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much sweeter than it ought to be

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Yang is twelve years old the first time her father takes her to sea.

She’s young still, sure, but already sturdy and strong. When she fights with the other kids in the back alleys of Dunwall, battering each other around with cheap wooden swords until they splinter and break, she always wins. She fights hard but fair, something she learned from her father. She thinks he would be proud, probably, but she and Ruby never tell him what they get up to when he’s out to sea.

The children of the slums of Dunwall have their own rules and codes of conduct. Adults just wouldn’t understand.

And by the standards of those codes and rules, Yang is almost a hero. The other kids whisper about her sometimes, telling stories in the street about her victories over Mercury Black despite his supposed close association with the Hatters — a rumor that Yang doesn’t believe for a second. Some street punk like that getting let in with the Hatters, even if they’ve declined in power and influence lately, would be a travesty.

He’s not as tough as he obviously thinks.

Or maybe he does know. Maybe that’s why he likes to play so dirty.

There are rules of conduct, but Mercury ignores them all, like now when he thinks it’s a good idea to try winning by getting under Yang’s skin.

A lot of people have tried it before. They bully Ruby, who’s still so young and trusting — too trusting for Dunwall’s streets — and think that somehow it’s going to make Yang weaker. But it doesn’t work.

She only hits harder.

But Mercury is dumber than most. He doesn’t just shove her sister down and threaten to use a rusted spring razor to rearrange her face — although that’s already reason enough for Yang to slam her knee into the back of his head, hard, and swing the blunt edge of her fake sword in a looping arc to catch him in the ear.

But he isn’t done.

“Yang,” he laughs, flecks of blood in his smile. “Always where you’re not wanted. Didn’t your mother teach you any manners before she left?”

Maybe he was going to say something more after that. Some stupid joke. He’s always making jokes.

But Yang isn’t really listening.

The only thing she can hear is the pounding of her heartbeat in her own ears as she hits him, over and over. It’s a high and frantic sound that all blends together, like a single drawn out tone.

It makes her think of the way that Uncle Qrow once described whale song to her.

She keeps hitting.

Over and over, until bone starts to crack. Some of it is in his face, she’s pretty sure, but some of it is in her hand too.

There’s so much blood when Ruby tries to pull her off of him.

“Yang,” she shouts. “Mr. Black is coming, come on!”

Mercury’s eyes go wide and his attempts to struggle out from underneath Yang become stronger, suddenly much more insistent. “Get off me, get off—” But he doesn’t have to say it again. She is up and running with Ruby.

Mr Black works forging weapons near Bottle Street and has been there since before Yang was born. Everyone knows he’s the reason Mercury Black has as many spring razors as he’d like to carry around in his pockets, but that he’s also the reason that Mercury can only run with a limp.

Yang isn’t going to stick around to see what he does to someone else’s kid.

*

Uncle Qrow returns home before their father, even though they left on the same ship two days earlier. It’s a short journey this time, so Yang and Ruby only had to prepare one dinner together the night before. Ruby did all the knife work and Yang kept an eye on the fire.

Tonight, though, the adults are going to be back and can handle things from here.

It’s probably for the best, because Yang isn’t certain she could use her hand if she wanted to.

“What you got there?” Qrow asks from behind a cup of Orbon Rum. “Behind your back…”

Yang isn’t holding anything behind her back except for her own hand, which she can’t close into a fist anymore. Somehow holding it there, just out of sight, had seemed like a really effective and subtle way of keeping their secret.

Now she’s thinking maybe she was wrong about that.

“Nothing,” she says, which is true at least.

Uncle Qrow leans forward in his chair, watching her carefully. “How’s the other guy look?”

“Worse!” Ruby chimes in happily.

Qrow’s attention shifts to her. “You saw it too, huh?”

“Yang saved me,” Ruby says, her voice firm and resolved in that way only little kids can be, and Yang should know: at the very mature age of twelve, almost thirteen, she’s practically an adult.

“How brave.”

“Yeah, well Mercury Black had it coming.”

Qrow takes another long sip from his cup; it’s the same one he uses most nights, especially if dad’s not home yet to see him. “I bet he did. And now your hand is hurting, huh?”

“… yeah.” Yang tries to flex it but she flinches.

“You’ve got to learn how to throw a punch, kid.”

“I know how to hit things,” Yang says, feeling heat pooling up inside her chest. She gets like that sometimes, and doesn’t even know why. Ever since Ruby’s mom died, it’s only gotten worse. She feels heat in her chest and in her cheeks, boiling. So hot she’s almost light headed. “I can hit things just fine. Ask anyone.”

“Okay, but how about learning to hit them without hurting yourself.”

“… he has a point.”

“Shut up, Ruby.”

But he does. He has a point.

“I’ll teach you. Some other time. When your dad isn’t about to come home and kill you.”

Ruby’s eyes go wide with a child-like concern and her head swivels around to look at her sister. “Oh, Yang! I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”

“But we’ll give you one hell of a memorial, kid.”

Just then the door creaks open and in walks dad, a sack of food over his shoulder. “Sorry, who’s dying?” He laughs and gives a smile to the room in general, but it freezes on his face when he sees Yang.

When he sees her hand.

*

Dad doesn’t kill her. But it’s worse.

It’s so much worse.

He’s not mad, he’s just disappointed. He thinks sticking up for Ruby and fighting off some bully is disappointing. Because the adults just don’t understand what it’s like. Dunwall isn’t still the place they talk about it being when they were younger.

It’s not safe, not even in the streets right outside their house, and especially not for a kid like Ruby. Not yet, at least.

“I can teach her too, you know, just wait until she’s a little older,” Uncle Qrow says that night after dad exhausts himself with yelling and then leaves the house completely, the door banging on its hinges after him.

Yang doesn’t say much in response. She just nods, and so does Ruby.

Their dad is gone for over an hour.

When he comes back, there’s no smile on his face. It’s totally blank.

“Get sleep,” he says, not looking at Yang at all. “Tomorrow you’ll be coming with Qrow and I. To work.”

For the first time all evening, Qrow sits up straight. “Are you sure that’s such a…”

“I’ve decided,” dad says, firmly. “She isn’t going to end up like—”

“What, like me?”

“No.” Dad hangs his jacket on the hook by the door and turns away from all of them now. “Like your sister.”

Yang feels the heat in her chest again, boiling, but she doesn’t say anything.

*

The next day, her father takes her down to the docks.

He’s less cold than he was the night before. “Come on,” he says, quiet but steady. “It’s time we put all that muscle and quick feet to good use.” His hands on her shoulders are steady too, steering her through the crowds of people.

Yang has been to the docks before, plenty of times, but it feels different now. These aren’t just dumb adults to avoid or stare at in curiosity. Any one of these people are almost like her equals now.

She’s really going to be almost like an adult herself, already earning her way in the world.

Maybe dad means it as a punishment — even though he says he doesn’t, that morning over the bread and cheese they break their fast with, he says so over and over — but the fact is that, no matter what his intention is, Yang is starting to feel excited.

She’s been on a few boats before, but it’s not the same.

She’s never stood on deck of anything as big as this whaling ship. The way it moves is like the whole world twisting around underneath her. When they push off from the docks, she can feel the bottom of the world pull out from under her and suddenly she’s floating.

It’s like dreams she’s had of flying. But better.

It’s real.

Even though she’s smaller, way smaller than everyone else, nobody treats her like a dumb kid.

When it’s her turn to help tie down the mast, they shout quick instructions and expect them to be followed. And she does, even though she still struggles with her right hand at first.

She manages and she doesn’t complain.

In that first day, she learns to tie more kinds of knots than she ever knew existed, but also where to put her feet, carefully, when climbing the rigging. It’s easy enough. She’s been climbing most of her life — up the railings to the rooftops of Dunwall, a whole city stretched out beneath her feet — but this isn’t just the same filthy slum that she’s always known as home. This is the entire world, big and beautiful and stretched out in every direction.

It’s incredible and terrible.

She learns to scan the horizon for the signs of whales in the distance and begins to learn the smell of an oncoming storm.

It’s not long until she gets callouses on her fingertips that help her to hold her grip steady when they ride against the rain, the wind and water lashing against her face.

*

Dad gives her an old knit hat to wear, water stained but warm.

She recognizes it as one her mother used to have, from the photo her dad doesn’t think she knows that he still keeps in the third dresser drawer on the right.

When Qrow sees her wearing it the first time, he goes very still, staring for a long stretch of silence. This time he doesn’t have his cup of Rum with him; he’s drinking it straight from the bottle. “… maybe you should cut all your hair off, kid. Really avoid worrying about the wind then.” He hiccups. “Did you think of that?”

“I think if you try it, I’ll cut your hand off.”

“… so that’s a no then.”

He smiles, though, just a little.

*

Yang is already strong when she begins her career as a whaler but within a few months the job has begun to leave its marks on her body.

Her skin becomes incredibly tanned, little creases forming around her eyes. Most sailors get those kinds of lines, the crows feet they call it, from watching the horizon for so many hours, day after day and year after year. But Yang’s come right away, even sooner, from all of her smiling. Every day, from sun up to sundown, she’s grinning like a fool, hoisting herself higher and higher. Maybe one day she’ll be able to actually touch the rim of the sun that shines down on them from above.

Her already broad shoulders begin to bulge with muscles thickly knotted like rope. She thinks to herself that she could tie a convincing line into the shape of her shoulder blades, if she had to. It suits her, this work, and it fits itself to her body like an old friend.

Even the stink that comes with whaling doesn’t bother her much.

She’s used to hard smells, after all, from so much time in the back alleys of Dunwall. Dead and dying whales, despite all the blood, still smell much better than the mixture of piss, shit, sour liquor, and rotting flesh that hang in the air over the poorest parts of their city.

Once they finally catch a whale that they’ve been tracking — the whole weight of their vessel straining against its resistance before it tires itself out, however long that might take— they finally pull it up onto deck to begin the slow butchery that occupies most of the voyage back.

They encourage wearing masks during this part of the process and sometimes gloves as well. The thick rubbery hide, when pierced, gives off a heavy aroma that clogs up all of the air. Slick blood covers almost every surface. It isn’t exactly pleasant, but it reminds Yang of all the coin waiting for them once they’ve finished.

It means they’re about to start the long journey back to dock and home to Ruby.

*

The first time they catch one, Yang’s very first voyage out to sea, they race after it for hours and hours. It’s a big creature — bigger than most buildings Yang has been inside of herself — and the whole ship shakes when it breaks the surface, lashing the water with its tail.

They spear it right away, blood rushing into the water all around them.

Red stretching out toward the horizon in every direction, like eager hands.

“What now?” Yang asks, her voice high and thin.

“Now we wait.”

Her dad’s hand is heavy and steady on her shoulder. Her Uncle Qrow isn’t anywhere nearby because he is manning one of the harpoons driven into the creature’s side. There is a clear trail of blood and gore that runs from the end of his weapon to the weeping wound in the side of the massive beast.

It bleeds slowly, still resisting, and they wait with it through the night, alternating hands to keep a steady tension on the weapons holding it in place.

By daybreak, the thrashing has slowed and they pull it up onto the deck. Its eyes are as big as Yang’s head and it looks directly at her, slowly blinking, but she’s not certain that it can see anymore.

Her dad tries to shield her from the sight of the dying animal and the men with knives as they prepare it, but she edges her way past him to watch.

He still has no idea what they’ve all seen in their own streets.

*

The only thing that Yang still hates, even years later, is the mournful sounds that the whales sometimes make at night when they’re still in the process of giving up on life.

“Whale song,” Uncle Qrow tells her. He looks as though he wants to say something more, but thinks better of it.

He’d told her about it before, the pained cries that whales can make. The way he described it, she expected it to be beautiful, majestic, and wanted to hear it for herself one day. Now she knows better.

“I hate it.”

When Uncle Qrow puts his hand on her shoulder it never feels as steady as her father’s, but she appreciates the gesture. “Yeah.” His voice is so soft, she’s not sure that he’s actually said it aloud at all, but the word is still there somehow.

Like something buried deep inside of her bones.

*

Yang isn’t allowed to join them for every voyage, even as she gets older.

The ones that they know are going to be very long, that would keep all of them away from home (away from Ruby), dad tells her to find some other work dockside instead.

It never crosses any of their minds, not even Yang, that she would ever take the day off for herself without working at all.

Maybe dad’s right and this has all been good for her. She doesn’t feel that heat as often anymore, boiling inside her. She’s too busy, too focused, and it’s easy to make a good impression on the people looking to hire when you don’t let yourself feel any of the bad things.

She smiles, for one. People have always liked her smile, and she likes it too.

Even if the way the members of the nobility look at them sometimes makes her want to spit instead. But when Yang smiles, those noble lords and ladies who had been carefully holding themselves back — like being poor was something contagious they might catch if their clothes even touched — almost relax.

They move a little closer.

She’s seen others take advantage of this kind of thing. Any kid who knows their way around Bottle Street knows not to let Emerald bump against you unless you’ve got a hand firmly on your coin purse, so maybe the rich snobs are onto something. It would be so easy to take that pouch off the gentleman’s belt when he’s showing off to the lady next to him about how confidently he can move amongst the little people.

But Yang resists. She doesn’t want to be what they think she is.

It’s better to smile when they ask her a question and then wink before she laughs and says, “Sure, that’s easy.”

No matter what it is. It’s always easy.

Want her to scale a guard tower? No problem. Want her to pass through the rat infested side of town, through the feuding Hatters and Bottle Street Gang, just to deliver a letter? Easy.

Need her to speak to a specific courtesan at The Golden Cat on your behalf?

Hey, the ladies there all say they like Yang’s wink and her smile too. It’s all easy.

No matter what the wealthy say they want with you, no matter how much it almost brings back that hot and boiling feeling, it’s easy. Just smile and say so.

Even if Yang thinks she might understand Emerald better day by day.

*

Compared to sailing in search of whales, serving as an especially small and fast courier through the twisting back alleys and narrow streets of Dunwall is really miserable. There’s no wind in her hair, none of that shifting and pitching newness of the world viewed from a ship.

Still, it pays well enough and they need all the coin they can get. Apart from paying for the family’s meals, every extra bit of coin they earn after goes to pay for Ruby’s books. It’s been that way for as long as Yang can really remember, or at least since Ruby’s mom died.

They have a plan, the four of them.

Because one day Ruby is going to be the brightest mind in the whole of the Empire, discovering new ways to make use of the oil brought in from whaling ships like theirs. She’s brilliant and she genuinely wants to do good.

To make the world better than she found it.

All the coin earned by Yang, Uncle Qrow, and their father will put her there, in time, and by doing that they’ll all be doing their part as well.

*

It has to be worth the effort; and most days it really feels like it is.

Only ten years old, and already Ruby knows how to disassemble broken traps they might find abandoned in the back alleys where unsuspecting children could stumble into them and risk losing a limb. Yang used to make a habit of triggering them herself, poking at the central mechanism with a shattered wooden sword and felt a grim kind of a pleasure at the way the shrapnel glittered as it sprung through the air, so close to both their faces.

There are a lot of things to fear in Dunwall, but all those other kinds of fear can start to feel smaller when you stand so close to death over and over. It’s a sort of freedom.

Some people say — though it’s only in whispers where they know the Abbey can’t hear them — that if you brush up against the very edges of your life often enough, the Outsider will know you by name. He’ll actually hear when you call.

It’s silly. The sort of things the kids would say to each other when they’re playing in the streets. Something to laugh and shout in Mercury’s face when he doesn’t play fair and loses anyway.

That’s what she thought, at least.

All of that changes when Yang is fifteen and she’s pulled over the railing of their whaling ship into the tossing waters below.

*

Nobody else sees it happen.

The storm picks up suddenly, without warning, and everyone has a very specific job to do when the weather turns like that. They’ve faced these things before, most of them a dozen or even a hundred times. Even Yang has ridden into hard storms already — or worse even, a bad storm when whales are riding close, bursting through the surface and nearly shattering their hull — but something about this one feels different.

The hair on the back of her neck stands on end, like a warning, and then just as suddenly the rain is coming down. It scatters across the wooden planks of the ship, rattling like the gunfire she’s heard when the City Watch is training in the Tower grounds. She used to climb to the roof and watch them, daydreaming about the life of a soldier — adventure, excitement, but also three meals every day and a warm bed to come home to — and it’s this memory, dreaming about warmth and comfort, that is nestled at the back of Yang’s mind when the ship dips suddenly, twisting in the waves, and then reels back up again, just as sharply.

She grabs for the railing, tries to grip it with her right hand, but another wave surges over the side, battering her back before dragging her forward.

The ship pitches. It shifts.

The momentum knocks Yang off her feet, but upward, flying as the deck pulls away from underneath her. She screams, something almost like exhilaration, but then just as quickly turned to fear.

Yang reaches for the railing again, but it slips from her grasp, scraping across her fingertips.

She is still thinking about the soldiers and their rapid gunfire when the water rushes up to meet her, slamming the air from her lungs in one swift collision.

Bam. Impact.

*

Deep enough underwater, even the light is different. Yang doesn’t know how far down she’s gone or how long she’s been down there. She isn’t sure of anything. The world is only the rush of water, twisting in white foam and black swirls all around her.

No matter how much she struggles to reach the surface, it’s like some kind of force keeps pulling her back, tugging her down.

It stings to keep her eyes open, but even worse is the realization that she wants to close them. The way her vision is starting to blur. Her arm wrenches with pain as she tries to swim faster, to drag herself against the tide that’s pulling her back. Every part of her is aching.

She thinks that she might hear whale song, somewhere close and only getting closer.

It would be so easy to just listen to it. To stop and to listen.

Just close her eyes and stop fighting.

It’s easy.

*

White foam and black nothing fills up her ears, eyes, and throat. She wants to scream, even though she knows she shouldn’t.

Her lungs feel inky, thick, and then she feels nothing.

Nothing.

*

Yang isn’t sure if her eyes are open or closed, but she’s pretty sure this is a dream.

Or a nightmare. Or maybe death.

It’s probably death, because suddenly there’s a man here too, and she knows his name the moment she lays eyes on him. The word appears at the back of her mouth — heavy, thick, and oily against her tongue — but she refuses to say it out loud.

She won’t speak him into being.

She isn’t sinking anymore. Or floating. The water has completely disappeared and they are standing together, adrift in the vast emptiness all around them.

The man — no, a boy, freckled and even younger than she is — smiles as he moves closer. “I’ve been waiting for you.” The expression doesn’t reach his eyes and barely even looks right on his mouth. It’s not really a smile at all; it’s like someone took a knife and carved a face into a stone. Or into bone. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Yang takes a step back, studying her opponent. She’s pretty sure she could take him, if it came to hand to hand. But that’s not what he is. That’s not how this works, and she knows it.

Maybe that’s why she still can’t (won’t) say his name.

“You’re gifted. With physical talents, yes, but loyalty too.” He tilts his head, dark and empty eyes studying her. “That’s rare.”

“Maybe you need some new followers then.”

“So you do know who I am.”

Outsider.

Father of the dark. Keeper of the Void. The man— no, boy — who’s there to greet you at your death.

The worship of him is a grave offense as far as the Abbey of the Everyman is concerned, a source of great debate. Some of the Abbey faithful will tell you he isn’t even real, just a story for the simple minded or simply immoral to get them through long cold nights with no food or comfort, and in this one area at least Yang has always wanted to avoid trouble as best as she can, to not pick a side, but here he is right in front of her.

He’s real.

His followers were right all along and their frantic worship with idols carved from bone is starting to seem a little less crazy. But still kind of crazy.

Especially with the way his eyes are so empty, a great big empty nothingness looking back at her, it doesn’t seem like there is anything here to worship or to praise. The sailors who call upon the Outsider for safe travels were pleading to the wrong person, because Yang is pretty sure that somehow she’s still sinking, drowning, and he only looks amused.

“Sure,” Yang says, carefully. “But how do you know who I am?”

She takes a step back, away from the darkness in his eyes that mirrors the darkness that surrounds them.

Cold.

She feels a heavy (sinking) sense of cold creeping up behind her, just out of sight. When she turns her head, just a little, it’s not quite there anymore. It’s moving, shifting around them.

But drawing closer.

“Oh.” The Outsider laughs, and his unnatural smile stays carved into his face a little longer than it should, like a trailing threat still hanging in the air even after the rest of him shifts out of view before appearing again, even closer than before. His smile is even sharper too.

Yang starts and tries to back away, but he follows quickly.

“I know your Uncle,” he says, his voice like a whisper, like the soft lapping of waves in an endless sea of nothing. She takes another step back but his hand reaches out quickly to grasp her by her face, thumb pressing firmly against the spot between her eyebrows, as though he can press straight through the ridge of her forehead into her tender brain below. “… tell him I said hello, won’t you?”

*

And then the cold and the dark is all she knows.

*

Until Yang is suddenly bent over on the deck, puking her guts out with Uncle Qrow standing over her, creases of worry all over his face. “That’s it, kid. Just let it all out.”

Nothing Yang has seen in her travels out to sea would have led her to believe that what’s coming out of her now should be so thick and black. Just the sight of it is enough to curl her stomach so that she retches again, her whole body shaking with the force of it. The muscles in her shoulders ache with exertion — from swimming against the pulling current, from supporting her weight as her whole body apparently tries to expel her insides to her outside — and, by the Outsider does it hurt.

Actually.

Maybe she’s going to rethink her use of that particular turn of phrase.

For now she allows herself the luxury of collapsing on the deck, but is careful to roll first, landing a little away from the mess she’s just made. The storm has almost passed, and there’s no more rainfall to wash off the deck.

Yang is faintly aware that it’s probably something she’ll have to clean up herself later.

But right now, Uncle Qrow is watching her with a look of concern and something she thinks might be recognition. Maybe she won’t have to say anything at all.

Because there was something she was supposed to tell him. She remembers that much.

But what it was… that’s harder.

The memory is pulling away, like the storm clouds pushing back across the horizon, leaving sunlight suddenly streaming in and searing her eyes.

She squints and then she shuts them.

Behind her eyelids, it’s only darkness and despite the burning heat of the sun, Yang feels strangely cold.

*

For weeks after that, dad doesn’t want her sailing out with them. He treats her like she’s fragile, like it was somehow all her fault. But from what the other sailors say, it isn’t that uncommon to fall overboard. Most people are rescued, just like she was.

This is part of the job.

“But you’re not a sailor, Yang, you’re still a child.”

That isn’t fair because it isn’t true, not really, and hasn’t been for some time now.

“That didn’t matter to you before!” Yang shouts back, feeling a greater impulse to hit something than she has in ages. “Why start now?”

“That isn’t fair, and you know it.”

“Oh, but what do I know! I’m just a kid, remember?”

She really wants to slam the door behind her as she storms out of the house, but the wooden frame has started to rot and she doesn’t know that it would hold up against her anger.

It’s better not to risk it.

There are still too many things kept back there she still wants to keep safe. Things like—

“Yang! Wait up!”

Like that. Like Ruby jogging just to catch up with her, not even looking where she’s going so that Yang has to grab hold of her hood to tug her out of the way of the broken whiskey bottles scattered at the corner. “You should go home, Ruby.”

“Then so should you. Dad’s worried.”

“He’s always worried.”

“You mean since you almost died? Yeah, he’s worried about that.” Ruby flings her arms up in the air for emphasis. “But I am too, you know. And Uncle Qrow. We all are.”

“That … doesn’t make me feel a lot better.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel better.” Ruby huffs. “I’m trying to be honest.” Very abruptly, she stops walking. “Where are we going?”

Yang is slower to stop, so she has to turn to look back. She gestures with a jerk of her head. “The docks. Where else?”

Ruby looks uncertain. “Dad says I’m not supposed to go there.”

“You’re older than I was when I started.” For half a second, Yang almost wants to let herself feel the annoyance she can sense creeping in, but she can tell that her sister actually seems worried, and so she smiles instead. That part’s easy. “Come on. Since when have I ever let anyone hurt you?”

“You haven’t. But last time it came close you broke your hand on Mercury Black’s face.”

“I didn’t break it.” Yang’s smile almost melts away completely when she squints out at the horizon. “It just stung. For a little while, and now I’m fine, see.” When she looks back at Ruby, she’s grinning again, wiggling her fingers dramatically.

“Wow, three years and you’re like brand new.”

“Exactly.” Yang turns and doesn’t bother looking back. “So come on.”

She knows that Ruby’s going to follow.

*

The work dockside isn’t as good as riding out to sea, but it pays well, and it’s time Ruby learned a little bit about taking care of herself, Yang thinks. Uncle Qrow had promised to give her fighting lessons, but that was before their trips started keeping them away from home longer and longer, and besides, combat was never going to be Ruby’s problem. She’s smart and quick on her feet; she could learn.

Her problem was trust.

“Alright.” Yang slaps a heavy hand down on Ruby’s shoulder. “First rule: you don’t approach Overseers. Ever. Some of them might look like they have business and they’ve always got a lot of coin, but they’re not worth the trouble.” She gives her sister’s shoulder a pointed squeeze. “Ever.”

“No Overseers. Got it.” And Ruby does look like she’s filing all the information away for a later time, her eyes carefully scanning the crowd. “So what about worshippers of the Outsider? Can I—”

Ruby’s never learned to talk quietly about things like this, and Yang could swear a few of the people around them stop and take notice of the question, even before she’s put a hand over Ruby’s mouth.

So Yang smiles at them, that great big winning grin, before spinning her sister around to face her. “No. Just stick to normal people, okay, or maybe nobility, but—” Visions of Ruby telling the nobility all about the dead birds her uncle brings her to practice dissection quickly pass through Yang’s mind. “— just don’t say the things you’re thinking, okay, to any of them. Not when it’s work.”

It takes Yang a moment to realize that Ruby isn’t answering because she’s still covering her mouth.

She withdraws her hand and Ruby lets out an exaggerated heavy breath before her shoulders shift quickly, up and down. “Well, when do I know if it’s work!”

“If they’re nobility, it’s always work.” Yang’s eyebrows drift upward, almost like an unspoken question. She can’t believe she still has to teach her sister this at her age. “They’re not your friends, Ruby.”

“I know.”

And maybe Ruby does know that, but it doesn’t keep her shoulders from deflating when she admits it.

To Ruby, everyone is just one good conversation away from being a possible friend.

This is why she needs Yang’s guidance.

*

On that first day down by the docks together, Yang wants to keep it easy for Ruby.

No dangerous missions across all of Dunwall for her.

So when a request comes in to deliver payment in the other side of the city, passing directly through Hatters territory, Yang takes that one for herself. She’s already confident enough in her climbing — has been for years — and it’s good to remind herself that she can still do the challenging things, even after her dad and uncle have started treating her like glass.

Because even Uncle Qrow is really worried, for some reason.

It’s almost unsettling.

But she doesn’t have to think about that now.

For now there’s only this, this moment, and the feeling of the light breeze as she runs over the rooftops, careful not to slip on any loose roof tiles, and keep an eye on the people passing in the streets below.

There’s a pickpocket and some unsuspecting merchant. There’s a whaler on leave — you can always tell the ones who have done it long enough from how they still walk like they’re drifting at sea — and there’s a courtesan who plies her trade somewhere local like her own flat instead of a more expensive establishment.

From high up above, you develop an eye for these things.

Like how she can spot the Hatters from a block away. It’s a relatively small gathering of them in the streets, probably bragging and boasting about some easy mark they ganged up on, especially because (as she draws closer) she can see that Mercury Black is there with them.

Maybe he wasn’t lying about those connections all these years.

And it really seems like the years haven’t changed him at all, since he and some redhead boy — no, more like a man, actually — are pushing around a smaller boy. It’s the two of them and four others actually dressed as Hatters, all ganging up on one small guy.

No. Wait.

That’s definitely a girl in some kind of lame disguise consisting of a long jacket and hat that admittedly fooled Yang herself, sure, but only for a few moments (and from very far away), so she doubts it’s very effective for people approaching them at ground level.

They’re arguing about something, their voices almost loud enough now for Yang to hear by the time she carefully swings down to the railing just over their head.

“I don’t understand why you’re making this so hard,” the redhead man says — definitely a man, now that she’s closer, way older than her or Mercury and probably the girl in disguise too, whose arm he’s gripping tightly. “I thought you and I saw eye to eye on this.”

“Let me go,” the girl says with the rising emphasis of someone used to people actually doing what she says.

So an idiot, probably, who walked right into danger.

But even so. Any friend of Mercury’s probably deserves a quick thrashing, even if he’s older (and a little bit bigger), and it’s not like Ruby isn’t the kind of person who stumbles into these same kinds of problems anyway. Rescuing the sweet and stupid is kind of Yang’s thing.

Even if this girl currently strikes her as really pretty dumb.

“So you’ll what? Run home to your parents?” The guy shoves — he actually shoves — her back into the hard brick of the wall and Yang’s grip tightens on the railing. “Do they know what you’ve been sneaking around doing?”

Yeah, okay, he definitely deserves this, but she’s way outnumbered and should really wait for the right opening to—

“We’ve got company.”

Well, shit, apparently the one thing that has changed with age is Mercury’s way more aware of his surroundings and knows to scan the rooftops. Their eyes actually lock together for half a second before he slaps the redhead on the shoulder and Yang takes one deep breath before flinging herself over the railing and hurting down to the street below.

The plan is to use the body of one of the Hatters to break her fall — she doesn’t care which one, although preferably not Mercury, since she already knows she can take that punk — so long as she avoids caving in the poor girl’s skull, since that would kind of defeat the purpose of what she’s going for. Which is probably a little bit heroic, but a lot of dumb too, so between the two of them they’ve got all the stupid pretty much covered.

Maybe this random girl can also throw some of her weight around in more of a fair fight just to even it out a little.

“Feel free to run,” Yang shouts right before she lands all of her weight on one of the gang members and plows them right into the ground, face first. Just lead with your shoulder; it’s easy. She jumps back up and grins over at the remaining Hatters. “That goes for you all too, but I guess you probably won’t listen.”

Guns. Of course they’ve got guns.

The smile really abruptly drops from Yang’s face just as the redhead loosens his grip on the girl, turning quickly to say, “No guns, you idiots, we can’t risk the—”

Whatever he’s worried about risking, he doesn’t finish saying it because suddenly he’s doubled over on the ground, clutching his groin in agony. The girl quickly backs away after landing her strike, bristling and glowering, golden eyes bright with fury. So maybe not a total idiot.

And kind of… cute, actually

Despite the angry look on her face — or maybe a little bit because of it — the random girl is really cute.

No, pretty. She’s pretty. Like grown up kinds of beautiful. Black hair spilling out of the cap she’s tried to hide it under and—

Wait, shit, Yang has to focus because Mercury and the Hatters who didn’t take her up on the offer to run are still standing and now they’re advancing on Yang with blunt weapons drawn.

Moving in on Yang only because mystery girl just actually made a run for it.

To be fair, Yang did present the option, but she hadn’t actually expected her to be so ungrateful.

Maybe she should have remembered to use her devastating wink.

“… shit.”

“My dad’s not here to help you this time, asshole.” Mercury hefts the heavy pipe he’s holding in his hand. It’s made from rigid metal and looks like it could probably kill Yang with a few well placed hits to the base of her skull. “But if you like, I’ll give you a head start.” He swings the pipe against the wall, hard, sending up a shower of sparks. “Not sure I can say the same for my friends.”

The two remaining Hatters exchange an uncertain glance with each other.

Yang takes the opportunity to crack her knuckles and tries to make herself seem taller. She glances toward the end of the alley — where the girl ran off to. Yang could probably make it, if she started now.

If they still kept their guns in their holsters.

“No interest?” Mercury laughs and he hits the wall again. “Oh, well.”

Just like that, he’s running toward her, weapon raised, and flanked by the two others. Yang takes several quick steps back, almost stumbling, but they’re moving too fast. She should turn to run, it would be faster, but every instinct screaming inside of her says not to turn her back on her opponent — not to run.

And somewhere, in the distance, she hears whale song.

Wait. No.

That’s gunfire. Several quick shots that hit their mark, blood splattering all across the alleyway, mixing with the filthy rain water from the early morning.

Mercury screams and drops to the ground, a pool of blood forming underneath his shattered legs. One of the two Hatters isn’t so lucky; she drops and then goes utterly silent, staring upward.

And the redhead is nowhere to be found. Probably run off, the bastard, and isn’t that just the perfect irony.

Because while Yang has never actually heard the guns from this close, she knows that sound instantly. It’s why she’s not surprised — only very, very afraid — when she turns to see the City Watch blocking the mouth of the alleyway.

So this is it then.

She always thought there was a chance she’d be arrested — it’s almost a rite of passage when you’re poor enough — but she didn’t think it might involve a risk of dying in a hail of bullets. She holds up her hands, palms out, and hopes the woman at the front might take pity on her.

She’s tall, very precise and proper, with her dark red hair pulled back tight away from her face. Getting a better look at her now, she couldn’t be much older than Yang herself. Definitely not the head of the guard then.

Maybe she’ll have some pity.

“Hello,” the woman says, her voice level and calm, but almost warm. In other circumstances, Yang might even think it was friendly. “Is this her, your Imperial Highness?”

“Yes,” says a slightly familiar voice, with the emphasis of someone who is used to people doing what she says.

The guards part like the tide pulling back from the shore, and there stands the random girl.

Her hat is discarded now, thick dark hair (as black as the Void) trailing down around her shoulders. It’s entirely the wrong time to think it, but Yang can’t help but notice how attractively disheveled she looks, or the way her golden eyes have softened now. “I’m sorry,” the girl is saying, holding out her hand. Every assembled member of the City Watch actually appears to visibly tense, which she very resolutely ignores. “We haven’t been properly introduced.”

She smiles and waits, holding out her hand.

Yang hesitates, her eyes scanning the rows of guns that are still pointed much closer to her than she would like. “… yeah, hey.” She waits a moment longer before stepping closer. And then another step. Finally, they’re close enough for her to reach out and take the other girl’s hand. “I’m Yang.”

“Blake.”

Yeah, Yang had started to work that much out.

And now she’s really glad she didn’t give the girl her famous wink earlier. She’s really sure that someone like her isn’t meant to flirt with Blake Belladonna, Imperial Princess of the Empire of the Isles.

She’s also probably not supposed to hold her hand for this long, which she realizes and then immediately drops. “… sorry,” she mumbles. She grins, but then thinks better of it, settling into a more neutral expression.

“Don’t be.” Now that her face isn’t occupied with being enraged, Blake actually comes across as kind of dry, even faintly smirking. Her eyebrows lift as she eyes Yang up and down, evaluating her in almost the exact same way all nobility tends to before sending her off on some errand. “Do you usually go head first into danger to help someone you don’t know?”

“It’s not always the head. I usually prefer my fists.”

Just behind Blake’s shoulder, Yang notices the redheaded woman is almost smiling at that. And Blake’s own smirk is only bigger. “Do you know how to use other weapons than your hands?”

“Not… really.” Yang is trying to follow this line of questioning. Is she being accused of something? Some robbery that might have happened nearby? “Hands are a lot easier to keep track of.”

She thinks she could make a joke about wandering hands, but very much thinks better of it, given the circumstances.

“But you think you could learn?” Blake’s expression has grown soft again. Yang had always thought nobility had a tendency to hide their emotions behind the still, lifeless masks that they called their faces, but this girl is different. “Do you think you’d want to learn?”

“To learn… what?” Yang blinks. She tries to refocus. “Sorry, I don’t follow.”

“I’m asking if you would like to be a part of my royal guard, Yang.”

“Your what?”

One of the soldiers near the back exclaims it first — though the others move to shush her quickly — but the sentiment is quickly echoed by Yang herself. “Your what?”

“I think you heard me.”

Yang did hear it, but she’s not sure she believes it.

“Like … with a sword. And a gun? And— and a job, and—”

“And risking your life for mine, so please try to think it over before you—”

“Yes,” Yang says, because she doesn’t need to think. She’s done plenty of thinking already. “Yes, I will. Gladly.” She waits a moment and then remembers, “Your Imperial Highness.”

Blake actually cringes, her voice low when she says, “Please don’t call me that.” Her words are whisper soft, like the water lapping against your feet when you stand close to the shore. “Just Blake is fine.”

Yang is certain that’s not actually true, that calling nobility anything less than what they see themselves as is a mistake, but she isn’t about to argue with the person who just offered her the nicest position anyone in her family has ever had the chance to rise to. “Yes, alright. Blake then.”

She holds out her hand to shake and every gathered member of the City Watch looks absolutely mortified; obviously it was the wrong call, but Blake takes her hand again anyway. She shakes it, firmly, like a business agreement has been reached.

For just a moment, Yang can’t help but think that the Imperial Princess of the Empire of the Isles has more callouses than she thinks anyone would expect.

Somewhere far off in the distance, she thinks she can hear the sound of whales singing.