have so much control?”

Oz exhales a silent sigh, melancholic memories of other people, friends and companions, asking the same questions. It is nothing new, and spoken from the mouth of somebody so young they ring with curious innocence. And yet, it reminds him that he is not his own person anymore.

“Well,” Odin says, sharing a look with Seren, “it doesn’t really matter to me who’s in control.”

What?

“Our souls merged a very long time ago,” the king continues, “and we share the same goals. So long as we move towards that same goal, so long as we act on that single purpose, we are the same person. There is no difference.”

It’s not often that he has a companion as open and understanding to their predicament as Odin, and Oz exhales a quiet sigh of relief at his friend’s loyalty. It’s moving and reassuring to know that you’re not alone, and unlike himself, Odin has always been good at convincing others to follow that same loyalty, to himself or to Oz.

Even now, his voice reaches the girl in front of them.

“Oh,” she murmurs, demurely lowering her gaze. “I’m sorry, Oz. I shouldn’t have said something so cruel.”

He kindly places a hand on top of her curls, brushing away the dirt from the training grounds. “It’s okay.”

She lifts her gaze and smiles up at the king, her golden eyes catching the brightness of the sun and glowing with nearly as much beauty as silver starlight. Young and powerful, holding the soul of something far more ancient than herself, she will soon outshine all that reside in the universe. At least to his companion.

And Oz falls back with respectful affection, letting the young King enjoy his moment, receiving the full attention of his only sun. So that his emotions for the moment remain his own, and so they won’t overwhelm him as they have done in the past.

But they do not get long together. Seren returns to her seat under the blue sky, her fingers curling around the handle of her sword, silver eyes watchful as her king teaches his next Fall Maiden. A crow squawks a warning somewhere from one of the towers before soaring into the blue sky, and footsteps sound between the clang of metal meeting wood in the solitude of the training grounds.

“—can’t keep ignoring what our citizens are reporting.”

“Indeed, certainly not when the newest falcon brought news of book burnings in the outer territories.”

Odin makes a single hand signal to Seren and they change places. She draws her sword in a singe fluid motion, meeting Saga’s guard as if they’d been practicing for hours, while the king slides into the shadow of the fence, out of the two lords’ sight.

The sounds of battle quickly stop their conversation short, and they pause to watch the two women battle for a moment, until Seren has had enough.

“Is there anything we might help you with, my lords?”

There’s a hesitant moment of silence, before one of them says “Lady Rose, you are his Royal Majesty the king’s personal guard,” he says, slow and calculated. “Yet he is not with you today?”

A single white butterfly flutters down to settle against Odin’s knee as the knight switches her position, far more lethal than she had been a moment ago, silver eyes flashing like a deadly blade. “The King goes where he pleases. Are you questioning his decisions?”

“No. No, of course not,” the other says quickly. “We simply wished to inform him of the news from the settlements and the troubles the people of Mistral are causing our citizens once more.”

“I’m sure he’s already aware, gentlemen,” Saga says. Her ringlets bend like a crown around her face, and she stands with the poise of a queen.

The two lords are quickly chased away by the formidable presence of the two women, promising to continue their search elsewhere. And Odin bows his head over his free knee, keeping sure to protect the butterfly at his side.

We’re going to have to do something eventually, Oz, he laments silently.

We will. For now we’ll need to restock the supplies the settlers need out east, and to encourage them to open dialogue with the people of Mistral that have joined them there.

“Oz?”

A hand on his shoulder and he looks up to meet the silver gaze of his eldest companion. Seren is kneeling at his side, and Saga stands above him, silently waiting for an answer.

“You’ve trained for so long,” she says, “you found me. You’re teaching me how to use my magic and how to fight. But there’s war in the air, it’s been there for longer than either of us have been alive. But… aren’t you going to do something about it?”

“I am,” they say as they climb to their feet, a king with one voice. “I am doing everything I can for as long as I can to preserve life. For as long as I am able, the only plan I will ever stick to is the one that avoids as many casualties as possible. That’s why I’m not doing anything to start a war.”

Their eyes flash with gold, two minds bound to a single soul, intent on one purpose.

The two women at his side share a smile, wind catching in the strands of their hair, gold and ebony, before picking up red petals from a hedge of roses growing up the far wall and blowing them into the sunset.


The light steals their colour, rendering them in whites as pure as the first snow before they fall onto the hood of a woman slain. Blood trickles from her pierced abdomen and her silver eyes see nothing but the darkness of death. Another woman stands over her, her skeletal skin untouched even by the traces of the light’s futile attempt at fighting back. Only the dismissive contempt on her face betrays the act of calculated inhumanity she had just committed.


“You’re Oz, right?”

In another time, years prior, Summer Rose had slammed her palms onto a tabletop in an interrogation room, silver eyes wide with wonder and excitement—and absolutely no shame or regret at her recent misconduct.

“Grandma Seren told me about you.”

And Oz had leant back in his chair, debating whether to gape in dumbfounded surprise or laugh with delight. “And what exactly did she tell you?”

“Well,” she says, “when I asked her how a huntsman could become headmaster at twenty she said it was because ‘that brat had to go and show off again’. And then I had to pester her for the whole story, of course.”

A white butterfly settles in her hair, basking its wings unnoticed in her light, and Oz had tilted his head in open amusement. “It takes quite a character to pester your grandmother to do anything, as far as I remember.”

“Good thing this character knows how,” she says, leaning back into her chair and crossing her arms smugly, “and also knows how not to be deterred by the games of old men. I want to go to Beacon,” she adds before he can stop her. “I want you to teach me.”

She leans forward in her seat again, determination burning like silver fires in her eyes. “And I want to start this spring.”

Oz opens and closes his mouth. A child. Not that much younger than himself, innocent and full of life, and already so much more willful than anything he could have imagined, even if he’s seen it again and again.

He laughs.

Roses and their thorns.

“And,” he says, leaning forwards across the table, “is that why you acted so recklessly tonight? To get an audience.”

She purses her lips pensively, and then sticks her tongue out at him. “No. I don’t need attention from a king, after all. I just wanted to do what was right.”

And he can see why she’d managed to convince her grandmother to share their histories, old and dangerous like a rose that’s made it up castle walls to see the sun rise above the sea. Summer Rose is another spark of hope, a flame in her own right, reckless with the potential of her free spirit. And she’ll be able to keep them all on the right path, the one only she can illuminate.

“Alright fine.”


But the light had vanished, the flame extinguished.

And the last fleeting hope dies, with no other kindred left and no new rosebud to embrace the warmth of the sun.

For the first time, they are truly alone in the darkness.

Ozpin watches him from beyond the confinement that separates them from the world, the glorified prison made for a man who no longer belongs to humanity, who does not even deserve to be alive. He offers no words of condolences, no comforts, as Oz gently flips a file open to glance down at the image of a smiling student. One of four.

Another shining example of human unity shattered beyond his reach.

Beyond the shining light of Beacon, the leaves in the forest of Forever Fall descend as they have done for more than fifty years now, descending to the ground in honor of another fallen companion. And slowly the seasons begin to change, sometimes matching the sorrow of that personal tribute, a memorial for a thousand, made with the heart only intend on a single person.

Snow falls like white rose petals, fading into the ground when Spring’s cheer brightens the gloom of winter. And so the seasons change. One after another.

A girl grows up in secret, with phoenix fire lighting her spirit, on an island off the shore of Vale. Outside the touch of man. And another grows up at her side, smaller, younger, timidly keeping to her sister’s shadow, watching her father recede and grow faint.

And Oz, like the sun, places himself on the opposite side of those people, where he cannot clearly see that child. Fear guides his decisions; of what, he cannot be sure. True loneliness was never his curse, but abandonment to an impossible task, perhaps?

Or it’s for Summer’s child. For her life.

Salem has made the gods’ gift into a curse, has hunted down the best and brightest until there was barely a spark left in the world. And if she finds out that Summer’s child exists, that that child, miracle of miracles, has inherited her mother’s eyes, she will surely do everything in her power to snuff out that life, as well.

It keeps nagging at him, that if he were to know with certainty, so would Salem.

And he cannot let Summer’s last sacrifice for her daughter’s sake be in vain, cannot close his eyes and fail the memory of fierce silver.

No matter what you say, I will not let my daughters fight this fight, Oz! It has to end now.

So he turns his face away, and he leaves the Xiao Long family to Qrow. He turns his will on other matters, building on a legacy and a foundation that is finally secure; building humanity in the same direction, towards the Gods’ ideal.

He might not be able to destroy Salem, and they may have been left alone without true allies, but he doesn’t have to be the one to face her. He can leave it in the hands of the ones who cursed her with immortality in the first place.

They’re so close—

And then Yang Xiao Long drags her little sister into a forest full of grimm, unsupervised and desperate for a parent capable of loving them. Abandoned without any light to clear their path. And even if he doesn’t want to know, even if Qrow gets both girls to safety in the nick of time, Yang’s actions are a clear sign that they can no longer remain passive when it comes to the broken pieces of Summer’s family.

Oz stands alone in the headmaster’s office in Beacon, watching through a mirror as Qrow puts the distraught girls to sleep, listens briefly as he begins to tell them stories, hiding his rage so only his fingers tremble slightly as he brushes away Yang’s golden bangs.

But Oz doesn’t stay to observe, simply turns from the image of an awkward, unlucky uncle doing his best where a sister, a friend and a father had failed, and turns away. He strides towards the large windows that reveal the world to him, grabbing his cane on the way, and before he connects with the glass he shatters into the dead leaves of autumn, vanishing on an unnatural wind.

Tai Yang Xiao Long sits by his wife’s empty grave in the shadow of the marker, a shell of a man, broken nearly beyond repair. His golden hair no longer reflects the light of the sun, his fire faded with grief, and his warm skin has grown pallid and grey.

And Oz sees countless other men at his side, sees a thousand other grave markers. Himself, his companions. Their memories molded into one emotion, everlasting grief so heavy it could never be born by a single human heart. The knowledge that the people they’ve loved are beyond their reach, are torn from their side by the merciless logic of death, until he can complete an impossible task.

“It’s not forever, you know,” he says.

Tai starts. His head flies up and he turns abruptly at Ozpin’s voice. His eyes are dry, the tears of grief having dried up long before the emotion has given up its power over his heart, but shame contorts his expression.

“Oz! I—“

“Tai,” Oz says, cutting him off.

He lowers his face again, hiding his expression, and Oz lets him. He kneels beside him, facing the grave marker. “I took too long to greet you,” he murmurs, and bows his head. “Forgive an old soul for his selfish grief.”

“What—“ Tai cuts himself off, holds his breath for a moment before letting go of it heavily. And he looks like a school boy once again, not a father, not a huntsman. Just somebody desperate to hear an easy answer. “What did you mean it’s not forever?”

Oz exhales a sigh, nearly a laugh, and sits down properly by Tai’s side. “She’s going to scold us,” he says. “When we all meet again. Probably you before myself. But she won’t forget, as they rarely do.”

“Why…?”

But Tai’s eyes are already widening, blue and innocent of the dangers of the world even now. Kind and hopelessly burdened with a love too heavy for his shoulders to carry, as those with Silver Eyes always inspire in others. And in spite of all that, he’s still intelligent, still quick to put two and two together.

“There’s a life after this one,” Oz says for the first time. “I saw it once, long ago. It’s no paradise, but there was peace, and the people who had left me behind were all there to greet me at the door.”

Out across the sea, a swallow floats on the wind, cheerful and unbound. It sings a song of freedom as it dances with the open sky, but it never reveals the secret to its joy.

“But… if that’s the case what’s the point of this life? What’s the point of even trying?”

Oz sighs and glances behind him at the path, leading back to the house. “Most people probably look back over their shoulders, I’m sure Summer did too,” he observes. “‘I’m worried, will they be okay?’ they think. So all of us left behind… we must live more diligently. We’ll cry from time to time, but we should laugh, too. And do the best for the ones we meet along the way, those we bring into this world. That’s the courtesy we have to pay for the love we’ve already received.”

The sun’s light catches in the tears that overflow from Tai’s eyes at his words, and he lifts his chin, his face to the sky and bites down on his grief. His guilt and grief overflow silently by his wife’s grave, with the dying sun at his back.

And Oz watches over him quietly, all that he can do for another child he had abandoned for too long. He watches his heart properly break apart, watches his sorrow finally take form, become tangible, and his own heart breaks a little more for this bright, sunny person who should have lived a life of long happiness.

The least he can do for him now is light the path for him, so he can find his way back to those that still need him.

“All we really have to do,” he says finally, “is protect the ones our loved ones left behind before they were ready to do so.”

And the way Tai’s eyes widen with horror at his own actions is the reason Oz has faith in humanity. The way he scrambles to his feet without even taking a second to think through his actions is a spark of hope in gold rather than silver. The way he falls to his knees by the bed where his two daughters lie passed out from a long day of nightmares is a reminder that there is strength here, in the connections that tie this family together.

More than one guardian exists in this world, and he has allies that, while they might not have silver eyes, glow with that same light that made the ancient warriors so great. The love of humanity, of the world, isn’t something inherited through bloodlines, it is simply something that exists in all of them so long as they still have people to treasure.

A single white butterfly settles in the window sill, watching over them all as Oz departs to give the family piece. It flutters from its perch to find him on the path from the Xiao Long household; the spirit of Summer Rose leaves him with a single message:

Do not let my daughters grow up to carry our burdens for another lifetime.


Summer Rose’s voice still echoes in his mind as he wakes.

The last stars are vanishing above the horizon and the sky is a paling grey, no color present in the early dawn hours, just masses of desert and the silent river. The blanket keeps the worst of the night chill at bay, as does the warm body sleeping against his side.

After the fountain of destruction the dreams had become so regular that they feel nearly normal now, the memories of passing lives muddling together with no right or wrong, no chronology or logic to them. Certain lifetimes play a bigger role than others, and they’ve theorized the possibility of Vacuo triggering the ones that drift to the surface of their shared conscious. But this time there had been more than usual, a mixture of lifetimes old and new, some so far away that his mind feels muddled as he emerges, confused.

It’s the place, voices whisper in an echo of each other. It’s the deserts of Vacuo that never truly forget.

Oscar swallows thickly.

Beyond the barge, the sand bends with the horizon, an endless ocean of once golden sand. Out here all this sand seems to be the only thing that exists, having swallowed everything, footsteps, plant life, and the blood of thousands. The air above the sands shift and changes, creating mirages like the ones he’d seen back in Shade Academy. Grey imprints on the world, the hatred and desperations of soldiers, dance the mummer’s dance, repeating the battles that led to their demise again and again and again.

They’re faint, but unmistakably they are there, clearer still against the grey sky. And Oscar lowers his head in fear and shame at the sight.

“Why…?” he begins, though he doesn’t know how to finish the sentence, doesn’t know what to ask.

It was the place of a great battle, the King of Vale explains. His mellow blue gaze watches his own regrets unflinchingly, as if it is simply another part of his punishment, more suffering he must not turn away from. One of countless great battles.

“Do you know what happened?”

What always happens happened here as well, the king says.

Grimm, Ozma concludes, materializing beside the king of Vale, but leaning against the railing so he’s facing Oscar instead.

Oscar slides further down under the blanket, trying to hide from the view of the battle. As he does so he disturbs Ruby’s sleep, and she grumbles, shifting under their shared covers. And Oscar is suddenly hyperaware of her at his side, her arm around his waist and her head resting against his shoulder.

He hadn’t meant for them to fall asleep out here, had meant to let her rest for only a moment before going back inside. He hadn’t meant to so shamelessly enjoy her company, nor to fall asleep at her side. But he’d done it anyway, caught up in the turmoil of his own thoughts and feeling safe in her presence, he’d relaxed for the first time since theit first battle down the Morgante.

As if sensing his trepidation and guilt, Ruby digs her fingers into the folds of his shirt in a subtle act of attachment. And Oscar wonders if he can take that as permission, if it’s enough partiality for him to think selfishly, or if it’s simply a moment of fondness for a friend, any friend, because he’s the one there, the one who had followed her into the darkness.

And perhaps that’s good enough. He isn’t the only one who’d grown up with almost nothing, after all. The images of that broken man, golden Tai Yang, at the edge of the cliffs by Summer’s grave and the two girls sleeping restlessly in a barely lit bedroom still haunt his mind even in waking. Even if she’d lived in peace, even if Oz had done his best to keep her out of Salem’s reach, Ruby had felt her presence even on Patch. It had left her abandoned to long periods of loneliness and isolation, because the people who loved her had been incapable of lingering at her side.

So it doesn’t really matter if he’s special to her or not.

He’ll linger, here, at her side as long as she’ll let him.

The red dye that she’d reapplied to her hair back in Atlas has almost been washed out by the harsh sun, leaving only crisp black behind, and her fringe has grown too long, slipping over her eyes and hiding her face.

Oscar gently brushes them out of the way, revealing skin grown pale from nightmares and dark circles still rimming her eyes faintly. He tugs the fringe behind her ear and smiles when half the strands fall back against her cheek, obstinate and rebellious to the last.

And then his eyes land on the black glove covering his own skin, and he starts, face flushing.

But when he turns his head around, his companions have vanished, giving him privacy.

Oscar sighs.

“Oz… what’s really going to happen when we get to the Fountain?”

The phantom of Ozma reappears in the King of Vale’s unoccupied space. He tilts his head to the side in question, and Oscar rolls his eyes.

“Is it really going to be as easy as just stepping into the waters and being healed?” he clarifies. He opens his mouth to continue his line of thought, but, glancing down at Ruby, thinks better of it. Salem wasn’t saved from the effects of the Fountain of Creation by jumping into the Fountain of Destruction, but instead it had its own effect on her…

Ozma sighs. I can’t say for sure. Every instance of somebody falling through the Fountains has been different, but the God of Light specifically directed the Fountain of Creation to give her immortality so it may be a different factor that won’t play in in our case. We can only hope, as it all depends on—

At Oscar’s side Ruby shifts and yawns, so Oscar starts, distracted.

And Ruby laughs softly. “‘Morning to you, too.”

“Ah. Ruby. I’m sorry,” he says, lifting his hands up over the blanket so it slides down into their laps. “I meant to wake you, but fell asleep, as well.”

Ruby tilts her head, eyes still dancing with laughter. “You’re always apologizing these days, Oscar,” she observes. “You don’t have to adopt all his guilt, you know.”

If only her words could function as permission, if only her words were truly magic, the way they feel in that moment, and if only she could make that a reality. “I’ll do my best,” he promises, smiling shortly before bowing his head. “But I don’t think I’ll have much of a choice eventually.”

Ruby doesn’t say anything, but she pulls her arm around his shoulder and pulls him close in a one-armed hug. She rests her cheek against the side of his face, and even if it’s a sign of sorrowful empathy, of a powerless savior, it still warms his heart, and he leans into her touch and the silent reassurance that she doesn’t want him to vanish, either.

 

Chapter Text

As the sun rises above the horizon, its light bringing color back to the world, Ruby sits up properly and Oscar follows suit. The dreams still linger in her mind, of women much like herself with black hair and silver eyes; women who had all carried the name Rose, who had spent their lives fighting alongside a man who’d simply titled himself ‘Oz’.

Beside her Oscar watches the world with relief, as if the gold of the sun is a welcome reminder to have hope. That gold rims his green eyes, and hides the fear he’d once again expressed of the future. Will he really vanish? Oz doesn’t seem to correct him on the topic, but...

But she could have sworn that when she’d looked back on her memories of her time at Beacon she’d been able to distinguish the melancholy old warrior and the cheerful headmaster, two men in one body that had both given her more attention than is normal for a single student, no matter how gifted.

She just hadn’t thought too deeply about it because she’d been used to that from Signal where both her father and uncle had taught.

Had she really been given that type of attention only because of her bloodline, because she’s another tool of the God of Light?

“Ruby?” Oscar tilts his head in silent question, concern bleeding into his gaze.

No. Those are Salem’s words, again, lingering in her mind. And there must be another interpretation of the truth that she can rely on, somewhere.

“Do you mind if I speak with Oz for a moment?”

Oscar pulls back a little at her words, but he complies, nodding briefly before he closes his eyes. Gold overflows in his gaze when he reopens them, like tears falling into nothing, and Ozma sits before her. 

He inclines his head silently, awaiting her question.

And Ruby hesitates. She can’t be sure that her dreams are true memories of the world, can’t expect them to be; not when Salem had said what she’d said.

Such beautiful eyes. The gods have truly gifted you with a wonderful curse.

But… why should she listen to a word that women has ever said? Why should she believe in their truth, when all Salem has ever done was cause rifts between humanity, and cut Oz and his companions off from the world? The truth is only a tool to Salem when she can bend it to suit her needs, and unlike Oz’, those needs are never for the sake of anybody but herself.

“What,” she begins carefully, “what exactly are Silver Eyed Warriors?”

She’s come to expect to have to fight him on every topic, and even now she finds that she’s holding her breath and staring a hole into Oscar’s forehead, stubbornness and pre-prepared arguments at the ready, on the tip of her tongue for when he starts evading the topic. And, yet, he still manages to throw her off.

“Miss Rose,” he says, smiling at her, “why would you need me to answer that, when only you can define what you are?”

Ruby opens and closes her mouth in astonishment. “I…”

Cryptic as always, there’s more to his words than what meets the eye, a tragic reality and a choice tied up in one another. A truth within a truth.

“Or perhaps you were asking a completely different question?” he offers, Oscar’s eyes dancing with the wit and amusement of a different person.

Ruby frowns. “Don’t mess with me,” she complains, leaning back against the wall. “Maria already told me what we’re supposed to do, and judging by the fact that she and—“ she glances at him, hesitating “—and Salem recognized the origin of our power, neither can be wrong. But…”

But what?

Are we really that important? Isn’t there another way?

Am I really nothing but a polished mirror? Are my choices even my own?

“Salem and Maria are only making educated guesses based on what evidence we have,” Oz says, leaning back as well to watch the world with her. “I agree with their conclusion, but ultimately we cannot know the gods’ intentions. Ultimately, we don’t need to know to make the decisions that feel right to ourselves.”

“Right,” Ruby murmurs, pulling her knees up under her chin. “Feelings…”

“Miss Rose,” Oz says, sighs. And when she looks across to him he’s smiling. “Did you truly follow her statement to its logical conclusion?”

When she frowns in question, he laughs and reaches over to ruffle her hair. “What happened to my intelligent student?”

Ruby gasps at the insult and batters his hand away. “She’s still here!”

Oz grins. “Prove it.”

And she frowns at the challenge, pushing out her cheeks childishly and looking away. The words I’m not your student anymore are on her lips, but she lets them rest there unsaid, considering his words instead.

“She… implied… that my thoughts and goals, my emotions, when it comes to humanity aren’t really real, but just an imprint of the God of Creation’s intent for all Silver Eyed Warriors,” she summarizes. And as she expresses the sentiment out lout she realizes that Oz is right; it doesn’t make logical sense for the gods to do something like that.

…why?

And then she remembers. “The Relics!” she says aloud, turning back to Oz, her mind already reeling and hands flying excitedly to emphasize her words. “The gifts to humanity are the same the first as the second time around. Destruction and creation, knowledge and choice. So the God of Creation hadn’t changed humanity the second time around; he still based us on the same ideals as when the Brother Gods created Remnant in the first place!”

And Oz beams at her, pride glowing in Oscar’s green eyes. “Exactly.”

“So he wouldn’t have taken that away from us—from Silver Eyed Warriors—just because we’re here to fight his cause,” she concludes. But as she does, her original questions reemerge, hesitantly and insecurely, and she trails off. “But then… what’s my purpose? If we’re not tools of the gods, what’s the point of giving us this light in the first place, if we don’t automatically choose to wield it?”

But this time it’s Oz’ turn to start at her word, anger washing away the pride that had glowed there only a moment ago. “First of all, Silver Eyed Warriors are not objects, and certainly not tools, that reflect the light they see in the immediate world,” he says, affronted. “They’re people who collect always the light of the world in their every interaction with those they care for, and that’s the light they reflect back on the world. That is their power. If you’re thinking about the God of Light when you fight Grimm, it’s no wonder you’re having trouble,” he adds, side-eying her shrewdly.

And Ruby gasps at the insult. “What do you take me for?” she exclaims, throwing her arms wide. “I’m not exactly new to this. I know I’m supposed to think about my loved ones, thank you very much!”

Which earns her a smile and a laugh, an indulgent teacher always expecting her to excel, even when he’s insulting her. “And,” he says, tilting his head just slightly so that for a moment he looks so much like Oscar she can’t tell the difference, “isn’t that the first principle of what it means to be human? That we desire only to protect those we care for?”

And suddenly it’s not so scary anymore. Because Ruby knows, remembers, that the only time she’d ever truly seen Oz lose his temper was back at Haven when Oscar’s life had been threatened; that he’d come back to help Oscar save their lives when they’d been about to crash into the side of a cliff in a stolen aircraft.

In the end Oz is as human as Oscar is, as Ruby is.

“But…” she says, hesitates. “You and I both know that isn’t always the case.”

And Oz’ smile falls. “Well, yes. Some people can end up a little misguided,” he says. “We hurt each other, and our actions might have different consequences than we anticipate. We might even believe that those sacrifices are worth it for the greater good, but… humanity isn’t perfect. All we can do is remember that the flaws never truly out-weigh the good.”

It’s an answer to an old inquiry, an old confusion. She’d caught him losing faith in the snow, she’d seen the bitterness he tends to hide from everyone, even Oscar. And he’d attempting to brush it away, to hide it behind a different perspective—perhaps even from himself.

Maybe that’s what he’s always done; hidden all the ugly behind an optimistic perspective. To keep going. To be able to put one foot in front of the other, even when the road is a river of mud. And eventually that optimism hadn’t been a lie anymore, but a reality, a world where people truly have faith in the goodness of others. A world where that’s what humanity acts on.

Ruby hums. “Alright, I’ll allow it,” she says finally.

And Oz laughs.

“Ruby,” he says, when he’s calmed down. “You’re the only Silver Eyed Warrior left. I can’t tell you what to believe in, but I can at least reassure you that Salem’s words aren’t all there is to the story, and if they hinder you in any way, you shouldn’t hold on to them.

“For me, Silver Eyed Warriors have been companions and allies, always. Whether their last name was Rose or not. Friends, partners, children. Family. They’ve always been a spark of hope, a reminder that I and my companion weren’t the only ones to carry this burden in whatever life we lived; that if there is one answer, there could be another.”

“That’s why you never told me that a Silver Eyed Warrior could stand against Salem, isn’t it?”

The smile he offers her then is one full of sorrowful attachment shaped by a thousand lifetimes. “There are so many reasons I’ve been searching for a different answer, Miss Rose,” he says. “For one, neither Oscar nor I would ever ask you to gamble with your life at such slight odds.”

“Oh,” Ruby murmurs, looking down at her hands. There are plenty of things they don’t share with her, keep to themselves, and she wonders if Oscar had known. Even if he doesn’t have full access to Oz’ memories, she wonders if he understands on some level, and if Salem had only confirmed what he’d already suspected.

“Miss Rose,” Oz says, placing a hand on her shoulder to get her attention. He smiles. “This story isn’t just mine. It is yours and Oscar’s. It’s up to you to take the next step, to make the decisions that feel right, now that you have the knowledge to walk with confidence.”

Ruby nods, and gets to her feet.

She stretches in the morning sunlight, and when she turns back Oscar has returned to her side. “For now,” she says, holding out her hand to him, “we should focus on reaching the Fountain and getting our strength back.”

“Right.”

And though Oscar, like Ruby, doesn’t look  as confident as Oz would have them be, when his hand slides into hers, she can’t help but smile. And it brightens her world a little more, when his eyes bend at the edges, reflecting her quiet joy.


After nearly ten days of travel, the Charon clan’s barge slowly comes into view of humanity once again. They enter a valley with low land, running parallel to the river, which Sun calls the river delta. It stretches out with dry, empty fields for miles and miles in both directions, and when Oscar wonders aloud if they’ve been abandoned, Sun laughs.

“No, we just don’t plant during the same time of the year as you do in Mistral,” he explains. “Especially not this far inland. It’s too hot in the summer, so we take advantage of autumn instead, after the flooding of the Delta.”

And yet, Ruby can’t help but feel unsettled by the dead state of those fields. At least in Mistral the fields had been covered by snow in winter, and the humid springs had quickly given way to life. The gold of the desert sands seems to drain the all the colour out of the world, leaving everything covered in a thin layer of pale brown that turns grey under the endless sky, the merciless sun.

The village too, when it finally comes into sight, is covered in that layer of grey. The houses and tents are huddled under the heat and light, tattered and flayed at the edges. The people here hide from the burning of the sun under veils and robes that cover them from head to toe, the colors blending in with the sand, sticking instinctively to the little shade that exists.

It all seems very small and insignificant from down the river, but as they get closer, the houses begin to tower over them; residence halls and warehouses to protect people, livestock, and food. The old mixes with the new here, with whatever is practical, so camels stand side by side with cars with huge tires, designed specifically to handle the treachery of desert sands. But those trucks don’t belong to the village; they’re all white and decorated with a familiar sigil.

Once they’ve docked they say their goodbyes to the matriarch of the Charon clan.

“You’ve worked hard,” she says, “and I’d offer you the job of accompanying us the rest of the way to Vale’s southern territories, but I know you have suicidal business at the heart of the desert, so I won’t bother.”

Ruby smiles. “Thank you,” she says, accepting their pay gratefully.

It’ll buy them supplies and transport the rest of the way and back.

“Of course,” Sun says brightly, “an introduction is always appreciated in these parts.”

“Way ahead of you, monkey boy. We don’t usually go on land here, but…”

She waves her hand at something behind them, and they turn to see the guard Ruby had first picked a fight with pointing them out to an elderly man in pale brown robes.

“Thank you.”

She waves them off in one last goodbye, and they turn from the barge that has been their home for just a few days. But as they do, two soldiers in pristine white clothes pass them, their military uniforms decorated with the sigil of the Relic of Creation.

Ilia pauses to look back at them, and Ruby follows her.

On their backs is the snowy emblem of the Schnee Dust Company.

“What are they doing here?” Ilia murmurs. And it’s not a question.

Her blue eyes flash with quiet rage.


The patriarch of the little village by Morgante survey them with an odd mixture of interest and dismissal when they’re introduced. “You’re telling me you’ve been allowed to traverse the desert? Outsiders, and not even fully trained huntsmen?”

“Uh…” Ruby says, taking half a step forwards and preparing herself to take responsibility for her team. “Yes. Professor Shahrazad deemed us capable enough of undertaking this mission as a team. Especially with Sun at our side, as he was born here.”

The patriarch’s eyes fall briefly on the monkey tail before they move to his face. Sun’s smile freezes just the slightest under his scrutiny. “Well, at least one of you looks… remotely capable.”

And Ruby wonders if she ought to say something. She’s been a team leader in combat for a few years, but she’s always been under the authority of somebody else. Even in Argos and Mistral, with Oz missing and her Uncle Qrow less than reliable, the adults had still handled other adults. And she doesn’t feel entirely old enough to retort in this kind of situation.

But before she can figure out what to say, the patriarch smirks. “It’s a daft undertaking this time of year,” he says, “but we’ll help you any way we can. The camels will be thrice the price, though, since it’ll be a miracle if you bring them back! ”

“What!” Ilia and Sun exclaim in immediate and theatrical outrage, Ilia’s freckles changing color momentarily to red. 

“That’s not how it usually works” “We’re buying them one way or another, so why should we have to pay more just because our success seems unlikely to you?”

“Fine. Twice the price.”

Sun opens his mouth to protest again, but Ruby halts him. “Deal.”

“Ruby, he’s ripping you off—“

“It’s fine,” she says, glancing up at him. “The Charon clan payed us well, anyway. There’s no need to argue over the price, so long as he’ll take them back when we return with them in good condition.”

When she glances at the patriarch again, he’s still smiling. “I’ll shake on that,” he says, offering her his hand.

“Now,” he continues, once the money has exchanged hands. “Why don’t you stay for the night, as well? You’ll need other supplies to handle the trip and the day is nearly over. I can show you to the inn, and my daughter can show your teammates who are such experts in the value of camels—“ he gestures at Sun and Ilia “—to have a look at your purchase.”

At his words, Neptune seems to perk up. “After that long boat trip I could use an extra walk,” he says, eyes already roaming the people behind the patriarch hopefully, “so I think I’d like to join the others to have a look the camels.”

Sun nudges him in the side with an elbow.

“Actually,” Ruby says, “if you don’t mind, I think we’ll all go put down our things in whatever lodgings you have available for us.”

The patriarch opens and closes his mouth. “Ah, but you don’t look to be carrying that much,” he says, glancing behind them at where the Schnee personnel are helping the clan loading the barge. “I’m sure you could accept whatever weapons and luggage your faunus friends don’t need.”

“No,” Oscar says, and steel has entered his voice so the rest of their team jump. But when they look at him he’s smiling. “I’ve never seen camels before, and I bet Ruby hasn’t either. So it’d be fun to have a look and learn a little about them before we have to travel on them.”

“Oooooh,” Ruby says, finding a smile she usually reserves for the promise of new weaponry, “Yes! That would be the best!”

The patriarch hesitates one last time, his smile falling entirely, as he glances back at the Atlas personnel again. But he sighs and directs them to follow him down the main street of the town.

The rest of the town, once they’ve put their things down, isn’t much different from what they’d first seen. It centers around a square with a well, and though there are locals, nomads, and plenty of camels in that square Ruby and Oscar share an unsettled look, reminded inescapably of the horrors of Brunswick Estates and the horrors of a single man who thought more of survival than the wellbeing of all those beneath him.

“Is it just me,” Ilia begins, “or are there no faunus here?”

And she’s right; when Ruby looks around again all she can see are human mothers watching out for their cheerful children, human soldiers in Schnee uniform, and humans huddled in the shadow between two buildings watching them go by in with sharp eyes.

“Oh!” their guide jumps at the comment and looks around, flustered, as if to prove her wrong, “Faunus come and go here. They don’t usually find much use here when there’s no crops to care for.”

“Use?”

Ilia and Sun share a look at the casual insult.

And perhaps their guide notices her mistake; she hurries to direct their attention to the camels, launching into a long speech on how to treat them, how to care for them. They spend the rest of the afternoon familiarizing themselves with the large animals and learning to ride them.

The activity leaves them overheated and exhausted. Though the temperature had risen slowly as they’d moved down river, being back on land had made it that much worse, burning even through their shoes from the earth itself, and Ruby is grateful for her aura.

But she isn’t the only one suffering from being back on land. Oscar stumbles off his camel, dizzy and clutching his head with one hand.

“Hey,” Ruby says, catching his free hand to steady him and rummaging for her water bottle, “are you keeping your aura—“

“That’s not it,” he cuts her off, “my head. Memories—“

Just ahead, Neptune gallantly gets in the way of their guide with his usual flirty smile, starting up a conversation to divert her attention. Ruby smiles gratefully at his back, before turning her attention back to Oscar.

“Memories? But I thought you only saw those in dreams.”

“Yes. No,” he says, leaning more heavily on her. “I— This is new… This place—”

He trails off, mouth bending painfully. And Ruby’s heart aches for him. It’s easy to throw with manticores or to place herself between him and their final enemy. Even blindfolded she could do it in a heartbeat, because it’s something she’s capable of doing. But the blight is messing with his and Oz’ connection, and she has no idea how to help him with this.

But as quickly as the pain had come, it fades away, and Oscar exhales heavily. His knees give way under him, and he sinks to the ground in an uncomfortable reminder of that day in the snow.

This time Ruby follows him down, still clutching his hand. She nudges his chin up, and it’s a relief to see his green eyes once more, crinkling at the edges.

“Is he okay?” their guide inquires, her attention caught in spite of Neptune and Ilia’s best efforts.

Ruby tightens her hold on Oscar’s arm instinctively. The relief she’d felt a moment ago vanishes at having been intruded on, but she finds a smile for the other woman nevertheless. “Yeah, his aura just gave way suddenly,” she excuses. “Is there a place we can all get something to eat and definitely something to drink?”

“Of course!”

Their guide turns her back to them to tie up the camels. Neptune and the others jump to aide her, and as soon as they have a moment of privacy Ruby’s smile falls again.

She slides her hand down Oscars arm to his hand and grasps it with that same attachment that had made her reach for him in the first place. “That scared me,” she murmurs, bowing her head and closing her eyes briefly.

But even as she does she can see Oscar kneeling helplessly in the snow, green eyes bright with the grief of the ages, not his own, and she throws her eyes open just to get away from it. The boy in front of her, equal to her, smiles bemusedly. The grief is still his burden to carry, but not the way she forced it on him, and not with a shattered heart where memories might harm him at any moment.

“If you’re scared I don’t know how I should feel,” Oscar jokes lightly. But his smile fades to something more demure and he bows his head to her. “But thank you for being there.”

Ruby tightens her hold on his hand. “Always.”

A smile breaks out on his face, bright and enchanting, his eyes dancing at a shared memory, his own memories, of that very vow on his lips not too long ago. And the beauty of the light Oscar radiates is enough to make it worth it, this attachment. Sweet and boyish, still, he makes it so easy to see the light in the world.

But the sound of claws, the movement of something black, steals her attention out of the corner of her eye, and Ruby’s heart skips a beat out of fear at the sight of a scorpion scuttling back into its corner not far from where they’d been sitting. Even though there’s no real danger.

The light dims just a little bit, all the darkness in the world returning at the reminder, and she glances back at Oscar, whose smile has vanished.

“What exactly did you see? In the memories?”

“War,” he replies hoarsely, glancing away and at the Atlesian soldiers exiting a warehouse not too far from where they sit. “And…. I don’t know. Cages.”


Ruby dreams of laughter echoing in an empty alley in Atlas. It cackles with glee as the light recedes and the Fall Maiden falls to her knees, her body more grimm than human turning to dust on the wind. The flame at her centre, now free to flee from its captivity bursts towards the sky, passing the laughing figure of Tyrian Callows sitting on a ledge, before it vanishes amongst the first stars in the night.

“Well, well, if it isn’t the little flower,” he croons, dropping to the ground and bowing theatrically.

The sight sends a cold chill of fear down her back that has nothing to do with the spring frost in Atlas.

Ruby takes an unsteady step back, away from him, raising her weapon once more with difficulty against an enemy she is in no way capable of handling after the fight with Cinder.

“My sincerest thanks, Miss Rose,” a deeper voice speaks, and she whirls stupidly away from Tyrian to face the man emerging from the shadows. “That woman was always a thorn in my side.”

“You’re not very loyal for somebody on the same side as Cinder,” she retorts, taking another step back in the hopes that her hood will shield Oscar from their notice.

Still knocked out from the fight, she can only hope that he remains that way long enough for her to find a way out.

“Oh, but we’re not on the same side, Miss Rose,” the man says, his mousy features splitting in a smile of cruel humor. “We’re all on our Mistress’ side, and our own, of course. But that doesn’t make us in each other’s side. Now, if you’d come with us, you’d make our jobs so much easier.”

“And what if I’d rather not?”

There’s a thundering beat in her ears, her own heart, fear consuming her until it’s difficult to think. And yet she still manages to hear the low beat of huge wings above them. A shadow passes over the alley, another following, and they all look up to see winged Beringels soaring in the sky.

Tyrian cackles.

“You could go with those,” the mousy man says, “they are your official ride, of course. But I imagine it’d be rather cold and uncomfortable.”

“Or,” Tyrian laughs, appearing beside her. “You could come with myself and Doctor Watts, here. If you do…”

He crouches over Oscar, a scorpion tail emerging slowly from under his long coat, metal catching the light of the faraway street lamps. It hangs over the boy’s head like a baby mobile, making him look smaller and more fragile than she’s ever seen him before.

“We won’t hurt him,” he finishes, his voice a mockery of a lullaby.

The image of her uncle Qrow, passed out from Tyrian’s venom flashes before her eyes. Ozma follows, turning to ash on the wind. And possessive rage burns in her veins, so Ruby swings her scythe in an arc directing her rifle at Tyrian.

The shot never hits him, and he cackles, but before he can retaliate Ruby replaces Crescent Rose against her belt. “Fine,” she says. “But I want a moment.”

She doesn’t stop to see if they’ll allow it, but simply kneels beside Oscar. She wants to know that he’s at least safe after Cinder’s last attack had knocked him out so thoroughly. Carefully she removes his glove and checks his pulse.

It’s still strong in his veins and Ruby sighs in relief, before sliding her arms around his shoulders and hugging him briefly. As she does, she feels him stir beneath her, muscles tensing briefly, until he recognizes her.

And that scares her more than anything else that day, that Oscar will wake properly and try to stop her. That he’ll get involved again.

“I’ll find a way back,” she promises quietly, “please make sure Yang doesn’t worry too much.”

“You know that’s impossible,” Oscar replies weakly.

Ruby pulls back just slightly to smile at him. “Please.”

He doesn’t even struggle to get up as she retreats to her feet, his body too sore to allow it, but he shakes his head, the grief overflowing in his green eyes, begging her to stay with as much fervor as she’s begging him to do the same.

Those eyes—green, an ancient forest from a world so long ago, full of promises—are the last thing she sees, before Tyrian knocks her over the head and she falls back to her knees.

She wakes very briefly as the two men drag her across the threshold to a dimly lit laboratorium. Flickering yellow lamps lying along the walls cut through the gloom to dye jars, gears and computers in sickly shades. Everything is kept in meticulous order on desks and shelves, but as they pass through the room, the thick layer of dust becomes apparent, only brushed away where it was necessary.

The world fades again, and the next time she wakes, Ruby is being dragged through another room, lit again by those flickering yellow lamps. But there’s another light here as well, pale and blue, from rows and rows of glass containers, filled with water. Figures reside within some of them; young women dressed in white hospital gowns, their hair flowing pale and lifeless in the water, and wires attached to their limbs.

Watts hums and pauses by one of them to study a small display at the bottom. “These are nearly drained,” he says, “I should replace them when we return.”

Tyrian cackles. “Pity you can’t use this one, eh?”

“Very much so,” Watts murmurs, peering down at Ruby and grinning when he sees her awake, “I’m sure Ironwood would pay handsomely for the aura of a Silver Eyed Warrior. But, alas, our Mistress has her own plans with you, Miss Rose.”

“You—“ Ruby’s voice cuts off, her throat tying itself into knots in horror. “You’re Penny’s father.”

His eyes crinkle in the mockery of familial affection. “Yes, that’s what she was taught to call me. Come on,” he adds to the people dragging her along.

Ruby struggles to stay conscious after that.

Penny.

Penny had an aura. Ruby had never questioned why. She’d hoped it’d been like with Pyrrha, with Oz; a dying person who’d already lost their life, given a new chance. A new opportunity to do good in another body.

But the women in the containers tell a different story, a much more terrible story, of what James Ironwood is capable of under the direction of his fear of Salem. Of what Atlas has allowed Watts to do to people.

They throw open a new door, and the faint scent of decaying flesh rushes out to meet them. Watts coughs and places a handkerchief above his mouth before waving his hand at one of his servants.

That servant hurries off to the side, and as he pushes a door closed, Ruby just catches the glimpse of a hand vanishing behind the wooden barrier.

When she diverts her eyes in horror, she’s instead greeted by the room; hospital beds in metal covered in single white sheets and huge computers line the room, working quietly. More bodies lie on those beds, lie attached to the monitors. But they’re not human, not really; their metallic eyes betray them for what they are; lifeless dolls.

Nausea catches in her throat and Ruby closes her eyes painfully as she heaves for breath, her body convulsing at all she’d seen.

Penny.

Penny had come from this. Her friend. Her bright, sunny, cheerful and overly trusting friend, who’d wanted nothing more than to help people. She’d been kidnapped and made into this, by the hands of Salem’s servants for no other purpose than to be killed, to cause panic.

And the pretty robotic women, the sweet girls, will be used for that very same purpose: to cause fear in the hearts of humanity, to tear them apart and make  it impossible for them to ever be made whole again.

“Miss Rose—“

“Don’t call me that!” Ruby snaps, struggling against her captors, lifting her head and glaring at Watts, uncaring that her eyes burn with tears.

The Atlesian scientist meets her without much sympathy and shakes his head. “Knock her out again. I can’t be bothered with this.”

Pain explodes in the back of her head, and blackness descends.

But it’s not entirely black. Instead it’s thick like mud and cold against her skin. The Fountain of Destruction embraces her once more, its darkness seeping into her eyes and stealing her light, penetrating even though her skin to her heart and soul.

And Ruby struggles futilely and alone.

Powerless.


Ruby sits up with a gasp, her heart racing. The warmth of the desert morning is clammy against her skin, and she stares off into nothing, unseeing and incapable of comprehending the nightmare.

She’s alive.

She’s safe.

She pulls her feet up and rests her forehead against her knees, grasping her ankles with enough strength that she can’t feel her fingers trembling. Once more she can feel the touch of destruction on her skin, its cool touch refusing to relinquish her even this close to the Fountain of Creation.

It doesn’t feel like she’s escaped it yet…

When she can’t stand it anymore, she stumbles up from her bed, her hand on her weapon in the corner, ready to go for a long walk, to escape what she can, the reminder, the night. But her eyes land on Oscar’s sleeping face.

Ruby pauses, racing mind distracted by a different thought.

Back under the protection of Shade, after barely escaping Salem there’d been no rest for either of them until they’d fallen asleep at one another’s side. It’d been so warm there, under shared covers, and there’d been no nightmares to plague her mind. Even that night on the barge, when they’d fallen asleep with the stars watching over them, there’d been nothing but memories of another’s past.

Ruby exhales a trembling sigh and drops Crescent Rose carefully back against the wall. She slides to the floor beside Oscar’s bed and watches him sleep, the soft smile gracing his lips like a balm on her heart. And she tries to imagine what kind of memory would make him smile so warmly, wonders if, if she closed her eyes now, she’d get to experience the past with him again.

Oscar shifts in his sleep and his hand slides out from under the covers, still dressed in his gloves.

The presence of the Sword of Destruction, though once again left at the far side of the room, is suddenly palpable.

His glove had turned black when he’d touched it, and the chaotic magic of that blade had seemed to spread no further than that garment. But since then he’s done his best not to touch another human being with his hands and—

The nightmares still haunt her like invisible ghosts, the horror of humanity, cages and women with a heart of metal and a soul stolen from innocence. And fear trembles across her skin, drives her to move, to act, even without permission.

Ruby holds her breath as she slides her fingers under the sleeve of his shirt, across thin muscle, grasping for the belt buckle keeping the gloves in place. In that space between morning and nightmare, she pulls down the glove to reveal the physical traces of the blight of destruction.

Black and purple patches mar his skin like a terrible burn. And it seems to grow and move with a life of its own, an illusion in the light, as she moves away, a breath of terror passing unheard between her lips. All the way from his palm, up his arm to his elbow.

Had it always been like this? Was he carrying all this on his own?

Tears slip silently down Ruby’s cheeks as she watches the destructive magic of the blight move under Oscar’s skin, radiating here and there with a nauseating purple glow.

It’s painful to look at, to reach for. But she’d promised Oscar that she wouldn’t let him carry everything by himself anymore, not the memories, nor the fear,n or the blight. It’s already stolen her light from her, she won’t let it steal Oscar, as well.

But as her hand grasps his and their skin touches, a blissful human contact, the darkness moves and travels, the blight spreading painfully into her skin. And the smell of sooth and blood wafts through the air, the battlefield suddenly clear before her.

Yells and screams permeate the air, humanity lost in the chaos of smoke and ash. Clashing and running, an enraged soldier passes straight through her to meet an opponent at her back. And in the middle of it all stands a man with tears trickling down his cheeks, his eyes glowing with green magic and his golden hair flaming in a single beam of sunlight, molding with the light of the Crown of Choice on his head.

But in his hand rests a sword as black as chaos, little orbs of magic circling his palm, and as he unsheathes it those orbs expand, dark plants growing with incredible speed up his arm. And lightning follows, flickering around his body as the King falls from grace.

And as he swings the Sword down at his enemies, at humanity, his eyes glow with that same dark intent of the God of Destruction, calamity all the power left in his hands.

And it’s all wrong this image. This is the man who saved them from war, who built the schools to ensure no war would ever break out again. This is the king who abandoned domination for the sake of democracy. This— this is Oz. And he’d fallen twice. He’d let the world create a distorted image of himself, one so pretty and bright that they could not see the chaos beneath it.  He’d allowed them all to craft a lie to hide a terrible truth.

Fear and horror at what Oz had done, at seeing it happen before her very eyes pushes Ruby back into the present. Her hand still clutches Oscar’s hand, refusing to let go, but she watches his expression, his warm face, pretty and round with boyish softness that hasn’t abandoned him yet. The blight touches their skin, connects them still to that calamity that had pushed another man to abandon all his ideals, to throw away his beliefs.

The Fountain had never really relinquished its grasp on either of them. It’d simply travelled with them wherever they went, slowly eating away at what makes them human.

 

 

Chapter Text

The shop vendor at the outdoors kitchen watches them take their seats with a mixture of relief and concern the next morning.

“I see you found all the supplies you need,” he observes, as he fills their mugs with tea, before procuring plates full of vegetables, boiled eggs and bread.

Oscar’s stomach growls with relish as the plate slides into place before him, and he flushes when Ruby hides her laugh with a gloved hand.

“Yeah,” she says, digging into her own food. “We’ve got food, water, tents, water, extra ammunition, dust lanterns, oh. And did I mention water?”

The old man chuckles. “You’re going to need it,” he says. “Where are you going, exactly?”

“Classified,” Sun, Ilia, and Neptune say in one voice.

“O-oh,” the vendor says, his face paling, eyes flickering nervously to something behind them as if he doesn’t know how to react to this.

That’s a rather extreme reaction, Ozpin observes.

“They’re joking,” Oscar says quickly, putting his bread down. “Professor Shahrazad simply wanted to give us a challenge, and hunting sandwhales is a good way to do that.”

He nudges Ruby with his knee under the table, and she doesn’t hesitate to add to his lie. As she smiles at the shop vendor, laughs and agrees with him that, yes, Headmaster Shahrazad is entirely daft, even for a person in charge of Shade Academy, the old man slowly begins to relax.

And when Neptune jumps in to rant about how she keeps forcing him to interact with water—not that he’s afraid of it—Oscar glances back over his shoulder to affirm what he’d already suspected.

The Atlesian soldiers that had bought food and supplies from the Charon tribe might have left to cross the desert back to the mines, but new soldiers have replaced them since. An entire battalion in pale blue clothes and old-fashioned weapons flicker into being as he watches the square behind them, traveling straight through the well.

Somewhere above their heads a crow squawks a warning.

And Oscar closes his eyes painfully in the hopes that when he opens them again they’ll be gone.

A hand falls, strong and steadying, against his spine, and it’s Ruby he sees when he does look up. Her skin has grown warm under the care of the sun and her blue eyes glow in the morning, bending kindly at the edges. A breath passes unheard between his lips as he looks up at her, demure and reverent, heart in his hands, caught in the beauty that is Ruby Rose.

Until he realizes he’s staring, and his face burns in a blush, so he quickly pulls away to dig more thoroughly into his food.

He doesn’t see the scorpion scuttling between his feet until it’s too late.

“Students from Shade? Really?” a man says, as he joins them by the counter. His voice trembles with unshed laughter, familiar and near mocking, so both Oscar and Ruby stiffen in their seats. “And here I thought at least two of you had already far surpassed the level of a student, defeating a Maiden so mercilessly.”

Oscar and Ruby slowly turn as one, to look up at the stranger. He tilts his head in mockery of a greeting so his hood falls down, and Tyrian Callows’s lips split in a predatory grin, white teeth flashing. His metal tail clicks, slowly emerging from under his hood, reflecting the light of the sun and hanging menacingly over their heads.

Oscar looks into the mad golden eyes of Salem’s most adoring servant and the world seems to still around them, the heat draining out of the air. The memory of Ruby dropping to her knees in front of him in the alley flashes before his eyes unbidden, and he’s out of his chair before he realizes what he’s doing.

“What do you want?”

“Merely what our goddess always wants, little prince,” Tyrian simpers, touching his heart, “the reassurance that her enemy, the cause of her eternal pain, is always alone in this world, without impassioned companions or sparks of hope. Although,” he adds, his golden eyes landing on Ruby, “the fountain seems to have taken care of that last part.”

“Then leave them alone,” Ilia says, stepping up beside Oscar, her skin flashing briefly with red. “What are you even doing working for somebody like that, somebody who used your fellow faunus as tools?!”

Tyrian hums, squinting down at her. “Well,” he says, pretending to consider her point, before poking her in the forehead with a finger, pushing her to take a step back, “unlike you, my dear, I am enlightened, and know that your little blood feud with the humans is entirely meaningless, and I don’t much care. All I care about is the divine being who is ever so pleased by your hatred.”

Somewhere inside Oscar’s heart, a part of him shrinks away at Tyrian’s words. It’s the part that still remembers four golden girls smiling in a palace built on the bones of a thousand suffering enemies, the part that still remembers spreading that kind of philosophy.

Humanity should never think themselves gods.

“Stop talking like that,” he says, controlling his voice and his temper as best he can. “She isn’t some goddess to be—“

And he suddenly has Tyrian’s full attention. “Oh, but she is a goddess to be revered,” he whispers, hovering over Oscar’s head, madness a flood of emotion, a physical force, so powerful it nearly overwhelms him. “And though you have forgotten that, little Oz, I’m sure you’ve not forgotten the feeling of such reverence.”

It’s enough to drive him back; like a punch in the gut, a subtle reminder of Salem’s words. Exposing his fears and twisting the knife where it hurts the most. And Tyrian smirks, his head tilting in silent victory before he barks a laugh, loud and braying in the silent air around them.

“Enough,” Ruby says, stepping between them. She places her hand on the counter, as if to block entry, but it trembles against the old wood, a subtle sign of fear. “Leave us alone—“

“Oh, but I can’t do that, little flower,” Tyrian cuts her off. “Your prince has something my mistress wants, and it would be such a pity if we couldn’t satisfy her every wish, don’t you think?”

As Ruby murmurs “we?” Tyrian leans back, throwing his arms wide with a theatrical flourish and laughs again. And their attention, so caught up in the immediate danger, returns to the world, to their surroundings as if zooming out with a camera lens. A dozen humans and faunus stand, waiting for that attention, with weapons in their hands and malice in their hearts.

Duck.

Oscar follows Oz’ direction without question, grabbing Ruby and Ilia’s wrists on the way down, just as several of Sun’s clones fly over their heads. The first vanishes against Tyrian’s block, but the next grabs him around the wrist and sends him flying across the square.

Salem’s henchman cackles, twirls in the air and directs his guns at them, so they have to scatter from the booth while the stall clerk yells and dives under the counter.

Chaos breaks out, a painful whiplash of confusion and disorientation, so Oscar has no idea where his teammates are, where Tyrian is. The inhabitants of the small river-side town have dived for cover, giving the huntsmen space to kill one another without intervening. All he knows is the enemy in front of him, and the surety, the fear in his heart for his friends, for humanity that has gone so far astray, and the heavy presence of the Relic of Destruction at his hip.

Oscar just barely ducks a knife directed at his face, grabs his attacker around her upper arm and uses the momentum of her attack to send her flying over his head so she lands on the other side of the square, crashing into an abandoned tent. And Oscar skids to a halt at the sight of what he’d done.

“Crap, I hadn’t meant—“ he begins, panicking. “Oz, how do I do this without killing somebody by accident?”

You haven’t been practicing restraint, comes the chiding reminder. And then a sigh. Well, I suppose you’ve mostly been facing Grimm, so you haven’t had the chance.

“This isn’t some practice match,” Oscar retorts.

The cackling laughter of Tyrian is the only warning he gets before he appears seemingly out of nowhere in front of him. “That’s certainly true,” Tyrian says, tail flying ahead of him.

Oscar just barely manages to block the blow from the tail, the green of his aura flashing and keeping the venom at bay. He tilts his arm, letting the stinger slide up and over his shoulder, before stepping in and directing a blow at the other man’s chest.

But his hand punches air, as Tyrian throws himself backwards, his foot instead catching Oscar in the stomach, breaking through his aura and sending him flying. The scorpion tail follows with heart stopping speed, up and up.

Before it can reach him, however, rose petals surround him like a tornado of red. A hand catches his and throws him into a state of nonexistence, twirling through the air and away from danger. But the laughter follows them across the square, their escape a futile extension of the inevitable, and as they re-materialise, Oscar steps desperately in front of Ruby, catching the first blow from Tyrian’s blade against his aura.

“How about you just be a good boy,” the older man says, his voice breaking on the diminutive, “and hand over that blade to me.”

And though he knows it’s a battle fought in vain, that Tyrian is so much more powerful than them, faster, larger, stronger, Oscar still stands his ground. “Never.”

Fear and fury are growing in his heart, like branches from a black plant, only present in the darkness, where the sun’s light is no longer infinite. If he can’t keep the Relic of Destruction at his side, Salem will regain what she’d slowly drained on her own, and humanity won’t stand a chance. Especially now that they are nearly alone in the world with the burden of Creation on their shoulders.

His arm throbs painfully.

The familiar sound of Crescent Rose going off pulls him out of his thoughts, and Ruby grabs his shoulder, somersaulting over Oscar and Tyrian, rose petals falling in her wake. She lands, twisting on her heel, and swings her scythe in a flash of red. But that, too, is blocked. Futile. Tyrian turns his back on Oscar momentarily to accept the blow of her scythe.

As he does, however, Ilia slides into his feet, knocking his balance over, and before he can retaliate, Oscar grabs him by the collar of his coat, materialising his aura to strengthen his body, and twirls in a circle before throwing Tyrian at the nearest building.

This time, when his enemy crashes straight through a wall, Oscar doesn’t regret seeing him go down. Fear and protective anger had empowered him and he has to brush the sense of satisfaction away, when half the roof collapses inwards. A cloud of dust erupts from the building as part of the structure topples over into darkness.

Oscar brushes away the branches from the sword, and holds out his hand for Ilia to take. “Thanks.”

Ilia grasps his hand and when she’s on her feet again she dusts off her knees to hide her smirk. “You’re welcome,” she says, winking at Oscar so he laughs in spite of himself.

Sun comes to a running halt beside Ilia to share a high five with her. “We’ll handle the creepy scorpion guy,” he says to Ruby and Oscar. “So deal with the rest out here, yeah?”

But Ruby swallows thickly at his words, lifting her hand to grasp thin air. “Uh… Sun.”

“Relax,” he says, grinning before she can begin to truly protest. “And trust us a little, will you?”

She glances at Oscar, blue eyes wavering with fear, so all he can do is offer her an encouraging nod. “Sun’s semblance is probably better against the tail, anyway,” he says, placing a hand against her arm in a sign of solidarity.

“Exactly!” Sun says, and slams his palms together, producing two glowing clones for Ilia. She grins and in a running leap catches the ground with her hands, cartwheels. When she lands with her feet in the hands of Sun’s clones, she’s thrust up, up, up into the air before gravity drags her down to be swallowed by the darkness, as well.

“Alright then,” Ruby says as Sun and Neptune follow in Ilia’s footsteps. She blows her fringe out of her eyes and places herself at Oscar’s back. “These should be easy pickings in comparison, so if things go wrong with Tyrian, we’ll be there to help soon.”

Around them, Tyrian’s henchmen slowly begin to circle them, rearranging their weapons and helping their allies to their feet, clearly thinking in the same tracks as Ruby.

“You call that trust?”

Oscar gets an elbow in the back for his cheek, and he turns his head to complain at her. But her smile is tense, her blue eyes focused on their enemies. “I just worry.”

“I know,” Oscar says. “Let’s get this over and done with, then.”


But they’ve barely exchanged blows with their first opponent before Salem’s henchmen begin to retreat, falling back to the desert, and vanishing among the sand dunes.

Ruby and Oscar follow them to the edges of the village, coming to a halt at the vast golden majesty of the desert.

“They should be fairly easy to track,” Ruby begins, pointing to the footsteps they’d left behind in the sand.

No, Oz’ voice contradicts in the back of Oscar’s head. They’ll be able to see us coming, and we’ll be easier to ambush. It’s better to regroup and stay with your team.

Ruby frowns as Oscar relays the message, but nods. Her eyes stray to the desert thoughtfully, eyebrows knitting. “I suppose that means we’ll be able to see them coming, as well,” she murmurs.

But her fingers tighten around Crescent Rose, her knuckles growing white, and when she turns her back the bloody red of her hood hides her expression.

Whether or not their team manages to handle Tyrian—and Oscar doubts they’ll be able to—Salem will soon know where they are and what they’re carrying. She’ll know that the Fountain of Destruction can steal away the powers of a Silver Eyed Warrior, that Ruby is at her most vulnerable now, and that she doesn’t even have to send humanity to cause her harm anymore.

And it’s no coincidence that she’d sent Tyrian to track them down; the one of her henchmen that Ruby can’t hide her fear of, the one person faster than her, more lethal.

Even Cinder hadn’t terrified her to this degree.

“Ruby—“

Oscar begins, reaching for her hand.

But his arm throbs violently, pain scattering through his entire body, so he halts. Catching his breath. Paralyzed. And he never reaches her.

Fire crawls slowly up his arm from his palm across his skin and up over his elbow, and he closes his eyes. He grasps his wrist, fingers digging painfully into skin and bone through the cloth of his black glove, and he fights to pull it down.

The pain subsides as quickly as it had come, and Oscar heaves a sigh of relief. So when Ruby turns around a moment after he’d called her name, her eyebrows raised, he can find a smile for her.

“Sorry, I just—“ he grasps for something to say, anything. And finishes lamely, “how did you think I did today?”

His wrist feels heavy in his hand, and his heart is full of fear. It’s not really a lie, right? She doesn’t need to know, since they’re going to the Fountain, anyway. She’d cried so much at the first symptoms, knowing that his soul had been cracked and shattered under the caress of destruction. She’d blamed herself for the confusion and fear it’d caused him. She doesn’t need to know the blight has taken a physical form, as well.

There’s still plenty of time left.

But Ruby is still frowning. She opens her mouth to say something, then closes it again. Finally, she says “were you able to keep protecting yourself against the heat in spite of the fact you were being distracted by other things?”

Oscar exhales a quiet sigh, body relaxing under the rush of relief. “Yes, I— I think I was able to do that,” he says, thinking back to the battle. “I didn’t even have to focus on it.”

And finally she smiles again, bright and beautiful, eyes softening at the edges. “Well done,” she says, voice full of quiet pride, happiness for him overflowing. “If you can fine-tune your aura like that, and use it instinctively, any technique you try from here on out should be easy to maintain.”

And that, too, is a relief. Is a balm on his heart so that he can laugh when she says “I still think you need a weapon, though.”

“No thanks,” he says, catching up to her, “I’ll find more ways to fine-tune and use my Aura. Since there’s so much of it, anyway.”

Ruby grins and nudges him with her elbow. “Show-off.”

“Ah!” he says, halting and waving his hands, “I’m sorry, I didn’t—“

“Relax,” she says, touching her hand to his shoulder to pause his movements, “I’m not Maria or Shahrazad. As far as I’m concerned, showing off is a good thing.”

“Maybe that’s why you do it so often,” he teases.

And to his surprise, Ruby’s face flushes at his words. “What— no, I don’t!”

“Didn’t you just say showing off is good?”

“Well— I mean, yes,” she says, eyes looking anywhere but at Oscar, “but— What I do just… it’s just what I’m able to do.”

“And sometimes what you’re able to do looks a lot like showing off.”

Perhaps he’s getting ahead of himself, perhaps this feels like an excuse to compliment her, veiled though it is. He’s found a way to express how admirable and amazing she is, while still hiding what he feels. And seeing her fluster and flounder anyway, attempting to sidestep the compliment, feels like an accomplishment in itself.

“Incinerating giant wyverns, turning leviathans to stone, convincing old military officials to change their way of thinking,” he lists off on his fingers.

Before he can say anymore, she jostles him with her elbow. “Why does this conversation feel so familiar?” she complains. “Oh, that’s right! You weren’t on my side on the way to Atlas, either!”

“I’m always on your side,” Oscar says. He halts again to emphasize his words, to smile at her, heart in his hands; the hope that the unwavering loyalty he feels towards her radiates from his expression. “Even when you’re not even on your own side. Always.”

And Ruby’s looking at him. Looking with the soft light of the stars, as if she can see more than he gives away, unafraid and steady, like she might never look away again. And the smile she offers him in response is enough, honey bleeding inside his ribcage and swallowing his heart whole.

“I—,” she begins, stepping into him and grasping his hand, cloth separating the human touch. And though the blue of her eyes should remind him of guilt and pain, of lost hopes and broken spirits, all he sees is the freedom of a sky vivid and wonderful, freedom the wind under white wings, and the vast peaceful world surrounding them.

But a cough cuts them off, violent and painful, dragging them down to earth and tearing them apart.

The outskirts of the village are made up of small tents usually used by nomads in sandstorms, the tired old cloth just barely keeping the sun at bay, cooking pots and utensils abandoned here. But one of the tents at the border between the outskirts and inner city, the last tent before the clay houses begin to take its place, has its flap pulled up.

In the fray the sand has scattered and most tracks had been run over, but straight lines lead from the village and to that house, and…

“That’s definitely blood, isn’t it?” Ruby murmurs.

“Yeah.”

It’s impossible not to recognise, not when he has so many memories of this place, this desert, swallowing the red mark of death.

Ruby hurries past him, humanity always at the forefront of her mind, and she doesn’t hesitate to dive into the shadow of that tent.

Oscar swallows thickly, the vision of a body falling outside that tent decades ago, an arrow in his back blocking his path. But he brushes his hand over his eyes and steels his heart to follow her.

Under the shadow of the tent lies half a dozen Atlesian soldiers, the pristine white of their uniforms soiled with blood from wounds, deep and ruthless, meant to kill in the most painful manner imaginable. Their blue eyes stare lifelessly up at them from broken bodies, seeing nothing but the darkness of death.

Only one of the soldiers has been left alive, the wound just beneath his heart draining him quickly of life, and Ruby doesn’t stop to reassure him that he’s alright, simply turns back and vanishes back out the way she’d come. And though Oscar can hear her voice calling for a doctor or a healer, he stands, paralyzed, inside the tent so full of death.

He’s seen death before. His parents, the people in Brunswick estates, soldiers in Atlas. Cinder. But no matter how many times he encounters it, it never stops from draining his heart of hope and willpower so he can do nothing but stare at the scene before him, without being able to do anything, at all.

It flashes before his eyes, vanishing, replaced by other images. Grimm. Soldiers. Battle. Innocents. Starvation. Blood on his hands that can never be washed off. The endless raging of war, ash and dust and sand whirling up and stealing humanity away, far away. A woman in his arms, her fiery gaze extinguished, leaving nothing but barren brown.

Excruciating pain rushes from his heart, stealing his sight and hearing, so Oscar gasps. He falls to his knees by the bodies of the fallen, grasping his chest and digging his fingers into his skin, through his shirt.

Grief and sorrow and rage consumes his mind, and he can’t see, can’t hear, can’t feel the world around him.

Oscar!

What’s happening? Why does it hurt so much? Why does it feel like he lost something so precious?

Blackness seems to grip at his soul and body, like vines pulling him deeper and deeper into that pain, until his entire body is throbbing, agony all that is left of him.

Oscar!

A hand grasps his shoulder and shakes him. Ozma’s voice cuts through his mind with difficulty. And as Oscar looks up, tears falling from his eyes, as he throws them open, the golden spirit in front of him flickers, changes form again and again, until the King of Vale sits before him instead.

Don’t lose yourself to the chaos of my memories, he urges, face strained as if to keep the burn from consuming his soul, as well. Focus on what you can do now to change it.

And it doesn’t lessen the pain that burns through his body, but it directs his attention away from himself, back on the suffering of the person in front of him.

Oscar pulls his hand free of the Relic’s grasp, the black veins shattering like coal around his arm, and he digs his fingers into the sand, pulling himself forwards on his knees once more.

“What… happened?” he croaks to the soldier. And then he shakes his head. “No. Listen. My friend is looking for help, you’re going to be okay.”

The soldier cracks a smile of ironic humor. “No desert dweller is going to be able to help me now,” he says, voice as dry as Oscar’s.

“You don’t know that!” Oscar argues uselessly. “There might be somebody with a semblance—“

He cuts himself off sharply, the rest of his phrase slamming against the back of his teeth, as he realizes what he’d been about to say.

Oz. Could I—?

But before the old wizard can respond, a coughing fit captures hold of the soldier. He convulses violently, blood soaking his uniform with dizzying speed. And though Oscar does his best to restrain him, he knows it’s already too late, that his life is slipping away and there’s nothing he can do.

“My wound,” the soldier says, grasping Oscar’s arm, his eyes bright with the last of his spirit, with a warning, “nobody that excited about death could miss my heart unless it was on purpose. I was left alive like this for a reason.”

He holds Oscar’s gaze, a soldier doing his duty to the last, before his eyes flutter closed in the gloom. His hand slips away.

Death.

Oscar has never seen life slip away like that, like sand between his fingers. Running out in a way that reassures him there’s nothing he could do, no action he could’ve taken. The people in Brunswick had died long before they’d been found, his parents, too, had been attacked out of reach. And Cinder had simply fallen apart like dust on the wind, her human soul departed long ago. Sorrow had always accompanied those moments, but he’s never felt so powerless before.

It leaves him with a disembodied feeling of loss, as if he’s just a shell. As if there’s somehow less of him.

In the back of his mind, the pieces slowly come together. They’d been followed. Salem’s people had found them, had planned their attack so there would be no one to stop them from getting to Ruby and her Team. To the Relic. And even if they’d be outmatched unexpected, they’d planned it so their escape would be easy to accomplish enabling them to regroup and plan their next move.

Oscar scrambles to his feet, and sprints out of the tent, never looking back at the death he leaves behind.

People are beginning to emerge from their hiding places, surveying the damage of the battle, and congregating as a result in the square. Oscar weaves in and out between them, barely noticed. There’s no anger on their faces, only an obvious discomfort, their attention directed on the large warehouse that Tyrian had fallen through, fear and shame intermingling.

In the back of his mind, Oz sighs the sigh of the ages.

Even in the confusion and the tension in the air, it’s easy, as always, to locate Ruby in the crowd. She’s standing by the old man left in charge of the village, and is the only one not focusing her attention on the warehouse behind her.

Oscar skids to a halt at her side, and she stops what she’s saying when she catches his expression. “What’s wrong?”

“The soldier,” Oscar begins. “He’s—“

CRASH!

The door from the warehouse flies off its hinges and topples to the ground, creating another plume of dust. Sun, uncaring and eyes glowing with fury, charges out through the front door straight at them.

“You know,” he says, grabbing the patriarch by the front of his robes and pulling him forwards, “I’m not usually much of a nationalist, but I thought we were all a lot better than those assholes from Atlas.”

The old man flounders in alarm, his feet dangling off the ground. “I— I have no idea what you’re talking about!” he protests futilely.

“Oh, really?”

Without ceremony, Sun turns on his heel and drags the old man back across the square and dropping him unceremoniously in the doorway to the warehouse. “Then I guess I’m supposed to believe the largest building in town just happens to be full of caged faunus without its elder knowing about it?”

Oh no.

Ruby and Oscar share an alarmed look.

“I—“ the patriarch looks around wildly for something to grasp on to. An excuse. “You’re wrong. They’re not caged. It’s— it’s a prison. They’re criminals!”

“Funny how every criminal just happens to be a faunus,” Ilia says, as she emerges from the darkness of the doorway. Her voice is calm and her skin pale brown, but even from a distance it’s clear she’s having trouble containing her rage. “Funny how there’s not a single faunus who isn’t a criminal in your little village, and how there’s such a presence of Atlesian soldiers in Schnee employ here.”

“Right,” Sun says, “it almost seems more likely that you were selling us as slaves to the dust mines.”

There’s a ripple of discomfort in the crowd around them at his words. Feet shuffling. Whispers. It’s easy to harm others, to convince yourself you’re not doing anything wrong, when you don’t put words to what it is you’re doing. It’s easy to fall to the temptation of doing harm, so long as you close your eyes to the sympathy you feel for the other person. So long as everybody around you close their eyes, as well.

It’s quite different when you’re confronted with it.

And while the patriarch now casts around for somebody to come to his aide, nobody seems eager to even meet his eyes.

In the silence that follows the declaration, Ruby grabs Oscar’s hand, transporting them across the square, roses falling like a splatter of blood in their wake.

The smell of decay and rot hits their noses as they rematerialize on the border to the darkness of humanity. The warehouse towers before them, three floors high, its middle left open all the way up. Instead of proper floors, hallways follow all the way around the open space along the walls, lined with metal cages.

And although faunus only inhabit the cages of the bottom floor, beaten and battered, left to starve where they are, the shadows of bone protruding through their skin, it is still a horrific inhuman sight. Their eyes left so long to the dark, they have to protect themselves from the sun, with arms thin and weak.

Ruby places her hand over her mouth and stares in open horror up at the signs of cruelty, but Oscar feels the jaded exasperation of too many lifetimes weigh down on his mind.

It’s not new, this hatred. It’s old and ugly, and they’ve seen it so many times the memories blur.

Behind them the patriarch is yelling for the soldiers, for order to reinstate itself. Control. And Oscar turns away from the old man’s cruelty to crouch by his side.

“They’re not coming.”

The old man freezes, his head slowly turning to Oscar. “…what?”

“The Atlesian soldiers you’re desperately hoping will save you from the consequences of your actions,” he says, “are dead. They were killed by the man who attacked us here today.”

A distraction. Like this cage had become.

The patriarch’s eyes grow wide with horror at his words, but as quickly as his panic had come, it subsides. His eyes flicker away from Oscar and then back on his face again. “N—No matter,” he stammers. “More will come.”

There’s a rush of rage, not entirely his own. “I hope you realize,” Oscar says, quiet voice echoing, his mind and thoughts suddenly imbued with a will he recognizes but doesn’t belong to. “That the act of slavery was abolished after the war, and that the consequences for breaking my laws are not easy to bear.”

Beacon. Haven. Atlas. All those sacrifices made, all the hard work of generations. Of students and teachers. Humanity at its best. Now this. All that good is being torn down before his eyes again.

And he sees it in the old man’s eyes, the greed and hunger for power. The self-righteous conceit that will drive him to argue his case forever, until even Oz can’t handle his words anymore.

He splutters. “And what exactly do you intend to do with me?”

“Enough, grandfather!” A woman steps forwards finally, but it is not for the old patriarch’s sake. Not even for her own. “He’s right.”

The old man’s head swivels around in the direction of her voice, and Oscar gets to his feet.

The woman who’d shown them around the day before faces the old patriarch with dry eyes, guilt trembling through her expression and voice, no fear of the old man’s fury remaining there as perhaps it had done before.

“How dare—“ the old man looks around at the people who had served him, at their sudden emergence of morality and empathy, the recognition that what they had done, what they had endorsed, was the wrong thing. “How dare you. This is the reason we can survive the desert. We need this agreement with the Schnee mines or we perish! I’ve taken care of you all this time, thanks to—“

“No,” a man says. “We got along just fine before the mines began their work in our desert. We survived on our crops. It was a harsher existence, but—.”

“We can do so again,” the granddaughter says.

And just like that they rob the old man of his voice, of his ability to fight for his cruel cause. And he turns his face down, turns his attention back to Oscar in defeat. “What exactly would you have me do?”

“That,” he says, the King’s emotions slowly evaporating from his mind, “is not for me to decide. It is their choice.”

He steps aside to give room to the faunus Ruby and Neptune had been working to release, giving way as they support one another on trembling feet, free as they should’ve always been. And as they tower over the old man, they seem all at once formidable and majestic.


Afterwards there’s a rush of activity. While the patriarch gets dragged away to who-knows-where, Sun and Ilia take charge in directing the villagers to help the mistreated faunus. They’re both still trembling with the experience, but they keep their emotions in check, focusing instead on what they can do to help those around them.

See, Ozma reminds him gently, it only takes a few people to cause harm.

“They were all very eager to keep it from us, though,” Oscar retorts. “Even the Charon clan probably knew what they were doing here.”

The matriarch’s words to Ilia seem to have been given new meaning now, and her decision to move on as quickly as they’d done seems to fit the picture, as well.Survival is the rule of our land here, and we don’t always get to decide how, so we know when to keep our questions and opinions to ourselves. But you aren’t caught in the web of that restriction, are you, Miss Amitola?” 

He shakes his head and leans back against the door, letting the shade of the little entrance he’d found to hide in pass over him. From there he can watch over the work of the villagers without being noticed, giving himself a moment to breathe in quiet and mull over everything that had happened.

We can’t hold the people responsible for what their leaders convince them to do, the King of Vale insists. That way we’d never stop fighting each other, and killing our enemies. They made the right choice in the end.

It’s a reminder, a horrible one, that their goal, their mission, is to find common ground between all people. Right now, with the ghosts of an endless war walking between the lines of present cruelty, that feels more impossible than ever before.

“That doesn’t erase the suffering these people caused to those that couldn’t be saved, though.”

The sigh that flutters through his mind in responds is not a disagreement.

“Found you,” Ruby trills as she sits down in the nook beside him. She drops a medicinal bag at their feet and nudges him with her elbow. “I was wondering where you’d gone off to.”

The tiny doorway leaves just enough space for them both, shoulders pressed together in natural companionship. And being at her side again after all that’d happened that morning, safe and idle, is a relief, is a burden off his shoulder, calming his raging mind, roses distracting him from the ghosts and the phantoms. It’s so much easier to smile now.

But this close he can’t hide the way his cheeks burn or his heart skips in his chest.

“Ah, I—“ he begins, scratching the back of his neck in an attempt to hide the flush in his cheeks, “I couldn’t really figure out where I’d be useful, so I thought  it’d be better not to meddle where Sun and Ilia clearly know what to do.”

Ruby hums, but doesn’t say anything else.

She leans back and lifts her head to stare up at the sky, her eyes reflecting the endless blue. “I searched for Tyrian,” she says finally. “But as expected he’s completely vanished.”

“Oh.”

She shifts uncomfortably beside him once more, fingers clutching each other in her lap. “I’d hoped that Salem would have thought us dead,” she confides quietly. “That on this journey we wouldn’t have to worry about being hunted.”

And it occurs to Oscar how rare it is that she should share her thoughts without prompting, how uncharacteristic it is of her to confide the burden of her thoughts and emotions to anybody. The fear of being haunted forever by Salem’s shadows is not new to him, is a constant in his own mind, the voices of the past relentless. Ruby would be no different, having lost her mother to the tragedies of hatred, having seen the evidence everyday in Maria’s missing vision; her crippling fear of being found again, of losing more than her sight, contagious.

“Someday,” he promises, grasping her hands in solidarity and gently nudging them apart, intertwining their fingers. “They won’t always be able to track us.”

Ruby’s squeezes his hand. “Someday we’ll be able to turn around and face them, knowing we have the strength to win.”

Oscar exhales a laugh at the reminder of her reckless soul, so different from his own caution. Of course, Ruby wouldn’t want to spend her life running from hiding place to hiding place. It’s a comfort.

“And now that I have your hand,” she says, lifting it up and twisting it in her grasp, forcing him to stretch his arm. “I’m going to have to ask you to strip.”

What?!

Oscar’s voice breaks, his face flushing in embarrassment at her words, and he fights to pull back, to pull away from her.

But Ruby holds her hand steady and refuses to relinquish her hold on him. “Sorry,” she says, laughing, “I just meant your shirt. Let me see your arm.”

It isn’t a relief. His heart still trembles in his chest. He doesn’t want her to know the blight has manifested on his body, he doesn’t want her to touch it or to worry about it. She has plenty of other things to think about, and there’s still time…

“You’re not very nice,” he says instead, mellowly looking up at her through his fringe.

“And you’re stalling,” Ruby counters, seeing through him in an instant. “Come on, Oscar. You were clutching it earlier. If Tyrian hurt you, you can’t just let it stay that way.”

So she hadn’t seen…

“Ah, no!” he says, waving his free hand. “I’m fine, I promise. You were manhandling me a moment—“

But the blight, as always, is not on his side, and it throbs painfully, crawling up his arm like knife blades carving him open. Up and up, until it reaches his heart. He gasps with it, the agony pulling him forwards, and he clutches his chest in a futile attempt to make it stop.

Far away, he can hear Ruby exclaiming his name in surprise and concern. Far away, he can feel her hands on his arm, on his shoulder. Brushing away his fringe.

And looking into her eyes now, into that endless blue, is an agony of guilt and loss and fear. It’s my fault. A woman’s smile flashes before his yes, eyes closed with blissful joy, before they open to blood and ash and the rage of the world, but seeing none of it. It’s all my fault. Battlefields and broken arenas. Wyverns and leviathans. A black blade in his hands, returning thousands to oblivion. I can never make up for it.

Oscar tightens his hold on Ruby’s hand and closes his eyes. The King of Vale is right; he can’t let himself get consumed by thoughts and emotions that aren’t truly his. He has to find his way back. 

But he remains trapped in a world without a clear path, without a true direction, only the evidence of all he has to change to surround him and weigh him down. And the pain recedes before he can figure out the way back, the path to breaking the cycle.

He exhales heavily through his nose and lets both his hands fall into his lap.

Cool fingers brush along the bandages around his neck, grasping his jaw and gently urging him to look up, to meet Ruby’s eyes full of blue sorrow.

“Let me see.”

This time Oscar doesn’t fight her. With trembling fingers he pulls his shirt free from the ties around his middle. Ruby helps him pull it over his shoulder, revealing the black and purple magic polluting his body and soul. It crawls all the way from his right arm across his chest to his heart, from which it will soon spread its reach even further.

“It’s grown again,” she whispers. Her eyes swim in unshed tears, incapable of looking away from the terror of the blight.

“How did you know?”

Oscar carefully picks her hand from his shoulder, skin too close to the chaos marring his body. Ruby follows the movement, before cracking a humorless smile. “I was afraid, so I checked,” she admits. “I’m sorry for invading your privacy.”

“That’s okay, I’m used to it by now,” he quips, but mellows when she gives him a look, and adds “I didn’t want to worry you, and there’s still time.”

Somehow it feels like a lot to give away, something heavy he didn’t want to burden her with. It’s an attachment he doesn’t know how to handle, one that is both selfish and selfless. And because he doesn’t know how to look at her as he gives away another part of his heart, another truth, he dedicates his attention to pulling his shirt back on instead.

“You worry about me, too,” she chides him, “so I’m going to return the favor whether you like it or not. We keep each other safe, right?”

And in spite of their situation, in spite of everything, that little nugget of determination gives him courage to meet her blue gaze and smile. “Of course.”

Chapter Text

 

A white butterfly basking in the desert sun, flutters its wings and takes off at at the rumble of the desert floor, sand shifting in a new direction as it leaves the ground behind. It circles the little caravan of huntsmen and huntresses, overtaking them and vanishing somewhere in the eternal blue of the sky above them.

There is no path out here, in the middle of nowhere, and no GPS signal to lead them. The deceptive calm of the desert hides the way sand grains slowly shift on an imperceptible wind, like the track of time in an hourglass. Even the sun’s slow movement through the sky, which ought to remind them of the comforts of the days passing, changes the landscape: shadows move across the sand, illusions dance along the horizon, and always they seem to be turning the wrong way.

The journey to the middle of the desert should take them a little less than a month, with supplies to last them the fifteen days through desert lands, until they reach the wild oasis surrounding the fountain. And only Sun’s experience with reading the map of the stars will keep them on that path all the way, a captain on a ship always in danger of being thrown forever into the ocean of dry flames that is the golden sands of Southern Sanus.

Most of those early days, however, he spends arguing with Ilia.

“—not that far from here, you said so yourself!”

Sun’s tail flicks angrily, and Ruby swears she can hear him growling from all the way in the back. “Yeah, but we don’t have enough food or water to make the detour,” he retorts. “Which would be the least of our problems if we did. We’ve still got Salem’s people on our heels, and they would jump at an opportunity to attack us during a rescue operation.”

Ruby curls her fingers around the reigns and lowers her eyes guiltily from her arguing friends. She still doesn’t know how to handle these situations, even though she’s the leader and ought to be able to mediate at the very least by now. Compromises are important, but this time there’s so much more at stake than the peace amongst their friends. And she feels partially responsible for holding them back.

“You’re not going to stop them?” Neptune whispers from her right.

“I don’t see you making an effort either,” she retorts as quietly.

Ahead of them Ilia snaps “What, so you’re not even going to attempt to find a way for us to accomplish both?”

Oscar sighs from her right. “I think we can all recognize that it isn’t our place to make that choice for them,” he says, “all we can do is support them, once they’ve found their own way.”

As he watches them with mellow green eyes, his fingers dig subtly into his arm, and Ruby swallows thickly at the sight.

He’s becoming as good at lying to himself as Oz.

“Look, it’s not like I’m not as angry as you are,” Sun says, his voice trembling with the effort it takes to keep a reign on his emotions. “But we made a promise to Oscar and Ruby, and it’s impossible for us to accomplish both goals at the same—“

He cuts himself off abruptly, pulling the reigns on his camel to let the others catch up with him. Tense and quiet he seems the only entity left in the desert.

“What’s wrong?” Oscar asks, eyes following Sun’s along the desert floor. They’re standing in the middle of a valley, the wind having swept gentle ridges along the sand for leagues before it rises in hilly waves once more, cutting off the sight of the horizon. There is no wind here to howl in their ears; only silence, the illusion that the air itself has vanished, that they’re the only life left between earth and sky.

But Sun’s hair slowly rises, his eyes fierce with impending danger. “Hear that?”

And then, slowly they hear the rumble of the desert, the very earth purring.

“Sandwhales,” Sun says. He dismounts quickly and produces his staff. “Quick. We don’t have much time. They’ve already heard us.”

Without question Neptune follows suit, producing his weapon as he descends. Ruby, Ilia and Oscar quickly follow their example, and they leave the animals behind, knowing that Grimm have never cared about wildlife since Salem began commanding them, but that it would be all too easy to lose them by accident to fear or fray.

As they make it across the desert floor the noise increases, the desert floor rumbling.

“Okay, hold on,” Ruby says, hurrying to fall into step with  Sun. “We need some kind of plan, Sun. We don’t have these up north. What can we expect? What are its weaknesses? What are its strengths? What’s the usual strategy when huntsmen meet these?”

“Shit!”

Sun comes to an immediate halt. “Sorry, I forgot,” he grimaces at his own impulsivity.

“Uh, Ruby—“ Oscar begins behind them, his voice nearly drowning out by the growling of the earth.

The world trembles under their feet, as if they’re standing in the middle of an earthquake. Cracks split the ground apart underneath the sand so it falls away in a long line moving straight towards them.

“Spread out!”

Ruby scatters, a tornado of rose petals speeding along the ground, only to re-materialise briefly to direct Crescent Rose at the ground, shooting herself straight up for the perfect vantage point as the sandwhale breaches the sand, emerging in full form in the air, sand and earth and rocks flying everywhere in its wake.

It’s enormous and majestic as a blue whale, but far more intimidating and that much more ugly than anything Ruby could have imagined. It’s black scales run across its back and sides, replaced by a softer white hide covering its stomach. From huge fin at its back pure white bones as thick as the trunk of an ancient tree protrude. Shorter, but sharper bones accent its tail, sticking out three above the spine and three below. And its tiny red eyes survey the ground for prey from a head that takes up a third of its ultimate size, its mouth a void decorated with lines of teeth as large as Ruby herself.

She only allows herself a moment to admire the horrific, unnatural sight, before she directs Crescent Rose at it, firing at the hide below its fins in the hope that the bullets will penetrate with more ease.

They do, but with seemingly no effect. Instead, the noise of her gun catches the sandwhale’s attention and it turns its body, still in the air and dives in Ruby’s direction.

“Uh, guys! Could use some help here!”

She scatters again, gravity pulling her back towards the ground, where she zigzags out of the way, the sandwhale hot on her heels. It swims just below the surface of the ground, sand moving out of its way, all with dizzying speed.

“Big mistake!”

Ilia and Neptune slide into position ahead of Ruby, and as she comes close she re-materialises again to propel herself upwards. And the sandwhale follows her up, up, up, its jaws opening below her, ready to swallow everything that gravity drags down for it.

But Sun’s clone of light meets her in the air, catching her hands and swinging her out of harm’s way.

Below them, the sandwhale crashes disappointed to the ground, turning its head instead to Ilia and Neptune.

Neptune twirls his gundao, reducing it to its rifle size and blasting it with grenades full of electricity. Ilia emerges from the dust, jumping straight onto the muzzle of the monster and stabbing the point of her sword into its eyes in an attempt to electrocute it.

The sandwhale roars with rage and rears up, throwing Ilia off of it in the process.

“Big mistake!” Sun howls as it dives back underground. “It’s grounded, you idiots! Now it’s just angry!”

This time, the sandwhale, seeming to catch Sun’s voice from underground, charges at him instead of his attackers, moving ever swifter and with more deadly intent. And in a running leap, Ilia just barely manages to push him out of the way before it catch him, so its mouth cuts through the ground, right by them and away from their group.

“Well, what else were we supposed to do?” she snaps when they’re out of immediate danger.

“I don’t know,” he retorts, in exasperation, “you could’ve not stabbed it in the eye.”

“I was trying to blind it!”

“It doesn’t need to see!”

“Well, you could’ve told us that sooner!”

They get so caught up in their argument that they barely notice the sandwhale, attracted by all the noise they’re making, turning back to charge at them, its jaws wide open to swallow them whole.

“Sun!”

“Ilia!”

Oscar grabs hold of the whale’s tail and miraculously manages to slow it down, digging his heels in and holding on for dear life, his aura flickering green over his whole body.

Ruby and Neptune don’t hesitate or pause to question the impossible. Instead they manage to grab hold of their two friends and drag them out of the way, as Oscar’s feet give way and the sandwhale drags him off, screaming.

“You two,” Neptune snaps. “Start being friends again immediately. Or at least put aside your disagreement during battle! We won’t get anything done, if—“

Ruby doesn’t stick around to hear him scolding Sun and Ilia. She scatters into a tornado of rose petals, following in the wake of the sandwhale and Oscar, heart in her throat. She doesn’t know what happens to the ground the sandwhale leaves behind, and she doesn’t trust Salem not to have pulled some nasty spell that closes the ground right behind it. Even if she hadn’t the sand would do the job for her.

But she doesn’t have to worry. The whale flips its tail upwards right before it dives back down underground, sending Oscar high into the air.

Aaaaaaaaa!

And as he comes plummeting down, Ruby catches him in a flurry of green and red. The addition of Oscar’s Aura gives her the extra boost to fly against the pull of gravity and back up into the sky, back towards their friends.

“Ah!” Oscar stumbles as they land, his hand catching his chest, and he exhales heavily. “Please, warn me next time.”

And somehow Ruby can’t help but grin. “You’re the one who let go.”

He twists his head quickly to glower up at her. “I didn’t have a choice!”

“Aww,” she pouts theatrically, “and here I thought you trusted me to have your back and be there to catch you.”

Oscar opens his mouth to argue against her cheek, but then her words seem to register. A late response. A vow she’d been interrupted from returning. It’s been weighing on her mind these past few days, Oscar’s words, his steadfast dedication and incompliant loyalty. But now she gets to tell him in her own way, subtle and yet stubbornly natural as her emotions have become.

She’d found a way to tell him that he’s allowed to take her strength for granted.

They share a smile.

Somewhere, far in the back, they can still hear the Sandwhale rumbling underground, regrouping.

“What are we going to do about that thing?” Oscar wonders.

“Good question,” Ruby says before turning to Sun. “Other than noise and being grounded against electricity, what can you tell us about it?”

The older boy rubs his chin and considers her question for a moment. “They’re big?” he offers with a helpless shrug. “And fast?”

Ilia jabs an elbow into his side, “you’re completely useless, aren’t you?”

“Hey! If I hadn’t been interrupted before I wouldn’t have—“

Neptune clears his throat and both of them seem to jump at the small noise, slowly turning their heads to smile apologetically at him.

Somehow, even though they’re in danger there’s an energy to their interactions. Even though they’re arguing they’re getting along and having fun with their assignment. Their courage flows so easily through every movement, their bond making them trust that they’ll get through this so long as they’re together. And it’s encouraging, inspiring to see. It’s something she wants to honor. Somehow.

Ruby scratches the back of her head thoughtfully, watching the sand moving in large zigzagging movements in their direction, more cautious now, however. “It’d be nice to have Nora’s heavy artillery here now,” she murmurs.

“Well,” Oscar says, “you’re always welcome to throw me.”

Ruby blinks, and he offers her a meek smile, that same one she’d seen back in the dojo a year ago as he’d said he’d handled small grimm for his family, the one that hides his pride. And suddenly she knows exactly what to do.

“That’s a great idea!”

Sun, Ilia and Neptune share a look. “It is?”

“Yes!” she says, “and while we’re add it, do you guys have any cartridges or grenades with ice dust?”

She throws her own ice cartridge at Ilia with a grin. “We’ll be the distraction while you guys fill that up, so hurry! And Neptune, Ilia, be ready to use electricity against it!”

Before the others can object to her words, she waves for Oscar to follow along. 

“Sure, run straight back into danger!” Sun complains behind them, as they charge back towards the sandwhale. “Idiots!”

Ruby grins, “well, that’s what we’re here for, right?”

Oscar exhales a laugh and shakes his head, unquestionably at her side no matter how crazy or reckless her plans might be. And it gives her hope, gives her courage, this little sign of solidarity.

She hurries to explain her plan to him, eyeing him curiously once she’s finished, “think that’s possible?”

Oscar ponders for a moment, his eyes traveling away as he listens to the advice of his companion.

Up ahead the sandwhale has noticed their approach from the thunder of their footsteps, and is turning around, refocusing its rage.

And as it roars towards them, the earth cracking apart above it to give it space, sand whirling into the air behind it, Oscar nods.

“I’ll give it a try.”

“Great!” Ruby says, skidding to a halt. She flashes him a quick smile. “Now get out of my way. I need to try something.”

Oscar, too, comes to a skidding halt, his eyes flickering between her and the sandwhale, fast approaching. “Uh, Ruby—“

“It’s okay,” she cuts him off, doing her best to channel that confidence she’d received from all of them, doing her best not to show him how her heart trembles with the earth, “I’ve got you here. So if I can’t do it, I know I won’t be in trouble.”

Oscar’s expression softens, the remnants of panic vanishing and he takes a step towards her. “Of course, you can do it,” he says, grasping her hand briefly to give it a squeeze.

And he’s so full of determined loyalty, of unquestioned faith in her abilities and her person. He trusts her to do the impossible, trusts her to always stand victorious. And that utter conviction from a person she cares for, is both a burden lifted and another added. Though honey bleeds into her chest, her blood turning to gold at the sweetness of his regard, her muscles tense as if she’s suddenly holding up the very sky.

She has to prove him right one more time.

Ruby gives his hand a squeeze and lets go, turning to meet the monster thundering towards them.

“It’s okay,” she murmurs to herself, “you’ve done this before. You can do it now.”

She exhales slowly and closes her eyes, the trembling of the earth the only thing reminding her of the danger ahead. Maria’s teachings flow back into her mind now, the reminder that love and attachments are what create the mirror that empowers her.

And immediately the people she adores and misses more than anything—her sister, her father, her team and friends left behind in Atla— flood back to her. Oscar who’d reached for her in the Fountain of Destruction and is losing himself to that terrible darkness—

No.

She has to remember people surrounding her now. Sun’s cheeky smile, Ilia and Neptune arguing. Oscar constantly working to grow reliable. These are people she can protect, people whose courage inspire her, who live diligently day after day, doing their best for the world around them.

She has to honor that.

Ruby throws her eyes open, and as she does the sandwhale breaches the sand, magnificent and monstrous, its scales stealing the sunlight and its jaws open wide to reveal teeth as long as Ruby herself.

And light flows from within her, like a cool stream to sooth a broken heart. For a moment she feels whole again, feels like a part of the world, the sand that slides under her feet and the sun far above her head. Everything in-between, a butterfly that flutters on the wind, the mountains and rivers somewhere ahead of them, and the people and camels somewhere behind her. Even decay and destruction, the bones of soldiers hidden and protected by the desert, the blood of the battlefield that long ago ran dry. Those are all part of the world of creation, what helps life return again and again, and —

The Grimm roars under Ruby’s light, furious to feel its skin crack and turn to stone. It twists, impossibly fast, so its tail comes thundering down towards her in one last gruesome attack. It shatters her light just from the shock of the realization, the fact that she’d been too slow, still too weak, and—

Oscar rams into her, so the tail comes thundering down just an inch from his feet, barely missing them, and the air pressure the attack creates thrusts them both out and up, away from the monster.

Miraculously, as they soar through the air, Oscar is laughing.

“What?” Ruby demands, out of breath.

Earth and sky twirls around them.

“You did it!” he exclaims, beaming at her. “You found your light again!”

And his green eyes are dancing, the rustling of leaves in an eternal forest full of life and light. Brilliant, enchanting, mesmerizing. Oscar makes everything easier.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t enough,” she protests, in spite of herself. “I still can’t do it properly.”

“But it’s there, Ruby,” he says, grasping her arms and grinning at her—for her.

And the joy she sees in him, unselfish and all for her sake, is enough to make her laugh. This is the first real proof they have that Oz isn’t wrong, that his theories are correct. This is the first real proof they have that the hurt the Fountain of Destruction had caused them can be healed. They are not lost or forsaken. They’ve just stumbled off the path.

For the first time they’d found hope that the path towards their final goal can be regained.

“Come on!” 

She grasps his arms in return and grins at him, before joyfully scattering into rose petals. They twirl back up from the ground, dancing around the enormous Grimm, where Ruby pauses briefly to stick her tongue out at it to her companion’s vast amusement. Up, up, and up, back towards the sky and the sun.

They re-materialise high above the grimm, rose-petals falling upwards, the wind in their clothes.

“Ready to be a distraction?”

Oscar nods, smile vanishing, “this is crazy. But yeah, ready!”

“You’re finally learning,” Ruby says, laughs, and she twists them around in the air, throwing Oscar back down towards the Grimm.

And as he falls, his aura paints him in green, plant-life against a barren earth. Electricity trails after him green lightning like a long tail, zigzagging in the air behind him. And for a moment that lightning changes shape to branches and rose stalks that reach for the heavens, light crystallizing into a physical form.

Oscar slams his palms together in a single fist over his head, and rams it into the top of the sandwhale’s head with an earth-shattering boom! and the Grimm crumbles under the force of his blow. The ground shatters beneath it, sand rushing in every direction.

And Ruby follows him down, rose petals hurrying her descent, but she rears off in the opposite direction, back towards their friends. Sun’s clones come to meet her, grinning and throwing the cartridge full of ice dust at her.

She re-materialises to catch it, landing on unsteady feet, rose petals rising past her. “Thanks,” she says, lifting her head to grin at the golden version of her friend, before exhaling heavily.

As he gives her a thumbs up and vanishes, Ilia and Neptune pass her on either side, moving in on the recovering sandwhale. It shakes its head from side to side, and catching sight of the approaching huntsman and huntress makes ready to dive back underground.

Ruby produces Crescent Rose, twirling the rifle under her fingers so the blade unfurls like a flower, and rams it into the rock beneath her feet, securing it. She places the cartridge full of dust into her weapon, takes aim at the ground below the grimm, and fires.

The tiny missile flies true, burying beneath the sand, and ice flowers from its epicenter, solidifying the ground beneath the monster, out and out and out, spurred on by the insane amount of dust they’d all collected for this purpose, so that the grimm, enormous though it is, cannot escape.

It thrashes, roaring with rage at having been thwarted, but remains entirely stationary, which enables Oscar, who’d circled back around it, to grab its tail, green aura flashing even from this distance, and throw it clean into the air, like a fisherman ready to sell a fish at one of the festivals back on Patch. There it meets Ilia and Neptune, who blast it with electricity so it shatters and turns to ash on the wind.

“I can’t believe that’s what you thought would do it,” Sun says, coming to a running halt at her side.

He holds up a palm for her, and Ruby finds a grin and the strength to meet him in a high-five, though the exhaustion of aura depletion is beginning to kick in. “No need to learn new tricks,” she says, exhaling heavily in-between, “when the old ones work just fine.”

Up ahead Ilia and Neptune are making their way to where Oscar is sitting crouched on the floor, clearly enthused by his show of reliability, by the impossible feat of strength he’d shown off. And Ruby imagines the mellow smile, the pride he’s so good at keeping to himself, confidence hidden by a facade of honesty. It only drops occasionally with the chance to prove himself, or show off.

“What are you laughing at?” Sun scolds her, picking up her arm and throwing it over his shoulder to support her. “You used way too much energy this time.”

“I was just thinking that Shahrazad was right.”

“Oh, for fu— That is never a good thing.”

“You don’t know that,” she trills.

Sun’s smile falls entirely, and he opens his mouth to retort, but a flash of black interrupts them—

Black lightning cuts the world between heaven and sky apart, crackling under the sun, and congregating on the horizon. And Ruby’s heart stills in her chest, freezing over. The flash of other black lightning reflects in a shallow reservoir, of plants made from the seed of the destruction curling up around a kind hand twist in her memory.

“Oscar!” Ilia and Neptune cry at the same time, their voices cutting like fear and confusion.

She grabs Sun’s wrist and forces herself to scatter one last time, coming to a stumbling halt between Ilia and Neptune, and Oscar.

“Don’t touch him,” she gasps barely able to catch her breath now.

The world tilts momentarily, her balance failing her for a moment, as she looks at Oscar, back on his knees in the sand, his eyes black from the blight. Thin lightning crackles around him like a protective field, keeping him prisoner and separating him from the world he belongs to. The blight has spread again, emerging from under the bandages along his neck, and crawling up his cheek.

“What is that?” Ilia asks.

“It’s the blight from the Fountain,” Ruby says. “He used too much of his aura, I didn’t think—“

She’d been stupid, and reckless, and not thought things through. Again. She’d relied on that immense strength, on the collection of countless souls that empower him, as a tool for victory, as a bottomless reservoir. But even countless souls run out of energy, even immortal men must one day die, and she’d pushed him too far.

“Hold on,” Sun says, grabbing her hand and holding her back from approaching. “Are you sure you should be going close to him right now?”

Ruby exhales through her nose, pushing aside the urgency in her heart, and turns her back on Oscar to face Sun. “Let me go,” she says quietly, meeting his gaze as steadily as she can manage.

Sun’s hand opens a fraction, and she can see the doubt still there, the scolding right on the surface. But she can’t stop to reassure him, any of them—so like her sister. There’s no time. She has to stop the blight from spreading somehow.

Ruby carefully removes her gloves and replaces them in her belt, before kneeling beside Oscar on the desert floor. The lightning crackles around her when she gets too close and she hears the others gasp with horror, but nothing happens. The sensation of lightning across her skin is nothing in comparison to the nightmares she still has of the Fountain’s waters consuming her body.

“Oscar,” she calls, grabbing his shoulder with her blighted hand and shaking him slightly. Though he sits up straight, his body is limp under her touch.

She’d called his name back in the vault, and it’d worked, but fear still clouds her mind, and hope is a thin spark in a dark place, so easily distinguished. If only she’d had full confidence in the light dying in her soul, so she could blast the darkness out of him. All she can do is try to call him back, all she can do is give him something to travel towards.

Once more…

Ruby’s head flies up at the sound of the voice, and a flash of lightning reveals Ozma’s phantom against the gold of the earth, weak and barely there. Don’t forget you’re not alone.

He glances at the others, and vanishes.

Before Ruby can ask for their help, Ilia is at her side, far enough that the darkness of destruction doesn’t touch her, but close enough to feel the warmth of her aura still protecting her from the heat. “What can we do, Ruby?”

Ruby places her hand against Oscar’s cheek, soft sun kissed skin warm under her palm, and she nudges him to look at her with those black eyes. There’s no emotions left here, and it hurts all the more to see that bright light extinguished than if he’d been in true agony.

“Help me,” she says, her voice trembling with her heart. “Help me call him back.”

“Alright,” Neptune says. He and Sun join them, and together with Ilia they create a half moon circle around Oscar.

“I’ll count to three,” Ruby says, holding up three fingers. “And then—“

But seeing the blight along her skin as well, Ilia gasps. “Ruby, your—“

Ruby shakes her head and smiles sadly. “Did you think I came out of the Fountain unscathed, when Oscar didn’t?”

The others exchange a look, but before they can start asking questions or express the concern bleeding into their faces, she turns back. She places her knuckles gently against his cheek for another moment, willing him to hear them. And then she holds up her blighted hand.

Three. Two. One.

“Oscar!”

Their voices echo out across the empty desert, across the lifeless plains of the world, the endless golden desolation where creation barely exists between sky and ground. Only humanity would dare to spread its reach this far, would touch the earth where they were not meant to go, and only the voices of humanity could span that great void and call back what had always belonged to it.

Come back.

A butterfly settles on Oscar’s shoulder, fluttering its white wings so they catch the light in the sun and reflect it back in a pale glow.

Sometimes even the gentle flight of butterfly wings can become a great gale. And that wind answers them now, running on cheerful feet towards them and catching in their clothes, their hair, going through them and leaving them with lighter hearts. It steals the lightning along with it, and the darkness from Oscar’s eyes.

Ruby pulls the hair from out of her face, and when she looks down, Oscar is blinking up at her, jade glowing with life once more.

“Ruby?”

He looks around in confusion, as if he doesn’t remember where he is. And then his body sways, the last strength leaving him entirely and he flails as he tumbles. Ruby scrambles to catch him, his shoulder hitting her chest, and her blighted arm curls around him, out of sight.

“Thanks,” he murmurs, voice hoarse.

“Are you okay?”

He nods and smiles demurely at the rest of their team. “Thanks to all of you.”

“Getting you back was clearly the easy part,” Neptune jokes.

“Yeah, thanks for having our backs, back there,” Sun adds. “But next time, maybe you two ought to find another way than being reckless enough to overextend yourselves to the degree that you hurt  yourselves in the process.”

Ruby and Oscar share a smile. “No promises.”

“Idiots!”

But already the glow of relief is lightening their hearts, and they share a laugh.

 

Chapter Text

The following days they make it out of the valley and across the mountain ridges that cut the desert further to the south. The sandwhale and everything that had passed after its attack remains a silent reminder over their heads, but in its shadow the small grimm they encounter in those days are easy pickings.

Although his eyes follow the horizon more and more anxiously, Oscar cheerfully uses them as distraction and restraint practice, learning finally how to use the least amount of aura that he needs to defeat his enemy. It leaves him with more cuts and scrapes than he possibly deserves, but his teacher always was one who preferred they learn by doing.

“Seriously?” Sun and Neptune share a look over Ruby’s head as she entertains them with the tale to break the silence.

“Yeah,” Ruby says, laughter in her voice, “the first day at Beacon he hurtled us all into the emerald forest. Jaune only survived that thanks to Pyrrha.”

That name never crosses her lips with ease, but she finds that the more time passes, the easier it is to look past the grief and remember with fondness those brave hearts that had passed before them into the afterlife. Love awaits them all there, and it isn’t always easy to be separated from that love, but Ruby knows they will be there when she’s ready to join them.

She glances at Oscar.

Hopefully, she won’t have to wait an eternity to be reunited with all her loved ones…

It hadn’t struck her before, but even as she realises that death is not the final goodbye, it might still separate her much longer from Oscar than any of the others. If they don’t defeat Salem in this lifetime, he will reincarnate along with Oz and keep walking this earth until they can find an answer to the God of Creation’s question. If they can’t, they’ll be trapped here forever. And if they do succeed in the lifetimes to come, the Oscar she’ll eventually meet in the gate to the afterlife might not be Oscar at all.

Merging with Oz might steal him from her much sooner than death.

Ruby swallows thickly, and looks down at her hand.

She shouldn’t think that far ahead. For now, she just has to ensure they can both heal from the wounds of destruction.


Although Neptune’s warning to Ilia and Sun had kept the two quiet on the topic of the Schnee mines the rest of the week, it can’t keep tensions from heating up again as they reach the point closest to the mines.

“What kind of faunus are you to abandon your brethren like that?”

She drops the twigs and dried-out bushes, she’d managed to collect for firewood, and storms over to where Sun is unloading their supplies from the camels. He turns to meet her, all remnants of cheer fallen from his expression.

The sun slowly drops behind him, shimmering fire on the far horizon, and casts long shadows across the camp. Giants could’ve walked in that sun and nobody would’ve known the difference.

“My pride as a faunus has nothing to do with this!”

“Then what about your loyalty, your compassion?”

“What about your loyalty to your friends?” he retorts. “You saw how far the blight has spread, do you really think we should risk Oscar’s life for a political campaign?”

Oscar, who’d stepped in to take over Ilia’s job of lighting the firewood, freezes where he sits. He looks up at them, deer caught in the headlights, green eyes wide with guilt. But Ilia and Sun barely seem to notice him, hackles raised and tempers blinding them to their surroundings.

“It’s not a political campaign if it’s the right thing to do!”

“Then do the right thing, and wait! If we have enough supplies left, we can help them after we’ve made sure Oscar and Ruby are alright.”

Ruby, too, ducks her head with guilt, and checks that the hasp on her glove is properly secured. They’ve managed to place their friends between a rock and a hard place, between loyalty and ideals, the suffering of individuals and those they will always feel solidarity towards, the ones they cannot abandon. It’s an impossible choice, one that will bring guilt no matter what they do.

“Do you really think it’s right,” Ilia begins, her voice falling to quiet, trembling rage. “That after they’ve waited so long in slavery and imprisonment, that they should be made to wait even a day longer?”

And just like that the guilt crashes through in Sun’s expression, the raw helplessness in the face of her words overflowing in his blue gaze. “No, but we can’t just—“

“Ilia’s right,” Oscar says, dropping a lit match onto the dead bushes and twigs, setting it aflame. “We can’t just make them wait. It’s not right. And I’m sure, if nothing else, Oz should be able to produce some water from the channels underground so we won’t have to worry about supplies.”

He climbs to his feet and offers them a smile, a way out, righteous, self-sacrificial heart caving in to what he believes in no matter how much pain it’ll cause him. And it’s not particularly beautiful, this decision; the light of the fire licks impatiently across his face, casting odd shadows in tangent with the dying sun. This is a choice that they should never have needed to make or consider in the first place, but it’s a reminder of what they once were, all of them; humans and faunus united under the common belief that we need to do what we can to make sure there are no casualties of cruelty.

“No.”

Oscar blinks in confusion at Ilia, his smile slipping away. The fire to, dwindles along the kindling, casting his entire face in shadow. “…excuse me?”

“I said…”

And the rest of them join in, stepping up to him, the smallest of their group, the one most in danger, “no.”

“Are you insane?” Ruby demands.

“Do you want to die?” Sun adds in.

“Or worse, do you want to turn into some creepy dark wizard out to destroy the very world?” Neptune contributes.

Ilia rolls her eyes at their theatrics. “More importantly,” she says, “you don’t want to make Ruby wait, right?”

Both Oscar and Ruby start at her words, and in the moment Oscar takes to recover, Ruby waves her hands desperately at Ilia, begging her silently to shut up.

Much to Ilia and the others’ amusement, when Oscar turns on her, she thrusts her hands down to her sides as quickly as she can and does her best not to smile guiltily, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong.

“I mean,” she says awkwardly, “it might not have been the strongest light, but I definitely still have my powers. They aren’t gone.”

Sun, Ilia, and Neptune all narrow their eyes at her over Oscar’s shoulder, unimpressed.

“Yeah,” Ilia argues, “but that doesn’t change the fact that that might change. Or Oscar might run out of time.” She exhales a sigh in defeat. “No matter how much I don’t want to abandon my brothers and sisters, we can’t risk it. You need to stay focused on the big picture, or nothing will ever truly change.”

She trudges off to find their food, leaving the mood as heavy as when their argument had started.

Oscar opens his mouth to call her back, but Sun stops him, patting him on the head. “I’ll go talk to her again,” he says, ruffling Oscar’s hair.

Though they get the fire working properly the blue darkness of night slowly seeps into the sand and the world, stealing away color and warmth. And silence settles over their tiny camp like an indestructible, suffocating blanket. Ilia has retreated to her own thoughts, and Sun and Neptune are patiently waiting for things to calm down. Oscar absentmindedly breaks apart a bread roll, his green eyes blue under the night’s heavy guilt, and for once Ruby thinks they can both relate to Oz. I’m sorry, echoes in her mind, is a bitter taste on her tongue, apology pushing to be released.

There is nothing they can do. It feels like an excuse. They’ve never been enslaved, never had to worry about having their freedom stolen from them, to expect violence from people who ought to be their allies—all because of a physical trait. And now they’ve placed themselves in a situation where they either have to prioritize their own lives or righting an ancient wrong that has plagued the faunus for too long.

They can’t do both. And perhaps that has always been the struggle that Oz had been placed in…

Somehow, there must be a way to do both. There must be a way to be greedy.

“You know what?” Neptune says, lying down. “Before you all end up becoming a Beacon of Grimm and getting us killed in our sleep… how about we talk about something else for a while?”

The others share a look and a smile. There’s always that awkward moment of silence when somebody makes such a suggestion, where nobody can actually think of a new topic to broach. And certainly not one that so vastly contradicts their current gloom.

“Since when did you become such a parent?” Sun complains. “Seriously, not cool, man.”

“Hey,” Neptune retorts, pushing himself up a little to return his friend’s glower, “responsibility is cool. You’ve just never been responsible in your life.”

“Correction,” Sun says, breaking into a grin, “I’ve never been lawful in my life. That doesn’t mean I can’t be responsible.”

Neptune rolls his eyes with emphasis before falling back down.

Ruby hides a smile behind her hand. “I’m glad you’re all here.”

“What makes you say that?” Ilia asks.

“Well,” Ruby says, leaning back on her hands and looking up at the stars emerging high above them. Out here there are no manmade lights to hide them, only earth and space. And stars that light up the void, that light up the world so it all meets somewhere in the middle, existence and chaos. And in the middle is light, not overwhelming or powerful, but a thousand small points, a journey with a thousand outcomes, countless adventures waiting for them, each brighter than the one before.

“With you all here it’s easier to remember all the good times with Yang and the others. And to believe we’ll meet again.”

“There’s no reason not to believe that,” Ilia offers, “the White Fang is spread thin across the world, and we never quite know when we’ll see each other again. But we always do, and at the most unexpected times. Like meeting Blake again. And—“ she mock-glares at Sun “—this monkey.”

Sun sticks his tongue out at her. “And you’re stuck with me now, Chameleon-girl.”

“Ew, no.”

She places her hand against his cheek and roughly pushes him away, and they squabble for a while, much to the amusement of the rest of their team.

When they’ve calmed down, Neptune sighs. “I do miss Mistral,” he says. “It’s too dry in the desert, and I liked peace.”

Oscar looks down, Oz’ guilt bubbling to the surface once more. It falls over him like a hood these days, hiding him away and shielding him from sight, from showing off to the world. But before he can start apologizing, Sun places a hand on his shoulder and shakes his head.

“He’s just complaining because he keeps failing at flirting with girls from Vacuo,” he explains, merciless and deadpan.

His kindness and mischief is a power all on its own, shining through that prison of dark guilt, and bringing back the smile to Oscar’s face, boyish and soft.

“Wha—“ Neptune starts into a sitting position again. “That isn’t even remotely true and I take offense at such baseless accusations. I’m hurt, Sun. Hurt.”

He places a hand over his heart, theatrically emphasizing exactly where Sun had hurt him the most. “There’s no way I’d ever be that uncool.”

“Right,” Ilia says, rolling her eyes, “because you haven’t tripped over your feet, or put your foot in your mouth countless times since you arrived last fall. People here are too direct for smooth subtlety,” she adds conspiratorially to Ruby and Oscar, “it unbalances his technique.”

“He’s not very adaptable that way,” Sun adds.

“I am adaptable,” Neptune exclaims. “I just prefer the graceful strategies and the beautiful dance of words that women from Vacuo can’t be bothered with.”

“And this is why Ilia can get a date here,” Sun says, the finishing blow placed expertly. “And you can’t.”

You can almost see the arrow as it pierces Neptune’s heart and he keels over backwards again into the soft sand, clutching his chest in pain, smoke floating peacefully in the wake of his defeat.

Laughter, childlike and carefree, erupts from their tiny circle, echoing across the empty world and chasing the darkness away. Bright stars glowing a little brighter at their joy. It’s a relief to relax and just enjoy the company of friends like this, to encourage each other to be happy, even in a bad situation, even when there’s so much at stake.

Ilia gets to her feet to crouch by Neptune. “Don’t worry,” she says, poking him in the cheek, “you’ll find somebody eventually who will be able to tolerate you other than us, and for now there’s always Ruby to practice on. She’s not from Vacuo.”

Ruby stiffens at the suggestion. 

Romance is a dream, is a fairy tale; wisps of joy floating from a book to make the adventures shine more vibrantly. But she’s never really considered that to be a part of her life, and certainly not when it’s aimless or flirtatious. Not even for practice. She’d been the youngest part of the group back in Vale and perhaps that had saved her from unwanted attention, but even now… love is still a dream, a fairy tale; it is so much more, something that grows naturally from her heart, that empowers her, and she’s never wanted to pursue it or be pursued for the sake of an empty ideal alone.

Neptune doesn’t need to look up or see her face to take mercy on her in the silence.

“No offense, Rubes, but you’re not really my type.”

She grins, perhaps with obvious relief. “Likewise!”

“Besides, Yang would beat me to a pulp, and I do like my face a little too much to risk it.”

“Spoken like a true huntsman,” Ruby quips, making the others laugh again.

Around them the planet spins, the quiet of a world seemingly abandoned by humanity casting a different peace, an empty peace. As if the desert is holding its breath, as if they all are, waiting for what happens next. The warmth and companionship of their small bubble by the fire casts the illusion of safety and comfort, and with the stars keeping watch over them, their silver light a contrast to the golden flames, it feels okay to forget the dangers stalking their tails.

Beside her, Oscar leans back to stare up at that silver light, his eyes catching their brightness so constellations dance in a sea of jade. And for a moment, as his eyes fill with silver, as the golden light of the fire caresses sunloved skin, he’s so breathtakingly beautiful, face glowing and smile hidden in the corners of his lips.

And here, where the world falls away and the universe reveals itself in all its glory, she can almost imagine him as he will be in just a few years; eyes still glowing with that soft jade, but lines sharper, the majesty of experience keeping his smile in place and his back strong under the weight of the world.

“Well, at least I’m having fun with my romantic adventures,” Neptune’s voice floats back to them, “instead of pining away after an unrequited love.”

Oscar pulls himself upright with a jolt, his eyes wide, and the fire illuminates the blush that pinches his cheeks. He opens and closes his mouth, but no sound emerges. 

“Hey, that’s an unfair accusation,” Ilia protests.

“Hear, hear!” Sun chimes in, and as she rejoins his side he throws his arm over her shoulder and they thrust their fists into their air, childishly demonstrating their opposition to Neptune’s accusation.

It’s clearly a returning argument, one with pre-established jokes and actions.

Oscar relaxes with obvious relief, his face souring at words only he can hear while the argument rages on on the other side of the fire. And it’s cute, the way childlike petulance softens his features, the way he can’t hide his boyish regard for his companion when he’s embarrassed.

Ruby hides a laugh behind her hand, and slides her free hand around his arm, jostling him gently so he startles.

“Wha—“ he exclaims, cheeks flushing adorably.

Ruby holds up a finger to her lips and tilts her head to their still arguing friends, and Oscar deflates into mellow silence beside her.

They don’t really know what the merge will do to him, what will happen when their soul is put back together again. When the cracks heal into a whole. Perhaps he will be a different person in a few years, perhaps she will die and never see him again.

But still, the boy in front of her is beautiful and precious because he is tangible and real, because she could reach out to him and he would still be Oscar.

“—not like I actually want my attachment to be returned,” Ilia is saying on the other side of the campfire. “I thought I didn’t for a very long time, but now I realize I don’t deserve it.”

At her side Sun and Neptune quiet down, childish mischief draining from their expressions as Ilia deviates from the script.

“What do you mean, you don’t deserve it?” Oscar asks, his voice quiet. His gaze wavers, hesitation a subtle tension in the muscles below Ruby’s fingers.

Ilia smiles bitterly. “I felt… entitled to her love,” she explains. “As if I were owed her regard and attachment. Her loyalty. I didn’t really care about her feelings or opinions. I never want to be that selfish again.”

She looks down at her hands, and angry self-reproach darkens her expression. Ruby’s heart aches for her, for the pain she must be feeling in the face of her own mistakes.

“Sometimes,” Oscar says gently, his hand sliding out from under Ruby’s, “it’s difficult not to want all the attention of the person we care for. The thought of losing them can drive us to distraction and we can make terrible decisions because of that fear. But that doesn’t make the emotion in itself wrong, and even if they don’t return those feelings the way we want them to, their regard for us, their friendship can be as great a strength.”

His eyes glow with the golden memories of other lifetimes, of other relationships, friendships and loves, Oz’ experiences becoming wisdom in Oscar’s mouth. And he smiles awkwardly, as if the lives of the ages don’t taste right in the mouth of a boy.

But they bring comfort to their friend, and Ilia’s smile softens.

“That’s right,” Sun says, throwing his arm back around her shoulder, “friends are as important as romantic partners. Heck, they’re more important! And you’re never going to lose her friendship, none of us are.”

Neptune snorts and rolls his eyes. “You know, I don’t remember you being that keen on the power of friendship before we went to Vale.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve always advocated the power of friendship!”

“Says the leader who left his team behind to take a boat.”

They squabble for a while longer, but as the stars travel across the sky on a moonless night, they slowly begin to doze off, each retreating to their respective sleeping bag to hide from the cold of the night. In the still night the universe had moved on, time trickling away on a clock that moves much too fast, but tomorrow they will have to try and outpace it once more.

Oscar burrows under his blankets, sleepy soft and boyish, though dreams and memories will soon plague his mind again, always dancing before his eyes, whether the sun illuminates their path or the moon begs them reflect with winter stillness.

They share a smile, a secret.

And Ruby watches over him as he falls asleep.

Perhaps one day they won’t have to always be moving, always be running, trying to outpace the universe. 

Perhaps one day she gets to keep this boy until the sun rises.


The night progresses, fading further into darkness. Chaos trickles between the cracks of creation, like water over stone, eroding and changing. It beats a false heartbeat, throbbing pain as it expands, memories of fire and ash following in its wake. Destruction flashes across a battlefield, tearing apart everything in its wake, bodies falling, dust twirling in the wind, and then floating slowly upwards as if even time has lost its sense of self.

And in the midst, where nothing else is left, stands a lonely silhouette with a sword in his hands and a crown on his head.

Ruby’s eyes fly open to darkness.

The fire is nothing but faint embers, and clouds have moved in across the desert, covering up the stars.

But even when the world has been swallowed by blackness, she can still see the faint outline of dark magic along Oscar’s skin. Purple cracks crawl up his neck, glowing faint but just enough to illuminate his face, the painful memories reflected in his expression.

It hurts to see, burns her heart and steals her breath. Soft and sweet, Oscar Pine doesn’t deserve what the world throws at him. And even when he’s chosen this burden himself, to save her, he should never have been forced to make this decision in the first place.

It will tear him apart eventually, that much is clear the further it spreads, blacken his heart and shatter his soul so nothing but the desire for destruction will be left; so nothing but another monster will have come from his righteous heart and beautiful intentions.

A tear trickles down her cheek and falls into the sand to join the blood of thousands lost to history.

She can’t lessen the pain, or carry some of the burden for him, as she had hoped. All they can do is push forwards, all she can do is make sure they get to the Fountain of Creation and hope that it can save them.

Until then she’ll do her best to watch over him, and distract him from the painful memories when she’s able.

Ruby reaches out for him in the darkness, her pale hand glowing faintly in the darkness, reflecting another light.

There’s a rustling behind her, rummaging between bags. Her heart skips a beat, fear the first impulse. Even if they haven’t seen Salem’s henchman since they left the river-side village behind, that doesn’t mean Tyrian and his group of mercenaries haven’t been able to follow them. They are still being hunted.

But if Tyrian had intended to kill them in their sleep, they would already be dead.

She carefully sits up in her sleeping bag, fingers sliding quietly over the familiar cool of Crescent Rose just in case.

It’s Ilia, working by a small dust lantern. It’s glow casts just enough light for her to roll up her sleeping bag and replace food and water in a separate bag from the others’.

As she closes the lid on her last bag, Ruby sits down at her side, placing a hand quietly over Ilia’s.

“Ah!”

The other girl still jumps, her skin flashing yellow, then blue, before returning back to normal. “Ruby? I—“

“Are you really going on your own?” Ruby whispers.

Ilia’s blue eyes flicker away from her, caught. And she looks down in guilt. “I’m sorry, Ruby,” she says, “I thought about it and I can’t just let my brothers and sisters suffer. Unlike you and Oscar they’re helpless to what is happening. I know, I promised but—“

“No.” Ruby shakes her head. “This is something you have to do, and I would never use a promise to keep you from it.”

Ilia’s eyes swim in a sea of sorrow, and she holds her breath as if I hold it in. “I’m—“

“Go.”

Oscar appears at Ruby’s side, his hand landing comfortably on her shoulder. “I’d suggest that we go with you, again,” he says, “but I get the feeling I’m just going to get yelled at if I do.”

Ruby nudges him with her elbow. “You are.”

He opens his mouth to say something more, his eyes swimming with a fear she recognizes because it’s found its way too often onto his face this past year. But he shakes his head. “But at least let us help you make a plan,” he says instead. “If we can’t go with you, at least we can be your power from a distance.”

There’s more rustling from behind them, and a yelp as Neptune kicks Sun out of his sleeping bag. “And clearly, you’re not going anywhere without the two of us,” he says, stifling a yawn.

Ilia opens and closes her mouth. “But— but you’re— They need you more than I do. They’re not going to make it to the Fountain without Sun guiding them!”

“No worries,” Ruby says, throwing her arm around Oscar’s neck. “Oz has traversed the desert before. I’m sure he’ll be able to read the stars like Sun has been doing, and find the way for us.”

Oscar gapes up at her in open astonishment. “How do you—“

“But what about Tyrian?” Ilia says, cutting him off.

There’s a desperation in her expression, as if she isn’t sure how to handle their support. As if she thinks this is something she has to carry all on her own. As if she’s holding everything together by the seams, has been doing it alone for so long that she’s forgotten what it truly means to rely on others.

Ruby smiles.

It’s easy to offer your help to others, but not so easy to receive it from others in return.

“Let us worry about Tyrian," she says, holding a fist in the air with more confidence than she feels. “I’ve cut off his tail before, and I’ll do it again.”

She throws her arms around her newest friend in a hug, allowing the other girl a moment to react in private. It’s warm in Ilia’s arms, and she’s grateful if she can just give her a little strength like this. If she can aide her in the best way she’s able, with her mind and with her strategic thinking, then Oscar is right, then they will be together even if they’re divided.

“Don’t forget about us!” Sun says, throwing his arms about both girls.

“You’re going to smother them,” Neptune chides, but even he joins in, dragging Oscar along with him.

They all share a laugh, for the last time.

And when they’ve planned the assault on each of the mines, the light of dust lanterns soon replaced by the dawning of the sun, when they’ve all been reassured that Oz knows the route to the Fountain, when they’ve eaten breakfast and redistributed their supplies, they share one last hug.

“This isn’t goodbye,” Sun says sternly. “Meet us on the way back.”

“Safe and sound,” Ilia adds. “Promise.”

Oscar and Ruby share a smile.

“Promise,” Ruby says.

“Same to you!”

“Of course!”

Ruby and Oscar stay in that imaginary crossroads, watching the silhouettes of their friends, their team, fade into the heat and the distance. And though they had done their best not to make it feel like a goodbye, it still feels that way. This team had been a home to them, had been a comfort, a reassurance that they weren’t alone. Parting had been a choice this time, but it’s still a lonely choice.

Chapter Text

Oscar is pulled roughly from a nightmare.

The endless fields of smoke and dust, fire and sand fade out of his vision as the horizon tilts and Ruby exclaims, “Oh, no! I’m sorry—“

She does her best to step in and break his trajectory, so Oscar slides from the camel’s back and topples straight into her torso. They crumple unceremoniously to the ground.

The grassy surface is an unwelcoming cushion to his fall, and Oscar’s face and shoulder burn with pain from the lack of a landing strategy. He rubs his hand over his eyes and tries to remember the dream.

Was it a dream?

It could’ve been another hallucination, fata morgana, old memories from another life playing tricks on him. There have been so many. For every step they took towards the centre of the desert the mirages had only gotten worse, more consuming. And they’re always the same; there’s no creativity to war; men slaying each other, grimm tearing down villages, fire, death. And then nothing, only the dust left over, chaos in the wake of destruction.

In these past days, he’s caused Ruby enough trouble to last them both a lifetime. But she’d never said a word of complaint, simply sat right by his side when the nightmares had become too much, watched over him when they’d stolen his sense of reality.

It’s another regret, another failure. And he wonders, guiltridden, if he’s ever going to become somebody she can rely on, somebody who can watch her back for her so she can charge ahead with confidence. Or if she’ll keep having to look over her shoulder as he stumbles to keep up.

“Ow,” she mutters somewhere beside him. “Oscar? Are you still there?”

Her voice draws him back to the present, and he draws himself up quickly, fingers dragging through the grass. “Yeah, I’m—“

He stops.

Blinks.

“Wait a minute.”

Grass?

Oscar looks down at the emerald plants cheerfully sprouting from between his fingers. Life. It’s beautiful and heartwarming, and his whole body trembles with the simple, impossible sight of it. The miraculous contrast to the desolate desert of sand and grimm and blood.

“Did you somehow finish our mission on your own and find a way back while I was passed out?”

A white butterfly settles on her shoulder as Ruby laughs.

“No, dummy,” she says, gesturing behind him. “We made it to the edges of the Fountain of Creation.”

The butterfly sets off from her shoulder, disturbed by her movement, and soars gently to grab the attention of one of its fellows. Together they guide their eyes up and up where the desert gives way to a vast jungle. The golden light of the sun is diluted by the green canopy spreading out far above them, casting everything in shades of spring green. Wild and eternal, the plants fight one another for that bit of sunlight, trees growing thin and tall, with lianas twining around them like lovers. And in the shade of the tallest canopy, lower trees sprout in wide leaves and colorful flowers, decorated with a thousand white butterflies, eventually giving way to fruits in shapes and sizes Oscar has never seen before.

The cool atmosphere wafts out into the desert heat, inviting both Oscar and Ruby like siren song to join the trees under the canopy.

Oscar’s mouth falls open. “Wow.”

And Ruby grins. “Yeah,” she says. “We made it.”

When he turns back to share a smile with her, he just catches the motion of her hand, drying away teary relief. And he sobers.

“I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much trouble getting here,” he murmurs, hanging his head.

Cool fingers touch his chin and bid him look up. Her eyes swim with melancholy blue, but she still finds a smile for him. “I would never hold that against you,” she says solemnly, “I hope you know that.”

And just like that she soothes the pain in his chest, honey bleeding into his ribcage and turning his blood to gold. Kind and beautiful and strong, Ruby makes everything easier to bear, her smile a balm on all his guilt, her words an excuse to ignore the pains and sins of the past until the future seems possible once more.

Oscar grabs her hand, and gives it a squeeze. “I know.”

He just hopes she’ll give him a lifetime to make it up to her.

“And, hey,” she says, pulling him with her as she gets to her feet. “We’re almost there now!”

Which has Oscar laughing. “I don’t know about that…”

She elbows him in the ribs for his pessimism.

Little sunlight reaches the forest floor, so the plantlife has made enough space for them to bring their camels with them, and they spend the rest of the day slowly making their way to the nearest source of water they can find. As they do, it becomes apparent to Oz that the jungle he knew is no more.

“It’s wilder than we thought it’d be,” Oscar comments for the both of them the following evening.

A stream trickles happily past them, a comforting companion to the silent forest around them. The lack of animals that had once inhabited this dense place of life makes it feel eerie and haunted, the shadows dancing from their fireplace only adding to the illusion of ghosts stalking the edges of their little camp.

“You’ve been having waking nightmares all the way to this point,” Ruby observes, poking absently at the fire. “So the war must have reached this place as well, right? Since it’s the place that’s triggering them…”

Oscar’s fingers dig into his arm where the blight throbs gently under his skin. “Yeah…” he says. “Even before then, dust miners drained this place of life and plants, and the war only served to burn down the rest of it.”

They’ve already seen traces of the warfare, environmental or traditional. The human destruction of plant- and animal life. Callous and greedy there had been nothing to stop them. But the traces of humanity they’ve come across, old cars and tanks, the roots of buildings, have been swallowed by moss and plants, nature taking revenge in its own way.

Life always returns.                                                                                                                              

Creation without control is life untamed. It is intense, wild and rash, without any regard for how it moves, the turbulence of its growth full of arduous eagerness. Freedom that has never tasted the blight of power.

“War doesn’t have the final say,” Ruby observes, the warmth of the fire stealing the cool sorrow from her gaze. Golden sparks dance in the air between them, casting a warm glow onto her sun-kissed face. “And neither does destruction. This oasis is proof of that.”

Creation without its master to shepherd it is wondrous and enchanting, as silver starlight glowing from the spirit of reckless kindness.


The gold of firelight changes, a mirage, an illusion. A dream of desert sands tainted by the blood of many, with the black ash of grimm.

There is no silence of desolation here, no sorrowful isolation. Instead the camp hosting Vale’s king is full of noise, steel clashing against steel, animals making their presence known amongst the yells of men and women. It spreads out as far as the eye can see, a man-made forest, vibrant with the kind of earnest life you find so close to death’s realm.

A woman laughs and draws Oz from the opening of the tent. “You speak as if we’re all going to die on the battlefield, Odin,” she chides him, her brown eyes dancing with mirth.

Standing before him is the Fall Maiden in full armor, her hazel curls catching in the green of the tent’s canvas and tied in stringent braids along her head so they don’t get in her way. The light armor she wears is mostly leather and steel, red and green dancing and intertwining in the Maiden’s sigil.

“The only purpose of war is death, unfortunately,” Oz sighs.

He has seen it too many times by now, has ordered it again, even though he’d sworn he never would.

And she frowns, recognising him for who he is. “War is not the end of life, Oz,” she says, turning away from him to pick up a crown, discarded amongst stacks of paper on a large wooden desk. “And you ought to let Odin do some of the heavy lifting, as well.”

Oz smiles. “I’ll leave our king to rule,” he allows. “But if somebody is going to carry the responsibility of death and conflict in this world let it be me, not Odin.”

Chaos and destruction were never a part of his bargain with the God of Creation. And adding Vale’s troops to the global conflict has only pushed him further from his original goal than he’d been since he’d collaborated with Salem. All he’s doing is playing into her hands once more, pushing humanity further and further into the realms of hatred and despair.

“I think,” Saga says as she drops the heavy weight of the Crown back onto his head, “that you’re misunderstanding the idea of Choice. If you are the only one allowed to make a choice for us, then aren’t you stealing our right to make our own decisions in the first place?”

She places her palm gently against his cheek, the warmth of her skin a stark contrast to the cool metal sitting on her finger. And she smiles with kindness and affection, empathic towards his plight and his guilt. Yet she was never an umbrella to protect him from the rain, always harsh and candid, even when her words had been woven with gentle tones.

“If you do insist on guiding humanity,” she says, “you need to find a way to do it with us. Find a way for us to make our own choices.”

Oz opens and closes his mouth to the silent laughter of Odin in the back of his head. But before he can begin to express how impossible that demand feels, horns blow in the camp outside. A call to arms. And their peaceful moment is shattered for the last time.

Saga places a chaste kiss against his jaw. She slides her arms around his neck in a tight hug, and as their hearts beat in sync for a single moment, Oz allows himself to relax, to melt into that feeling of security and warmth that isn’t really meant for him. That will never be meant for him.

Beautiful and full of open affection, this Fall Maiden always only loved the man whom his body belongs to. Her brown eyes glow with that directed devotion even now.

And still he cannot help adore her for it—

No. Wait—

That’s not…

Saga’s pretty brown eyes freeze into stillness, a moment caught in time, and— no. A stray thought enters his mind that They’re supposed to be silver.

Oscar’s chest throbs painfully, and with a rush of air he’s thrust backwards, out of Odin’s body to float beside the scene, a phantom out of its depths where it doesn’t belong. But he barely notices. A fever burns through him, starting from the ache in his heart. And he clutches his chest and clenches his eyes shut, desperately trying to ground himself, trying to grasp what makes this feel so wrong.

When he opens his eyes again, the Crown of Choice glows with silver starlight. It illuminates the black cracks in the memory, chaos seeping in and eroding the image.

And still Saga smiles warmly at the King of Vale, her face painted in hues of green and gold, her eyes warm and brown.

It’s not Ruby.

Relief rushes through him like the first light of morning, with the force of a tidal wave intent on washing all the suffering away. His spirit relaxes, gravity no longer an oppressive force on his shoulders, and he breathes free for the first time in ages.

This woman, amazing though she is, is nothing but a memory. She is intangible and beyond his reach; she existed long before him, and he could never truly love her. She is not his anchor, nor his guide back to the world. She never was.

Oz’ emotions were never his.

A man with sun-loved skin and bright green eyes materializes in front of him. His black hair flutters gently in the wind from the battlefield outside, and he smiles at Oscar, pride and relief radiating off of him.

“You finally figured it out.”

And like a movie clicking back into place, the memory resumes. The Fall Maiden pats her hand against Oz’ face. “Keep him safe for me,” she says, before she vanishes out of the tent opening for the last time.


A white butterfly settles on Oscar’s cheek, tickling him into slow wakefulness.

Still half caught in the limbo of sleep he waves at it in retaliation. And it flutters away above his head, glowing with the faintest light, illuminating the affectionate smile of the Queen of Vale once more before it fades.

The broken moon shimmers in the canopy high above them. As Oscar opens his eyes to greet it, tears brim over unexpectedly, pouring down his cheeks in streams. His heart aches with melancholy sorrow and he cannot entirely comprehend why.

Desperately he pushes himself upright, brushing away the tears again and again. But no matter how much he tries, they refuse to halt, continuing to fall serenely even as his hands settle helplessly into his lap.

I’m sorry.

Oz’s voice whispers in his ear, and Oscar isn’t sure if it’s meant for him or if it’s another apology to the world for his failure. The torment of guilt that draws him back to that same world and his duties again and again, desperately always trying the wrong thing, weighs heavily in every word he speaks, in every apology that passes across his lips.

“I…” he begins, keeping his voice quiet to avoid disturbing his sleeping companion. “I accepted all of this a long time ago. You don’t have to apologise to me. I just—“

Oscar stops himself, and dries his face once more. His eyes still burn, but the melancholy longing for people that have long since passed him by is gone once more.

The moon hovers over them, a shattered reminder, always, of the destructive forces of corrupted love. Possessiveness and entitlement in regards to another human being, their life and will. Ilia had been right; they cannot assume that right. Even if they’ve been given special consideration or extra attention, they ought not to keep it from the rest of the world.

Ruby sleeps soundly on the other side of the glowing embers, curled into her sleeping bag like a cat that’s found a warm spot. Moonlight pales her skin and dances in the darkness of her hair, just strong enough to reveal the red of her hood, the string that ties her to her fate.

Only in the darkness is she serene, only in calm is she free of the shadows that haunt her. And yet, it’s not the torment or the melancholy that makes her beautiful, but the light of life that glows from her very personality. It’s not her duty, or her fate that makes him love her, but the vibrancy of her every action and emotion.

Yelling over comic books, standing up to her uncle, laughing as she beats her sister at a video game. She’d dance across Weiss’ ice in the midst of battle, or pull a reckless stunt in the most impossible away and somehow, like a living miracle, come out unscathed. She never lets fear or sorrow stand in her way, always resorting to skill and wit to get her out of a dangerous situation.

Ruby Rose is a light in the darkness, but that light doesn’t glow from the abilities gifted her by her bloodline; it glows from her love for all that cross her path, for all that stop and share a smile and a laugh. It glows from her determination not to fail.

That’s why he’d never been able to look away. From the first day he’d met her, it’d been her kindness that’d drawn him to her. Not the silver starlight in her eyes.

It had had so little to do with Oz.

And yet, other women and men come to mind, other loves. Smiles and kindness, the warmth of a hand against his cheek.

“…did you love them?” he says finally. “All those people… your family. The Roses.”

Salem’s words have been haunting him all this time, her hand like a vice around his heart, and he’d been too fearful to ask. So fearful he’d caused both Oz and Ruby countless unnecessary problems. But now that the words are out of his mouth, now that he’s found the courage to speak them, he feels at ease, simply knowing that he can’t run from it anymore.

It’s only as Oz hesitates to answers that it occurs to Oscar that Oz might not be willing to answer, that he might be overstepping a line with such a personal question.

There is no living being in this world who does not, in some shape or form, crave the intimacy and affection of another, Oz begins slowly, his words careful. And while we have definitely chosen solitude or friendships over love or familial affection over the years, those are not always enough to sustain a person through sorrow. Loneliness is a heavy burden to bear in this world.

But when my companions choose to live on love and familial affection, those are their own emotions. The loyalty and affection I feel are not a reflection of their hearts, nor are their hearts a reflection of mine.

And Oscar wishes that was all the reassurance he needed, that Oz’ explanations would sate him as they had done in the past. He wishes he could simply believe without questioning.

“But… what about Saga, then?”

Oz exhales the sigh of the ages. The Fall Maiden was always special, he admits hesitantly. I… she saved me from my solitude and reminded me that I was still a prisoner of Salem’s truths. For that, she will always be special. When Odin fell in love with another Fall Maiden therefore, I let my guard down and … indulged in those emotions. It was a mistake. Another mistake.

Bitterness drenches his words in cold, cold rain, but he doesn’t elaborate or explain what he means. Instead he falls silent, indulging, perhaps, in memories full of regret that Oscar isn’t privy to.

Finally, he adds, usually, when we are not frayed at the edges by destruction, the love and affection the people I’ve paired with feel for their companions are their own. What I receive from them upon their deaths are the memories of those emotions. They remain with me, as sparks in the darkness, and are never forgotten, never lost.

If we are lucky, and the gods kind, perhaps one day we will all be allowed to meet again on those bright fields of the afterlife.

That doesn’t give him hope, as it is perhaps meant to do. Salem is wrong, Oz has just confirmed that. His emotions are his own, the love he feels for others is different than the love his companions have felt. But if he inherits their emotions and memories upon their death, he is truly left alone to meet each new companion as a soul merged with another.

And perhaps he is a little possessive, perhaps he is a little selfish, but Oscar doesn’t want to share his feelings for Ruby with Oz. Those are his own, and he wants them to stay that way for eternity.

“Then let’s make sure that happens,” he says. “Let’s finish everything in this lifetime. There must be a way to do that.”

Oz doesn’t say anything, but hot gratitude trickles from his mind, like tears of relief.

Oscar lies back down, holding his newfound determination close like a flame in a cold wasteland. He turns on his side and watches over Ruby as she sleeps peacefully under a canopy of stars. “I’m not going to be left behind.”

If he can focus on the big picture, perhaps he can push away the fear of losing himself in Oz once they reach the Fountain of Creation. Perhaps he can convince himself that things will go as planned.


And for a few days, as they make their way closer and closer to the centre of the oasis and the Fountain, Oscar feels his mood lift. The closer they get to the Fountain of Creation the less nightmares intrude on his sleep, and he no longer has to worry about passing out from phantoms intruding with the visual reminders of the desert. His predecessors still whisper in the back of his mind, their emotions resurfacing at odd moments, but it’s become familiar chatter, input that doesn’t disturb him the way they had in the beginning of their journey.

They meet little opposition here; the grimm, always acting on Salem’s whims and desires, rarely find their way this far from humanity. Only a couple of Beowolves have found their way across the desert, and a single Death Stalker emerges from the shade of a sandy cave a week after they’d entered the oasis, causing them a fair bit of trouble.

At least you’re strengthening your teamwork, is all Oz has to offer as Oscar is nursing his bruises and Ruby has gone to collect water.

“Right,” Oscar mutters, “I still feel like I’m just holding Ruby back.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she chides him.

“Ah!” He jumps, cheeks flushing. “I’m sorry! I didn’t— I thought you were getting—“

“Water?” she grins and pushes a bottle into his flailing hands so he nearly drops it. Sliding onto the log beside him she says, “you’re fine. You should’ve seen my first attempt at taking on a Death Stalker.”

And as if to support her claim, Ozpin cheerfully conjures up the memory of watching the terrifying footage of a much smaller Ruby Rose charging straight at a Death Stalker.

It’s always an odd realisation; that even somebody as amazing as Ruby could once have been bad at what comes so easy to her now; that nobody starts out perfect or talented; that this is a side of her he doesn’t really know.

“I think I just did…”

She blanches, face paling. “What?”

Oscar smiles with mellow humor up at her. “Weiss really does save your neck a lot, doesn’t she?”

Oz!” Ruby whines. “Stop sharing my embarrassing school days! I’d like to preserve some dignity, thank you very much!”

And for once, Oscar and Oz laugh in sync, the light that Ruby naturally radiates chasing away the pain and shadows of the blight, and making Oscar forget the words that still linger, the fears that won’t leave him alone.

But it doesn’t last long. And as they near the centre of the oasis questions that have lingered out of sight return to him, comments from his companion that won’t leave him alone. There had been a whisper of usually in-between the lines of Oz’ words, a reminder that usually there is only Oz and his companion. The Fountain of Destruction had torn the combination of souls that is Oz apart, so that once more he had become countless men in the back of Oscar’s mind, overwhelming, an ocean of voices, all speaking with the same purpose.

And even if they’d promised Ruby that they would push Oscar’s soul forwards, he is merely another drop in an endless ocean. In the mass of lived life, Oscar is nothing special. He is the youngest, the least, the—

“Hey. What’s wrong?”

Ruby’s voice halts his train of thought, as her hand gently stalls the camel keeping him on the right path.

Under the canopy of trees the sorrowful blue of her eyes is washed away in tones of green, and as Oscar looks up to meet that gaze, mellow devotion and melancholic attachments steal away any and all chances he had of hiding his fears from her.

She would see right through him anyway.

“I’m…” he hesitates, looks down. “Scared.”

He watches Ruby’s hand gently slide down his arm, fingers lightly wrinkling the cloth protecting her from the blight, before she tucks them under his hand. And somehow it gives him courage to continue, to lift his head and speak his worries.

“We don’t really know what’s going to happen at the Fountain,” he says, the words spilling out of him as soon as he begins. “What if nothing happens? What if it can’t save us? What if it needs somebody to command it? It’s not as if we’re going to find the God of Light waiting there to help us. What if— what if it works, but it merges all of us together so that only Oz remains?”

Whatever remained of Ruby’s smile vanishes in a flash, and worries emerge across her face, in her eyes. Her thoughts had clearly drifted in those same directions, her worries keeping her from always remaining positive. She’d simply been able to hide it longer than him. As always, she’d adopted the role of leader and done her utmost to push the ones who look up to her in the right direction.

But now that Oscar had voiced his worries, they’d grown a tangible shape, a presence that can’t be ignored, and Ruby wavers.

The words linger between them, the only ones unspoken: Salem hadn’t found her solution at the Fountain of Destruction.

“Oscar, did you ever doubt that I would be alright once we got to the Fountain?”

“What?” He starts back. “No. I— Of course, not—“

Of course she’d be alright. She has to be. This is where everything started; the Fountain created the Silver Eyed Warriors, had gifted them with power. Why would it not do so again?

“If the Fountain would save one person,” Ruby says, and her sorrowful eyes glow with the kind of desperate determination that always ignores the logics of the critic, “why would it not save another? And, at the end of the day, it’s still your body. It was born to you.”

She drags gently on his hand before letting go, guiding him down the path towards their final goal.

White butterflies dance in the air here, departing from their flowers as Ruby and Oscar pass them by, accompanying them to the end of the path, beyond the cover of leaves and branches that Ruby pushes aside to let sunlight fall over them, blinding them momentarily with its brightness.

“Trust in it now, and I’m sure it’ll give you the power to define who you are.”

A warm breeze runs like a caress across Oscar’s cheek, combing through Ruby’s hair, a greeting from the open space that lies before them. The ancient orchard is gone; no human touch remains on the plants full of fruit guarding the path of golden stone that even the war could not destroy. Flowers sprout from the cracks, daisies and forget-me-nots, accompanied always by white butterflies. The sun dances with white roses up the mountain side against the cool of the open sky, warming the cliffs in hues of gold and blue.

Oscar and Ruby share a glance, and then a smile, the end of their journey so close now, within sight.

Laughter bubbles forth out of nowhere, relief trembling in their limbs, and joy escaping before they’ve reached the end. And Ruby throws her arm around Oscar in a one-armed hug, her nose digging into his hair.

“We made it.”

Soft and burning all at once, devotion burns in his veins like molten honey, and Oscar closes his eyes to enjoy the moment, to let his joy and her confidence overwhelm him. “Yeah.”

“We’re going to make it.”

And in the sunlight with laughter still ringing in their ears, it’s easy to ignore the fears, the way she sounds like she’s still trying to convince herself as well. It’s easy to forget that their plans go wrong, that they can’t predict everything, that they have no true evidence that this will go right. It’s easy to convince themselves that they’re going to make it.

“Are you, though?”

Tyrian Callows’ cackling laughter cuts between them like a knife, and Ruby and Oscar break apart to turn back to the darkness of the forest.

Salem’s scorpion sits on a tree branch above their heads, much like he’d done it back in that Atlesian alley, greedy purple eyes watching over their joy and tail swinging lazy as a cats, needle hovering with deathly finality over their heads.

Ruby grasps hold of Oscar’s hand and throws them backwards, away from the threat. They zoom down the path, out of Tyrian’s immediate reach, a tornado of rose petals to grace the path of the gods.

Gunfire cuts them off.

And Ruby rears up as they re-materialise, swinging Crescent Rose in a circle in front of Oscar’s face and cutting off the projectiles flying true.

A woman stands in their way, a smile cutting across her face, teeth flashing with predatory smugness. She lowers her gun as the echo of her shot fades and her comrades emerge from the chaos of life growing all around them, that same smug confidence marking their every step, circling and surrounding them.

“Move,” Ruby says.

The woman cocks her head to the side. “I’d be watching my back more if I were you,” she says. “Too much focus on what’s right in front of you tends to lead to unfortunate ambushes. Well, unfortunately for you.”

As her voice fades it reveals in its wake the patter of footsteps too close to them, approaching with fast speed.

And it’s Ruby’s Semblance that saves them, then. She twists, rose petals falling in their wake, twirls her scythe, and blocks Tyrian’s blades just in time.

He grins down at her, mad smile cutting his face in half. “It’s not good to run away like that, little flower,” he croons. “Didn’t your little kitty friend ever tell you how badly that ends?”

“Yes!” Ruby says, twirling Crescent Rose to push Tyrian’s blades out of her way, and uses the momentum to kick him off of her. “For her stalker!”

But now that her back is turned Tyrian’s henchmen have a direct line of fire for her blindspot. They share gleeful smiles, producing their weapons, and fire. Oscar steps in at her back, catching the bullets, tails of green aura glowing in the wake of his movements.

“Nice trick,” the woman says, drawing Oscar’s attention, “but it’s not a semblance, is it? You’re a bit too young to have worked out that just yet.”

Her voice fades again, and as she does, the world seems to widen, so Oscar is suddenly aware of the man coming straight at his face.

The fist hits him square across the jaw and sends him tumbling to the ground. The world blacks out for just a moment, pain blocking out his other senses.

Move, Oz implores him through it all. Now.

And Oscar does as he’s bid, rolling out of the way just in time. Air rushes past him where his head had been just a moment ago. He uses his aura to strengthen his movement as he pushes off the ground, flying into the air and somersaulting to give himself a moment to regain his senses.

She’s using her Semblance, isn’t she? 

It would seem so, Oz agrees. She’s narrowing down her opponents focus to just her, so her comrades can attack with ease.

Off to the side, Ruby is just keeping Tyrian in check. They twist and twirl, weapons clashing again and again, so fast it’s nearly impossible to discern their individual movements. And though Ruby isn’t overpowering her enemy, she’s dancing on equal footing with him, elegant and powerful, no longer inferior. Never inferior again.

But one person cannot overcome everything alone, and it leaves her back vulnerable to attack from Tyrian’s allies; her fragility openly displayed when humanity turns from the light.

One of the other men turns from the battle with Oscar to assault that very back, to throw her off balance and shatter the focus that keeps her on par with Salem’s most devoted.

Fear and anger pushes Oscar ahead, narrowing his focus with more force than any outsider’s Semblance ever could. He lands by the side of a random henchman, knees bending to absorb his weight. And has he straightens, he grabs the other man by the front of his shirt, lifting him off his feet. There’s a moment where he just has time to see the realization of what’s about to happen in the henchman’s eyes, before he hurls him through the air. 

Black lightning follows in his wake as he crosses the god’s path.

When he slams into his comrade he doesn’t stop, but merely drags the other man with him as they ram into the vegetation. There’s a series of cracking noises as branches break apart to make way for them before they vanish.

And it’s so frightening, that rage. A rage that shouldn’t be his own, that doesn’t feel like it belongs. Oscar wants to tell himself that it’s a rage he’s only come to know because of the Fountain of Destruction, that it’s not part of himself. But it would be lying to himself; that protective fury has always burnt in his veins, has always blinded him, when Ruby was in danger. 

He’s not supposed to be fighting humanity in the first place. Humanity isn’t supposed to fight one another.

And, yet, here they are. As they’ve always been.

“Oz, I need your help.”

I’ll watch your back for you, comes the reply, knowing his thoughts before he’s able to articulate them himself. So illusions won’t blind you, but you need toTurn, now!

Oscar spins on his heel, green aura flashing along his arm as he lifts it to defend himself. But rose petals surround him like a guardian deity, and red fills his vision. Ruby swings her scythe down and catches the blade that would’ve caught him in the shoulder had she not been there to defend him.

Instead his heart catches in his chest, and he gasps for breath. “Ruby, I —“

“Don’t apologize,” she says, swinging her scythe down and pushing her attacker aside. “We need a plan.”

Oscar turns to catch another attack, ducking the swing for his face to knock the feet out from under his opponent. As he straightens, he checks himself, before slamming both his fists into the back of Tyrian’s flailing henchman so he goes down.

At his back, Ruby nods and finds a smile. “That’s better.”

“I can handle this,” Oscar promises. He can’t keep his smile down now that he’s had a small victory, now that he’s been praised. He doesn’t mean to preen, but it’s there, a flutter of sunshine and honey in his chest. A white butterfly. “Just concentrate on Tyrian, and I’ll be right—“

Cackling laughter is his only prelude to Tyrian’s attack, and Oscar just barely manages to duck the stinger. “Don’t worry,” he says, grasping Oscar by the neck of his shirt, and holding him up so they’re face to face. The mad glee in his eyes is almost too painful to look at. “I’ll take good care of your little rose. We wouldn’t want her to become a threat to our queen again, now would we?”

And just like Salem had done it to Ruby, Tyrian throws Oscar backwards and out of reach of the others.

Up in the air he’s no threat to anyone, not without a weapon to direct the trajectory of his fall. Here he has full view of the battlefield, of the distraction he’d caused Ruby. Even as she spins around to follow him, his name on her lips, Tyrian and his followers circle in around her, weapons at the ready.

It only takes a second.

Somebody raises a crossbow, takes aim and fires. Its bolt flies true and catches Ruby in the back. That strong beautiful back, capable of carrying so much of the world, but drenched with the blood of her ancestors; the ancestors who had died at the hands of humanity, at the hands of the ones they’d always sought to protect.

Ruby gasps voicelessly and pitches forwards, her eyes widening with shock and pain.

Her weapon clatters to the ground on the god’s golden path and she follows, landing on her knees.

And Oscar doesn’t stop to think, doesn’t stop to reason with himself. Desperate and blinded to anything but the sight of Ruby on the ground, blood trickling from between her fingers, his hand closes around the Relic of Destruction.

Oscar, no—

The world vanishes. Instead of green vegetation and beautiful flowers all around him, there is only blood and ash and bodies falling all around him. There is only fire and hatred. And a woman lying dead in his arms, her armor soaked through with blood and her beautiful brown eyes empty. And all that’s left of Oz and Oscar is the pain that consumes his heart and body, the agony of seeing a loved one pass beyond his reach even though she’d been in his arms a moment ago.

Grief is all that remains of his heart, his soul and mind consumed by that one emotion until he’s one person. So that only one goal remains, one thought: To end all the pain.

He carefully places the corpse of his beloved on the ground, on a bed of her own blood, and grabs the hilt of the Sword of Destruction.

No, no no. Oscar, you need to listen—

He won’t have Ruby dying in that same way. He can’t let her die in vain like so many before her.

Fragile black plants travel up Oscar’s arm as he holds up the sword, directing it at Tyrian and all his followers. I’ll never let you hurt her again. The Relic answers his selfish protectiveness, and rose stalks blacker than night sprout from the god’s path, bursting through the golden stone, and trapping every single human that had dared to touch Ruby, tying them against their wills.

Black lightning crackles around Oscar as he gently levitates towards the ground. The sound merges, vulgar and nauseating, with the obnoxious cackle of delight from Tyrian and the screams and yells of pain and surprise from the humans that’d dared to violate that one thing which had only ever sought to protect them.

“Yes, of course,” he says, drying his eyes. “That is also an answer. Turn against your very purpose and come back to our Goddess. She was always right about you—“

“No,” Ruby gasps, her fingers closing around the hilt of Crescent Rose. “She wasn’t.

Taking advantage of Tyrian’s distraction, she directs the barrel of her rifle at his heart and fires.

Salem’s most devoted servant stares blank-eyed down at her, not even shock remaining as life fades from his face. And then the body, all that was left, of Tyrian Callows tumbles over backwards into a heap on the ground. No longer a threat. Never again a threat.

But Ruby barely watches it happen, she scrambles to her feet, her fingers clutching over her open wound. Past the people still held down by Oscar’s rose stalks and back to his side.

“Oscar, you need to let them go.”

Blood. There’s so much blood. Blood on his hands, on the ground. The plants and trees winking out for sand and death. Chaos erasing time, stealing his sense of place. The home of the silver eyed warriors destroyed by colonaliszation and industrialization. Burnt down. Forgotten. War intruding. Everything gone.

scar

Oscar.

And still Ruby remains in all of it, as the landscape changes, chaotic and impossible to hold on to. Even with her blue eyes, the light she gave they’d stolen, she remains always the steady thing he orbits. The only thing in the universe that makes sense.

But she’s bleeding now, bleeding and dying, like the others. Like Saga, and Rose, and Summer. Like his children. Golden haired or with sun-loved skin, with silver eyes or green or blue or brown. Miracles, sparks of hope blown out.

His heart aches with pain and loss and grief, and he doesn’t even know what he is anymore. A person? A memory? A purpose?

He reaches for her, for Ruby, for the star, the miracle, that’d allowed him to stay, to orbit around her light. And he knows with a desperate heart that she can’t die, she can’t vanish. But even that Destruction will never allow him to hold on to, even that attachment she will steal, will sever.

Black lightning crawls down his arm, breaches the distance between their outstretched hands and hurts her. Ruby’s eyes grow wide, and she crumbles to the ground soundlessly.

No!”

The denial is poison on his lips, and he falls to his knees in front of her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I can’t— I don’t even know— I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.”

Blood drips from between the fingers still gripping her open wound. Her life. Her fate. It’s all so red. It’d soaked through her cloak, her soul, long ago. And he’ll never be able to touch it.

He was never meant to save her.

“You need to let them go.”

Ruby’s voice breaks through the chaos in his mind, her words a repetition of her earlier plea. And reality comes back into focus; the people he’d imprisoned in rose thorns, still there. Still in pain. Pain Oscar had caused them.

There’s a war going on inside him, and no matter which side wins he’ll still fall to pieces at the end. The person he was; kindness and rightfulness painting his soul, directing the gods’ favor to fall on him. The person he is; attached and possessive, fearful hands desperately grasping at what little makes the world worth saving. The one thing. His miracle.

“They hurt you,” he whispers.

Tears fall from his eyes, but he barely notices.

“They hunted you and hurt you. Like your mother, like Maria.”

There’s a little voice in the back of his head, one that had faded almost entirely, walled out by his own bitter rage. You hurt her, too.

“I’m still here,” Ruby says.

In a trembling motion, she removes her hand, agonizingly slow, from her wound to grasp his hand in his lap. “I’m still here, and they didn’t hit anything vital.”

And though her eyes are blue, are a vast deep sky endlessly without light, he sees the silvery steel of her spirit, her conviction. And he wants to listen to her, wants to do whatever it is she asks of him.

But chaos has a will of its own, and even as her words draw him gently back towards creation, his heart throbs with pain, and the blight burns across his skin. And all he can remember is the feeling of love lying dead in his hands. All he can remember is the feeling of the Sword of Destruction in his hands, the screams of his enemies in his ears.

“Oscar!”

He doesn’t want to be that person now. And yet, the sword is in his hand again, and he can still hear his enemies’ terror ringing in his ears.

Humanity’s failure.

But before he can lift the sword, Ruby has climbed to her feet in front of him. She grasps him by the shoulders and shakes him, her blue eyes swimming with desperate attachments and fear.

“Oscar Pine, come back to yourself!”

The blue overflows and trickles down her cheeks, and Oscar sees her. He sees her for her. Blue or silver, it doesn’t matter. In the grand scheme of things, it does. His miracle. But in this single moment it doesn’t matter, because Ruby’s light in Oscar’s heart is so much more than the light the gods had gifted her with.

“I don’t know if I can,” he croaks, voice breaking along with his soul. “I can barely keep the memories separate anymore.”

“You can! You’ve done it before. Come back.”

She’s right.

And the voice that’d vanished from his mind, the voice of the old man who’d always been at his side, returns.

She’s always right.

“Oz…” Oscar murmurs. And tears of far away relief stream down his face. “Help me. I don’t want to do this. I can’t make the chaos go away.”

None of us ever could, his companion agrees. But you don’t have to fight our entire war in one battle. Hold it at bay. Keep it from spreading. Let go of your own hatred.

His heart rebels, attached and foolish. Protective rage still consuming him, rearing its head at the notion he should let it go entirely.

Lightning crackles around him again, and far away there are yells of pains and agony as the black rose stalks grow towards the sky.

“But they—”

We are not here to judge humanity, Oz cuts him off. And perhaps it is the sadness that grows in his calm voice that rings the truest. Regret. Ancient and heavy, like a physical weight on his shoulders. One Oscar has felt for as long as he’s known Oz. We’ve made that mistake before, Oscar. But you don’t have to make it now.

For the first time, Oscar can lift his head to look at the people he’d harmed, to see the agony and terror contorting their faces. Emotions he’d caused. They’re expressions of pain he’s seen before, in another lifetime, through Oz’ memories. Expressions that came as he tore the world to pieces, as he ended a war in the worst possible way; blinded by grief and love, the desire to see it all end with a single swing of the blade.

The Relic of Destruction falls from his hand, clattering to the ground, powerless.

He catches Ruby’s eyes again. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.

Oscar can’t even see the way her face lights up in a melancholic smile, nor the way the rose stalks turn crystalline and green with life before they shatter to dust on the wind. Not for the tears that burn in his eyes.

All he hears is Ozma’s voice in the darkness that consumes his mind.

Thank you.


He doesn’t know how long his soul floats through nothingness. There is only darkness here. No pain, or happiness.

Eventually, he thinks, he finds the stars all around him, watching over him, lighting his path, but out of reach. From the darkness he cannot hear their voices, from chaos they cannot guide him.

When Oscar returns to himself, it is not as himself.

Oz treads carefully down a forest path during a moonless night. Nocturnal animals rustle in the leaves, and the ocean sings its constant, lonely seranade to the cliffs. And a grave at the edge of the world comes into view, a lonely little stone accompanied by a single white butterfly.

And a girl.

She starts when she hears his footsteps, sniffles and hurries to dry her eyes. “Yang, I’m—“

Autumn leaves fall from on top of her head, and he wonders how long Ruby Rose has been sitting by her mother’s grave.

“I’m sorry I’m not your sister,” he says, with his gentlest voice.

The child looks up at him, wide eyes tracking up and up and up, because Ozpin is a giant to normal people. And so much more of a giant to a child barely five years of age. 

In the darkness all cats are grey, and he cannot be sure of the color of her eyes. But still, she is Summer’s child, and she deserved a world of peace and joy to grow up in. Not this. Not grief and destruction and chaos.

“Who are you?”

He contemplates the question as he comes closer. She is not a deer that might scatter at the merest sign of danger; instead she remains unafraid of him. Her mother’s spirit and father’s bravery burn like fires in her mind, helping her grow up strong and defiant, like a rose full of thorns.

“I am a white knight,” he tells her, kneeling before the little girl with a smile. “I was your mother’s knight, but I failed her. Would you let me redeem myself in her place?”

And little Ruby Rose’s eyes glow with the majesty of it, words that come out of a fairy tale, the stories her sister and mother must have read to her by now.

She looks back at her mother’s grave, and he wonders if she sees the butterfly. “What if…” she says slowly, before looking back up at him, “what if I don’t want a knight? What if I want to be the knight?”

And Oz smiles. Oz beams at the little girl, the born warrior. The tiny spark of hope, whose eyes glow with the spirit of the stars. “Then, the next time we meet, if you still wish it, I will teach you how to become the knight,” he vows. “No matter who I am, or when we are, I will always be on your side, and I will never stand in your way.”

Ruby Rose smiles with the benevolent joy of a child that has just been given the world, and Oz hopes that perhaps keeping this promise will redeem him, if only a little.

And as they share their smiles, old and new souls caught in a wheel neither can escape, the world changes around them. The night and the ocean vanish, replaced by the bright blue sky above them and still water under their feet.

Ozma lifts his face, for the light within Ruby Rose grows and grows, until it is the God of Creation before him.

Questions—thousands of them, collected over countless lifetimes—burst forwards. Did I do the right thing? Are we doomed? How could you put me on an endless path? How could you not warn me? Why did you place us all in such torment—why when you could— why why why?

But the God of Light merely smiles.

“We only question,” he says. “Fate is the question we throw. The answer… is yours.”

And as he speaks, he changes once again, until all that faces Oscar, on the surface of the Fountain of Life and Creation, is Ruby, her eyes glowing with silver starlight.