Morena Pine may not have graduated at the top of her class at Sanctum, but when it comes to her nephew, she’s the best godsdamned expert in all of Remnant. Mateo and Oriana had left him at her place often enough when the two of them had to go out on business trips together, so Morena’s watched Oscar grow up, from the tiny two-year-old who would drool on her books to the babbling five-year-old who used to follow her around the fields to the nine-year-old who sat down at the dinner table and wanted to know exactly what his lawyer aunt did, even if it blew his little mind that a freelance legal contractor could work from home and didn’t always have to spout rhetoric in a courtroom. Oscar was tiny, brilliant, and so beautifully alive that even if Morena didn’t want kids — never had, never would — she loved him with a ferociousness that could only be maternal.
She was there for Oscar from infancy through childhood and into the borders of gangly adolescence, so she was there three years later as well, when a limping shadow made its way down the broad, tree-lined avenue leading to her home in the twilight. She was there, heart breaking in silence as she stood in her doorway, watching expressions flicker across the dirt-encrusted face of her twelve-year-old nephew who simply gazed at her, unrecognizing, body a taut wire, before some long-remembered trust cut the tension that strung through his body and he collapsed into her arms.
Nine months before that, she’d sprinted into a clearing, Mateo’s house engulfed in an inferno too hot to be natural, and to this day Morena isn’t completely sure what happened but she remembers the crack of thunder, the crash of a fierce downpour, and fire at the corners of her eyes that must have been the burning of tears.
But it didn’t matter what had been done, with the power vested in her by chance or by someone else’s choice, because Oscar hadn’t been there that night, not even after she spent hours searching frantically through the wreckage. She had crumpled to her knees in the ashes of her brother’s home, hands raw from digging and digging and finding only sorrow.
She still doesn’t know what happened to Oscar in those nine months, and she’s never asked. Even after he started speaking again, weeks after he found his way back to her doorstep, he didn’t say anything about the lost time, or that night, or the wounds and scars he hides now beneath bandages and long sleeves. She buys him the softest shirts she can find, the sturdiest pants, stacks rolls of white cloth bandages in the cabinet under the sink in the bathroom without his asking and instructs herself not to cry.
Morena Pine was there when he was a bubbling font of ten-year-old joy, so she’s also there when he becomes a quiet, skittish twelve-year-old boy who changes slowly into a thirteen-year-old who throws himself into fieldwork like he’s breaking ground to bury his demons, and for the fourteen-year-old she’s relearning to startle laughs out of again. She clears out the hayloft above the barn for him, and the way his eyes light up when he sees the mismatched furniture, the old rug she’d unearthed in the cellar, the books she’d spent more time than she’d like to admit picking out for him, makes it all worth it.
Morena Pine has never had children and never wants to, because she has Oscar, and she loves him so fiercely that she can’t imagine having room in her heart for anyone else.
Morena Pine may not have graduated from Sanctum at all, but when it comes to Oscar, she’s the best godsdamned expert in all of Remnant, so when he starts to go quiet again, she notices. Sometimes she looks out of her kitchen window, resting her eyes from hours of staring at cases on her scroll, and sees him standing, a still silhouette against the purpling sky, leaning on a shovel and staring out at the horizon. She notices the books shelved distractedly spines-in to the wall, the way he reaches for his gloves much more quickly now after a meal, and his pauses — not just the silence of thought before he speaks, but little frozen moments of movement, like someone had walked over his grave, like a ghostly finger had tapped his shoulder out of nowhere, like he’s responding to something she can’t see.
Morena tries to give him space, she really does. Recovery, she knows, is not a linear road, but her inability to do more eats at her. The very least she can do is make sure he eats.
“Oscar!” she calls again, halfway out of the farmhouse door. It sometimes takes a few tries to get him to come down, especially if he’s nose-deep in a book. “Suppertime! I better see clean hands.”
She heads back inside and stacks all of her paperwork on the kitchen table before moving it all to the counter in one fell swoop. The casserole steams gently; if her nephew takes any longer, it’s going to get cold.
Oscar arrives, moments later, and washes his hands speedily in the kitchen sink, gloves tucked into his belt. “Sorry, Aunt Em,” he says, and doesn’t quite meet her eyes.
“That’s quite all right, Oscar,” she says, and hands him a plate. “Which book was it?”
He looks confused. “Sorry?”
“Well, every time I was late to dinner, it was because I was just trying to finish a chapter,” Morena says as they sit.
“Oh!” Oscar says. “I was, uh, re-shelving books. Trying to keep my room clean and all.”
A diversion almost believable if she didn’t know that Oscar’s always been a neat kid. “Good on you,” she says, regardless.
“Do you have books on Haven?” Oscar blurts out suddenly. “I thought I remembered them being downstairs, but I…” he trails off.
“I’m sure I do somewhere,” Morena says, glancing at him. “Why, do you need to look something up? Scrolls are easier for that, you know.”
Last year, Morena had asked Oscar if he wanted to enroll in Sanctum Academy, since thirteen was the usual age to start, but something unreadable had passed across his face, and she decided not to press him. Could he be interested again…?
But no; at Morena’s questioning look, Oscar simply shakes his head, and she dishes casserole onto his plate.
The unease grows throughout dinner; Oscar isn’t usually chatty, but he isn’t usually this awkward, either. Morena catches the minute hunching of his shoulders, almost defensive, and his gaze flits erratically around the room. She holds her peace, though, until she’s satisfied that he’s eaten enough. Then, she leans back in her chair, folds her arms, and fixes Oscar with what he calls ‘the auntie glare’ and waits.
The fact that it takes him a moment to even notice her deployment of the auntie glare troubles her even more. “Uh… Aunt Em?” Oscar says hesitantly. “Is something wrong?”
“Spit it out,” she says.
Oscar looks uncertainly at the casserole, and Morena rolls her eyes as she nudges it aside with the back of her hand. “Something’s eating at you,” she says patiently. “Come on, out with it.”
Oscar flinches, and Morena suddenly realizes that might have been too harsh, too blunt, she should be giving him more space, and she’s been trying, she really has, but—
“What’s the craziest thing you believe?” Oscar asks.
Morena stiffens, because the craziest thing in her life isn’t a belief, but her greatest secret and an unexplainable reality, one that had derailed her life and unceremoniously terminated her schooling and led her to this farm in the middle of nowhere. But her nephew had asked her a question, and she’d rather walk into a Grimm-infested swamp than lie to him.
“That magic is real,” she says, finally, and she’s more nervous about that answer than she’d like to admit.
Oscar tilts his head, looking more curious than anything. “You mean like, in general?” He waves a hand vaguely in the air.
“In general, and in specific.” She needs to divert his attention, and quick. “You can’t tell me that you look out your window at sunrise and not believe in magic. You’ve got the best view on the entire property, and I know that for a fact.”
Oscar chuckles, and she’s relieved. “I guess so.”
Morena takes a deep breath. “Listen, Oscar, I’m sorry if I pushed you—”
“No, it’s okay.” He glances up at her from where he’s worrying his gloves. His hands look small and pale — they don’t see the sun as much as the rest of him does. “Can I tell you something?”
“Promise you won’t…” he hesitates so long that she wonders if he’s done speaking. “Promise you won’t turn away from me if you know?”
She didn’t think her heart could break anymore than it had two years ago, when Oscar first returned to her a shadow of his former self, but it breaks a little more when she realizes that whatever happened to him in those missing months made him think that her love for him could be conditional. She wants to reach across the table for his hand, but knows that will do more harm than good. “Oscar, honey, you can never make me turn away from you.” She considers for a moment. “Maybe murder. But that would depend on the case, I suppose. I’d probably help you hide the body anyway.” Please, she thinks, please work. She’s trying for a light tone, to make things easier for Oscar, to make him understand that the stakes are low and her love unchanging.
He hesitates, but finally, he grips his gloves in his hands and says, “I think I’m going crazy.”
“How do you mean?” Her voice is composed, level.
“I hear voices in my head. No.” Oscar shakes his head. “Not voices. Just one voice.”
Okay. Her nephew might be schizophrenic. Fourteen was a bit young for that, but Morena can handle this. “Does the voice have a personality?” she says.
“He says his name is… Ozpin, and that he was the headmaster of Beacon Academy before it fell.”
Morena can’t help it; she inhales sharply, and Oscar’s eyes immediately dart up to meet hers.
Her homestead in somewhat rural Mistral isn’t particularly well-connected to the outside world, nor is it particularly isolated — Morena usually tries to keep up with the news once a week or so through her scroll, and Haven is only a day’s train ride away. But even she knows about the fall of Beacon and the near-collapse of Vale, a month and a half ago. She also knows that Ozpin was, in fact, the name of the headmaster of Beacon Academy.
“Have you been reading a lot of the news, recently?” she asks, trying not to sound accusatory.
“No! I mean, I’d heard about what happened at Beacon, but…” Oscar catches sight of her expression, and apparently she isn’t as good at concealing her reactions as she’d thought. “Ozpin really was his name?”
Morena nods, and Oscar looks sick. “Aunt Em,” he says, voice almost a whisper. “I need you to tell me he’s not real. I don’t want to lose track—”
Morena Pine believes in magic because she’s seen it, felt it, used it. The ghost of a headmaster visiting her nephew — could she look at that and say that it wasn’t real? “Oscar,” she says. “What else does Ozpin say to you?”
Oscar’s shaking. “He says — he says that he has a grave responsibility to uphold — that we have a grave responsibility to uphold — ” Oscar cuts off, looking at her with frightened eyes, and Morena realizes that she’s shoved her chair back and is standing.
“Is Ozpin speaking to you right now?” Morena asks, and she will have to apologize to Oscar later. She makes a note for herself and sticks it to the front of the file cabinetry in her lawyer brain.
If Oscar isn’t hearing voices, and if that actually is Ozpin, former Headmaster of Beacon Academy, then the fall of Beacon wasn’t just a chance tragedy, but an organized conspiracy. If there was an organized conspiracy, one that sought to hide magic from the rest of Remnant and veil its existence through the transmission of fairytales, then Beacon Academy must have been a central linchpin in the maneuvering of shadowy powers in the world. If Beacon Academy was a central linchpin, then Ozpin, the Headmaster, must be privy to at least some of this vast conspiracy —
Morena’s mind is spinning through countless possibilities and contingencies. “Can you ask him—” Morena takes a moment to steady her voice. She’s lived for a good decade and a half with these questions, questions that she thought were unanswerable. “— if fairytales are real.”
“They can be.” Oscar’s response is so prompt that Ozpin can only be listening in as they speak. “He wants to know if you have a specific one in mind.”
“Yes. Mostly, but yes.” Oscar frowns. “He’s asking…what? No, you already are! What do you mean, if you can — ” Oscar suddenly looks very apprehensive. “You can do that?
It’s disconcerting, watching her nephew have half a conversation that she can’t hear. Oscar blinks, and comes back to her. “He says he wants to talk to you.”
Oscar takes a deep breath. “Apparently if I let him, he can…take over and talk to you through me.”
“You don’t have to,” Morena says immediately. “I’m fine with playing call-the-scroll.”
“No, I— ” Oscar squares his shoulders, and Morena wants to cry, because he’s Mateo’s son and she knows that look. He’s trying to be brave. “I think I’d like to try.” He tilts his head and listens for a moment. “Yes.”
As Morena watches, a pillar of light, interwoven with green and gold, shoots through her nephew, and when Oscar opens his eyes and gazes at her again, she knows, on a visceral level, that this is not the Oscar she knows and loves.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Morena Pine,” the man-in-her-nephew’s body says, and she shivers. She can almost hear the layers of history in his voice. “You must be the long-lost Summer Maiden.”
“I don’t know what that means,” she says evenly. “But you have a lot of explaining to do.”
She is right — there is magic in the world, as well as four Maidens. The last Summer Maiden had gone out on a mission and never returned, Ozpin says, and they had never found out who her power had transferred to. “If I had to guess,” Ozpin says, “the last person in her thoughts would have been her daughter. But her daughter was too young to receive the Maiden powers at that time, so they fell upon you as a worthy substitute.”
Morena snorts. “I don’t know about worthy.”
“I would not underestimate yourself,” Ozpin says. “Oscar has a great deal of admiration for you, and I can see why. You did, after all, figure out that the fairytale of the Seasons was true on your own.”
Morena waves a hand dismissively. “Research is part of my job. So what fairytales are true?”
Ozpin chuckles, and Morena is so disoriented it feels almost like vertigo. Oscar never laughs like that. “It would be easier to tell you the ones that aren’t. All fairytales are true on some level.”
She looks him dead in the eye. “Then which one are you?”
She only catches the shift in microexpression because she knows Oscar so well — instinct, it seems, is something Ozpin can’t override. Something in Ozpin’s confident openness shutters off. “I’m a fairytale gone wrong,” he says, after a few moments.
Morena just gazes at him steadily, waiting for him to elaborate.
“That’s all I’m willing to say,” Ozpin says.
She keeps waiting.
“For now.” The words sound like they’ve been dragged out of him, and Morena finally relents. She can’t imagine that being thrown across a continent into a new body being anything less than traumatic, and if anything, Morena wants to give him space, but — this is her nephew.
“So why are you here?” Morena asks. “What do you want from us? What do you want from Oscar?”
So he explains — the curse, the reincarnation, the like-minded souls. The terrible task he’s brought into their household. The burden of information that only he — and Oscar — could carry. As he speaks, the deepening shadows of the evening outside seem to lean in closer, as if they, too, were listening.
It all sounds ludicrous and far-fetched, like something out of a fairytale, but now that Morena knows that fairytales are real, she’s had enough crazy in her life to know that when the crazy started to make sense, she should stop and listen.
“So you’re saying you need to go,” she says when he’s done.
Ozpin has the decency to look apologetic. “We do.”
“Great.” Morena gets up and bustles around the kitchen, heading for the cling wrap in the cabinet. She frowns, then closes the cabinet — the casserole probably won’t keep that long.
Ozpin blinks at her inquisitively.
“What?” Morena says. “Of course I’m coming.”
Ozpin shakes his head. “It’s too dangerous, and if anyone were to recognize you as the Summer Maiden, that’d put you in grave danger.”
Morena places a banana on the small stack of fruit she’s making, then thinks better of it and sets it aside. “I have some Huntress training. And I’m not letting Oscar travel alone.”
“He wouldn’t be alone.”
She scoffs. “You’re a voice in his head. If what you’re telling me is true, then I have access to magic—”
“Magic that you can barely control,” Ozpin cuts in and boy, does that one sting.
“How would you know?” Morena fires back.
“Because I know how to use it.”
She pauses in her movement. “You’re the wizard. In the Seasons.”
“Among others. At any rate, Morena, I appreciate your desire to help, but it would truly be safer for both you and Oscar if he travelled alone.”
She doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like any of it.
“No one knows that I’m with Oscar, so he won’t be a target. You, on the other hand, will be extremely hard to miss when news of your magic gets out. And it will get out, because we are going into battle, and though Oscar informs me that you went to Sanctum, this is a fight that has killed fully-trained Huntsmen and Huntresses before—”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Morena slams her palms against the counter, and the dishes rattle in the cabinets. She closes her eyes and breathes through her frustration, hushing that pool of energy that rises eagerly to her focus. “You’re asking me to let my nephew go into that fight! You’re going to get him killed!”
The silence is so long that Morena turns around to look at Ozpin, and catches the fading of gold.
“Aunt Em?” and that’s the Oscar she knows, his voice and cadence restored. “Aunt Em, I—”
And they’re both reaching a hand out to each other simultaneously, and as soon as Oscar’s hand touches hers, she pours all of her love and concern, fierce and urgent, into that connection, and Oscar gasps, fingers tightening around hers, their foreheads coming to touch.
“I’m sorry,” she says to his hands, ungloved and delicate and scarred. For not telling him about her Maiden powers. For this cruel twist of fate. For trying her best and falling short, again and again and again —
The splash of tears on the backs of their clasped hands burns hot, and she dashes them away with her free hand.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Aunt Em,” Oscar says. “It’s not your fault.” He pulls his forehead away from hers and looks her in the eye. “But I think Ozpin is right.”
Morena lets go of his hand, betrayed. “A few hours ago you didn’t even think he was real.”
Oscar shrugs, helpless. “And then he possessed my body, had a full conversation with you, confirmed the existence of magic, and gave me control again. It’s kind of hard to argue with that.”
Morena is a lawyer, she’s sure she could come up with something, but if she keeps oozing negativity like this, she’ll single-handedly bring Grimm down on their house, which isn’t particularly something she wants to deal with right now. She takes a few moments to calm herself — breathe in, breathe out. She smoothes over the agitated ripples in her mind, the meditation techniques she learned at Sanctum coming back to her easily.
“I don’t want you to go alone,” she says, finally.
“Neither do I. But I think — I caught a glimpse while Ozpin—” Oscar takes a deep breath. “He’s not exaggerating, Aunt Em. It’s really dangerous.”
“Why is he making you tell me this?”
“Because he thinks I’ll do a better job of convincing you. And because I asked him if I could. Aunt Em, the last Fall Maiden died because she wasn’t trained enough. They found her, and they—they killed her, and took her powers, and—I don’t want that to happen to you.”
Morena lets go of his hand and stands up, moving to look out the window. “I dropped out of Sanctum because of this, you know,” she says, gazing at her reflection in the glass, then out, past the window into the darkness beyond. She feels calm, windless — a pool of water without ripples. She’s gotten really good at draining the emotion out of her body, both to hide from Grimm, and because she’s afraid she’ll lose control of the magic if she gets too worked up. “I hadn’t unlocked my Semblance yet, but I knew this wasn’t it. It wasn’t me. I was so scared that I just ran away and hid.”
There’s a flash of gold in the glass window. “You ran away and lived,” Ozpin says. “You had an unexplainable power placed upon you, and you did the most responsible thing you could, to protect those around you.”
Her hands tighten on the edge of the sink. “I couldn’t even tell them why.”
“And I think your reclusion might have done more good than you know,” Ozpin says. “Maidens can become powerful fighters when trained, but training isn’t exactly easy when there aren’t any magic users left to train with. It also places them in much more danger if other people find out, and seek to take their magic by force. By holding on to your power and keeping it secret, you’ve been protecting more than you realize.”
“But I can’t use it to protect the ones I want to.”
“If throwing magic at the problem could have solved it, I would have done that long ago,” Ozpin says dryly. “This isn’t a battle we’ll win by force.”
Morena closes her eyes and lets her senses ground her — the coolness of the tile beneath her hands, her feet on the ground, the light creak and groan of the farmhouse around her. Outside, the chirruping of crickets, a light breeze through the woods. Somewhere out there, the Creatures of Grimm were ending more human lives. Somewhere out there, men and women were fighting to protect humanity from them. “Promise me you’ll bring him back,” she says, hating it for the surrender that it is. “He’s the only family I have left. Promise me.”
“To the utmost of my ability,” Ozpin promises, and even though it’s not what she wants to hear, she knows that it’ll be the best she can get.
She helps Oscar pack a bag that night — only a backpack’s worth, so that he can travel light and quick. The movements are half-familiar, and she gets snatches of moments of sunny days in Sanctum, her classmates laughing and shoving belongings into their bags for school-organized training missions, the hazy memories of an alternate life. She sneaks in rain gear and an extra pair of socks when he’s not looking. The necessaries go in the outside pockets, so Oscar can locate them quickly — scroll, wallet, pocketknife.
“How much lien do you have left on your transportation card?” Morena asks.
Oscar pauses. “Uh…”
Morena brushes it off. “Take mine, it’s in the kitchen drawer and has enough for a trip to Argus and back.” Neither of them acknowledge that Oscar will probably be travelling farther than Argus and back.
“Don’t leave in the morning without saying goodbye,” Morena warns him.
But of course he does; when she wakes up the next day to a clouded sunrise, he’s gone, bed folded neatly in the weak gray light, a note lying on the pillow. She picks it up and tucks it into a pocket to read later. She doesn’t think she can open it right now.
As she crosses the space from barn back to farmhouse, she glances up. The skies rumble; it looks like rain. She hurries inside and checks the kitchen drawer, and of course Oscar forgot to take her transportation card as well. She shakes her head, exasperated, exhausted, fond.
Morena Pine never graduated Sanctum Academy despite being at the top of her class, but instead became a Maiden-in-hiding; she never became a Huntress, but instead researched fairytales side-by-side with legal code; never had children but has always had Oscar, and even though she’s the best godsdamned expert on him in all of Remnant, she makes the most important decision of her life, one that she may, one day, be able to forgive herself for:
she lets him go.