Chapter 1: as I’m looking up, suddenly the sky erupts
There will be better days
There will be better days
There will be better days
There will be better days
Here’s the beginning and middle, but not quite the end:
Yang dies on a Tuesday.
The first time it happens, the thought occurs to her fleetingly; she’s never died before (not yet) and she’s entirely preoccupied with the blood seeping out of the hole in her gut, the Grimm ash clogging her throat, the way the world starts to darken at the edges, how she hears (dimly, faintly) someone calling her name.
(If she’d known how many times she was going to experience the exact same sensations, she wouldn’t have bothered cataloguing them at all.)
When she wakes again, it’s Monday, and that’s when it first occurs to her that something strange might be going on.
The first time Yang dies, it’s on a Tuesday. The second, third, fourteenth, twenty-ninth, fifty-third, one hundred and ninety-second, and all the times in between and after, she dies on a Tuesday.
The one hundred and ninety-third time Yang dies, it’s on a Tuesday evening, and she feels terribly pleased about that when she wakes up again (on a Monday). But then, the one hundred and ninety-third time Yang dies is special for a lot of reasons.
(Or, no — not the death, but the moments she spends before it, tucked away, nearly forgetting every death she’s ever died.
‘Do you think the universe gets it wrong sometimes?’ The whisper catches on the shell of her ear, as soft as the hands on her cheek.)
Yang dies on a Tuesday.
She wakes on a Monday.
And everything is always the same.
Everything is always the same and it always starts like this:
“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’ve got to make it to base camp before the briefing starts!”
They’ve pitched a tent just outside the main control hub for the United Forces of Remnant, right along the northern shores of Vacuo. The sand is rocky there, sharp pebbles digging into the mats they’d laid out the night before, and if Yang had gotten more than four or five hours of sleep a night for the past five years, she might have tossed and turned on her bedroll until sunrise because of it. But as it is, she’d been able to find little wrong with the accommodations. The gentle roll of waves against the shore had lulled her to sleep after her watch, the salt and water mingling in the air and creating a unique scent that Yang had always associated with childhood, growing up on an island (almost) untouched by war.
“Great last day before the battle to end all battles,” Yang mumbles, directly into her inflatable pillow, and Ruby laughs, reaching in to poke at the soles of Yang’s boots (so rarely removed, even in sleep, and never when they were outside of a fortified base). “The sun is shining, the Grimm are murderous, and tomorrow, we have to load into airships and head into territory that’s been enemy-controlled for as long as anyone can remember.”
“Just another day in p-p-paradise,” Ruby sings, tapping out a rhythm on the tarp (which matches no known song in Remnant, Yang’s pretty sure). “At least it was a quiet night! Maybe that’s a sign!”
Crawling out of the tent, tugging her bedroll and rucksack with her, Yang’s greeted by Ruby’s wide and hopeful eyes, optimistic as always. Over the years, they’ve lost some of their spark and it’s killed Yang to notice every time, silver dimming when their team had gone from four to three to two, but today she makes an effort and she smiles. Yang returns it because Ruby needs her to, because Ruby makes her want to, because it’s better than giving into the mess of emotions that are more easily accessible, being here again.
(They’d been Team ROSY once; Ruby and Olive and Slate and Yang, the finest team of Huntresses that Beacon had produced in the later stages of the war, or so they’d often been told. But then Slate’s throat had been ripped out by the jaws of a Sabyr and — a few hours later — Olive’s skull crumbled in the fist of a Beringel, and Yang came to realize that praise and skill meant shit-all when the waves of Grimm never stopped. When worse and worse things flooded out of the Land of Darkness and whittled away the groups of Huntsman that stood in their way.)
“A sign that fifty billion Grimm are waiting for us as soon as we hit the red shores? Probably.”
She stands and stretches, holding the metal wrist of her right arm overhead with her left hand and pulling upwards, groaning when her shoulders crack as a result. The day before, she’d received a nasty blow to the ribs that had cracked her aura, but today, it’s healed, though the resulting tumble had torn a jagged hole in her tank top, which now flaps in the light breeze sailing in with the ocean waves.
“But before that… hot rations! And a full night’s sleep in beds!” Ruby claps her hands together, the light armor of her gloves muffling the sound. “I don’t care what you say; those messengers we met at the last outpost were telling the truth about how good the fish stew would be.”
They’re not far from the base, a two hour walk at most, but Yang still tugs on what’s left of her battered armor (vest, arm guards, and a single knee pad) and ties her lucky purple bandana just above her right boot as Ruby continues, hanging onto the vivid images of plentiful food placed in her head by the two boys they’d met half-a-continent back, who’d both sworn they were coming from the front-line with a top-secret message for the Shade Headmaster. Yang has her doubts (Ruby does too), but neither mention them.
“Sounds like breakfast to me,” Yang agrees, and Ruby rewards her with a grin, only slightly marred by the large scar cutting down through her lips.
No one’s escaped without damage. Robotics have replaced Yang’s right arm (lost early enough in the war that the injury had been caused by a person rather than a Grimm), dozens of small and circular burns are scattered along the length of her left arm, scars from the claws of a pack of Sabyrs decorate her back and neck, and cutting down her leg, across the kneecap, a jagged line serves as a reminder of her narrow escape at Beacon, should she ever need one. Ruby’s fully dressed by now, but the long sleeves and thick tights hide further injuries: burns all along her left leg from a misplaced grenade, a puckered mark from the fang of a King Taijitu piercing through her wrist, and the perfectly horizontal line cutting through her bicep from the spearpoint of a Mimic’s tentacle (the fastest Ruby has ever been, the most scared Yang has ever felt). But staring at her sister now as she breaks down their tent, Yang knows they’ve been lucky.
At least for another day.
There’s a game they play sometimes — on their long treks through woods, mountains, deserts — and it's a game of inanity.
“One day,” Ruby begins, as always, “little Suzy Shoeman decided she would go to the store for cookies."
“Unfortunately,” Yang continues, like she always does, “on her way there, she was stopped by a giant bear, all reared up on its hindlegs in the middle of main street.”
“Fortunately,” Ruby drawls, the long emphasis on the ending syllable, like it always is, “the bear was only asking for directions. His name was Bartholomew.”
“Unfortunately, Bartholomew was asking for direction to a place that didn’t exist. And when little Suzy Shoeman couldn’t help him find it, he got agitated, and let out a long, horrible growl.”
“Fortunately, little Suzy knew just what to do, and gave Bartholomew the Bear a big, friendly hug.”
“Unfortunately, a man passing by misunderstood, and thought the bear was lunging towards Suzy in an attack! He drew his rifle and aimed it at Bartholomew’s head!”
It’s hot, because it’s always hot in Vacuo, but they keep to the shores, where the ground (more rock than sand) is less likely to sink underfoot and — more importantly — the seabreeze keeps the temperatures bearable. Ruby hops along the stones, kicking the occasional loose one into the sea as she spins their tale of fortune and woe. By the time the gates of the northern UFR base come into view, Bartholomew the Bear has gained a jetpack and lost an eye, and Little Suzy Shoeman has made the transformation to indestructible robot after an unfortunate incident with a wood chipper and subsequent fortunate encounter with a famed Atlesian scientist. Towards the end of it, Ruby had taken to acting out her scenes, and she’s in the middle of one of these performances (a tearful reunion of Robo Suzy Shoeman and her long-lost mother, who’d become a fearsome bear hunter after losing her memory in the tragic explosion of her Shoe Shop), when she realizes they’ve made it, halting with both of her hands raised in the air and a foot dangling off the ground.
“Food! I smell — ” She spins around, finds the base instantly, and lowers her arms, only to raise them again, this time in triumph. “I smell breakfast!”
“You smell smoke and assume it’s related to cooking,” Yang corrects, but only lightly, only with a crooked smile. “Don’t get your hopes up thinking about — ”
“Pancakes! I think it’s pancakes! I bet they have syrup. Don’t you think?”
Yang highly doubts there are pancakes or syrup, but when Ruby takes off at a jog, energy not so much renewed as it is endless, she follows at the same speed. There aren’t many things that Yang places much certainty in, but one is this: wherever Ruby goes, she’ll follow, as long as she’s able.
The land around the base has been flattened and cleared of obstruction, increasing sightlines and optimizing training space, and as they make their approach, they pass more people than they’ve seen for quite some time. It’s almost overwhelming, seeing the throngs, platoons of soldiers and smaller (and far fewer) packs of Huntsmen, usually distinguishable, but not always. When Atlas had first developed the Combat Jacket, when they’d figured out a way to blend technology and natural ability in a way that didn’t rely too heavily on one or the other, many people had thought the end of the war was in sight. The Kingdoms had come together — each leader ratifying a new treaty to create a military force that would stretch across Remnant, united against the Grimm — and it felt like the tide had turned. Thousands had signed up for the United Forces of Remnant then, spurred on by the new peace pact between the Kingdoms and the technology that (Atlas claimed) would turn even the most common farmer into a deadly machine with only weeks of training.
And there’d been a point, a couple years back, when it’d looked like it would all pay off, when it had looked like they would win.
Battle after battle had been won, mismatched Huntsmen fighting alongside the shining, grey metal of soldiers in their Jackets, thick steel exoframes wrapped around flesh boosted with clever concoctions of drugs that could energize, strengthen, bolster. They had the numbers, the cohesion, and the Grimm thinned, pulled back, retreated, over and over until only the final push was left. One last journey across the sea, a dive bomb into the Land of Darkness — where the Grimm emerged, seemingly endless — to extinguish the source. Yang remembered the celebrations, the revelry, the almost manic reaction to the thought that end might (finally, finally) be near. (She’d drank a pint of a grainy alcohol that’d burned her throat, ended up in bed with a redhead with a bad attitude but pretty, olive eyes.) Everyone had thought the same; the next day would be the end. The next day would bring victory.
They’d been wrong, of course.
ROSY had been on the first airships that’d gone into the LoD, they’d seen the new Grimm that had been born, and two of the people that Yang had considered family had been killed alongside those bubbling pools.
It’d taken the UFR over three years to recover from that day, from losing nearly two-thirds of their force in a slaughter that’d nearly been the end of mankind. And watching this new force now, the charges are obvious: more metal, more Jackets, more people, more desperation. Even certain Huntsmen (fewer in number than ever before) had adapted their styles to use the Atlesian technology, and Yang catches flashes of metal in the random packs of four she spots, fighting antiquation but hanging onto tradition. She’s seen a wide variety over the years. Huntsmen in full Combat Jacket who relied on their own aura rather than the standard drugs; those (like her) who incorporated the technology into their very flesh, when pieces of themselves had been lost but the fight had continued; or those like Ruby, who went without the heavy pieces of steel — finding that it hindered their semblance or style — wearing only select pieces of the light armor worn underneath the exoskeleton of the Jacket.
She sees every variation of it now, walking towards the base entrance, and hopes it will be enough.
(This time, it has to be enough.)
“I’m going to eat twelve pancakes,” Ruby says, flashing her Huntsman license as they reach the gate, waiting for Yang to do the same before they’re admitted in, thirty foot gates rolling open with a clang louder than any alarm, and shutting again with a similar sound, as soon as they’re past the threshold. “No, thirteen. I’m going to put them in the middle of the plate and then make a moat of syrup around them and then the skies above them will open up as I pour the syrup over the top and then each brave pancake will slip into syrupy bliss, never to be seen again.”
Yang makes a face. “Grim.”
“I said syrupy bliss. That’s like, the opposite of grim. And also — ” Ruby looks around, spins in a full circle. “Hold on. Where are we?”
They hadn’t asked for directions upon entry, and clearly, that’d been a mistake. The base is huge, row after row of building, some reaching several stories, and though there are more than enough people present — far more than they’d seen outside, and now packed together even closer — everyone looks busy; platoons marching in synchronicity, individuals rushing around, imposing guards posted at the doors of the larger buildings. Ruby, upon realizing that breakfast wasn’t quite as close as she’d imagined, reaches out for the closest source of help, a woman decked in the pristine uniform of an Atlesian Specialist, but the woman merely narrows her eyes, the anger built into the action only highlighted by the deep scar cutting through her left eye, and pushes past them, white hair swishing just above her shoulders as she rushes away.
There’s something familiar about her, a soft ping bouncing off of random memories, but Yang can’t be bothered to dig for it, and only shrugs, putting an arm around Ruby instead.
“Hopefully people will be less bitchy around the food,” she drawls. “Time to use that nose, Rubes. Which way?”
She’s humoring her; the base is full of sounds and smells and everything else that might serve as a distraction, making it impossible to navigate on olfaction alone, but Ruby pauses, sniffs, and points in a random direction, and Yang follows. As always.
They find the mess hall eventually, not so much through Ruby’s nose as through the help of a kind and young Faunus, UFR uniform polished and unworn, eyes lit up in excitement and optimism about the upcoming battle. He and Ruby get along well, and chatter fills the walk and — after they invite him to join them — throughout breakfast. It seems to make up for the lack of pancakes for Ruby, who shovels spoonfuls of oatmeal into her mouth without complaint, lets out an excited squeal when the soldier offers her his packet of sugar with a light blush on his cheeks.
“I can’t believe how much I miss sugar,” Ruby sighs.
“I can,” Yang returns, and gets a laugh out of the boy sitting with them, then brings on another blush when she winks at the sound. “You should have seen her when we were kids. Cookies? Not nearly sweet enough, time to sprinkle them with sugar. Brownies? They look so much better with sugar sprinkled on top! And don’t get me started on the breakfast foods. Even if we hadn’t gone to war, Vale would have ended up enforcing rations just because of Ruby’s sugar habits.”
“Hey!” Ruby flicks a bit of toast — a discarded piece of crust — at Yang’s face. “Don’t listen to her. She exaggerates more than anyone.”
“Says my sister, exaggerating.”
The boy across from them scratches the back of his head in between the sheep horns protruding from his skull, and smiles, a little bashfully. “I’ve never been to Vale, but it sounds nice.” He sighs. “A time without rationing… I can’t even picture it. I think Menagerie has always had shortages of the things we don’t make locally. But if you want some fish, you’re in luck!”
“Oh, it’s so beautiful though! Me and Yang always wanted to visit Kuo Kuana!” Ruby pauses, shoulders slumping as her enthusiasm drains. “Or, we did. Before… everything. I don’t know what it looks like now. After the attack.” Rubbing her fingers across the ridges of her spoon, she looks up with a frown, only just keeps herself from reaching across the table, where their host is looking down at his plate, face carefully composed. “I’m sorry, Mateo, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No, it’s okay. Everywhere has its own Kuo Kuana now. And the attack was a long time ago. Before I was born. My mom survived. She even says — ” Mateo brightens, head lifting back up. “Okay, this is the coolest story. Our house has a basement — one of the few in the area that did — and my mom always told me that she and my brother were hiding there during the attack when they heard a little girl outside. Mom ran out and grabbed her and brought her inside. Saved her life! And years later, Mom tells me that she’s pretty sure that little girl grew up to be the Hero of Haven!” The boy slaps his hand on the table, lifts a little out of his seat. “Can you believe that! My mom saved the Hero of Haven. The Hero of Haven! And now she’s here, helping lead the charge against the Grimm. She got in last week and I’ve been trying to get a look, or even ask her if my mom’s story is actually true, but she’s always in one of the guarded areas.”
“Thank the gods the person who’s supposed to save us all has protection from us,” Yang drawls, ignoring the kick Ruby aims at her shin.
“Well, she’s probably just busy. My buddy Arnie says she’s always in the training center. You know her and her partner don’t use Jackets at all?” Mateo shivers, like the idea keeps him up at night. “He says she works all day on combos for killing Mimics specifically. They’ve got some fake ones in there, apparently. I think I’d need to work on just trying not to run from one of ‘em.” A shiver traverses his frame again, violent in its intensity and duration. “I don’t care if it makes me a coward. I never want to see one of those things.”
Yang wouldn’t call it cowardice. She’d call it survival instincts, she’d call it common sense, she’d call it a smart move. Because she’d faced her own death a thousand times, confronted the things that made her hands shake, but the first sight of a Mimic — crawling out from a pool of darkness, tentacles emerging with bone points at the end, red eyes gleaming with an intelligence not before seen in a Grimm — had haunted her since.
“Not everyone has to kill a Mimic,” Ruby says, words kind, though Yang can hear the undertones (inflictions of memory). “Sometimes it isn’t the big actions that matter. Not everyone is the Hero of Haven, but everyone plays a part.”
And she means it, despite everything they’ve seen. Yang isn’t as sure, but likes to believe, likes to think that even the small things — the smallest actions — can turn tides. It’s a kind thought, after all, that no one gives all of themselves for nothing. On her good days, it’s an easy thing to put stock in, especially watching Ruby now, smiling at this boy — probably only just eighteen and unlikely to last longer than the first charge — like he could be the most important soldier on the field.
Today is a good day, and so Yang spends a warm moment thinking she might be right.
“You probably won’t see one at all,” Yang adds, and Ruby rewards her with a smile. “Maybe your Hero will take them all down before they get anywhere near us common folk. And anyways, plenty of time for thinking about all that tomorrow. Isn’t today supposed to be all about having a good party before diving into the LoD?”
“Yang, the briefing.” Ruby’s mournful tone probably has more to do with her reaching the end of her bowl of oatmeal rather than Yang’s willful slip in memory, and when Yang pushes the remainder of her bowl over (sugar packet dumped on top in preparation) and Ruby immediately perks up, her hunch is proven right.
“Yeah, yeah. The briefing. I’ll be there. I’m all about a good briefing, don’t worry.” She watches Ruby stare at the gifted bowl for another second longer. “Well? Eat up, then! So we can be responsible and make it to the briefing in time. Zero eight hundred hours, hup hup!”
“Are you sure you don’t — ”
“I’m pretty much stuffed,” Yang lies, the ease of it carried by love rather than malice. “I think they gave me a bigger portion than you. Probably because of my winning smile. You see the way that soldier on kitchen duty was staring at me?”
“Yang,” Ruby groans, but Mateo laughs before standing, looking a little better than before, a bit more color to his cheeks.
“You’ve still got a little time before all the Huntsmen have to assemble. My platoon leader will be there, I think, but they’ve got the rest of us going through normal drills until dinner.” He points towards the side mess door, middle and index finger stretched outwards. “Just head out that door and turn right, follow it towards the big command building at the center of the base. Can’t miss it.”
“You say that,” Yang tsks, leaning back and stretching her legs on the seat Mateo’s just vacated. “But once Ruby got lost in a one story building with four rooms.”
“They were big rooms!”
“There were four of them.”
Mateo laughs again, and stretches out a hand, which Ruby takes without hesitation, pout disappearing in favor of a wide grin. Yang does the same, grasping the unmarked palm of the boy with her own hand of metal. To his credit, the boy doesn’t flinch, only nods in something that might be thanks.
“Hopefully I’ll see you both again before tomorrow. Maybe at that good party that you think will happen.”
“It always happens,” Yang says, confidence of the statement slipping into her relaxed posture.
“And we’ll definitely see you there!” Ruby chimes in, throwing in another cheery wave as he leaves.
Always the optimist, Yang thinks, and because it’s a good day, she leans into the feeling.
They make it to the meeting with little time to spare, sliding into the back row of seats in the large room, each line descending towards the center of the room like an amphitheater. On the central dais, General Ironwood waits, which explains why the room is already quiet, with none of the chatter a person might expect from the reunion of Huntsmen across the continents, as large a gathering as there’d been in years. They’ve met the General on multiple occasions, but he looks worse than he ever has, unmoving and unseeing as he stares out at the subdued crowd, a thick beard in place, lips pinched in a thin line. He’d survived the First Mimic Battle, but only barely, and if Yang had to hazard a guess, she’d say the metal-to-meat ratio of his body would land around 5:1 now.
“He looks — ”
“ — Tired,” Ruby finishes, and Yang raises an eyebrow at the generosity of the statement.
“Yeah, okay, we can go with that.” She stuffs her pack between her legs on the floor in front of her, and shifts in place for several seconds trying to make the fit comfortable. “You see anyone?”
That’s always the question, at every gathering, with less and less of them present. The room is fuller than Yang would have expected, given their losses over the years, but it’s filled with new faces, rookies and recent graduates from the Academies.
“Team CFVY’s down by the front!” Ruby points. “They look pretty good!”
“Nothing much going to slow down Coco Adel,” Yang agrees, though she notices the wear and tear; Velvet’s missing an ear, Fox has shaved off his bright red hair and a long scar traverses the back of his skull, and Coco’s arm is wrapped in what looks like three rolls of gauze. It’s comforting, though, in a way, to see that a few people from Beacon made it out when so many others didn’t. Slate and Olive and Jaune and Nora and Pyrrha and Ren and dozens more. Sometimes, the sheer numbers blocked her view of anything else.
“I think that’s Flynt down there. Though I don’t… see Neon. Or Kobalt.”
Ruby’s voice dips at the end, shoulders slumping enough that Yang reaches out to put an arm around them, to give her sister a bolstering squeeze.
“She was never really a fan of formality,” she suggests, too low to be anything other than an attempt at comfort, giving her true thoughts away just as well as if she’d voiced them. “Maybe she dipped out to let the adults on the team do the listening.”
But Ruby nods, ignores the obvious. “Maybe she — ”
“If I could have your attention.”
Ironwood’s voice is calm and flat, as though the increase in robotics infused into his flesh has leveled him out further, removed the ability to express his own fears. To Yang, the phantasmas of them shine through anyways; they’re in the deep lines of his face and the lack of crease in his slacks, in the curl of his fingers into his palm and the perfectly stillness of his form, the grey of his hair and the slick of it against his skull. In every way he can, the General demands control, clings tightly to the idea that he can impose it on the world around him, even as the little things slip through the cracks. But his tone is not one of these little things, and he speaks with care. Not loudly (because he doesn’t need to, even without the microphone clipped to his high collar, not with the heavy hush pressing down on the room), but in a monotone. Clear, plain, emotionless.
Yang — who remembers the sound of that control snapping, the screams over their comms — wonders if he’ll manage to pull it back this time, once everything is lost.
“On behalf of the United Forces of Remnant, I thank you for joining us today. I’m sure many of you look around and see the armies we have amassed, the thousands of soldiers in Combat Jackets, and you wonder what your place is in the fight to come.” Ironwood spreads his hands out on the podium before him, gloved hands resting lightly on the wood. “The world has changed, this is indisputable. This is true in every conceivable way, but most importantly, the Grimm have changed. And so has the way in which we fight them. But one thing has not changed and that is this: Huntsmen are critical in the fight against the Grimm. This has been true for as long as Remnant has existed.”
He pauses, careful and practiced, and his gaze flicks towards the back of the room, barely discernible. Yang follows the motion and catches on two figures in the back corner, barely visible in the dim light. The crisp white uniform and asymmetric white bob of the one closest is clear enough, along with the pale skin that’s nearly fluorescent in the shadow, and Yang — connecting many things at once — finally realizes why she’d seemed so familiar when Ruby had bumped into her earlier.
Sometimes, Atleasian propaganda made its way out into the far reaches of the Valean forests and the Vacuan desert where Ruby and Yang had spent the majority of the past two years. Pamphlets drifting on the winds and stomped underfoot until they became a part of the earth, worn posters stapled to notice boards, clippings of the official messages of hope that some placed their belief in. Yang and Ruby hadn’t paid any of them much mind, but there’d been one that had warranted comment, a stray flyer in the middle of a dusty bar in Feldspar, time and distance smudging the colorless nature of the hair, coat, and skin of the woman featured in the call to arms, but not quite removing her dramatic posing: thin sword lifted in the air, foot planted on the (fake) skull of a Mimic.
(“Do you think they added the scar in during post?” Yang asked, and Ruby sniggered into her beer, uncharacteristically uncharitable in her tipsiness.)
“Two years ago, we as a people were pushed to the brink of our extinction,” Ironwood continues. “A year after our defeat at the First Mimic Battle, it was Huntsmen who held the lines, rallied to places they’d called home: the four Academies of Remnant. At Beacon, we lost everything: the communication tower, the very walls of the Academy itself, and the man who’d led us in the first charge against the Grimm, successful up until the very end. But still, students and alumni defended the people of Vale, set up camps and pushed back. In Atlas, the Academy came crashing to the ground, but our operatives stood firm, Mantle rose up, and we came together as a Kingdom to force back the darkness. At Vacuo, tribes came together, joined to create a force never seen before, and pushed the Grimm away from the walls of the only institution the desert hadn’t worn away. And at Haven, we witnessed a miracle. Though they hadn’t met before that fateful battle, an Atlesian Specialist partnered with a Faunus far from home and they both found a strength in themselves that astonished all that witnessed it. We saw the difference a single life could make, and the people found a Hero.”
(“Atlas is always saying that girl is the one that was with the Hero of Haven. That this girl was her partner,” the bartender cut in, wearing a similar grin. “Always sounded like stale bullshit to me. All that talk of coming together to fight and they still want an Atlesian front and center, am I right? But we know who our Hero is, don’t we?”
He gestured, and there, painted against the far wall of the bar in stark black and white, highlighted with sparse purple, was the image Yang had seen countless times since the reclamation began, since they’d begun the slow push back towards the Land of Darkness. It was a woman — a Faunus — her black ears always visible among the dark, short curls, her white coat flowing in an imagined breeze, a black ribbon circling the sleeve as she held her blade, not raised but at her side, the end of a final strike. And the words, always the same, always bold: The Hero of Haven.)
Another dart of Ironwood’s gaze towards the same corner, and Yang has a pretty good guess who the other figure is. Her ears are obscured by a hood, her weapon is strapped to her back, and her coat has changed to a plain black utility jacket, but the rest is the same. And when their eyes meet, Yang’s guess turns to certainty, because the golden irises of Blake Belladonna hold just about as much weight as Yang’s always figured the savior of the world’s might. But there’s none of the accompanying ego, none of the triumph; more than anything else, Yang thinks she looks tired. It’s not in the same way as Ironwood (whose exhaustion looks mild in comparison), but something bone-deep, a sucking chasm she’s constantly fighting against, stretching miles down or maybe just endlessly, and Yang has the overwhelming and bizarre desire to press close and let her fall, wait as long as it takes to catch her.
And maybe some of that shows in her face, because Blake doesn’t look away. Not when Ironwood praises her contribution to the war, not when he continues with his formulaic inspiration, not even when the woman next to her mumbles something under her breath. Only when the Specialist — tired of being ignored — nudges her with a sharp elbow does Blake look away, and Yang is left wondering if her heart rate will ever recover, if the sweat pricking along the back of her neck will ever cool.
The exchange, such as it is, solidifies one thing in Yang’s mind; the Hero of Haven had earned her title, and — if Yang had to guess — she spent most days wishing she hadn’t.
But still. She’s here. And that confirms something else.
This woman would fight. To her last breath and maybe beyond. And given what Ironwood says next, this would be expected of all of them if they were to have a chance at winning.
“An Alpha Mimic has been spotted on the shores. I tell you this not to scare you, nor to remind you of the gargantuan task that killing one is, but to be frank about the challenges that will await you as soon as we cross the waters and drop onto land we have not set foot on in three years. There are hundreds of Mimics, tens of thousands of Grimm, but the Alpha is our main concern. The task of defeating it will fall to the people in this room. And it can be defeated, by the right people at the right time.”
This time, Yang doesn’t find the gaze of the woman across the room, doesn’t even look for it. Instead, she finds Ruby’s hand and holds tight. For the first time, soft whispers break out all around them, but neither of the sisters finds a single word to put forward. The news isn’t a surprise, after all, and there isn’t anything to be said that they haven’t covered already. Much of their trek towards the front line had been spent discussing strategy for eventualities, and the presence of an Alpha Mimic was an eventuality that’d come up more than any other.
Mimics were horrifying on their own: stronger and smarter than a normal Grimm, and — worst of all — in possession of an aura of their own, black and opaque and nearly endless, through even the most dedicated Atlesian scientists had not yet figured out how such a thing was possible. When they’d appeared on the battlefield for the first time, a solid hundred in force, they’d decimated hundreds of Huntsmen, thousands of soldiers. But the presence of a single Alpha Mimic was worse. A single Alpha meant that — with one notable exception — the battle would be lost, and every person present would die. They brought a ruthless organization to the Grimm, a level of tactics the humans and Faunus of Remnant had never faced. These Mimics were commanders, and the presence of one among the legions of Grimm the UFR would be facing tomorrow isn’t a surprise, but the notion still curls around Yang’s throat and squeezes, and the lack of air makes nausea coil in her stomach, hot and unpleasant.
(She thinks of Blake Belladonna, the only person who’s ever managed to kill one, but keeps her gaze forward. Enough eyes will be on her tomorrow, and Yang figures the woman doesn’t need any more weight added to the heavy stare.)
“As you leave the briefing room, you’ll be directed to a UFR personnel who will assess your credentials and assign you a zone on the field tomorrow. For those of you who no longer have a team of four — ” For the first time, Ironwood pauses, an exhale that’s almost, but not quite a sigh escaping him. “ — We honor the loss of your companions and will suggest other Huntsmen who you might join forces with. We’ve found that a group of eight huntsmen, surrounded by four platoons, is the most effective strategy, though there are, of course, exceptions. Our lieutenants will work with you to find where you’ll do the most good and you will be assigned a state-of-the-art holoroom to train in for a block of time. I suggest you use this time to adjust to fighting alongside your new team.”
Yang exchanges a quick glance with Ruby, finds that her discomfort with the idea isn’t mirrored there, but there’s understanding in its place. In the years since they’d been cut in half, from four to two, they’d remained that way, becoming each other’s partners rather than replacing either of their own. That wouldn’t change today, but Ruby’s clearly more at peace with the temporary adjustment. Yang swallows back her own feelings (doesn’t think about the pool of blood at Slate’s throat, spilling out so fast and thick it’d nearly covered the entirety of the wound), and nods.
“Tomorrow, the fate of Remnant will be decided. This is not an exaggeration. This is not a piece of propaganda. This is the truth. We will win or we will die.” He touches the breast of his coat with the tips of his fingertips, something close to a prayer, as though despite all evidence to the contrary, the gods that abandoned them might still be watching. “Tomorrow, let’s live one day more.”
It’s as good of a dismissal as anything, though its sentimental nature (hardly Ironwood’s go-to) pings Yang as more worrisome than the facts alone. She hides the concern with a smile — knocking Ruby in the shoulder with her fist as the people around them start to filter out — because it’s all she can do.
As always, Ruby takes what she offers and builds, a grin instead of a smile, a fist pump instead of a fist bump. She’s genuine when she speaks, too, bright in a dim room.
“Time to meet the crew!”
The sunny disposition fades in the face of reality, though Ruby fights against it. The UFR lieutenant they meet with is perfectly cordial and complimentary, but something about his clipped admiration of their ‘successes’ (such as they were) in the First Mimic Battle tastes like ash, flaking and dry in her throat. There’s a brief moment of uplift, when he assigns Flynt and Ivori to fill out their team, until the implications of that sink in, and the reunion is bitter. When they’d last met the two men, they’d been Team FNKI and ROSY, but now both groups were split in half, and it felt gauche, Frankensteinian, to attempt to merge the two amputated halves.
“Neon and Kobalt?” Ruby asks softly, less of a question than confirmation.
“Kobalt didn’t make it through the last time we were here,” Flynt says, as flat as his attire, all his trademark flair — from the trumpet to the bow-tie — stripped clean. “Neon, we lost at Atlas. Mantle. Whatever we’re calling that crater now. Slate and Olive?”
The returning question doesn’t have Ruby’s warmth, but few do.
“LoD. Three years ago.” Yang’s words clip against themselves. “Same as Kobalt.”
“Same as the majority,” Ivori murmurs, as quiet as Yang remembers, but similarly subdued in appearance, throwing his previous careful dichotomy of tone and fashion sense completely out the window. The loss of vibrancy feels like another death, one far more subtle and not nearly as gut wrenching, but significant in its own way.
“Which is why we mostly use Jackets now,” Flynt continues, scratching at the beard he’s grown since they saw him last. “Found out they kept us alive more than our aura alone. Though we’ve modified the hell out of them; Ivori’s got a wicked electro-whip in his, but I’ve switched to seismic waves rather than sound. Little more forceful, it turns out, and easier on the lungs. Semblance still works too, Jacket and all.”
Ruby hums, sadness slipping from her expression, replaced by the vacant stare she wears when she’s working through various scenarios in her mind, the briefing room around her fading away as she visualizes the possibilities, combinations of abilities and weapons and semblances. One of Flynt’s brows lifts, but Yang cuts him off before he can speak, a wave of her hand and shake of her head. Another minute later, Ruby has it, eyes clearing, hardening in satisfaction.
“Okay.” She looks around, offering each member of the newly formed squad a smile. “We can work with that.”
“That means she has a plan,” Yang explains, short laugh conveying her fondness rather than humor. “Our slot in the training room isn’t for another hour, so why don’t y’all grab your Jackets and meet us there. We still need to settle in and find our lodgings for the night.”
“Right. Gotta make sure we make use of our assigned time,” Flynt rolls his eyes, and Ivori sighs, shakes his head before his partner can continue, as though what’s to come next is not only expected, but something he’s heard many times before. “Biggest battle of our lives and we get two whole hours to prepare strat for the Mimics we’re supposed to be killing by the dozen. All while Atlas’s chosen gets a whole holoroom for herself, empty when she’s not using it. Even at the end of the world, the elite stay the elite.”
“Um.” Ruby blinks rapidly, eyes darting over to meet Yang’s. “Sorry, but — ”
“ — We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Yang finishes with a rather unapologetic shrug. We’ve spent most of our time in the Wilds the past couple years. The whole Atlesian politics stuff kind of passes us by.”
“Flynt isn’t a fan of the Schnees, and Weiss Schnee is close enough in proximity that she becomes the focus of his ire.” Ivori says, wrapping the fingers of his right hand around his left wrist, thin enough the digits circle it completely. “Even though the sisters of the family seemed to have distanced themselves considerably from the father when they joined the military. From my understanding, they participated in his arrest, several years back.”
“A new form of the same thing,” Flynt sneers. “Only the best for a Schnee; still getting the perks, without the sacrifice! The UFR propaganda machine touts her as the blueprint for every Atlesian, but where was she when the whole place was crashing down? Off in Haven, apparently. Making a name for herself while we watched Neon get shredded to pieces!”
The soft reminder — clearly part of the familiar dance — cuts off the rant entirely, though Flynt doesn’t appear to like it much, throwing his hands up in the air and spinning on his heel. He takes several paces towards the door before he responds at all, shoulders too tight.
“I know.” He pauses, straightens, and continues without further reference to the outburst. “We’ll see you two in an hour. I remember those Team ROSY moves. Looking forward to being a part of the magic.”
He’s gone after that, leaving Ivori to apologize, and only in his faint smile, his light shrug.
“He doesn’t like it when I remind him it’s not quite so black and white,” he explains, releasing his wrist to let his arms dangle at his side. “You remember how it was — every Academy hit at once. Weiss Schnee happened to be in Mistral when it happened, out on assignment. And she became Ironwood’s poster child for everything she did there. But by the time she found a working aircraft and made it back to Atlas, the battle there was over. Her sister had already died in it.” He finishes the tale over his shoulder, already following his partner out the door, like he knows he won’t get a response. “That’s always seemed like an awful lot of sacrifice to me.”
He’d been right to assume; there’s nothing to say.
It always surprises Yang, how poorly equipped she is to deal with the stories of loss, given how much practice she has hearing them.
By the time they make it to the training room — as impressive as promised — the mood’s boomeranged into something far more productive, and much of that has to do with four welcome additions to the group, a full Team CFVY, looking even more battered up close, but only on the surface. There’s something comforting about a team remaining intact despite it all, and the remnants of ROSY and FNKI drift towards them, pieces of long-dead planets circling a sun. Even with Ruby’s planning, there’s little the patched team of four can do to match their cohesiveness, but they’re an impressive group of eight, regardless. In the face of Ruby’s beaming smile, Coco’s ever-stylish attire, and the success of (the newly christened) FIRY’s base moveset, Yang feels a warm optimism settle low in her chest. It’s not that she’d assumed they would all die, not that she considered the upcoming battle hopeless, but more so that she hadn’t considered it to be anything at all, merely an eventuality, a necessity, a fixed event that would not be altered by her opinions on it. It would happen and she would be there and then it would be over, for the last time, one way or another.
And it’s still that, but with the dangerous addition that there might be something after, too.
The party helps with that feeling, just as it’s meant to.
The invitation comes from Coco first (of course), though by the time they’re heading to the mess for an early dinner, everyone they pass pushes out the word; no booze, but dancing, lights, and the promise of a crowd that wanted to get everything out before the next day, just in case. It’s a different sort of celebration than they’d taken part in before their last launch into the LoD, but that’s good; confidence hadn’t helped them then, and finality suits them now, when mixed with the slightest dose of tentative hope.
She loses Ruby in the press of people or, more accurately, to a friend they’d thought dead: a grinning Penny Polendina who tackles Ruby to the floor of the field they’ve congregated in, red hair and green jumpsuit as vivid as always, no shine lost in her apparent reincarnation. Instead of fighting the push of the crowd, she waves to them both, a goodbye for now, and lets herself get swept away, falls into the moment. She dances with a stranger (a soldier with green hair and a piercing through her lip), takes a kebab from a man keeping his grill light with his semblance (a spiral of flame pouring from the tip of his finger), and toasts with lukewarm water among a platoon that’s somehow stayed together for the past four years (not a single member lost).
Yang has always been happy to slip into a riptide, confident in her ability to thrive wherever she’s pulled, but she’s still surprised when the drift takes her somewhere new, to the very edge of the bubble of revelry, on the outskirts of the base. Here, it’s darker. Quiet. It’s almost cool, the desert night no longer kept in check by the sweltering warmth of bodies crushing together when she’s left all of that so far behind. Solitude can be a pitfall, but when she looks up and finds the stars bright, she’s surprised again, pleasantly so, and steps into it further, finds a handhold on the nearest building and climbs, compelled by forces once again outside her control, but different this time (an enticing whisper rather than a forceful current; she follows rather than being pulled).
She should be surprised one time more — thrice lucky — when she reaches the top and Blake Belladonna is sitting there. And she is, but not in the same way. She’s not surprised that something had been waiting for her, but that this something had been better than expected. Because she’d expected something conceivable and instead, she’d gotten a deep breath of the forest outside her childhood home, the first three notes of a song whistled tunelessly through her mother’s lips, the press of an impossible galaxy in her palm. It’s outside of her scope of possible, and so she doesn’t react, merely sits down alongside the woman and mirrors her posture, tossing her legs over the edge of the command building, facing away from the thousands below and out towards the sea.
“Do you think it’s true that ninety-four percent of all life lives down there, under the water?”
It’s an incomprehensible question, but then, it’s an incomprehensible setting, so Yang rolls with it.
“I don’t know, but I hope it is.”
There’s just enough light — from the distant party, the stars, the moon — for the small curve at the corner of Blake’s lips to be clear, to highlight the pocket that forms at the very edge when she smiles. This is a woman who appreciates a novel response, apparently, and Yang aches to give her more.
“I guess I’ve always hated the idea that we might run out of new things to discover. It’s nice to think that even after a million years of people being on this planet, we’ve still got a bunch left to find.”
“And when will we find the time to do that?” Blake asks, though the curl of her mouth is still there, more pronounced than before.
“Later,” Yang says vaguely, and because she wants it to be true, she adds, “After all this.”
“After.” Blake repeats it like she’s pressing the word against her palette, trying to determine if she likes the taste. “What if there isn’t an after?”
Yang laughs, lifts her legs, points her toes towards the dark waters, stretches as far as she can go. “There’s always an after. Maybe not one we’ll like, but it’ll be there.” She turns to the woman next to her, takes in the pronounced cut of her jaw and the faint scar running alongside it. “That’s the whole point.”
“If there isn’t an after, there isn’t a meaning?” Blake turns too, a half tilt of her head, and Yang’s caught on her eyes again, a softer gold now, but still a trench (all undiscovered forms of life might be found there rather than the ocean and Yang wouldn’t be surprised).
“It’s like this party, right?” A blind gesture over her shoulder gets the point across, and Blake nods for her to continue. “We have it because of what’s going to happen after it’s over. Because we want one last thing to boost us before we go. Or like this war. It feels like forever, sure, but if we don’t have an after, then what’s the point of it all?” She shrugs. “I’m all about living in the moment, but the moment gets weight because we don’t know when it’ll turn into something else. So even when you’re not enjoying something specifically because of what’ll come, you’re enjoying it because it won’t last forever. Because something will always come after. Eventually. Don’t you think?”
“I think,” Blake begins slowly, but then stops, gaze tracing over Yang’s face like she’s looking for something in particular, though Yang couldn’t begin to guess what. “That’s a very logical way of thinking.”
The unexpectedness of the response makes Yang laugh, which makes Blake’s smile grow, though there’s confusion there too, in the slight pinch of her brows.
“Sorry, I’m just — ” The laugh dies down, but the half-grin remains in place. “That’s not something people accuse me of very much. Or at all.”
“Seems like they’re underestimating you, then.”
Yang shrugs again. “People do that a lot.”
Behind and below them, the sound of the crowd swells again, a new round of toasts for something inane and beautiful, Yang’s sure. It’s been so long since she’s been with a group, so long since she’s celebrated in mass, but somehow, she finds she doesn’t feel as though she’s missing out. Not while she’s here, watching the breeze pick up the short strands of Blake’s hair and press them against her cheek, black curls dark enough to contrast against the brown skin. Here, it’s quiet and strange, but Yang settles into it easily, always comfortable in new worlds.
“I can never decide if I like that better than people expecting too much.” Blake doesn’t sigh or drop her shoulders, nothing so obvious as to express the burden that is precisely that.
“Is that why you’re up here then? No one around to estimate you at all?” She offers another smile, this one wry. “Until me, but I promise I’m not estimating.”
Blake doesn’t appear to mind, lips tilting in amusement as she shifts her legs off the ledge and under her thighs, until she’s sitting cross-legged. Yang would have to be blind to miss the way the muscles of her arms ripple with the adjustment, gloved hands pressing into the roof and supporting the rest of her weight nearly effortlessly; she’s wearing a simple, black training vest — despite the cool desert night — and it hides little. The close observation might make her a liar (though her estimating is of an entirely different sort), but Blake lets it go without comment, only the slight crinkle of her eyes — still entertained rather than displeased — giving away that she’d noticed at all. She also doesn’t move away when the motion places her leg directly against Yang’s, the canvas of her pants rubbing against the bare skin above Yang’s knee (so maybe there’s more to it than courtesy).
“I think I’ve tried everything when it comes to the night before a battle.” It’s not really an answer to the question, but Yang figures that’s fair enough. “This just works best for me.”
“That’s pretty bold. To think you can try everything. There are only so many opportunities.” She nudges Blake’s leg with her own, overly familiar but only rewarded for it when Blake laughs (though not with as much humor as she’d like).
“You’d be surprised.”
Yang hums, considers the multitude of options. “So you’ve done the whole giant party thing?” She doesn’t wait for Blake’s nod. “Even the illegal version containing way too much alcohol?”
“Yes and, unfortunately, yes again.”
“The all-nighter training session? The trying-and-failing to go to bed early ploy? Going out into the middle of the woods and screaming into the darkness until you lose your voice and have to drink some nasty concoction made of camel’s milk and spoiled fish the next day just so you can talk with your teammates?” Blake raises an eyebrow at the last one, but Yang just shrugs. “Second-hand experience with that one. But I can tell you that drink smelled worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, even from a distance.”
“I can’t say I’ve had the camel and fish drink,” she admits. “But a variation on the experience, yes. I wasn’t exaggerating; I’ve tried it all.”
She doesn’t think before offering her next suggestion (though even if she had, it would likely have been the same).
“How about the one where you take a charming stranger back to your bunk? Ever give that one a try?”
Blake blinks, but there’s no blush to her cheeks, at least not one Yang can see. It’s a bit of a disappointment, but not a loss, not when Blake takes a moment to traverse the full length of Yang’s frame with a long glance.
“A few times.”
“And you’re still here?” Yang grins, pushes her luck. “Maybe you haven’t found the right stranger.”
“Maybe not,” she admits, and in the long pause that follows, Yang holds her breath. “But you’re here as well, aren’t you?”
“Guess I haven’t found the right stranger either,” she exhales, finally, but Blake only shakes her head, as though attempting to dispel the moment.
Yang would let her, if she had any control over the vibration of the molecules around them, the heat forming in the spaces between. (But she doesn’t and so it builds, the point where their legs continue to touch like an epicenter.)
Blake knows this and so she swallows, looks away (but doesn’t pull back). “Why did you come up here, really?”
There isn’t an easy answer to the question, mainly because there isn’t an answer at all. Following Blake’s lead, Yang looks away, out towards the sea, and says the first thing that comes to mind.
“Pulling on a thread, I guess.”
It turns out to be the right response, but only because it has Blake looking her way again, gold eyes peering intently, searching once again.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Yang waves her hand in front of her, tracing out a vague figure eight with metal fingers. “The universe. Sometimes a bit of it unwinds and if you don’t follow it, you miss out.”
Blake can’t tell if she’s serious or not — that much is clear from the deepening crease in her brow, the continued weight of her stare against the side of Yang’s face — but that’s only because Yang’s not sure either.
“Fate, you know?” Yang continues, a crooked smile tossed to the side. “Or something like it.”
“Is this all leading up to a cheesy pick-up line about destiny? Because I feel like I should tell you I don’t believe in it.”
Yang laughs and Blake looks pleased at the sound, despite the roll of her eyes.
“Ouch! A hard pragmatist?” She tsks, but leans in a little to brush her shoulder against Blake’s, no hard feelings intended, but hardly minding the closeness either. “No afters and no fate. That’s a tough way to live.”
“It’s a tough world to live in,” Blake says simply, and Yang feels her shrug, wishes her jacket was off so Blake’s skin would slide along her own rather than the leather. “But I trust myself more than fate. Anything can change if you work hard enough to change it.”
“Well sure, but it’s not about outcomes, it’s about opportunity. Think of it like this; there’s an infinite number of choices you can make every single day, but sometimes you still end up in the right place at the right time.” She leans her head back and grins. “Like you said, anything can change. But despite all that, that opportunity still drops in front of you. You get to decide whether to tug on that thread or not. But whatever you decide, the universe is still calling. Dangling itself in front of you.”
She turns to find Blake bemused at the end of it all, though it’s tempered by a slow smile that spreads after a moment’s pause.
“You really believe all that, don’t you?”
“On my good days.”
“And today is a good day?”
“Which makes this an opportunity.”
“Would you disagree?”
After the rapid back and forth, Blake finally falters. There’s something new in her expression, a curious sort of lightness that hadn’t been there at the start. Yang recognizes it and understands. She’s gotten used to saying things with the hope that they might be true, but Blake has taken the opposite approach; Blake says things with the hope they won’t be. Funny, how the middle ground for each was entirely the same. Funnier still, that it’s exactly where they found themselves, for just this moment in time.
“No. Not today.”
In the pause that follows — Blake staring at her like she’s something unprecedented — Yang wonders if Blake’s interested in women, if she’s interested in her, if she’s single enough to act on it. She wonders what might happen if she skips asking any of these questions and just kisses her, bold enough to find her answers through action. She wonders a lot of things about Blake Belladonna, too many things to be harmless, and thinks maybe that means her choice is already made.
(Today, she will pull on the thread the universe has offered, and keep tugging until it runs out.)
When she kisses Blake, it’s easy; not quite familiar, but not foreign, either. Yang’s found herself here before, after all (everyone has, the night before), and she recognizes the desperation, falls into the ready openness that Blake offers. Her mouth (yielding under Yang’s, but tongue darting out, anything but), legs (shifting again, this time around Yang’s waist, knees hitting either side of her hips as she slides into Yang’s lap), and hands (fingers no longer pressed tight to her palms or against her thighs, but tangling into Yang’s hair, tugging in the way Yang doesn’t normally like, but groans into now). It always goes like this: a little too forceful, with teeth and nails and marks the day after; Yang’s never really known otherwise, but can’t find fault with it, has always considered it a preference, besides. She follows suit, teeth finding Blake’s bottom lip, thighs lifting to slide the woman closer, palms sliding under the tight fabric of her vest and pressing flat against hot skin.
But there are differences too, small but significant. Blake’s lips are soft, impossibly so for the desert, for this war, for someone so clearly trained to push any kind of gentleness out of her life. And though her fingers roughly intertwine into thick strands of blonde, with each sharp tug, a soothing scrape at Yang’s scalp follows, a ready balm. Even the movement of her hips — reflexive, perhaps, but most certainly present — feels somehow more careful in walking that line. When Blake presses close, it’s not when the intention of erasing or overwhelming or devouring or even controlling, and this — Yang realizes — is what’s new. (And better.)
Maybe that (those small changes, the bits that are new) is why Blake stares at her with wide eyes when she pulls away. They’re blown, of course — the black of her pupil spilling into the gold — but threaded with something more than lust, a mirrored surprise to Yang’s own.
“Okay,” Yang breathes. “I was kidding about the whole right stranger thing, but — ”
She can’t finish her thought, but the meaning is clear; Blake’s laugh — a breeze against Yang’s lips — can hardly be called a laugh at all. Rather, it’s an exhalation of surprise, the tilt of her mouth a side note. Even then — before Blake’s smile turns sad, before she gracefully scoots off Yang’s lap — Yang knows the kiss is a period (an exclamation point, if she’s being honest) rather than a comma, and she can’t fault Blake for it, leans back with a smile to match.
“But it’s still not what you’re looking for, huh?”
“I — ” She shakes her head, rubs at her forehead with three fingers. (There are small, thin scars on each of them, perfectly vertical lines. Yang wonders how she got them and regrets that she won’t have the opportunity to find out this and everything else.) “You asked me why I came up here. Earlier.” Another shake of her head, another exhale that means something more than the exchange of gas. “I was trying to avoid any distractions.”
Blake manages to look composed, even with her lips slightly swollen, her cheeks (finally) darkened, her clothing mused. Composed, but not unaffected, and, more than that, not trying to appear as such. So much to unravel, Yang thinks, and maybe regret is too casual of a word to encompass the whole of what she feels.
“Well. I fucked that right up, then.”
The laugh is a bit more genuine this time, and Yang’s glad for it; she takes a moment to mentally capture the lightness that Blake’s smile brings to her face.
“You did.” She pauses, then adds (in a quiet admission), “I didn’t mind.”
Yang’s never been one to overstay her welcome (as hesitantly as Blake withdraws it), and so she stands, rolling her shoulders until one pops. Blake watches openly, snagging on the bare skin at Yang’s midriff. She could push things. Could drop back down and press her hand to Blake’s throat until her back is flat against the ground. Could wait — could settle in against Blake’s hips — until Blake admits the obvious, that she wants to be distracted. But when Blake tears her gaze away, lips pressing into a thin line, Yang knows she won’t. At least not now.
“I’m glad you think things can have meaning, even where there isn’t an after.” Her words are slow, and so is Yang’s resulting smile.
“Oh, no, I never said that.” The frown forms on Blake’s face quickly, and so Yang continues without further pause. “I said there’s always an after. No matter what you seem to believe. So — ” She takes a step backwards. “What do you say?”
Blake stands too; whether she’s aware of the step she takes forwards, Yang’s not sure. “About what?”
The whole meeting — from the moment Yang had climbed up the side of the building without a rational thought — has felt out of time, without any of the normal constraints the natural laws of the universe placed around them. It’s impossible to cling to, especially now that it’s faded away (almost completely), but Yang tries anyway. Throws out a thread of her own, as though they’ll be able to climb back to this feeling later, if only Blake decides to grab on.
“About after. About letting me distract you then.”
And Blake, without much hesitation, does exactly that.
“I could do that.” It’s fantastical, but Yang swears the wind picks up, blowing Blake’s hair into her eyes, until she’s forced to push it back. “After.”
That’s enough to get a grin from Yang. More than enough to wedge something warm into her chest, lodge it somewhere deep. Like saving a special something for later — the tastiest part of a meal or a hidden away treat — she holds the idea close that the best might be yet to come, if only she can make it through the rest. Silly, really, to pin something so small and random in such an important place, but there’s so much to get through, and not much to save. And that’s probably why — as she moves towards the edge of the building — she backs away and keeps her gaze on Blake.
“I’m going to hold you to that,” she says, throwing in a wink for good measure.
Blake shakes her head, eyes bright again. “That’s what I’m planning on.”
One last look. Blake is smiling. She’s happy. There’s a promise of anything in her stare.
“After,” Yang says again, and steps off the ledge.
She looks up after her gentle landing (gauntlets keeping her from breaking every bone in her body), and catches a brief shadow, a mere blink of a figure, staring down.
Some moments have weight from the start, but she has no way of knowing then how much this one will eventually hold.
Chapter 2: flames alight the trees
Sleep comes easy to Yang that night, easier than it has in a while. Pre-fight jitters haven’t come to her in years, and with a whole army between her cot and any Grimm, there’s no need for shifts or alertness. Kicking off her boots, pulling off her armor, and sinking under scratchy sheets has never felt so good. She dreams, but never wakes, black and gold replacing the blood red that sometimes has her bolting upright in the middle of the night, a scream barely stifled in her throat. It’s the greatest mercy the universe has ever granted her, on the eve of her return to the land that had once cost her nearly everyone she’d loved, but she figures such mercies are long overdue, in the grand scheme of it all. She will take this one night without looking back, and not feel guilty for the gift she’s been given.
If there is a cost, it’s only in the form of Ruby, staring suspiciously at her as they strap into their gear in the low light of dawn. Around them, the base is in a panic, the sounds of last minute preparations and the terror of first time soldiers flooding the air around them, but all of it spills off them, rain on sealskin, a thick coat of experience dulling the natural fright into something manageable.
“You were asleep when I got back last night,” Ruby says, slow and careful, like she’s found a Grimm napping belly-up in the sunlight and isn’t quite sure how to proceed.
“Yup.” They’d gotten replacements for the more battered pieces of their gear — the bits of it that weren’t custom made — and Yang dons it all now; armor is worthless against the piercing tentacles of the Mimics, which only aura could deflect, but it could keep the standard Grimm from tearing out something vital while focusing on the biggest threats.
“You just — ” Ruby’s lips twist in interesting ways, an undulating line of pink as she tries to work her way through her thoughts. “You don’t normally do that. Especially not since — well. You know. I thought you’d be… different.”
“Are you complaining because I’m not a wreck?” Yang lifts her brow as she straightens, stretches out to test the mobility of the new pieces.
“No! No. Of course not.” This time, Ruby actually leans in, peering at Yang with narrowed eyes. “I’m just worried you’ve suddenly gotten a whole lot better at that whole thing you do where you pretend you’re fine for my benefit but really aren’t fine. I don’t like it when you do that, but at least I can always tell when you’re doing it.” She stares a second longer. “Promise me you haven’t suddenly gotten better at it. Or been like… abducted.”
“Are those the only two options?”
Ruby throws her arms up. “Well! Maybe! I don’t know! You never go to bed early!”
In the midst of her concern, Ruby hasn’t put on anything more than her basic clothing (simple red combat skirt and black undershirt) and boots (knee-high, steel-toed, and made of the thickest, black leather). Yang steps forward to help her along, grabbing the thin combat vest off Ruby’s cot and dropping it over her shoulders, pulling the straps tight while Ruby sputters in protest.
“Guess all your optimism finally sunk in,” she says simply. “Thinking about what happened last time doesn’t help anyone. You’ve been saying so all along, right? That we owe it to the people we lost to focus on the people we can still save, until we have the luxury to do otherwise?”
She takes the armored gloves — heavy and durable but still fingerless — from Ruby’s hands and helps her slide them on, one at a time. Ruby continues to stare as she does, eyelashes fluttering with as much speed as she typically does everything, but Yang just smiles, finishing the task with a level of care that serves as a sharp juxtaposition to the rush around them.
“Yeah,” Ruby says eventually. “I just didn’t think you were listening. Or that one day you’d just like, I don’t know, wake up and be all for it! Especially today! It’s weird, Yang! I’m weirded out! I’m afraid you’ve gone into some kind of premature shock or something!”
Yang laughs, just a little, and takes the last item of clothing from Ruby’s bed, a battered cloak that her sister would never replace, no matter what fancy new tech might spring into being, no matter how many tears might mar the bright red. Ruby’s throat bobs as Yang shakes it out around her shoulders, flipping the fabric out in a dramatic twirl before it settles in place; it’s with utmost gentleness that she clasps it into place, fingers resting a moment too long on the pin, thumb brushing too gently against the ridges of the silver rose.
“I’m always listening,” she murmurs, too soft for the world around them, but just right for the bubble they find themselves in. “And you’re usually right. Isn’t that enough?”
She holds onto that feeling as they finish suiting up, when Flynt and Ivori join them wearing full Combat Jackets, excitement breaking through their muted demeanors as they show Ruby how they’d managed to spray paint ‘FIRY’ in bright red letters on the side of each metal exoskeleton. It’s optimism — plain and simple — when Team CFVY slides into place beside them, in mid-debate about Coco’s need for a new beret (two for, two against), when she laughs at a cheesy joke about kleptomaniacs one of the soldiers tells as soon as their assigned ship launches out over the sea. She feels good, basically, confident in her abilities and those of her team. She can keep eight people alive, she thinks, and then strengthens the thought into a vow. This time, things would go differently. This time, they would win.
She feels that way right up until the moment a squadron of Lancers rips through the hull of their airship, killing half of them instantly.
Yang should have known, really. Three years ago, when their forces had been decimated in this exact spot, they’d all gone in with a similar attitude (this would be it, they could win, they wouldn’t lose anyone else). The Grimm had been waiting for them then, too, and they’d learned — too quickly, with far too high a cost — that as bad as the Mimics were, the addition of aura wasn’t nearly as dangerous as their new ability of the Grimm (both original flavor and new-and-improved) to coordinate with each other.
This is why the Lancers move as a unit, this is why they’re able to lie in wait — disguised by the rocky shores of the Land of Darkness — until the exact moment the airships pass overhead. This is why Yang finds herself with her aura already nearly depleted, leather jacket burned away by the explosion, wiping smoke and sweat from her eyes and trying to make sense of the chaos. A group of winged Beringels descend on the beach where a platoon (half-strength at best) has washed up, an airship crashes into a grouping of purple crystals and catches flame, a grenade tears into the flank of Goliath and sends the soldiers battling around it diving for cover. A thousand places she might help, but her priority remains the same, and she searches (keeping her panic under a firm hand, controlled by only just) until she spots green armor, the man wearing it two-heads taller than those around him, a welcome and distinct beacon.
She takes out Grimm as she goes, smashing through a Griffon with the propulsion of her gauntlets and a well timed roll that places her beneath its vulnerable underside, to which she deploys three charges, rapid-fire. The explosion she leaves behind only helps her move faster, riding the momentum of the strike, but not fast enough. Velvet’s on the floor by the time she arrives, though Yatsu’s standing guard, blood dripping from underneath his torn armor in a way that will most certainly kill him, but won’t slow him down until then. His sword, swung in broad arcs, catches Grimm after Grimm, but the Mimic that Team CVFY has surrounded is smarter, doesn’t go in for the direct attack. It’s aura absorbs the hail of Coco’s bullets, deflects the sharp blades strapped to Fox’s arms, and it’s movement — inhuman, sporadic jerks of its thick limbs, each one a twisting bundle of black tentacles — only makes injuring it more difficult. There’s no sign of Ruby in the mess, and Yang knows she won’t get an answer if she asks now; Yatsu hasn’t stopped screaming since she arrived, a constant, throat-shattering shout born from rage rather than pain, and Coco and Fox don’t once look in her direction.
The next time one of the Mimic’s limbs flail out, she darts in between, before it can reach its intended target (Fox’s already heavily scarred face); the sharp bone-point deflects off her right arm, but she grabs the whole of it before it can retract, wrapping the slimy mass around her wrist and pulling, tugging the center mass off-balance, firing round after round into the appendage until a black mist appears and then crumbles, dissolving with a hiss. With the loss of its aura, the limb comes off with a few more expended shells and a tug that gains force with the recoil of her gauntlets. Coco and Fox finish the job fairly quickly after that, the center mass of the Mimic’s body shredded with bullets enhanced by Coco’s semblance, head severed by Fox’s blade.
It’s insensitive, but Yang doesn’t wait; she rushes up to Coco before she can follow Fox in checking on the other two members of their team and grabs the frayed seam at the shoulder of her jacket, fingers curling underneath the light ballistic plating and holding tight.
Coco spits on the ground next to her, and when she sneers, her teeth are covered in blood.
“Went towards the Alpha further in. Dunno if she made it. Get off me and go.”
Yang doesn’t need to be told twice, and doesn’t look back to see Yatsu collapse, though she hears his body hit the ground (and Coco’s yell — hopeless and pointless — for a medic). She can’t worry about it, can’t bring herself to care now, not when her concern is so solely focused, not when her sister is all she has left. A rocket flies overhead, smashes into a Nevermore overhead and sends it flying towards the ground. Yang has to dive to escape being crushed, and barely manages it even then; the impact shifts her path, sending her into an outcropping of rocks embedded with purple gems. It hurts. Her aura shudders and she’s slow to get up. Nearly too slow to avoid being crushed by the foot of a Goliath, though she rolls and the beast explodes in a shower of ash. A short-lived cheer from the platoon that’d managed the feat lifts her up and she’s back on her feet, running again.
It’s impossible to hear anything in the cacophony of sound from any kind of distance, but she tries it anyways, yelling Ruby’s name into the chaos. She gets nothing in return and keeps pushing inwards, bodies of soldiers as much of a hazard as the uneven ground, each electing the same, bored reaction, both falling into the category of obstacle. (She’ll feel it later, she promises herself, and tries to focus on the notion of after that’s slipping further and further away with every step.) She makes it a hundred feet further before a hand catches her shoulder, though in her momentum, only the stretch of his Jacket manages to stop her. It’s Mateo, the young Faunus they’d shared breakfast with the morning before, and there’s blood matted into his hair, his helmet clearly long gone and exposing his horns. He’s only able to point — mouth open, but no words yet emerging — before the tentacle of a Mimic tears through the back of his skull, shattering through his face and spraying blood over Yang’s. She falls back, catches herself with a blast of her gauntlet, and pushes back in, dodging the first swing of the Mimic’s limb with a recoil-assisted twist, and landing a flurry of punches along its side before being ripped away, another Mimic slithering up behind her to assist its fellow, writhing mass of black wrapping around her waist and throwing her across the field. She hits the ground hard, too discombobulated to right herself in time, and her aura quivers again, sharp pinpricks scraping over her skin, like she’s rolling along a bed of nails.
Her head throbs as she attempts to stumble upright, and she has to blink several times before she understands the sight that greets her when she manages it.
“Ice, Blake! Moveset forty-two!”
It’s an Alpha that they’re battling, that much is clear.
Across Remnant, the stories had spread about the Battle at Haven, the sole engagement throughout the entirety of the war where someone had fought an Alpha and survived (and more than that, won). Tales about the woman who’d managed it had become legend, of course, but the stories of the Grimm itself was what other Huntsmen spoke of most. Standing before one now, it’s just as Yang had always heard. It looks much like a typical Grimm Mimic: individual strands of inky black coiling tight together in a braid, those braids — each of a unique size and thickness — joining to form limbs, to form the core of its body, to form the extra appendages that could surge around the beast in a deadly wave of sharpened tentacles. It’s face is similar, mostly featureless outside of a gaping maw with points of bone and two glowing eyes just above. But the Alpha is larger by double, the ropey strands of shimmering black that comprise its body at least twice as thick, and underneath it all, steady and glowing, a blood-red light shines, a pulsing heart of the monster that had laid waste to so many over the past three years. And taking it on — once again — are the same two women that’d somehow found success in their last attempt, despite it all.
Blake — most of her lightweight armor destroyed, leaving simple fatigues underneath, partially shredded and burned — wields a cleaver-like sword in both her hands, but her movements are almost too fluid for the bulk of the weapon. Yang can barely keep up with her through sight alone, shimming glyphs of white and the smoke of shadow the only signs she was once in a place where she no longer is. Closer to Yang, out of the reach of their opponent, the Atleasian Specialist (Weiss, Yang remembers vaguely) directs the glyphs, clear strain on her face as she conducts the fight and powers the pure-white being next to her, a ten foot tall Arma Gigas that slices down at the Grimm that stream towards its summoner. The woman directs a stream of ice out of the tip of her thin sword, freezing the Alpha in place, a situation Blake takes advantage of (nearly before it’s started), sliding underneath the thick legs of the Grimm and slicing a line down its underside in a move that would split in two any Grimm without a aura. In this case, the alpha only grows more furious, digging its claws into the ground and pulling out a chunk of rock as large as a car and hurling it at Weiss. She’s forced to dodge — flinging herself to the side with yet another glyph — and it leaves Blake unguarded; with another tentacle, the Alpha rips her out from underneath and tosses her aside, follows it with a strike that’s meant to sever the spine, but catches only Blake’s shadow clone instead.
With the second hit, she isn’t so lucky.
There’s no amount of skill that would have allowed her to avoid it; she disappears and reappears in a blink with no discernible way to track her movements, but still, the sharp tentacle of the alpha moves with her, piercing her shoulder as soon as her form solidifies. Blake’s aura must have already been low, because the strike tears through her flesh, bone point erupting all the way through, tearing the muscle underneath, spattering blood on the ground underneath her and down her back. The continued force of the impact pushes her to the ground, her knees buckling. She doesn’t scream, though Weiss does it for her, the woman’s name ripped from the back of her throat before she’s swarmed by Grimm again, her summoned knight bracing against the onslaught.
Yang doesn’t think.
Her semblance ignites, flames spreading through her hair and licking her cheeks, and she plunges in, a blur of yellow and orange and red. She crosses the distance between her and Blake in a flash, shatters through the tentacle that’s still stuck through Blake’s shoulder in a single punch. The Alpha’s aura cracks, sparks red and then fizzles out, leaving only ash in the area it had once been. It floats down into Blake’s hair — dissolving into a similar blackness — and floats down onto her face, speckling the dark brown like freckles. It’s not the time for it (there’s never the time for it), but Yang looks down and winks, her grin likely a bit too manic in the midst of her semblance to be reassuring.
“It’s okay,” she says, full of bravado though even then she already knows. “Catch your breath for a second. I can hold it off.”
Blake sucks in a loud breath, palm pressing to the gaping hole in her shoulder, face too pale.
“Wait, you — ”
Yang doesn’t wait.
Her blood burns, boiling under her skin. There’s a clock in play here, and it’s ticking down too quickly. She darts around the Grimm, firing shot after shot, punch after punch, into its side, skull, legs, arms, underbelly, dodging through waving appendages, razor-ends flying all around her. Even without its aura, the alpha is too big, too strong to take on all at once; Yang is alight, but right now she’s alone, and the alpha’s claw finds her as soon as her semblance runs out, gold light flickering around her and fading completely as the talons rip a hole through her stomach, puncturing all the way through.
It doesn’t stop her, not right away, even as the Alpha pulls her close, lifts her up in front of its mouth — sharp teeth, blood red glow, gleaming black ropes of muscles connecting each half of the jaw to the other — and roars. It’s an open invitation to fire a few more shells, right into its mouth, and Yang does just that, until the Grimm clamps down around her right arm, teeth gnashing against the metal, grinding but not snapping (not yet).
There isn’t as much pain as she expects. There’s a hole in her stomach and the edges of the world are blurring, fading, dimming, but the pain is distant, almost abstract. And there’s ash in her mouth or maybe blood or probably both and she knows she’s dying, but isn’t afraid. The jaws of the alpha have clamped down hard on her arm in victory (maybe even in boast) but when she looks up — meets glowing red eyes — there’s an awareness there.
She can tell the exact moment when it realizes: if Yang’s to die, she’s taking it down with her. It roars, tries to pull back, but Yang grips on by the tentacle that’s plunged through her chest, and she grins.
The charges — every single one she has left, dozens and dozens now lining its throat — go off. Her mouth is dry, she’s choking, there’s a shout, she feels heat and she —
— wakes, and it’s a Monday.
“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’ve got to make it to base camp before the briefing starts!”
They’ve pitched a tent just outside the main control hub for the United Forces of Remnant, right along the northern shores of Vacuo. The sand is rocky there, sharp pebbles digging into the mats they’d laid out the night before, and if Yang had gotten more than four or five hours of sleep a night for the past five years, she might have —
But. No. That’s not quite right. She’d slept fine the night before, stretched out on a cot in the middle of the UFR base, taste of vanilla lingering on her lips long after she’d left Blake’s mouth behind, a steady stream of optimism filling her veins until —
They haven’t made it to the base yet, though they’re not far. It’s a two hour walk at most, no Grimm to be found so close to base. They’ll play games and make it to the base without incident, walk through the razed field full of soldiers practicing in their Jackets, and eat a breakfast of plain oatmeal. Most likely. Yang can’t know for sure. There’s no way she could know for sure.
“Hey.” She looks up, finds Ruby watching with concern. It makes sense she’d worry, what with Yang staring into the side of the tent, unseeing, brows pinched together as she works through the odd thoughts cluttering her head. “You alright?”
“Um. Yeah.” Yang shakes her head again, trying to clear the fog. “Yeah. Sorry. Just —had some weird dreams, I guess. Something about the clear ocean air and the army full of murderous Grimm awaiting us.”
“Just another day in p-p-paradise,” Ruby sings, tapping out a rhythm on the tarp (which matches no known song in Remnant, Yang’s pretty sure, but is still recognizable, a distant memory). “At least it was a quiet night! Maybe that’s a sign!”
She sits up, finds her gear, starts strapping it on without thought. Her hands brush over the hole in her stoma — no, the flat of her stomach, covered by a simple, torn tank. Ruby’s still staring, mouth slightly open as Yang fails, yet again, to continue the conversation like a normal, sentient being.
“Uh — yeah. I mean. A sign that fifty billion Grimm are — ” (She stumbles over her line, remembering and ruining the joke.) “— Are waiting for us as soon as we hit the red shores.”
Ruby allows it, though her chipper tone is a little forced, maybe. Not quite as natural as Yang remembers (from her dream — definitely a dream). “But before that… hot rations! And a full night’s sleep in beds!” Ruby claps her hands together, the light armor of her gloves muffling the sound. “I don’t care what you say; those messengers we met in the last outpost were telling the truth about how good the fish stew would be.”
Yang knows now that they hadn’t been, but only smiles, pushing the odd thoughts behind her, finishing up putting on her gear and breaking down the tent. Ruby watches her carefully, more attuned to Yang’s moods than anyone else on Remnant, but Yang’s just as adept at hiding them. She cracks a few jokes (new ones, ones she hadn’t dreamt of before, and that calms her, in some way) until they’re well on their way, traveling through the rocky outcroppings of the Vacuo shores. And they play a game, just as they had before, just as they always do.
“One day,” Ruby begins, as always, “little Suzy Shoeman decided she would go to the store for cookies.
“Unfortunately,” Yang continues, like she’s supposed to, “on her way there, she was stopped by a giant bear, reared up on its hindlegs in the middle of main street.”
“Fortunately,” Ruby drawls, the long emphasis on the ending syllable, like it always is, “the bear was only asking for directions. His name was Bartholomew.”
“Unfortunately, Bartholomew was asking for direction to a place that didn’t exist. And when little Suzy Shoeman couldn’t help him find it, he got agitated, letting out a long, horrible growl.”
She’s reciting the words of someone else — a past self — and the result is the same, a call and response she’s memorized in her sleep. The fog of a dream still hangs over her, and that’s the easiest explanation as they hold the same conversation, see the same people as they approach the base, and run into the same rude Atlesian (Weiss, Yang knows, but ignores her own thought). It’s the only thing that makes sense when — before Ruby can wander off — Yang leads her to the mess without a single false turn. Curious, really, that Mateo still finds them even without the need for directions, bumping into Ruby’s chair as she tilts onto the back legs in excitement as Yang pours her sugar packet into Ruby’s bowl.
The conversation starts with apologies, but ends up going the same way and Yang spends the duration of it wondering how to wake herself up. She tries digging a spoon into hand, but it feels as it normally does. Her hands look as they normally do. Her stare is so intense that it makes her eyes water, and she has to blink several times to draw herself out of it. (She tries to remember if she’s ever blinked in a dream before, but can’t recall.)
“ — care if it makes me a coward,” Mateo is saying (again). “ I never want to see one of those things.”
“Not everyone has to kill a Mimic,” Ruby says, and Yang can picture the kind expression on her face, without having to look up. “Sometimes it isn’t the big actions that matter. Not everyone is the Hero of Haven, but everyone plays a part.”
“Are you sure?”
It’s not her intention to speak. It’s not her intention to do anything at all. But then she looks up and Mateo is there, tan skin smooth and untorn (not split open like a jack-in-the-box, tentacle piercing through with confetti made of blood and bone and viscera), grin stretching his mouth (not sagging open in shock), eyes lit up by Ruby’s spirit (not cold, not dead), and the words burst forth.
She ignores Ruby’s look, shifts away from the hand that reaches out to her.
“I mean, yeah, everyone has a part to play. But sometimes that part is being fodder for the Grimm and it’s just a waste, isn’t it? Not everyone is meant for this. Some people will just die. And maybe you should run. Run far away so you don’t have to see any of it. Because you deserve better than to end up — ”
It’s rare to see Ruby mad. And even now, her concern overshadows it, a thick cloth dropped over the raw surface. If Yang hadn’t regretted her outburst instantly, this look would have done the trick, but she had, and so it only adds to the remorse.
“I’m — fuck.” Yang sighs, shakes her head and presses her index and middle finger into the center of her brow. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind me. I’m just — ” She forces a smile. “Ruby’s right. Ignore me.”
It’s not her most convincing work.
Ruby steps in, a flurry of excuses and gentle reassurances, and the boy’s shell-shocked expression fades away, at least mostly. He leaves earlier than Yang remembers though (than she dreamt) and with far less cheer. Yang knows what’s coming, and rushes through cleaning up her breakfast (mostly untouched) and hurrying them towards the briefing room, stubbornly ignoring Ruby’s silver eyes throughout the whole of it. And it almost works. Almost. But then Ruby reaches out — the lightest pinch of the back of Yang’s shirt — before Yang can escape, and it’s over, just like that.
“Yang,” she begins, far too softly. “What’s going on?”
They’re just outside the briefing, off to the side of the main door, and Yang backs further away, feet scuffing the dry sand and leaving a trail of clear hesitancy. In the seconds of spare time the movement adds, she considers all the ways she might respond (claims of poor sleep, prophetic visions, insanity, and things far crazier), but settles on the truth.
“I don’t know.” She rubs at her face, gloves scraping against the skin. “I’m sick of watching people die. I don’t want to go through that again.”
Ruby assumes she means the battle from three years ago; Yang’s not entirely sure what she means at all. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, because Ruby’s hand on her arm, her soft squeeze of her bicep, is enough to make her feel better, regardless.
“I know. And we won’t.” It’s not blind optimism, not any more; Ruby had been like that once, but the years burned it out of her, each death and loss cleaving away the naivety. What’s left in its place is something even more impressive: a staunch hope that somehow maintained its strength despite the heavy weight of reality. “We know what we’re up against this time and everyone has been preparing for it for years. Not everyone is going to make it, I know. But I refuse to believe anyone is meaningless. I know everyone will help us win. And you know that too.” Her shoulders slump at the end, just a little, but she puts on a brave face when she looks back up and offers another comforting squeeze. “Usually.”
From inside the building, the sparse chatter cuts off, no longer drifting through the doors each time they’re opened (which isn’t particularly common in the first place, few willing to risk Ironwood’s penchant and preference for timeliness). Ironwood’s taken the stage, Yang thinks vaguely, which is exactly the sort of thinking she needs to rid herself of entirely.
“You’re right. I know.” She places her hand over Ruby’s briefly, and drops it with a half smile. “Ever since I had those dreams last night, I’ve just been — I don’t know. Out of it. But you’re right. I just lost myself for a second.” She forces herself not to rush to the next part, to stay calm and let the smile spread with apparent earnestness. “You don’t have to worry, Rubes. I mean, it happens to everyone, right?”
It does, but never to her. Ruby doesn’t say this, but might as well, her expression rendering her thoughts transparent. Yang’s slipped up too much to reassure so easily and Ruby will be watching her closely now, too closely for someone who needs to be focused on their own wellbeing. This, if nothing else, will be enough to push Yang’s thoughts of dreams and premonitions out of her mind; today (and every other). Distracting Ruby is too high a cost and so she won’t dwell.
The resolution holds for another thirty seconds, enough time for her to smile again, to muse Ruby’s hair until she squirms away. But then Blake Belladonna steps into her field of view and she’s lost again, pulled back to a quiet rooftop and a sudden puncture through the shoulder, to soft words and the violent spatter of blood. Her sharp inhale halts her breathing and her heart. Blake looks her way and holds (one second, two seconds, three seconds) before turning away, resuming her walk into the briefing room, keeping pace with the white-haired woman at her side. When Yang’s breath returns and her heartbeat resumes, they’re both off-kilter, skipping every other mark they’re meant to hit.
“Wasn’t expecting to see the Hero of Haven at a common meeting with the rest of us,” Yang says, before Ruby can question her again. And then, to distract and because it’s true, she adds, “She’s hotter than I expected her to be.”
She’s lucky; it works. Ruby rolls her eyes and launches into a familiar, teasing lecture about not objectifying women, and Yang grins and pokes her in the side, and it’s fine. Yang sits through the lecture and doesn’t wonder why she knows Ironwood speech, carefully avoids the corner of the room where she knows Blake and Weiss stand, acts surprised when Flynt and Ivori are assigned as their temporary partners, and expresses the exact right amount of unexpected pleasure when Team CFVY joins them in training. She’s on point for the rest of the day, never once deviating from script, never showing anything that might get her in trouble. Sometimes, she even manages to forget about the things she’s locked away.
The party starts and Yang doesn’t wait, doesn’t allow herself to float through the motions without input. She skips the beginning, skips the middle, and fast forwards to the good part, climbing up the side of the command center with a thick bubble of anticipation in her throat.
It bursts when she reaches the top. The roof is empty, no magic in the landscape spread out beneath her, though it’s not the view that’s changed. It’s relief she should feel, rather than disappointment, but the logic doesn’t pierce her, no matter how sound it is. Her dreams have been disproven and she should be happy, but she’s left with half-memories of a woman she doesn’t really know, and feels the loss as she sits down on the ledge, feet dangling downwards.
“What are you doing here?”
If her smile is too big when she turns — eyes too bright, posture too buoyant — Blake doesn’t comment and Yang doesn’t care. She ignores the implications and lets herself sink into the warm feeling that doesn’t make any sense, but exists regardless.
“I was just… pulling on a thread.”
Blake’s nose scrunches in confusion. She looks just as she had earlier — plain canvas pants, basic tactical vest, boots that are a bit too high to be regulation — but there are new things too. Before, Yang hadn’t noticed the small, purple emblem stitched into the lower right corner of her vest, or the small nick out of one of her ears, or the barest hint of a scar — far less prominent than the others — running along her elbow. The observation is too thorough, the response too odd, and she half-expects Blake to leave. But instead of dropping back off the roof, she asks the same question she had before:
“Oh, I don’t know.” Yang shrugs, but can’t keep herself from grinning. “The universe. Sometimes a bit of it unwinds and you have to follow it. Every chance you get.”
There’s something lovely about the tilt of Blake’s head, the question held within, the hint of amusement underneath the surface. This time, Yang waits, catalogues the expression in a growing memory bank, a section of her consciousness devoted to beauty, steadily filling up with Blake.
Improbable, impossible, but here she is again.
“Isn’t that cause of alarm? The very fabric of the universe unraveling?”
Her eyebrows twitch, up and then down, so fast Yang might have missed it had she not been so intently focused.
“Nah.” Yang leans back, her grin growing lopsided. “It’s just fate reaching out, hoping someone will notice.”
The indent at the corner of Blake’s lips lifts, less than an inch, but to Yang it feels like moving mountains. “And if no one does?”
“I figure it keeps trying.”
And maybe that’s true. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe sometimes the universe keeps trying until everyone gets it right, breaking the very laws of time to make it so. Blake laughs without much humor, like Yang’s told a joke that isn’t particularly funny, but she relaxes too, her shoulders dropping enough that the change in posture is noticeable.
“It keeps trying,” Blake repeats. “And how does it do that?”
“Well,” Yang begins slowly, drawing out the word as she thinks through it. “Don’t you ever get that feeling of déjà vu?”
The light from the moon glints off Blake’s eyes in a way that makes them look a little too bright.
Maybe Yang is dreaming now. Maybe she’s already dead. Maybe she’s never been alive at all. Anything might be true, in the odd light of the moon. In the strange space they find themselves in, where time and space seem to sputter and freeze and flex, at random intervals.
“I’m familiar with the sensation,” Blake says slowly. “Though I can’t say I thought it was the universe steering me along.”
Yang shrugs again, unbothered by the dissent. “It’s a nice way to look at it though, don’t you think? Better a universe that gives you a few chances to make the right choice. Better that than one that doesn’t care at all.”
With a low hum, Blake finally moves closer, drifting towards the side of the roof where Yang sits. “And if you continue to make the same choice? What if the universe decides it’s the wrong one and keeps forcing you to choose? That sounds like a punishment rather than a kindness.” Blake looks out at the water, unblinking. “I think I prefer one that’s impartial, should it come to that.”
“Oh, I think the universe would give up on you, long before that,” Yang teases, and gets half a smile.
She watches for another second (maybe two), Blake’s sharp profile, a pretty picture against the night sky. She wants to tell her that it’s easier to forget the false starts if the after works out, but they haven’t had that conversation yet.
“You can join me.” She nods to the spot next to her, a half tilt of her head to the side. “I promise I won’t be a distraction.”
They haven’t had that one either, but Yang thinks it’s okay to cheat, just this once, especially when Blake’s forehead pinches again, giving away her curiosity (and her doubt).
“I’m not sure I believe that.”
“Only one way to find out.”
She pats the spot this time, and Blake acquiesces, her hesitation slight enough that it almost seems for show. She’s graceful with her movements, even here, dropping to the ground without a sound, legs folding and then dropping out over the ledge in one fluid movement. Yang watches, entranced, but says nothing, only smiles when caught. Now that she knows to look for it, Blake’s once over of her own form is more obvious, and this time, she’s aware enough to wink once her eyes return to Yang’s. (The blush is hard to spot in the dark, but Yang knows to look for this too.)
“Do you think it’s true,” Blake begins softly, “that ninety-four percent of all life lives down there, under the water?”
Yang — who can vividly imagine what’s to come next — smiles.
Yang can’t quite manage to sleep, though she makes it back early.
It’s not just vanilla, the taste of Blake’s lips, and she runs her tongue over her own, trying to sort it out as she lies in her cot. It might be honey or perhaps salt or maybe it’s nothing at all and Yang’s brain — full of self-preservation — has concocted a mystery where there is none, if only to keep her from looking further into the obvious enigma before her. She’s grateful if that’s the case, because a preoccupation with Blake’s mouth is far more pleasant than considering the state of her sanity and whether or not she’s suddenly developed the ability to see the future (or, more accurately, live it). She sleeps, but only briefly, and when she wakes, she spends most of her time debating (with herself) the nature of dreams, and whether it’s possible for her to still be dreaming if she’d fallen asleep within it. The mental gymnastics make her head throb until she pushes these thoughts away with physical activity, losing herself in endless sets of pushups that she only stops once Ruby wakes.
“You were asleep when I got back last night,” Ruby says, tone cautions as she swings her legs over her cot and levels her full attention on Yang. “Are you feeling any better?”
She debates, too, the level of honesty she should provide, but in the end, she’s a bit too tired to argue with herself anymore, and ends up defaulting to what’s always the easiest course of action when it comes to Ruby: the truth.
“What would you say if I told you I have a bad feeling about today? That I’ve had one since yesterday morning?”
Ruby doesn’t answer right away, not as she would have done as a child. Instead, she chews on the inside of her cheek, eyes flitting up and down and around Yang’s form, as though checking for damages already.
“I would say,” she begins slowly, “that you don’t usually have bad feelings, unless it’s for a good reason. So that means we should probably be careful. Really careful.”
She climbs to her feet, brushing the dirt off her palms, and debates again, the same topic revisited.
“On the airship today, make sure you jump when I do, okay? Don’t — ” (Pain in her shoulder and neck, the explosion tears through the exoskeleton of the soldier across from her, collapses part of his face. The tear of metal rings in her ears after she lands, sand caked in her hair, the taste of salt water on her lips.) “Don’t wait until they give the all clear.” Ruby doesn’t answer right away, and so she asks again. “Alright?”
This time, Ruby nods straight away. “Alright.” She smiles, all reassurance. “You know I’m with you, Yang.”
And she is, right at her side as they get dressed, join with Flynt and Ivori, and head towards the open field outside the base (the number of airships taking off far too many to fit in the hanger).
“Hey, check it.” Flynt flexes and his Combat Jacket follows the motion, showing off the bright red lettering along the shoulder.
“Team FIRY, ready for action!” Ruby shouts, her customary fist pump resulting in laughs all around. “I can’t wait to try out some of our new moves. We’re going to be incredible!”
She nudges Yang’s shoulder, breaking her out of her light trance, brought on by words and conversations she’s heard before.
“Right.” A weak smile is the best she can do. “Stick together and we’ll be fine. Let’s… focus on that. Staying together.”
“Always an ideal tactic for a team of Huntsmen.” Ivori’s words are slow and calm; Yang finds she appreciates it more than before, even if he’s cut off before he can say more.
“It is too worn,” Yatsu says, his voice announcing the presence of Team CFVY before they swing around the corner. “It needs to be replaced.”
“It’s battleworn,” Velvet disagrees, reaching up to brush her fingers along the object in question, the beret sitting artfully crooked atop Coco’s head, now a dark grey rather than the black Yang remembers. “It’s practically a sign of rank at this point. It would be a travesty to replace it!”
“I’m keeping it.” Clearly, this isn’t the first time Coco’s made her opinion on the matter known, as she spends only a single breath on the argument, instead nodding towards Ruby, Yang, Flynt, and Ivori, waiting outside their assigned airship as their platoons file in.
“There is a hole in it,” is all Fox has to say, though the addition of a rude gesture demonstrating his thoughts on holes only leads to Coco raising a brow.
“Is that supposed to discourage me? Do you know me at all, Fox?” Her grin turns wicked. “Though really you should use two fingers there, if you’re going for accuracy. Velvet prefers at leas — ”
Yatsu turns a bright red, nearly stumbling over his own two feet. “Perhaps we should discuss other matters in polite company.”
“Who’s polite?” Coco asks, throwing Yang a wink. (She’d replied with a two-finger salute last time — a gesture of solidarity — but finds she can’t bear it now, staring at ghosts.)
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” It’s the platoon leader, clearly used to a bit more militaristic order than is on display amongst the Huntsmen before him, but the two groups of four load in quickly enough, jumping or sliding or stepping into the airship, depending on the level of style each feels up to displaying.
Yang’s learned that it’s best to cover her arms in battles, to take the light armor offered and don her jacket and protect all of her skin from stray scratches or grazing bites, but she feels the goosebumps underneath. Each repeated line sets her further on edge, and by the time they make it to the point in time where the soldier to her right tells her joke about kleptomaniacs and puns and taking things literally, her heart is pounding far too fast to allow for rational thought.
“The platoons are going to jump too late.”
She has the presence of mind to address Coco, at least (even as her hand starts to shake), and it goes just about as well as she might have expected.
“What the fresh hell are you talking about, Xiao Long?”
“Yang and I were talking earlier,” Ruby cuts in, the start of her lie so smooth, Yang can’t anticipate that it’ll be a lie at all. “And we’re afraid the Grimm will abush us before we hit the DZ. There are way too many rock formations along the shore; they could hide a whole nest of Lancers in there and we’d never see them coming until they were right under us.”
Which is, of course, exactly what Yang remembers happening, though she hadn’t confessed to Ruby as such. Stupid, really, to not mention all of it from the start, no matter how unsure she is (no matter how crazy it sounds). Her sister understands the shift and pull of battles more than most, enough that she can guess at potential hazards now, even without the same foresight Yang now finds she possesses.
“We should jump before that,” Yang continues, on steadier ground once again (if only for a moment). “All of us can cover the distance. What did we learn at Beacon if not to fall, right?”
The airship isn’t especially large, and despite the noise spurred by nerves, all of CFVY seems to be paying attention to the situation. Fox tilts his head and Yatsu nods and Velvet presses her fingers to the fabric just above Coco’s knee.
“We’ll follow your lead,” Coco says simply, matter settled in less than three minutes.
It’s calming, in a way. She’s spent so much time over the past twenty-four hours worried about the state of her sanity (the state of the world, the notion of timelines or dreams or visions) that she somehow hadn’t considered the difference she might make, using the knowledge she’d been given. Of course, it’s just as likely she’ll do more harm than good, that the events she’d seen wouldn’t come to pass and she’d be responsible for the death of eight Huntsmen before the battle starts in earnest, but… too late for that now. So much time and still, she finds her decisions to be made at the last minute, spur of the moment choices that could have far reaching effects. Or not. Maybe not. If she knew she would live through the upcoming fight, she’d almost be excited, to be the person who discovers just how concrete fate is, to find just how much wiggle room mortal beings were offered.
These are Yang’s thoughts as she hangs out the airship, staring at the distant (but steadily approaching shore), as she tries to remember the timing, as she readies herself for the jump. Ruby presses her palm to the back of Yang’s shoulder and that helps, but only for the ten seconds between the gesture and the moment Yang’s falling through the air. And then the Lancers are rocketing upwards and she’d been a little too late — just a few beats off — because it takes longer for Ivori and Flynt to release from the clamping mechanisms attached to their Jackets and the explosion that wrecks the airship catches them and —
It’s chaos. Still.
The airships she hadn’t warned — the ones carrying all the lives outside of the eight she’d taken in hand — erupt in unison, the perfect and horrible timing of the ambush all the more evident without any obstructions; an impressive firework show, if not for the rampant death and the fact that Yang’s still in the air among the flaming debris. It rains around her, impossible to dodge, giant chunks of metal that clip her side, send her flying in directions she hadn’t intended, and draining her aura in one. It leaves her in only slightly better shape than in her previous attempt (life? dream? she doesn’t want to be sure even though she nearly is), but her chances are vastly improved by the collection of Huntsmen at her side, all in condition to stand, at least.
“Ruby?” she asks and reaches, pushing aside the red of her cloak to make sure none of the color has bled into other places.
“My aura’s low,” Ruby gasps, clearly winded, clutching a stitch in her side. “Had to use my semblance a lot to get out of the mess.”
“To get me out too,” Yatsu says, placing a gloved hand on Ruby’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
It’s just like Ruby, of course, and it earns her more of the same respect she’s gained in every battle they’ve stumbled into. Ruby will always place others before herself, which means Yang has to place Ruby before anyone else. It’s instinct, lifting her gauntlets and stepping between Ruby and any potential threat, and she does it now as they regroup, taking stock of the carnage around her.
“Any other thoughts, Yang?” Coco asks, a new hole in her beret, still glowing red around the rim from the projectile that’d pierced it. “Because the one about jumping early sure paid off.”
It’s a fair question; none of them are willing to overlook instincts, good sense, or gut feelings at this stage. But nothing looks familiar, not yet. She’s on a different part of the beach, at a different point in time, and more than anything else, it’s unsettling, like every picture in a familiar room being moved an inch to the right. Next time, she thinks, she’ll make smaller changes within the battle itself and work from there. It’s a nice resolution until she realizes that this line of thinking involves her dying and magically coming back to life again, which really isn’t something a person ought to rely on.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Stick together. Try not to die.”
Coco laughs without humor, but also without blame or bitterness. Her machine gun has already unfolded, and she fires a few rounds into a group of approaching Grimm.
“Seems a good plan. Let’s get to it!”
Yang suspects they would have done well, had the crashed airship they’d been hiding behind not been carrying a case of explosives, which catches fire not a second later. The blast drains the rest of her aura and sends her flying a good ten feet, a beautiful trajectory that flings her up and down, right onto a crystal that impales her neatly through the chest.
Die and learn, she figures, will be a very good motto if she wakes up again.
It’s a Monday.
It’s a Monday again.
“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’ve got to make it to base camp before the briefing starts!”
Yang rises from her sleeping bag slowly, running a hand down her front with a slow, steady hand, evening out her breathing. Everything’s in place, everything’s the same, and there’s no denying it now; she’s rewinding time, repeating a solid twenty-eight hours of her life, over and over. She dresses quietly, the crush of thoughts ruining the early morning banter she’s now heard twice over. She’s running through the days and cataloguing the information she needs, and it leads to her brushing off Ruby’s concerns.
(“Just a headache,” she says, which is true.)
They pack up quickly, Ruby’s eyes on her all the while, and Yang tests herself against her memories. (Ruby will put on her cloak next or we’ll hear a branch snap in the distance in a few seconds or Ruby will look out towards the sea and take a deep breath.) It’s further proof she doesn’t need, but it calms her nevertheless; the inevitability soothes, rather than traps, now that it’s crystalized.
“Fortunately, unfortunately?” Ruby asks, like she never has, and this is interesting too, the small differences that even silence can make.
Differences, but no change in the end result, because Yang smiles and nods, and Ruby begins the game as she always does, walking along the seaside, boots crunching against the sand.
“One day, little Suzy Shoeman decided she would go to the store for cookies."
Branches of time itself spread out from the moment, strong limbs of convergence and thin twigs of improbabilities. Yang feels herself at the center of it all and notes the forks, considers the paths she might take, the growth she might cultivate. It’s an odd moment to realize the power of infinite possibility, but it cuts her breath short anyways. Here, she might traverse a familiar offshoot, or pass down a new bough, and life itself would have to adapt, move in the direction she dictates.
“Unfortunately,” Yang says, her words the same as always, but softer, tentative, a precursor to something new, “on her way there, she was stopped by a giant bear, reared up on its hindlegs in the middle of main street.”
And then, flexing her muscles, bending the universe around her, Yang continues, words exactly in time with Ruby’s.
“Fortunately, the bear was only asking for directions. His name was Bartholomew.”
Ruby trails off towards the end, and Yang finishes alone, voice ringing out louder than it should, challenging the waves for dominance in the arena of sound.
“Yang.” It’s unnatural to see Ruby go still, but she freezes now. “How did you — ”
“Unfortunately,” Yang pushes forward, shaking her head. “Bartholomew was asking for direction to a place that didn’t exist. And when little Suzy Shoeman couldn’t help him find it, he got agitated, letting out a long, horrible growl.”
Still standing in her own footprints, tops of her boots covered in sand, Ruby only stares.
“Keep going.” Yang swallows. “Just keep going.”
Her hesitation is clear, but Ruby eventually does, words slow. “Fortunately, little Suzy knew just what to do and — ”
Ruby’s voice once more dies out, but Yang finishes for her again. “ — gave Bartholomew the Bear a big, friendly hug.”
“I was going to say that she freaked the fuck out,” Ruby says, not quite hyterical, but higher pitched than normal. “Yang, what’s going on?”
“Sometimes things change, if I do things differently the next time around.” It’s not an explanation, but it’s a good precursor, and she sucks in a breath before diving in. “Ruby, something really weird is happening to me.”
An hour later, Ruby’s sped through her ‘most pressing’ questions, though she promises more, shortly incoming. Yang’s already exhausted; explaining the whole of it takes more out of her than she might have thought, mainly because it involves her thinking far too closely about questions like why? and how? and what the fuck? (It boils down to the same answer for all of them: no fucking clue.)
“I mean, you’ve never died before, so maybe this was always going to happen,” Ruby muses at some point, like that’s not an absolutely terrifying concept. “Maybe you have like, nine lives. Or something.”
“Let’s hope for more than that,” Yang grumbles. “I’ve already used up two and based on the state of the beach, I’m gonna need a bunch more before we make any progress.”
Which is another terrifying concept. But one that Ruby lets pass without question, a true act of mercy.
“We’re just going to have to figure out how to make the most of each life. There have to be big things we can change! Like!” Ruby brightens, eyes widening in her excitement. “If we can convince Ironwood, he can change the attack formation of the entire army! We could avoid the ambush you talked about! Go a different direction on our approach with the airships or even delay the attack to another time. They somehow know we’re coming, clearly, which actually makes me think that — ” She looks away as she trails off, eyes losing their focus as she stares out at the ocean. It takes her a few seconds to come back to it, but when she does, she only shakes her head. “I don’t know. It’s not really important. But telling Ironwood could be. We can only do so much with just the two of us.”
Yang’s thought about this as well, which is why she knows it’s a bad idea.
“Okay, I’m not saying I don’t trust Ironwood, but…” She bites at the inside of her cheek. “Actually, no, that’s exactly what I’m saying; I really don’t actually trust Ironwood.”
Ruby groans, just a little. “Yang.”
“Look, I’m not saying I think he’s like, trying to get us all killed by the Grimm, or something. But you know the news that came out of Atlas two years ago wasn’t great. What happened to Mantle in that battle… you’ve said it yourself: he could have done more. They were decimated, but the city of Atlas managed to carry on pretty well.”
“I don’t think he’s some perfect person,” Ruby agrees, voice hardening a little. “But he’s still the person most equipped to save the most people. I mean, what do you think he’s going to do?”
Kicking up a bit of sand with the toe of her boot as they continue to walk through the dunes, Yang offers a shrug. “Not believe me, most likely. But okay, even if he did. Even if he totally, one hundred percent believed that I could turn back time and restart a battle, what do you think is more likely, him letting me — a random Huntress that he has absolutely no control over — keep carrying on directing the flow of battle from memories no one else in the world can confirm? Or that he’d lock me away in some secret military compound and run endless experiments on me until he and Atlas scientists figured out a way to take that ability and place it some sad sap who would follow his every command?”
Ruby’s silence says enough, and her doubtful tone when she responds says the same, though her words are less certain. “He wouldn’t.”
“You really think Ironwood wouldn’t do whatever it took to win? On his terms?”
For another few minutes, Ruby chews on her bottom lip, but eventually, she nods, looking upset over things Yang never liked making her contemplate. Ruby knew the state of things as well as she did, but she’d always been more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt, until the cold facts were in. Yang, not so much. Not any more.
“So we do it on our own,” she says, slowly at first, but with picking up confidence and speed. “Just the two of us.”
“Like always,” Yang agrees, and wishes the statement held the same burst of pride it’d had when they were kids, before they’d lost the people they’d let in.
“Like always.” Her shoulders lift, her smile brightens, and Yang feels a little spark of hope, somewhere deep in her chest. “We’ve got this!”
“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’ve got to make it to base camp before the briefing starts!”
(She tells Ruby, she takes her straight to the mess, she skips the briefing, they develop new movesets based on what she remembers, she finds Blake on the roof of the command center, they jump out of the dropship before it explodes, they fight together, they take down four mimics and ninety-one Grimm, Velvet lives, Flynt dies, Ivori dies, Mateo dies, she dies.)
“What if there’s a whole civilization down there? Like, little blue dudes sipping on pure oxygen and getting high and like, laughing at how fucking stupid we are for not just getting out of the way of all these Grimm.”
She’s switching it up today, exhausted by discussions of fate and missing Blake’s laugh. She gets both when Blake responds, the flash of her teeth starting a spark that catches and burns a trail through Yang’s veins.
“Little blue dudes?” Blake repeats, and the phrase sounds so ridiculous coming from her lips, that Yang joins in the laughter.
“Or maybe super intelligent turtles!”
One of Blake’s eyebrows lifts, on the same side of the curl of her smirk. “Super intelligent turtles and little blue men? Really?”
Yang tsks, and leans back, waving a hand down her front. “Blake, look at me. Do you really need me to have a degree in some kind of science shit on top of this?”
She switches it up, but the end result is the same; ten minutes later, Blake’s mouth is on hers, burning away all the rest.
“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’ve got to make it to base camp before — ”
(She doesn’t tell Ruby, she sticks to the script, she finds Blake on the roof of the command center, they jump out of the dropship before it explodes, they fight together, they take down two mimics and forty-seven Grimm, Velvet dies, Flynt dies, Ivori dies, Mateo dies, she dies.)
“Not everyone has to kill a Mimic,” Ruby is saying to the boy across from her, his wide eyes reminding Yang of the moment she’d seen him die. “Sometimes it isn’t the big actions that matter. Not everyone is the Hero of Haven, but everyone plays a part.”
She’s supposed to stick to the script, but she never manages it; Mateo is doomed, she knows, but she has to try. Sometimes it isn't the big actions that matter, and so she has to try.
“But if you see one, don’t turn your back on it.” (He’d looked away for only a moment, and it’d torn a hole in his skull.) “Keep your eye on it. Don’t look away.”
“Wake up, sleepyhead! We’ve got to — ”
(She tells Ruby, they don’t go to the base until that night, they develop new movesets based on what she remembers, she finds Blake on the roof of the command center, they jump out of the dropship before it explodes, they fight together, they take down four mimics and one hundred and two Grimm, Velvet dies, Flynt dies, Ivori dies, Mateo dies, she dies.)
“Thirty-two seconds and then run,” she reminds Ruby. “Two Grimm pass, but if we go out to fight them, we die. Twenty-eight seconds.”
“I’ve got it.” There’s blood on Ruby’s face. There’s always blood on her face. “Slide under that overhang and then wait. I remember.”
Yang hadn’t gotten the timing quite right last time — just a couple seconds off — but today they’ll go further. She counts off, careful and steady and sure. Today, they’ll save more.
“Wake up, sleepy — ”
(She tells Ruby, she takes her straight to the mess, she goes to the briefing, they develop new movesets based on what she remembers and incorporate Flynt and Ivori into the mix, she finds Blake on the roof of the command center, they jump out of the dropship before it explodes, they fight together, they take down seven mimics and one hundred and seventy-nine Grimm, Velvet lives, Flynt lives, Ivori dies, Mateo dies, she dies.)
When she’s removed from Team CFVY, Velvet is quieter than Yang remembers, which is saying a great deal, given how quiet Yang remembers her being. But today she speaks, right before boarding the airship, stepping away from the teasing of the rest of her team.
“It feels like we’ve been here before,” she whispers. “Doesn’t it? Only three years ago?”
She seems startled when Yang replies, as though she’d been posing the question to only herself.
“You could say that.” She’s too tired for her voice to hold all the irony the statement deserves, and so she just sounds sad. It takes her another moment to realize this is something new, and she straightens up from the slump she hadn’t noticed she’d fallen into, curiosity taking hold. “But why did you?”
Velvet shakes her head, and Yang doesn’t push. She doesn’t need to, either, it turns out, because she looks back after only a step towards her team, waiting on the airship.
“You looked how I felt,” she explains, voice still so soft. “And it’s lonely, thinking you’re the only one that remembers.”
I am, Yang nearly says, but watches her walk away instead.
“Wake u— ”
(She dies, she dies, she dies.)
Chapter 3: spreads to falling leaves
“Okay, fine. Let’s try telling Ironwood.”
She says it like it’s the continuation of a recent conversation rather than the product of another life (another Ruby), which is something of a bad habit by now.
It’s still not her favorite play, though Yang’s considered it on every reset, but on her tenth life — after going through the basics with Ruby, a consistent choice now, because it always works out for the better (and makes her feel a little less lonely) — she suggests it before Ruby can (because Ruby always does).
“Um. I was actually just about to — ”
“I know,” Yang cuts in, but then offers an apologetic shrug. “You always do. And I always say Ironwood will probably lock me in some kind of padded cell or hook me up to a bunch of wires and have Atlesian psychopaths experiment on me in horrible ways. That always convinces you that we’re better off playing it safe.”
“Then why — ?”
“We’re not making major progress. We’re killing more Grimm, but without you being able to change the tactics of our attack on a large scale, we’re just making dents, not punching any holes through the whole defense.”
“So you think we should — ?”
“Talk to Ironwood, hope he doesn’t lock me up, convince him to let you basically plan the attack with all the knowledge you now have thanks to me dying ten times, and then — oh, yeah — if he starts to take me away, kill me on the spot. I’ll drop my aura and you put a bullet in my head.”
She’s not sure if Ruby’s outrage is more to do with the casual suggestion of murder or the constant interrupting; if Yang had to guess, she’d say a good mixture of both.
“Sorry!” She stops, holds up her hands, then steps closer to put them on Ruby’s shoulders. “Sorry,” she says again, this time softer. “I know this is all a lot to take in and it’s — obviously it’s your first time around, but for me, I just have to keep throwing myself against my own death until something sticks, I guess.”
Ruby makes a face, but the smile appears anyways, forgiving and easy. “Or doesn’t stick. Isn’t that kind of the point? Not to make it permanent. Come on, Yang. At least get the lingo right if you’re repeating all your conversations over and over.”
“Hey!” She tousles Ruby’s hair, delights in the way she squirms away. “This one is new! You have to cut me some slack on new ones.”
“How am I supposed to know what’s new for you?” she whines. “It’s all new for me!”
Yang nods. “You’re right. So you better just cut me some slack on all of it. That’s a great policy. I’ll be sure to remind you that you thought of it, next time.”
Resuming their walk, Yang hitches her pack further up on her shoulders, and Ruby puts on a burst of speed to get ahead, blur of red passing by so close, Yang nearly stumbles.
“I don’t think I like you talking about next time,” Ruby admits, too casual to actually be casual about it. “How about we focus on this time.”
“And not my inevitable death?”
Ruby zips back in and flicks a finger against the center of her forehead. “Stop it!”
“Fine, fine. Ironwood first, and then total and definite victory after.”
She’s not at all convincing, but Ruby let’s her have it, their new rule already taking effect; she’ll take it, even if it only works this once.
The good news is, Yang isn’t immediately shackled and locked away. The bad news is that Ironwood ignores her concerns completely. It’s a nice middle ground, in that Ruby doesn’t have to kill her, but also it's a total waste of time. Since Yang has both unlimited lives and time, she marks it up as a wash and tries not to roll her eyes.
“I know you both traveled from the southern tip of Vacuo to make your way here,” Ironwood says, calm and poised. “I cannot praise your bravery enough, to return to this place after the catastrophe three years ago. Both of your contributions to that battle and the one at Beacon cannot go unmentioned.”
But, Yang thinks, and doesn’t have to wait long.
“But that bravery — those contributions — come with a cost. They weigh on the mind, and there is no shame in that. Our brains struggle to process the trauma, this is a simple fact.” His hands fold behind his back and it’s an awful lot like receiving an automated response in-person. “We’re lucky to have the resources to help and I urge you to look into them. We may not have much time before you’re due to depart, but several of our Huntsmen with healing semblances have been able to help in quite drastic ways in very short periods of time. I will call ahead to the Infirmary and inform them you’ll be stopping by before meeting with your new team. I would recommend speaking with Oliver; his semblance allows him to remove dreams from a sleeping patient. Very useful for a restful night’s sleep.”
It’s not what she wanted, but it’s not nothing. Or at least, this is the attitude that Ruby maintains as they leave, probably to counter Yang’s stewing, which isn’t at all helped by the headache brewing at the base of her skull. It’s light, barely noticeable, but it’s one more thing, and Yang grumbles about it as they walk towards the training room. She’s earned a bad mood or two, and doesn’t feel guilty in the least.
Not until Ruby frowns at her in that way she does and suggests that maybe they should visit the healing tent after their training today.
“Maybe when you reset the timeline you don’t actually get to keep any of the sleep you started on before you got trapped in the loop,” Ruby suggests, which doesn’t make much sense at all to Yang, though she nods anyways.
“I… guess it couldn’t hurt,” she says.
Ruby, ignoring the hesitation dripping from her tone, only grins.
Her one regret for this particular go of things doesn’t end up being telling Ironwood, or even visiting the healer he mentioned in the first place. It’s that, by the time Yang makes it out of that place — her head clear and eyes bright, feeling like a million lien — it’s the morning of the fight and she’s missed meeting Blake. No one had mentioned knocking her out of commission for a full twelve hours, and it leaves her feeling like she’s lost something important. In ten resets, it’s the first time she’s failed to go to that roof, and she feels the ache in her gut acutely.
Or maybe that’s the now-customary gaping hole there, the result of another failed go at things in what Yang’s coming to think of as a particularly nasty gauntlet of fun surprises, all involving her death, usually in a way pretty similar to this. But this time, Yang’s not thinking of how she should have dodged left instead of right after she cleared the first two waves of Grimm and the seven Mimics interspersed. She’s thinking of Blake and how she doesn’t want to miss her again. She’s thinking of how maybe, if she misses her once, she won’t get so lucky the next time, and that thread will slip through her fingers and never return.
She needn’t have worried.
The universe, it seems, is always finding a way. And as Blake appears above her, crouching down and placing a gloved hand underneath her neck, Yang thinks this must be her reward for going through all this, because what other explanation is there?
“Hello, again,” she rasps, and smiles, even when a bit of blood leaks out with the motion.
“Hello.” She’s heard Blake’s voice go soft a few times now, but it’s never been like it is now; tender and apologetic and with a genuine note of sadness, one that most people can’t keep after being in battles like this, after seeing so much death in front of them. “My name’s Blake.”
Yang laughs, but she’s not laughing at the joke Blake thinks she is.
“Yeah. I know.” Blake doesn’t bother trying to stop the blood from flowing out of her wound, and neither does Yang, reaching to touch Blake’s knee instead. “I meant to talk to you before. Messed that up this time. So we’re gonna miss out this time, guess. Things aren’t looking good for me, huh?”
She’s always given the woman a lot of credit, but she gives her even more now; Blake doesn’t lie, doesn’t downplay, doesn’t try to make sense of Yang’s rush of words, but she stays. She adjusts Yang’s neck until it’s at a comfortable angle, she brushes a bit of blonde hair out of Yang’s face, and she stays.
“No. But I’ll stay with you until you die.”
“Blake!” White hair comes into view, and for some reason, Yang smiles at even this; even the unpleasant Atlesian is starting to grow on her, though she wastes some of that charity on what she says next. “We need to go. This airship isn’t going to hold long. Now’s not the time to chat up the random girl you thought was hot from across a fucking briefing room. Especially when she’s half dead! Leave her!”
Another bit of blood spills out when she laughs, and a violet spasm of coughing follows. She would have figured that’d be the end of it, but she hangs on, what with something worth hanging onto to so close at hand
“You thought I was hot,” she repeats. “Right from the start! That’s handy, isn’t it? Next time I’ll just walk right up and ask you for drinks. You think that’ll work?”
Blake’s not fully paying attention, in the middle of trying to shoo Weiss away to watch the perimeter of the crashed airship they’ve taken shelter in. It’d been luck that had allowed Yang to crawl in here after a Mimic had thrown her halfway across the battlefield, towards the edge of the fighting, close to where she and Ruby had planned on making it inland. But none of that matters now, outside of the fact that it gives her this; a minute with Blake before she dies and starts anew.
“You shouldn’t talk,” Blake murmurs, shooting one last stern glare at Weiss before turning her attention to Yang. “Close your eyes. It’ll be nice to rest.”
Yang can’t help but obey. It is nice to rest, though she knows she won’t get all too much of it; she always feels like she wakes up right after dying, no period of time in between to regroup or catch a bit of sleep. But now, she closes her eyes and it feels nice, Blake’s cool fingers on her forehead, her knee pressed up against her side.
“I’ll need a story, then,” she mumbles. “If I’m gonna sleep. Everyone knows that.”
“Of course.” She catches the hint of a smile in Blake’s voice and it makes her respond in kind. “What sort of story would you like?”
Blake is kind. Yang hadn’t realized that before now, but gods, she’s kneeling on a battlefield soaked with the blood of a thousand soldiers and she’s touching Yang’s hair and she’s staying until the very end of it all and she’s so, so kind. Yang hadn’t realized it before, but it fits into place easily, another bit of her colored in.
“Something about you.” It’s getting harder to talk, each word a quiet wheeze. “Something no one knows.”
For a moment, there’s only silence, and Yang wonders if she’s pushed too hard, asked for too much. But Blake’s fingers continue to stroke through Yang’s bangs and the warmth of her doesn’t move away. And after another second longer, she speaks.
“When I was a girl, a horde of Grimm came to Menagerie,” she begins, her voice quieter and lower than Yang remembers it ever being. “You’ve heard the story. Everyone has. We were a small island, removed from the early stages of the war, still wary of humans. We didn’t have much experience fighting, so it went about how you would think.”
A nearby explosion shakes the metal plating of what remains of the airship and Yang’s eyes fly back open; Blake hasn’t looked away from her since she’s closed them (at least, not that she can tell), and doesn’t so much as glance towards the noise.
“I was only a girl. Obviously not very experienced in combat myself. But when they came to my home — my father was a strong man. He told us to run and we did. My mom got us out of the house and handed me off to an older boy I knew, kissed me on my forehead, and ran right back into the house. She didn’t tell me she’d be back and I — ”
Yang shuts her eyes again. She’s slipping away, yes, but it’s the desire to give Blake a bit of privacy that forces the action. There’s no tremor in her voice, no tears in her eyes, but other, less obvious signs of mourning deserve the same respect; Yang knows this well.
“The guards outside had already been killed. I picked up one of their knives — to me, it was big enough to be a sword — and I thought I could do it. At the time, I think I did. I thought I could run in there with a weapon I’d never used and I would fight. I would save them.” A soft breath escapes her lips, a half of a chuckle. “I didn’t, of course. Adam — the boy I knew — pushed me to the ground before I could get anywhere and told me if I didn’t follow him, I would die. So I did. Follow him, that is. We were taken in by one of the surviving families and hid with them for the rest of the attack, but we ran away after. Again. Later, he would always throw that in my face when he got mad; how it had always been my instinct to run. And he — I realized eventually that he was wrong about a lot of things, but not that. After Haven, people called me a lot of things. But Adam had always been the closest. I am a coward. I always found it easier to run.”
The airship rattles again. Loud. Insistent. A warning. It should be quiet for a story like this, but the universe isn’t always so kind as to provide for things like that.
“You didn’t when it mattered.” Yang hadn’t thought she’d had any words left, but she pushes them out now. (If it means going into her next life with a deficit, she’ll gladly pay that price.) “Not at Haven. And not now. Guessed you showed him, in the end.”
Blake’s fingers slide from her forehead to her cheek. “He’s dead now. But maybe.”
“Not maybe.” The cough that overtakes her then nearly does her in. She’s more of an expert than anyone else in Remnant by now when it comes to dying, and knows she has very little time left. But it’s easy to come up with how she wants to spend it. “Anyone can — any idiot can run into battle. It’s — harder to keep going… after you’ve seen the worst.” She sucks in as deep a breath as she can manage. “Isn’t that — what you — you do? Sounds... brave to me.”
She’s out of time. (For now.) But in the last moments she has, Blake leans down and presses her forehead to Yang’s, warmth against Yang’s cooling skin.
If she’s going to die enough times to be able to set up a ranking system, Yang suspects this will always be one of her favorites.
It’s an easy pattern to remember, really. Simple, in a way:
Wake, sleep, wake, die.
Almost like a lullaby, now:
Wake, sleep, wake, die.
Or maybe a drum:
Wake sleep wake die wake sleep wake die.
Or the slowing of her heartbeat, right before the last step:
Wake, sleep —
“It’s difficult, isn’t it?”
Yang knows she’s dreaming, but for once, she doesn’t mind. She’s spent the night before the battle in a variety of ways by now: training, partying, tossing and turning, locked in nightmares, in the bed of someone else, on the roof of the command center long after Blake’s left, staring up at the stars, but this is new. Tonight, she sticks to an old standard, returning to her cot when Blake leaves for a place with less distractions, and stares at the ceiling until sleep takes her, and she finds herself here: alongside a woman, sitting in a room that could be anywhere, its features obscured by a thick, dreamy fog.
The woman is beautiful — blonde hair, pale skin, bright blue eyes — but she seems ancient, older than any one aspect of her appearance might indicate. Or perhaps it’s the dress, old-fashioned in its impracticality, as though it’s from a time before the Grimm had made such attributes (lacy, loose, gorgeous) rare. Still, her smile is kind, or at least knowing, which is close enough.
“Going back. Trying again. Failing again.”
She waves her hand through the mist, forming a perfect circle that turns black, and then fades, leaving nothing behind. It slips away too fast for Yang to be sure, but she thinks she sees figures in the black, claws and blood and the dying and dead.
“Have you done it too?”
She’s sure of the answer before she asks, but the woman doesn’t respond right away. She swirls her fingers through the mist again, but this time, she leaves no images behind.
“In a way, yes. Thousands of times. But not as you have. I never had to die.” For the first time, she turns to look at Yang directly; it’s unsettling, the weight of her stare. “Does that make it harder?”
It’s not the dress, Yang decides then; the woman’s age is in her eyes, in the memories they hold (too many to be natural, too many for a single lifetime alone).
“I don’t know. Maybe not.” The trauma of dying will fade away, she suspects. It’s everything else — the death all around her — that leaves a mark. “Does it get easier?”
Another useless question.
She knows. Gods, she knows.
“Oh, child,” the woman sighs. She shakes her head. And she smiles, a horribly sad thing to see. “No.”
— wake, die.
After about twenty attempts, she and Ruby have most of the kinks sorted out, at least for the terribly basic step of getting their team onto the beach unharmed. The key, it turns out, is stopping the Lancer attack before it can decimate the airships, and they find that they’re able to manage this — or, manage it well enough — once they figure out the exact timing of jumping from the ship (once they figure out that convincing the squad with a dash of simple logic and a heavy reliance on camaraderie works better than anything else). After that, it’s pretty much trial and error; getting as far as they had the reset before, fixing all the mistakes, and making new ones. And then, repeat ad nauseum.
With emphasis on the nauseum.
Or at least, on the headache, which has popped back up at the worst of times, in the middle of a particularly tricky bit that she’d fucked up last time, missing a single shot and getting Yatsu sliced nearly in half in the process. (Endless chances, but not a lot of room for error; she’d learned the tradeoff fairly quickly).
“Ruby! The — ”
The plan relies too heavily on Ruby — on her remembering every detail of the fight that she’s yet to experience — but her sister rarely falters, and she comes through now, not a second after Yang calls, scythe twirling in a perfect arc at the perfect moment, cutting into three burrowing Grimm just as they emerge from the ground. It allows Yang to roll forward, unobstructed, and clock the Mimic sneaking around the outcropping of crystals with an uppercut punctuated with a shotgun shell. After that, it’s a simple clean-up, one that they’ve practiced for in the most general sense; Coco and Fox wear down the aura, Flynt and Ivori pin down its arms, Velvet climbs up its back and flattens it to the ground, and Yatsu lands the killing blow, a neat cut through its neck. Not three minutes of fighting, but it’d taken Yang three lives to master the series of events. The next part is easy, in comparison.
She’s meant to use her gauntlets to burst through a brief clearing in the fight — the whole of the group quickly diving into various forms of shelter before a horde of Sabyrs can block the path and trap them in with the next Mimic — before taking refuge in the skeleton of an airship. A Grimm will burst through the shattered window at the top, another one will slink through a hole in the side, and a third will rush through the main opening, a straggler that catches sight of Yang before she manages to hide amongst the planks of metal.
Except. Today, instead of a small, empty shelter, Blake is there instead.
Everything else is the same and she acts without thinking, tackling Blake to the floor just as the Beowolf tears through the window; four precise shots to the forehead take care of it before it can rush them. The ash has only just settled when the Blind Worm crawls in through the side, and Yang fires directly into its mouth without looking away from the woman now underneath her.
“Wha — ”
She tries to sit up, moves onto her elbows until Yang’s all but straddling her lap. It’d be a nice reversal of the night before (or the fifteen or so instances of it, because Yang can’t fucking help herself), if not for the screams and explosions and death and Grimm all around them.
“Wait,” she says, and counts to three in her head before setting off the charges she’d placed at the entrance when she’d jumped through at the start. She knows she hasn’t missed because she’s still alive, but Blake stares past her, mouth slightly open. There’s no time for it, none at all, and Yang pushes off the ground, holding out her hand. “We have to go. This airship’s about to be flattened by a Nevermore dive bombing into it. Or — I think. I’ve never found you here before so maybe — ”
Blake isn’t taking her hand. In fact, she isn’t doing anything at all. Except — after another second — laughing. It’s not something she’s ever seen Blake do before, not like this, and it leaves Yang off-balance and bewildered, arm still outstretched, but fingers curling into her palm.
“Fuck,” Blake breathes. “Of course it’s you. Gods.” She lets her head fall back onto the uneven metal, hard enough to make a sound. Yang winces, but the laughter continues, up until the point that Blake pushes herself back up, just enough to look at Yang, a sharp tilt to her smile, the same slant of a broken piece of glass.
“Do you come to the roof because you want to?” she asks. “Or because you’re afraid of changing things too much?”
The question is entirely incomprehensible to Yang, but impossible to ignore. She wastes precious moments sorting through the possibilities until she remembers. They don’t have time for this. She shakes her head and continues, words spilling out in a jumbled rush.
“Look it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to go.”
They have ten seconds at most, and Yang’s not entirely sure how well she’s kept up on the timing, given all this, so she’d definitely bet on less. But Blake, entirely unconcerned, continues to stare, her smile softening into something different. Something understanding.
“Yang,” she says, sure and simple, and Yang forgets to breathe. “Come find me when you wake up.”
There’s a smear of blood across Blake’s cheek, ash in her hair, her wrist is cradled to her chest, and just before they die — the Nevermore finally slamming into the structure and flattening them within it — Yang thinks she looks relieved.
It’s not as though she hadn’t thought about it before, bringing Blake in on the secret.
Blake Belladonna — the only person to kill and Alpha, the most celebrated Huntress of their era, the Hero of Haven — obviously had a decent amount of knowledge when it came to killing Mimics and navigating a battlefield. And every time Yang woke, she went through these points — in a careful, logical manner — until Yang’s own selfishness overruled each and every one of them. The simple fact is this: Yang didn’t want to lose the one thing she didn’t mind repeating (or, more than that, liked repeating, looked forward to repeating). If she’s pulling on the same thread each time she climbs up that roof, maybe she’s coiling it in her hand, small loops outside of the tangle of time, the only thing that remains untouched by the horror of her repeated deaths (and those of everyone around her).
But now there’s another factor, one that can’t be denied: Blake knows she’s looping.
“She’s done it before,” Ruby says, after Yang has explained (again) with the new bits added in. “That’s the only thing that makes sense. She must have done it before. Which would explain Haven. You know what the reports were like; everyone said it was like she knew exactly where the Grimm were going to be, like she could anticipate all their moves. It makes sense that whatever you’re going through happened to her too.”
They’re just outside the back training building, watching the two guards posted outside. It seems silly to waste the resources on it, but maybe that’s the sort of privilege heroes get: things they don’t need (or maybe even want) just to set them apart.
“But that’s good news, right?” Ruby continues, nudging Yang’s shoulder with a gentle headbutt. “She survived and found a way to kill all those Grimm, and so can you!”
“Maybe,” Yang mumbles.
It’s the same conclusion she’s come to herself, mainly because it’s the only one that makes sense. How she feels about it all is less certain, though her optimism doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Ruby’s (not that this isn’t often — or maybe always — the case). Someone’s gone through this before, gone through it successfully, and that’s a good thing; there’s no denying this, and so Yang focuses on the positives, and not the thought of losing something to the shifting timeline, vanishing in the worst sort of quicksand.
“Definitely!” Ruby chirps, and claps her hands together. “So how do you want to do this? I was thinking I could use my semblance to zip behind them and then maybe, like, steal one of their little hats? And then I’d put it on and be like ‘come and get me!’ and then I’d go through the middle part of the base right when the final bell for breakfast rings and get lost in the crowd. And then I’d duck into the barracks and go through someone’s locker to get a common uniform and pop out the other end like, ‘oh, hi, are you looking for someone?’ and do a little salute and they’d be like, ‘have you seen a girl in red? She was very clever and very fast so we don’t know where she’s gone’ and — ”
“Or we could just go right through the door when they step away for a smoke.”
“Yang,” Ruby groans. “They’re not just going to — oh, they’re doing that right now. Okay.” She tilts her head, eyes narrowing just enough to get her point across. “How many times have you — ”
Yang — who absolutely has no intention of admitting she’s stared at this building on several separate occasions, tired of waiting until nightfall to catch Blake alone — shakes her head and interrupts before Ruby can get much further.
“Not that many. Just burst us in there in three, okay? They’ll look away for a minute, so if you time it right — ”
Ruby doesn’t wait for further confirmation, tucking against Yang’s chest and then… dissolving. It’s hard to describe the sensation — not quite like teleportation or normal travel, but something in between, both weightlessness and awareness of the distance at once. It’s not something Yang will ever be used to, and not something Ruby uses particularly often as a means of travel for more than herself, given the strain on her aura, but it works well now; they traverse the clearing without fuss, and slip through the door quickly after, a total of five seconds at most. They wait — just on the other side of it — for a few additional moments, listening for any commotion, but everything’s quiet, almost unsettlingly so.
The building is the same one they had used (and would use) with Flynt, Ivori, and the members of team CFVY, and the layout is much the same as they walk through the narrow concrete halls — sparse decoration and few means of relaxation — but the quiet is new. In the common areas, the sounds of fighting, shouting, laughing, and everything in between rings off the walls, echoed throughout the building. But here, in the back area where there’s a single hallway with only a few doors, the silence has a weight that feels entirely counter to the sort that a person might experience in battle. Yang can’t imagine how anyone would find such an environment productive in terms of simulating the pure chaos of the field, but then, maybe something happens after hundreds of loops of the same day. Maybe she’ll start to crave silence too.
“What now?” Ruby whispers, too loud even then, and Yang winces, creeping further down the hallway as best she can. (Stealth, maybe, isn’t exactly either of their strong suit.)
“She should be here,” Yang murmurs. “They block off a training room for her and her partner; I’ve heard from a few people that she’s pretty much always here and the middle room looks like it’s the biggest so… ” She trails off, hand hovering over the touchpad. “You wait out here. This shouldn’t take too long. One way or another. But if someone comes in before I come back out, just get out of here, alright?”
She’s faced with skepticism once more, the same tilted head and narrowed eyes, but she waves it off again, testing her luck. For a moment, she doesn’t think Ruby will let it go this time around, but in the end, her shoulders drop as she lets out a sigh, and her nod, while hesitant, is clear. Yang presses a kiss to her sister’s forehead, taps her palm to the pad, and steps into the room before she gives herself (or Ruby) any further time to overthink the whole process.
The room holds the same hush as the hallway, but maybe that’s just Yang holding her breath. It isn’t silence she steps into, though; the quiet hum of holographics echoes around the large room, the sheer number of projections making the hair on Yang’s arm stand on end, goosebumps appearing on her flesh. But in the middle of the room, there’s only one occupant among all the dark shapes, and she appears completely unfazed by the dozens and dozens of silent, unmoving, holographic Grimm poised to attack all around her. Blake’s weapon lies on the floor next to her — sheathed but not out of reach — while the woman herself balances the whole of her weight on her palms, body fully off the ground in a horizontal plank. It’s more than a little breathtaking, and Yang forgets about pretty much everything — the hard light figures around them, the fact that she’s walking forward, the hellish loop she’s caught in — as she watches. She’s been at this for a while, most likely, based on the amount of sweat that’s collected on her bare arms, the number of locks of hair falling into (and sticking to) her face, and the warm glow to her dark skin.
How many lives will it take before seeing Blake for the first time doesn’t suck all the air out of her lungs? Yang wonders.
And then Blake looks up and Yang knows it’ll be more lives than she has to live, even if they stretch into the thousands.
Her feet drop to the floor without a sound, the muscles in her arms flex as she pushes up, her back arches in the sort of curve that would turn a mathematician into a poet, and then she’s upright, faster than Yang can blink.
“Can I help you?” Blake asks.
It only occurs to her then, how absolutely ridiculous every single line she might say in response might sound. She should have prepared more, should have choreographed her plan of attack like she would any other, should have been ready for the effect Blake has on her, the same effect she has on Yang every time.
Blake waves her left hand and the holograms flicker off, leaving the room emptier, quieter. It doesn’t help though, because she steps forward with the same motion, head tilting in question, eyebrow lifting in half amusement. This is not a woman who is often disturbed, this Yang doesn’t doubt, but the corner of Blake’s lips still turns upwards, still her tone is more curious than hostile (still her eyes trace the curve of Yang’s hip, side, jaw).
“Did someone send you?”
That, at least, gives an opening, and Yang lets out a soft laugh, shaking her head and hoping that clears some of the stupor away.
“Yeah.” She finds a smile of her own, though there’s an apologetic tilt to it that she can’t account for. “You did. Tomorrow.”
On reflex, Blake’s mouth opens to form a response, but she closes it quickly, sucking in a breath and doing nothing with it. Yang shifts her weight onto her right foot and waits while Blake stares, eyebrows pinched, absently reaching up to push her hair out of her face. (She’s happy to wait. Happy to watch. Happy to be here, a small moment of calm before everything else.)
“You always ask me about underwater life,” Yang continues, softer than before. “About how 94% of life on Remnant lives somewhere down there. You always go to the roof tonight. You always stand in the back during the briefing. You always go after the Alpha. You always — ”
(Kiss me, Yang nearly says, but can’t bring herself to finish.)
Blake takes one step closer, close enough for Yang to see those faint scars and taste something of her on her tongue when she takes a deep breath. For a moment, she thinks maybe Blake’s read her thoughts, and has decided to keep the trend going, a little earlier on in the day than usual. (Yang wouldn’t object. Obviously. She’d never think of objecting.) But instead, Blake only stares, irises flickering back and forth in short, quick motions, like she’s reading the world’s smallest script, right there in Yang’s eyes.
“I thought you seemed familiar,” Blake murmurs, but then blinks, like that wasn’t what she meant to say at all.
“Is that how it works?”
Before Yang finishes, Blake’s shaking her head, stepping away, running her fingers through her hair to collect the wayward strands. She’s turning away and then looking back and then turning away again, arms crossing over each other, shoulders hunching, all of her folding in on herself.
“No! No, that’s not what I — ”
The interruption — a sharp shout, a commotion at the door, Ruby’s shrill voice — disrupts the moment, much to Blake’s clear relief. And maybe Yang feels something of the same, because she’s gone through about fifteen emotions in the past three minutes, and her sister causing some kind of clamor feels like a comforting constant in the middle of it all.
“Blake, we have an intruder in the building and she claims her sister is — ”
Weiss’s face is flushed, her sword drawn, and her fingers have the neck of Ruby’s cloak clenched so tightly between them that she’s clearly losing circulation.
“Hello, Weiss,” Yang says simply, then leans to the side. “Hi, Ruby.”
This, apparently, is not an acceptable greeting, given the way Weiss blanches.
“Excuse me? Have we met?”
Yang shrugs, gestures towards Blake in what she knows is an unhelpful manner. “Unfortunately.”
“How dare — ”
Blake groans, not particularly softly, loud enough to (mostly) cut Weiss off.
“Come with me.” She doesn’t break her stride when no one follows, leaving the three remaining women to glare at each other at various intensities as she calls over her shoulder, “All of you. Now.”
It’s the first question Weiss asks when Yang is finished with her explanation, which doesn’t do much to raise the woman in her esteem.
“Weiss,” Blake sighs. “Did it occur to you that you might want to make a better first impression, given how many times you’ll be giving it?”
“Yes,” Weiss says, her nod sharp. “And you’ll be happy to know this response was firmly middle ground. I invoked disappointment and rationality in equal measure and employed this response as a happy medium.”
The room Blake’s pulled them all into is clearly familiar to Weiss (who’d dropped into a plush chair at the head of the table as soon as they’d entered), but Ruby’s spent the duration of Yang’s truncated summary of the situation poking at the various bits of tech spread around it. She only looks away from her current preoccupation — a device that looks like a combination of a remote and drone — to exchange a synchronized eye roll with Yang that neither of them attempt to hide from Weiss’s view.
“You’re like, super fun at parties, huh?” Yang vocalizes, for the both of them.
“We’ve trained for this for years, you absolutely buffo — ”
“Weiss,” Blake says again, this time a little more sharply, and the woman cuts herself off, jaw tightening as she turns away at the rebuke. “They don’t know,” she continues, softer now. “How could they know?”
Her lips twist in discomfort, but Weiss nods eventually, after a long moment of silence full of tension. “I… apologize. We’d hoped to avoid someone unfamiliar with the concept gaining the ability to repeat. It isn’t personal. I’m sure you’re perfectly competent.”
Sprawled out in a chair of her own, legs dangling over the armrest, Yang drops her chin onto her palm and grins.
“Always with these over-the-top, extravagant compliments, Weiss,” she drawls, and Weiss sits up a little straighter — a picture perfect contrast — whip of a reply clearly ready, which Yang starves off with a wink. “Gods, you flirt with me in every repeat. Can you try to be at least a little professional this time around?”
“That’s — I — ” Weiss’s face turns a color of red that Yang hadn’t known existed in natural spaces. “You said this was the first time we’ve really spoken.”
“Maybe I was trying to spare your feelings.” Yang sucks in a breath through her teeth. “Rejection hurts, darling.”
Across the table, now seated but still fiddling with the mystery device, Ruby snorts loudly; the sound ratchetts Weiss’s irritation up to eleven, her fingers creeping towards the handle of her weapon — a thin, well-maintained blade — and Yang spends a solid two seconds considering how much fun it would be to best her in a fight, no matter how many repeats it took.
“Blake,” Weiss grits out. “I’m going to kill her.”
Yang cracks her knuckles and throws her hands behind her head, stretching out in the most obnoxious way she can manage. “Just another notch in my bedpost, sweetheart.”
Weiss’s hand actually curls around the handle of her weapon; Yang nearly bursts into laughter.
“Perhaps we should focus on the task at hand.”
She might be imagining the amusement in Blake’s tone, but Yang doubts it. Her mouth remains in a tidy line, her expression calm enough that Weiss settles back into her seat, but there’s something to the eyes, a glint in the gold that feels as pronounced as a full grin.
“Sure. We better hurry up.” Yang rolls two fingers in a tight circle in the air in front of her. “I’m really short on time, after all.”
The amusement (imagined or otherwise) fades from Blake’s countenance. Even Weiss loses her fight, lips pinching downwards into a sharp frown. It’s hardly the reaction anyone wants to one of their jokes, but doubly so when the joke centers around her own (apparently) very temporary immortality.
“Fuck,” she sighs, before anyone says anything. “Okay, what is it then? I hit a hundred repeats and I die for good? There’s a little bomb inside me that counts down every time I jump back? I turn into a Grimm at the two hundredth stroke of midnight?”
Blake curls a bit further into herself, planting her elbows on the table and leaning in, hair falling down around her face, bangs obscuring her eyes.
“Nothing so drastic. It seems to be tied to the headaches.” Blake lifts her head and meets Yang’s gaze so suddenly that Yang drops her hands back into her lap. “Have they started yet?”
“The real question,” Weiss cuts in, “is if the visions have.”
“She had a headache this morning,” Ruby supplies, face pinched in a way that makes her (for once) look her age. “What does that mean?”
Shifting in her seat until she can drop her feet on the floor, Yang does her best to focus on each piece of information separately. “I didn’t say I had a — it was barely a headache anyways and — wait, visions?”
She is not particularly successful.
“You were doing that thing you always do when your head hurts.” Ruby demonstrates, pinching the skin between her thumb and index finger. “Right after you woke up.”
Yang can’t recall performing the action, but has to prevent herself from doing it now on reflex, though the aforementioned headache has long since passed.
“It’s not something to be worried about,” Blake says soothingly, more to Ruby than Yang. “Mine started after only a couple loops. But they do get… ” Her lips twitch in the ghost of a wince. “Painful.”
“After a few hundred resets, the headaches were so bad that they rendered Blake unconscious,” Weiss continues, matter-of-fact. “When she woke up again, she had lost the ability to loop. We assume the two are connected.”
“Though there are other factors.” Blake’s hands are still, her voice calm, but her ears flick to the side. “After I passed out, Weiss was able to get me off the field, but — ” (Out of the corner of Yang’s eye, Weiss shrinks in on herself, bracing against the memory.) “ — not unscathed. I lost a lot of blood. A healer saved my life with an aura transfer. It’s possible that either of those things — blood or aura — has something to do with it.”
“We’re not exactly working off of a large sample size,” says Weiss, who’s peering at Yang in a way that makes her feel like an ant under a magnifying glass (and whether it’ll be used for study or to burn her to a crisp, Yang’s not sure). “Blake’s visions started around the same time her headaches did, yours apparently have not, given how mystified you appeared at the very mention of them. I suspect we’ll be working on a different timetable. You seem to be… fairly different individuals.”
Yang lets that one go without further comment.
“So what do you know for sure?” Ruby asks, sounding so unlike herself that Yang’s eyebrows lift into her bangs; Ruby notices the surprise about the same time as she registers her own tone, and waves her hands wildly in front of her face, her panic clear. “Oh! Not! I didn’t mean! That sounded mean, but I just — ” Her eyes dart over towards Yang and then back again towards Blake; it’s not difficult to figure out the source of her concern. “I just want to know as much as possible. So I can help.”
“Clearly, you’ve worked out a fair amount on your own,” Weiss begins begrudgingly. “From what we understand, killing the Alpha Mimic in a certain way results in some kind of transference of energy. It can’t be killing one in general, of course. We always thought it may have something to do with swallowing the ash of the Alpha, but — ” She sighs. “Again, that’s conjecture. Either way, this suggests that the ability to roll back time — or however you might like to describe it — is something that’s innate to these particular Grimm.”
“Which explains why they’re so successful in defeating us,” Ruby pipes in. “Yang and I have always wondered how they could react so well in the big battles; they always seem to know where we’re coming from and what we’re going to do. You said transfer of the ability couldn’t be killing an Alpha in general, so that must be the trigger for the reset on their end too, right? Yang took that ability and now she resets time back to a specific point whenever she dies. If that’s what the Grimm have been doing all along — all throughout this war — repeating the battle with adjusted tactics whenever we’re successful enough to kill their commander, then that’s…. bad. That’s really, really bad.”
Weiss doesn’t try to hide her surprise at Ruby’s (correct) assessment, but when she continues, it’s with a little less of the overlay of superiority smeared over each of her words.
“Yes. That’s precisely our theory. It explains our losses when an Alpha was present. And why the Battle at Haven was the only major one we were able to win.”
“Because Blake stole the ability.” Yang traces a nonsensical shape into the table’s surface, something of a mix between a heart and an explosion. “And now I have too. Only one mind can hold it at once, otherwise, you’d get a mess of conflicting timelines, I guess. So if we have it, the Grimm don’t.”
Blake nods slowly, leaning back in her chair, posture temporarily straightening until she falls all the way back into it. “That’s the short of it. As long as you’re looping, the Grimm won’t, and we still have a chance. We don’t know how the Alpha Mimics gained this ability in the first place, but we know there’s only ever one of them on the battlefield, and we know the other Mimics don’t seem to have the same ability. Once you take it from an Alpha, it’s yours. At least for a time.”
She wants to ask how many times Blake went back, wants to ask how she survived, wants to know what it means to hold hundreds of versions of your own death in your hands, but doesn’t. It feels like too much, not necessarily to ask, but to learn. There’s a limit to these things, to the capacity of a person’s mind for comprehension; Weiss had said that Yang and Blake were different, and Yang’s not ready to find out the specifics of what that means, our how it corresponds to how long she’ll be able to carry a burden like this (outside of as long as she can, because this, Yang already knows).
“Tell me about the visions.” She means it as a request and Blake takes it as one, considering it for an extended pause — short nails tapping against the armrest of her chair — before speaking
“This is where it gets complicated,” Blake admits, and Ruby snorts in laughter.
“Now? Not with the time travel? I’m sorry! But can we talk about that?” In the blink of an eye, a microburst of red, Ruby tucks her legs underneath her, no interruption to the building rant. “Because my sister is a time traveler and she apparently keeps dying and hello? What’s happening to the other Yangs and Blakes and Rubys and Weisses that do die? Does this whole thing make a million new universes where some of us are dead? Is it literally like a rewind button that just goes back without any consequences? Does this mean the Alpha Grimm have semblances? A shared semblance? Can something share a semblance? Who decides which Alpha gets it? Or is it like, a new one is created when an old one dies? Is this the result of them getting aura? Did you figure anything more about that? Because from our perspective it was like, oh, one day the Grimm don’t have aura and the next day some of them do, and I’d really like to avoid another surprise like that! It kind of sounds like — ”
“I’m sorry, but do you need to breathe?” Weiss cuts in, and despite herself, Yang laughs at the incredulity laced in every word.
“Maybe one at a time, Ruby,” she murmurs, and Ruby flushes a soft pink.
“Right. Okay. We can get to all that… later. Just had a little… moment. Carry on.” She rolls her hand and offers a crooked, awkward little half-bow from her seat. “Please continue.”
This time, Blake doesn’t mask her amusement, lips curling fully at the corners. “Thank you. And yes, everything is tremendously complicated, but with the visions I started having… ” She trails off, any trace of mirth fading, a familiar sort of shadow overtaking it. “It’s difficult to explain. I’ve tried with Weiss, but it’s — it’s almost as though there’s another presence in your mind. Something pressing on your memories and emotions and — ” Blake runs a hand through her short curls, musing them enough that several strands remain sticking up, out of place. “It showed me places. The Land of Darkness. A castle. A room that looked like — it looked just like a throne room. I saw where it was.”
A chill passes down Yang’s spine, a wisp of a memory that flies across her face with a soft buzz; she should reach out and grab it, but finds her attention drawn elsewhere: to the hollowness of Blake’s eyes, the tension pressing on her shoulders, and the downwards turn of her lips (and then, momentarily, a flickering and distracting light: the glide of Yang’s tongue across the surprising softness she’d found there, the slightly off-center divot at the cleft, the fullness of the lower half where her thumb had found purchase).
But it’s Ruby who asks the question for her, after a long beat. “Where what was?”
Blake only shakes her head and Weiss leans forward, her gaze not straying from her partner as she speaks.
“We don’t know. We never found any concrete evidence, but Blake always believed — and I came to believe as well — that there was something behind the Grimm. A… force of some kind. Something to give them purpose and direction. How else would humans and Faunus have worked with the Grimm at the start of the war? Ironwood’s claims that these groups were independent subsets never sat well with me, even before everything that happened at Haven. It makes sense that there would be something else. And then Blake’s visions had such direction. Almost as though…”
Weiss trails off and Blake steps in, tone flat.
“It was inviting me there. Whatever it is, I always felt like it wanted me to come.”
The same gnat of a thought passes across her face and this time, she reaches for it. (A force. A woman. A kind smile. Or perhaps just a knowing one. Simple words outside of time. ‘It’s difficult, isn’t it?’ she asks.)
“I haven’t felt anything like that,” Yang begins slowly. “Nothing to do with places. Or… summons. But I can’t imagine that’s a good thing. Getting a call from this — whatever — the central controlling force of all the Grimm or something. Why would it want you to come over for a visit if not to kill you? I assume it wants its invicible time traveling power back, right? Like, no thank you.”
The intensity of Blake’s stare has her dropping the joke and her shoulders, sighing into the silence.
“But we don’t have a choice, do we?” Yang continues, the question more rhetorical than anything. “If this thing controls the Grimm, or commands them, or anything like that, killing it is our only choice. Otherwise, they’ll come back eventually. Ironwood has always said there was a plan for containment, once we thinned them out and pushed them back to the source, but that was always a little thin, right? We all saw how fast the Grimm can repopulate. Yeah. I get it. You’re ready to walk into a trap because you don’t have another choice. We’ve gotta kill the thing inviting you over for tea with a little death sprinkled in your cup.”
Ruby shifts again, tucking her knees against her chest, wrapping her arms around them. “So we kill the brain instead. We walk into the trap and kill it before it can kill Yang. And hope that will make it easier to mop up the rest by getting rid of the coordination and the time traveling. I’m guessing that’s part of your theory too? That the… Big Bad, or whatever we’re calling it — ”
“The Omega,” Weiss cuts in, though she looks a little embarrassed. “Going along with the theme.”
Everyone shoots Yang a look when she laughs, with varying degrees of fondness (or in Weiss’s case, an entire lack thereof).
“Okay, that the Omega is the thing with the ability to reset, right? It never really made a lot of sense that the Alphas themselves controlled it, because there’s more than one of them. So you think it’s this Omega and if we kill it, the Grimm can’t keep resetting the day.”
Weiss’s eyes narrow. “You are more perceptive than you look.”
“She gets that a lot,” Yang drawls. “But alright. Simple enough plan, yeah? Fight through the billions of Grimm to get off the beach, make our way inland, and then kill some horrifying creature that no one has ever seen and may not even exist. What could go wrong?”
“And you’re less…” Weiss roots around for the word, mouth twisting. “Cheery than you look.”
“Dying a couple times will do that to you,” Yang returns, tone still droll. “Why don’t you try it out and see how it goes for you, Ice Queen?”
“That is precisely what I was trying to do before you interfered, apparently!” Weiss’s hand all but slams into the desk, opening a control panel underneath the wood in the most dramatic means possible (no such force needed to start up the mechanism). Her fingers fly across the keyboard with a bit more delicacy, though not much. “Look,” she says flatly, and every holographic projector in the room hums as it comes to life.
One thing is certain, Yang can’t fault Weiss for her preparation. Every screen shows detailed plans, research, diagrams, all showcasing the knowledge she and Blake had collated and turned into a careful strategy for taking down an Alpha, and gaining the ability to loop. But this time, apparently, with Weiss at the wheel. Ruby springs out of her seat and leans closer to the central screen — where someone has drawn up thorough, step-by-step instructions for killing an Alpha in the upcoming battle — then paces down the length of the table to take the rest in. Yang finds her eyes wandering over to Blake, who’s already staring in her direction, ignoring the information on display entirely.
“I would have done it again,” she says, voice cracking somewhere in the last word, but only just. “We knew our only chance of winning was to force it to happen again, but — “
When Weiss cuts in, her entire countenance has shifted towards something Yang hardly recognizes, but understands must be far more common than their limited interactions would lead her to believe. There’s a reason they’ve stuck together throughout all this, and it has nothing to do with Atlesian glory or obligation. Because when Weiss speaks, it’s with a fierce protectiveness, only muted by the gentleness she wraps it in.
“We didn’t want to take any chances,” she says softly. “Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked again, for the same person, given the strain involved. So we thought it safer to plan on my blow being the final one.”
Yang smiles, tight and grim. “But you got me instead. No wonder you don’t like me.” It’s not said with the same harshness she would have employed before, new understanding sanding down the sharp edges.
And Weiss responds in kind, caution without vitriol. “It isn’t personal. But we’ve been working on this for some time, as you can clearly see.” She waves at the screen around them (Ruby, still peering closely at one, muttering under her breath all the while, doesn’t look up). “We hardly accounted for you.”
“That’s an understatement,” Blake mumbles, loud enough for Yang to hear, but probably not intentionally, given the way she quickly looks away at Yang’s half grin. “That’s to say — ” She clears her throat. “Based on what you’ve told us, you went about this far differently than we planned. You haven’t told anyone other than your sister — and Ironwood, who was thankfully too wrapped up in his ego to do anything about it — ”
“Ouch,” Yang hisses, shifting from half to full grin. “Love a girl who knows when to be feisty.”
“ — But you still were able to convince six others to follow you, to change their actions in drastic ways,” Blake says, mostly ignoring the interruption (though her small smile indicates otherwise). “How?”
It’s not the question Yang expects, and her first response to simply shrug, only adding to it when Blake continues to stare, head tilting half an inch.
“They know me. CFVY especially. We went to school together at Beacon. We fought together there too. They know — for both Ruby and me — they know we’re good at what we do and that we wouldn’t ask them to jump out of a plane for no reason. It’s not really more complicated than that.”
For the first time, Weiss smiles at something she says, thought it’s still not one that’s full of much humor. “It’s not quite as easy as that for some of us. I’m generally despised due to my family name and… admittedly difficult personality. And Blake could lead a battalion, but refuses to put people in danger unless they all but beg for it.” She rolls her eyes. “Besides, I’m an Atlesian Specialist. And Blake never went to one of the Academies. We were taught to fight alone. It’s our preference to fight as independent units.”
“And that’s your problem.” Ruby, for the first time in what feels like ages, finally speaks up, standing up straight and waving towards the screen she’s only just pulled herself away from. “All of these plans are for two people. If you had a bigger group — even just a standard Huntress team of four — you could cut these steps in half, maybe more. You’re basing your victory on working alone, and that makes everything so much harder.”
Neither woman appears particularly insulted by Ruby pretty much ripping into the strategy they’ve apparently spent years putting together, but Yang’s not surprised; Ruby’s always had a gift for making people believe in new things (or maybe just believing in her). The smile that grows on her face watching her sister is a proud one, and not one she thinks to mask.
“It involves relying on more people to get the steps right,” Weiss cautions. “Perhaps Yang can already attest, but navigating people through a battlefield where only one person can see the moves ahead is no small feat. It will likely take us more attempts to get things right. More people means more coordination. We would have to prepare all day — and most of the night — before the battle tomorrow.”
Blake’s fingers tap against her elbow, arms folded against her chest. “But with four people, we could perform more complicated moves. We could tackle Mimics — even the Alpha if we needed to — with a lot less difficulty. And a lot less resets. It could balance out, in the end. We had considered bringing more people in at Haven, but our options… we didn’t have too many people we could trust. Even with Weiss, it was more of an accident than anything; we didn’t know each other at all before the day of the battle, and both of us were there based on happenstance. But in each loop she assisted me without knowing, and I decided the potential benefit of having a partner with her abilities outweighed the risk and effort it would involve.”
“And look how well that worked out,” Yang chimes in, adding a wink for good measure. “Now the both of you are codependent, or something.”
“We’re not — ”
“It isn’t — ”
“Sounds like everyone’s onboard, then!’ Yang barrels onward, ignoring the loud jumble of protests at her wording. Ruby laughs over the noise, because she knows exactly what comes next.
“What’s the plan, Ruby?”
Chapter 4: now they’re right upon me
It works better than it should.
It’s easy, to a degree that’s almost alarming; two separate pairs of parts coming together, clicking in place, and restarting a forgotten machinery that still runs without much need for troubleshooting. Yang outlines her experiences in all her loops, Blake and Weiss modify their own plans based on them, and Ruby fills in the blanks, hands flying around her face as she postulates on movesets, weapons, and the ways in which their skill sets could combine to be greater than the mere sum of their parts. It’ll become a familiar site, Yang knows, the four of them huddled around the table: Weiss already fluent in Ruby-isms, translating her ramblings into neat, concise bullet points; Blake sketching out Yang’s words into diagrams and battleplans. Eventually, Yang will speed through it, will hurry them through the bits she already knows so they can continue to add and refine, but she doesn’t anticipate the same fatigue to come with the repetition. It’s a complex sensation, but she can put it simply enough: working with Ruby, Weiss, and Blake feels right.
This has little effect on Yang’s restlessness that night, however.
They skip briefing and check-in, avoid bringing in anyone else at this stage, and spend the day (and a good part of the night) plotting out a simple strategy for the morning, a blueprint for Yang to bring into the next reset and then add to as a group, depending on how the battle goes. They’ve planned and trained and done all they can do, and Weiss insists on sleep for the four of them fairly early in the evening. She also clears things up with Ironwood, shifting Ruby and Yang’s assignment to Blake and Weiss rather than Flynt and Ivori. And riding in with an Atlesian Specialist and a war hero means they have an airship that Weiss has complete command of, allowing them to modify their flight plan and avoid the bottleneck at the start of the fight, one of the larger problems Ruby and Yang have had to account for, already taken care of at the start.
It also means she and Ruby are here, each resting comfortably on one of the two ridiculously plush couches in the Officer’s Suite that Blake and Weiss share on the top floor of the command center building. Blake had stumbled over introducing the extravagance (offering her bed first to Yang and then — after Yang had returned with a counteroffer involving sharing it — to Ruby, citing the importance of seclusion to the success of their plans) while Weiss had sunk into it (promising coffee the next morning and showing off the private shower that Ruby and Yang had furiously rock, paper, scissors’d over).
Yang is cleaner, more comfortable, and safer than she’s been in years. And yet. She can’t lie still, can’t relax into it when she burns for more, something closer than it’s ever been — just on the other side of a single door — but farther too, at the same time. Without any of the same issues, Ruby sleeps soundly, evidenced by her soft snores, and Yang considers — a thousand times or more — sitting up, walking to Blake’s door, and knocking. There are lines she shouldn’t cross now, probably, though she has a hard time coming up with a list of specific reasons for the caution (though she knows there are plenty). But, she can think of one, and it’s enough to keep her in place; it wouldn’t be fair to take so much of Blake and be able to keep it all — from life to life — when Blake would have to start anew. Anything more than what they’ve shared before would push this inequity too far, and Yang knows — completely, absolutely, without a doubt — that anything she did now, after all the truths they’ve shared, would most certainly be more.
But lying here — heart beating too fast at this train of thought alone — is more unbearable than anything else, and so she sits up, pushes back the too soft blanket, and pads over to the window. It opens easily, a latch that’s clearly gotten a great deal of use. Blake’s preferred location for self-reflection makes more sense now, seeing how easy it is to slip out of the suite and — with a single shot’s worth of recoil — boost herself onto the roof. Yang’s stripped down to shorts and a tank top, and (in a move only borne from knowing the lack of danger in her very immediate future) gone without her boots. She feels the wind more than she typically does, but finds herself soothed by it rather than chilled.
The view is as it always is, though it’s later in the night and thus quieter, the party below having died out as reality kicked in. Maybe that has something to do with it, the tingling sense of anticipation that keeps her shoulders tight, even as she sits down at her customary spot at the edge, feet dangling below.
Or maybe she’s just waiting.
“You said I always go to the roof tonight,” Blake says from behind, and it’s not even a surprise, not really. “When I heard you leave the room, I… wondered.”
Yang leans back and smiles. It’s lazy and crooked and pleased, and all the tension leaves her at the sight of Blake Belladonna — against all odds — climbing back up to the roof of the building, as she always does, despite Yang’s interference. The world around her has shifted, all her plans have changed, and still, here she is. There must be something to it, Yang thinks, something about the both of them making the same choice, no matter how the world spins in flux around them. There must be something to it, but for now — for once — Yang doesn’t care to speculate. She’s far too glad, and wants to bury herself in the simplicity of that. Blake is here and she is glad and for the next hour (maybe two), she’ll hold this small pocket of permanence in place, through sheer force of will.
“What’d you wonder?”
Blake sits next to her, clothing as altered as Yangs; battle vest removed, canvas pants gone, leaving only a singlet and leggings in place. Her hair is loose and wild, curls tossed by the wind, and that’s not out of the ordinary, but paired with everything else, it leaves her unmasked, in a way Yang hasn’t yet seen. (In a way that makes Yang ache, something blowing on coals and spreading ash and fire in her chest, a fierce desire for a world that is a little less cruel.)
“About this. About you. About what we did up here that had you coming back, time and time again.” Her gaze turns from the rough ocean waves in the distance to Yang, and she blinks at the transition, like she’s surprised at the difference, similarities, or both. “And I wondered why I let you stay. I come up here most nights, but never with anyone else. Not even Weiss.”
“I guess I’m just special, then.”
The words are thoughtless, a simple joke that falls off her tongue with the same ease most of them do. But the stare that follows — Blake eyes a bit too narrowed, brow a little too pinched, mouth far too set — speaks to something different, a careful and silent examination of intent.
“Maybe you are,” Blake says eventually, the look fading completely, her brief smile mirroring Yang’s teasing tone. “Will you tell me what we did? After I let you stay?”
The question’s a dangerous one, though Yang knows she won’t be able to avoid answering; the gold of Blake’s eyes flashes like a hypnotist’s watch, pulling the answer out onto Yang’s face, though she holds back on the verbalization.
“Did it ever go well for you?” she asks instead. “When you told people about the things they’d done on your last go around?”
This time, it’s Blake who gives herself away. Her lips twist and Yang reads the sadness there, as plain as words on a page. “No. Not usually.”
Yang could have guessed, but she also doesn’t care. She owes Blake this much, an equal share in the knowledge she possesses, a better understanding of the heat contained in the air between them, molecules bouncing around, faster than they should.
“We talk about fate — funny, in retrospect — and the fabric of the universe. I flirt, you kiss me, you tell me you’re not looking for any distractions, and I leave.” She shrugs. “Simple as that.”
Blake’s not as subtle as she probably thinks she is, when her stare dips down to Yang’s lips.
“That’s probably for the best.” She takes a bit too long to pull her gaze away, and overcompensates when she does, looking up and out, into the night sky. “Leaving, I mean. You shouldn’t get attached. There’s no room for that in your loops. You can’t take anything with you.”
It’s an odd thing to say when Yang’s opinion is something of the opposite; she’ll take everything with her, but she’ll be the only one. Blake would be right to caution, if only Yang wasn’t already past the point where she might listen. (If only there’d been a point when she ever would have.)
“First, it was all about distractions and now this.” She falls back on an easy grin and drawling words, staples of her particular brand of misdirection. “If you’re not interested in all of this you can just say so, Blake. I promise I can take it.”
There’s no change to Blake’s posture when she responds, still coiled up tight within herself, still too close and too far at once, still some kind of planet or sun or star with a gravitational field that won’t let go of Yang (can’t let go of Yang), entirely unaffected by Blake’s (prudent) wariness of what might happen if she relaxes into the pull and crashes into the surface underneath.
“You know it’s not that.”
And Yang does.
Some forces exist without intention, can’t be reasoned with or rationalized or altered, and this is simply one of them. But there’s choice too, and today, Blake’s is clear, and so she leans back onto her elbows (a precious foot or two of space) and keeps herself from falling.
Until later, when Blake makes a choice again, chooses to abandon a previous one and press against her, curl her fingers around the edge of Yang’s jaw and pull her close enough that Yang can fill her lungs with her exhale, unhelpful by way of the body’s necessity for gas exchange, but a perfect adaption too, a new means of survival.
“It’s not fair to you,” Blake whispers, and Yang falls back again on her easy grin, her drawling words.
“Fair is overrated,” she says, the movement of her mouth brushing her bottom lip against Blake’s, in the briefest of touches. “And besides, this is my favorite part.”
(Falling is easy, after all.)
They slip into an easy ten step pattern, tried and true after not all that long:
Yang explains everything to Ruby
She and Ruby sneak into the training room
Yang (stares for a solid minute at Blake, at the curve of her back and the movement of the muscles in her arms and) tells Blake she’s looping
Weiss is kind of a bitch until she isn’t and Yang spends a solid five minutes teasing her with whatever new information she’s picked up in her last reset
Yang explains what they did last time, catches Ruby up on the moves she’s designed and the modifications she’s added to Blake or Weiss’s weapons, and all-around brings everyone up to speed on the state of things
They add to the plan, based on the events Yang witnessed before her last death
They go into battle
They make it a little further than the time before
There are highlights, of course:
Weiss — with more reluctance than Yang has ever seen anyone possess — tells a story involving a bottle of whiskey, three crates of Dust, a tightwire suspended between two trees, and Gambol Shroud, a story meant to be employed by Yang in case of an emergency where she has to convince Weiss to work with them and Blake isn’t around. Yang, of course, uses this new power with utmost responsibility and brings it up almost every repeat.
Ruby adds a quick eject chamber to Myrtenaster, allowing Weiss to deploy two types of Dust in quick succession (ice followed quickly by fire creating a heavy fog to cover their quick movements out of the more crowded sections of the battlefield), and a gravity dust component to each half of Blake’s weapon (sword and sheath).
And Blake. (Blake in general.) Against better judgement, sense, and odds, Blake finds her. Come nightfall, Yang goes to the roof — at different points of the night, using every alternative route, avoiding all the squeaking floorboards and ungreased latches she learns over the course of her endless loops — but Blake always follows. Yang keeps track of the differing excuses (I heard a sound or I needed some fresh air or I always come up here at night and obviously you already know that), but the end result is always the same: as long as Yang goes to the roof, Blake will find her there.
(“Have you gotten tired of this yet?” Blake asks her one night, a particularly late one that ends with them lying on the roof, the back of their hands pressed against each other.
“No.” An easy answer, really, all things considered. “This makes up for all the rest of it.”)
And so Yang goes. Every time.
Because it makes up for the rest.
The first time she watches Blake die, these words are put to the test.
The beginning of the fight is always the same, mainly because it’s such an effective starting point; they save thousands by stopping the Lancers from bombing the fleet alone, and the impact ripples, changing the flow of the battle. Their ship flies in early, and it’s a tidy bit of work that Weiss manages, sectioning off the nest and sending her Arma Gigas to decimate the majority of the ambush before it takes off. After that, it’s careful movements and timing, directed by Yang, shouting out reminders over the noise of the battle — stop and wait and five more seconds — surely nonsensical to the soldiers around them. It’s a different way of fighting and not one Yang cares for; the precision required doesn’t allow for any diversions or improvisation. But it’s effective, leading along the only three people she can allow herself to concentrate on, at least until her memories run out. And by the time that happens, she’s usually the first to die, out in front and absolutely fed up of counting her steps and leaving good people behind. The knowledge that they’ll be alive and well the next day never helps; she’s tossed out more than one reset by diving in to save a random passerby she hadn’t noticed in the loop before. It’s the small things sometimes, even the good intentioned ones, that can spell disaster later.
Her own death is far easier to take.
It’s far and away her preference over being the last woman standing, regardless of how often she’s reminded (by Weiss, mostly) that it’s a tactical advantage she should aim for in each loop. She never does, and always favors those moments right before she’s taken down, unbound by restrictions, to the rest of it.
But on Yang’s forty-ninth reset, Blake is a little too fast, a bit too aware, and she jumps in and takes a hit that should have been Yang’s.
There’s no ambiguity in it; Blake’s aura is low and the strike rips through the rest of it and part of Blake too, a high arch of blood spurting out of some vital artery as though done by the heavy flick of a paintbrush. Yang darts towards her before she hits the ground, only held back by another swing of one of the Mimic’s tentacles and then, a second later, Ruby’s shout.
“Yang! Finish it first! Center mass!” Things have spiraled fast, as they always do, and Ruby’s lost half her cloak since Yang last saw her, not a minute ago. She looks bare without it, harder somehow, or maybe that’s just the sharpness in her tone. “Weiss, Ice Flower!”
High impact bombs of ice hit the four main limbs of the Mimic in quick succession, each blooming into a spiky flower that digs into the squirming, dark flesh of the thing. Two more shots pin down a couple tentacles and Ruby and Weiss, springing away from each other, pin down another two more with the blades of their weapons. It’s simple to finish it off after that; Yang slides in front of the incapacitated Grimm, and blasts upwards with enough force to crack the ground under her feet and bring her fist directly through the face of the Mimic, nothing but ash before she’s reached the peak of her trajectory.
Which is good, because another second later, she’s propelling herself over to Blake’s body, landing a few feet away and stumbling forward, landing on her knees alongside her. There’s too much blood, enough to soak the knees of her pants and — when she rolls Blake onto her back and fits her palm to the back of her neck (carefully, carefully) — her hands too.
Blake’s eyes are closed and her breathing is shallow, but she is breathing, and that’s enough for Yang, enough for now, enough to shift her — as gently as she can — into a more comfortable position, head pillowed by one of Yang’s hands. She doesn’t notice the charging Grimm, not until it’s ash in the air around her, but she’s not sure she would have cared even if she had.
“Yang.” Weiss lowers her weapon slowly (with a prominent tremor) and she looks anywhere else, at anything other than the dying woman lying on the ground in front of her. “We need to go.”
The shaky breath Blake’s lets out seems like her last, but then she takes another, stuttering but deep. Yang breathes too, and doesn’t look up at the woman standing above her, nor at the oncoming footsteps, distinct and familiar enough that she knows they belong to Ruby.
“You can fuck right off if you think — ”
“How many times have you gone through this now? How many times have we told you that nothing else matters but getting you as far as possible each day? She’ll be alive tomorrow. Get up, Yang.”
Ruby takes a step closer. Fires off a shot that surely takes out a wayward Grimm. She’s silent, otherwise, but Yang can feel her gaze.
“Not for you.” Yang finally looks up then, finds Weiss trembling everywhere now, and immediately regrets her words.
“That’s the only person alive on Remnant that gives a single fuck about me.” Weiss pronounces each word carefully, a weight hanging from every one or maybe a noose. (Either way, they sway.) “Don’t mistake my sacrifice for callousness. But we need to go.”
A wet cough silences both of them, but the soft wheeze — an approximation of a laugh — has Weiss dropping onto her knees, earlier words discarded.
“You act like you’ve.... never seen me die before, Yang,” Blake whispers. “That… can’t be right. Been… over fifty loops. Hasn’t it?”
Seventy-six, but it doesn’t change her answer.
“I always make sure it’s me first.” The fingers of her free hand wipe at the blood pooling in the corner of Blake’s lip (she’d never known the indent was so pronounced, until so much red congregates there).
“Idiot,” Weiss breathes, laughs, or maybe sighs. “You complete and utter — ”
“I bet you did the same.” She’s ignoring Weiss, of course, focused only on the woman who uses her last bit of strength to tilt her cheek into Yang’s touch. “When it was you and Weiss, I know you did the same.”
Weiss makes a noise, like this should be news to her, but isn’t, like she’s figured out long ago Blake had never practiced what she now preached.
“Blake — ”
It might be a shushing noise that escapes Blake’s lips, but it’s probably simply a tortured exhale. Weiss responds to it like it’s the former, and cuts her own words off with a guillotine.
“Maybe that’s why,” Blake murmurs. “I always… think you seem… so familiar. Maybe I just see… me.”
That’s not it at all. Yang would say it. Would tell her. But then Blake dies and the Grimm are upon them and she doesn’t have a chance.
Next time, she thinks. At a different time, in a different place, next time.
She blames a lot of things on that moment. The recklessness that follows, the speed with which they make it to the training center the next morning, the way she nearly hyperventilates when she sees Blake again, stretching in the middle of an army of holographic Grimm. There’s a new desperation to her that’s too raw to hold back, and everyone must know it, though Yang does (in her opinion) an admirable job of laying things out when it’s her turn to do so.
But it’s not enough, and maybe that’s why Blake knows, when she finds her on the roof that night. Maybe that’s why her hands find Yang earlier than they should, less hesitant than they normally are.
“You shouldn’t have gotten so attached,” Blake says, but her fingers are already on Yang’s skin, already under her shirt, already leaving the marks that Yang wishes were more permanent.
“It was already too late, the first time you told me that,” Yang admits, and doesn’t care, not at all, not even a little. Blake had been dead and now she’s here and Yang’s left arm trembles, can’t find purchase on Blake’s hip, can’t find a way to separate the two versions of Blake, one with blood spilled and one with it held, for at least another several hours more.
“This makes it harder,” Blake insists, but her lips find Yang’s neck, her teeth dig into her pulse, her tongue runs along the bruises she leaves.
I don’t care, Yang says or maybe thinks or maybe breathes. I’ll bring you back every time. I’ll choose you every time.
Blake has a scar running down the whole of her side, across her ribs and hip and thigh. That night, the first night she can see the extent of it, Yang kisses along its length.
“You’ll end up with scars worse than this,” Blake warns, tries, but still reaches, hands always reaching to drag Yang close.
“Cover my body in them,” Yang murmurs, because she doesn’t care, doesn’t care, doesn’t care. They use their shed clothing as a mattress, they fight off the cold by pressing close, and Yang doesn’t care. “After all this, you can use them as a map. I’ll keep them all for you. I don’t care.”
(She cares. Far too much.)
When the first vision hits, she should be prepared, but isn’t. Blake had called it a pull, an invitation, and it’s that and more. There’s a rope around her neck and it’s dragging her close, it’s promising victory, it’s showing her where she’s meant to be. (A hallway with glowing purple lights, dozens of high arched windows letting in the unnatural light from the outside, stretches of cold floor with etchings carved into the stone.) They are waiting, defenseless, and the key to victory is there. She just has to push. Keep pushing. Make it there. She has to go. Now.
When she wakes, she’s covered in sweat, on her feet before she’s fully conscious, and apparently, she’s screaming, loud enough to wake the whole of the suite.
“First vision?” Weiss drawls, but offers her a glass of water, which Yang drowns in one, long gulp. It does little to still her shake, does absolutely nothing for the pounding headache, but Blake’s hand — gentle on her back, urging her to sit back down — manages both.
“The first one was the worst for me,” she assures her. “It won’t feel worse than dying, next time.”
Blake is literally the only person on Remnant who can say this with any confidence, and so Yang nods, taking in another few long breaths in relief.
“Eighty-three repeats before your first vision,” Weiss muses, and almost sounds impressed. “Maybe you’ll get more repeats out of this than Blake did, for whatever reason.”
It’s getting harder to concentrate; Blake’s fingers slide from her back to her shoulder to the nape of her neck, and then — after Yang sits back down on the couch — into her hair, short nails scraping gently against the scalp. The reflexive nature of the motion holds the ghost of memory, and Yang sinks into them, her eyes closing.
“Yang doesn’t handle pain like most people do,” Ruby says, voice quiet but proud. “She uses it to make herself stronger. Maybe that messes with the whole, headache-vision-mind thing.”
“The more time we have, the better.” Weiss’s tone is odd enough that Yang forces her eyes back open; there’s a pinch to the woman’s brow that she doesn’t recognize (not as anger or annoyance or superiority) and it takes Yang a moment to realize that Weiss looks confused, eyes darting back and forth between the figures of Blake and Yang. “I suppose the rest doesn’t matter.”
Blake hums softly, fingers not stopping or slowing, despite Weiss’s stare. “Did you see the castle?”
“Yeah. The castle. The halls. The stone. The candles. We have to go there.” The words slip out before she can process them and something beneath her skull pulses once, hard. “It showed me a path. Which, obviously, we can’t take. Every step of it will be a trap. But there’s no getting around the end game.”
“No,” Blake murmurs. “There isn’t. But it sounds the same as what I saw.”
Leaning up against the counter across from them, Weiss nods. “The plan stays the same. We keep pressing forward.”
Always the same. Always pressing on.
Yang falls back asleep with Blake’s hands still in her hair, just to try something new.
“Why did you do it?”
The room is the same, though the mist has scaled back. There is a vanity, a bed, a window, and — same as before — a woman. She is still beautiful, still young and ancient, and she still smiles in the same way when Yang asks her a question.
“I loved a man and he died. I went back thousands of times trying to prevent it.”
This time, the woman is standing, looking towards the window that Yang can’t quite manage to see out of. This is not a place for jokes, Yang knows, but makes one anyways.
“All for a man? We’re not much alike after all.”
She doesn’t laugh, nor does Yang expect her to, but she does smile again; her teeth are straight and white, but sharp, too, somehow.
“No? He was a valiant hero. A protector of all of mankind. He spilled his blood for those around him without thought. He saved me, but not in the usual way; I tried to save him and failed, time and time again.” The woman spreads out her hands, and Yang looks away on instinct, though there’s no gaze to avoid. “He died of different things, but always died. Once it was from the sword of an enemy — I went back and countered the blow. Another time it was from an arrow, shot from afar — I went back and gave him a shield. He died of fire, drowning, the cold; I went back and brought water, a fleet of ships, a crate of blankets. Once it was sickness — I went back farther than I ever have and invented a cure. But he died. Always.”
A simple question, but one of the few Yang cannot answer. (The rest she understands: going back, trying thousands of times, the ache of watching a life lost over and over. She doesn’t question why, only how.)
“My semblance.” The woman circles her finger through the air and the mist turns into a vortex, a portal, a window to something new; time rewinds within it, slow at first and then fast, back to the beginning of a story Yang can piece together. (A beautiful woman cries, a handsome man dies, she waits at his bed, he grows ill, they share a picnic together under a clear sky, they return to the castle she’d grown up in, he offers her a ring, they battle monsters together, they fall in love, they run away together, they share a first kiss, they meet, the woman does not know him yet and she is alone.)
“It’s not time travel, not as you may think of it,” she continues, banishing the scenes with a flick of her wrist. “I called it Time Manipulation, but even that is a simplification. I could only go back, never forward, but there was no concern of running into myself. I lived again, you see. I took the place of those who came before me. I could change much, but never everything.”
This, Yang knows. Over a hundred attempts in, and she’s learned which strings to pull to get the result she needs, but only in minor ways; each tug shifted the fabric of the world around her, changing things just enough that the next pull was different, could have disastrous side effects. You could only change so much without upsetting the sequence of things, still somehow leading to the same result.
“Do you believe in destiny?” the woman asks, soft, but not hesitantly, as though she’s following the paths of Yang’s thoughts, tracking each individual line.
“I believe… we’re given a chance to choose our own.” Because she still does, despite everything. Because she must. “But I think there are choices that are better. That we’re nudged toward, or something like it.”
The woman sighs, and Yang sees she’s not so much sad or even disappointed, but remembering the sensations of the emotions, now a concept more than anything else.
“You will learn otherwise.” The fog starts to thicken, obscuring all but the form of the woman, eyes too blue, too bright, too wild to be benevolent. “There are some things you will never be able to change.”
Progress is slow and hard and involves Yang dying another twenty times. Another fifty times. Another hundred times more. The visions continue to come, the headaches get worse, and she dies. She doesn’t lose track of the number, not exactly, but she loses herself in the fog of repetition and looks for ways to rebel.
Today, she wears her bandana around her neck, tying it in the morning and breaking out into a stupid grin when Ruby notices the change with a scrunched up face and throwaway comment about hiding a hickey. (Blake almost never leaves them, but even if she did, they’d only get erased with the reset; this is a thought Yang pushes away, for the good of her mood.)
It’s the little things.
Of course, by the time she’s finished with the necessities (telling Ruby, finding Blake, catching everyone up on past ventures, planning for the next day, and an absolutely grueling six hours of physical training), the novelty has worn off, and she finds the whole thing unbearably itchy and restrictive, ripping the piece of fabric off and dropping onto the floor as soon as Weiss announces they’re done for the night.
“You being allowed to go full Drill Sergeant is my least favorite thing about all this,” she groans, stretching each limb out as far as they’ll go, until she’s spread-eagle on the hard light ground. “And that includes the dying, thank you very much.”
“Did you start out as this much of a whiner, or has it only gotten worse?” Weiss fires back.
Somewhere, seemingly far away, Ruby groans, and her voice is muffled by whatever she’s pressed into. Having witnessed this same scene many times, Yang would guess it’s the floor; Ruby has a tendency to drop face-first onto it, towards the end of the day.
“How can you still have the energy to bicker?”
“I actually think it gives them energy, Ruby.” Blake’s voice — dry and amused — manages this more than any particular bit of snipping with Weiss, but Yang’s not about to admit it, though maybe her smile does precisely that when she opens her eyes and finds Blake staring down at her, image flipped upside down by the positioning.
“That’s only half true.” She sits up a little, enough to knock her head into Blake’s shin and nod to the spot next to her. “Whoever’s winning drains energy from the other. So like, I get energy from it, but Weiss is an old, depleted battery by the end.”
The water bottle Weiss tosses across the room gets impressively close to hitting Yang in the face; she’s only saved by Blake, catching it as she sits, as graceful as she is with everything else.
“I totally would have caught that,” Yang says, and Blake drops the bottle directly onto her stomach without further preamble, the impact (and Yang’s subsequent groan) loud enough to be heard. Weiss’s resulting laugh echoes around the room, Blake’s grin stretches wide, and Ruby mumbles something unintelligible.
It’s the little things, sometimes, that makes the looping bearable, and somehow, Yang’s found an awful lot of little things among the three other people in this room.
“You’re both awful,” Yang declares. “I’m going to Ironwood right away to request new teammates for my journey through the repeated apocalypse.”
Only Ruby laughs at that, a half-hearted snort that sticks in the tension that’s filled the room like a gas, and Yang sits up further still, searching for Blake first (her lips and gaze pulled down) and then Weiss (still as glass, and likely just as breakable).
“Alright, so clearly this involves a story that Ruby and I haven’t been filled in on,” she continues, words as droll as she can make them, carefully leaving room for a quick escape by either woman. “But I’m getting the sense that I was right when I told Ruby that bringing Ironwood in would be a super bad call.”
Still a decent distance away, but no longer muffled by the floor, Ruby’s voice once again rings clear. “What? You didn’t tell me that.”
“Really?” Yang winces, trying to pull apart the timelines that so easily fold atop each other, but eventually she waves it off. “Must have been another time. Cut me some slack! It’s kind of hard to keep track of fifty billion lives.”
“You aren’t allowed to increase your number whenever you — ”
“We told Ironwood once,” Weiss interrupts, and Ruby cuts herself off so quickly, she might as well be using her semblance. “I suggested doing so every time, apparently, but after a hundred repeats or so, Blake decided it was worth a shot. About ten minutes after we finished speaking with him on a secure line, we were both court martialed, incapacitated, and put on an airship heading to Atlas.”
“They told us it was for a greater good.” Next to her, Blake hasn’t moved, and still doesn’t when Yang’s hand fits to the curve of her knee. “I still don’t know where they took us, but I do know it wasn’t meant to be our final destination. I don’t think they could fly us all the way into Atlas, not in the middle of the battle. But wherever it was, it was cold. And old. I was in some kind of hospital bed when I woke up. My hands and feet were chained to the posts, and there had stuck an IV full of some clear liquid in my arm. They must have guessed what I’d try to do, because there weren’t any sharp objects in the room. If not for Weiss, I would have spent the rest of my life in rooms like that. Or worse ones.”
Blake doesn’t look up as she speaks, but Yang doesn’t remove her gaze for a moment. It takes effort to still her hand, resting on the thick leather covering Blake’s skin, but she manages it, even if she can’t quite contain her erratic heartbeat in the same way.
“I don’t remember any of it, of course, but Blake says I was quite drugged up when I broke into her room and slit her throat,” Weiss says, crisp and prim, covering her distress with the products of her childhood. “So that’s some consolation, I suppose.”
Head shaking furiously, Blake looks up for the first time. “Don’t. You saved my life. My permanent one.”
It’s a conversation they’ve clearly had many times, and Yang glances over Blake’s shoulder towards Ruby who — despite knowing her for less than a day — has placed herself at Weiss’s side, a light hand on her shoulder.
“Easy choice, really,” Yang murmurs. “A life as a science experiment… I’d take death any day. Death isn’t so bad once you’ve done it a few times. All of you remember that if I’m ever in a bad spot.” She pauses. Then clicks her tongue against her teeth. “Or. No, wait. Sorry.”
Blake’s exhale almost sounds like a laugh; Yang will take it, since it comes with a hint of a smile, growing ever slightly when she picks Yang’s purple bandana off the ground, winding and unwinding it around her knuckles.
“How about you keep working with me and Weiss, and we’ll do our best to avoid any similar situation.”
“Sounds like a pretty good deal to me!” Ruby chimes in, knocking into Weiss’s shoulder and then zipping around her in three complete circles, red petals flying in the air.
It’s not as obvious as Blake’s (or maybe just not as obvious to her), but there’s a small upturn of the lips there as well. Yang counts the unspoken mission as a success, and flips to her feet, pulling her left arm across her body and stretching out the muscle of her shoulder.
“Yeah, I guess I’ll stick with you two.” She offers a hand to Blake, grinning down at her. “I guess you’re pretty okay to be around.”
Blake ignores the gesture, instead rocking forward onto her knees, brandishing the bandana, and leaning in to loop it just above Yang’s boot with a quick double knot. Only after this does she pull herself up, close enough for Yang to see the variations of gold flecked through her eyes, hand hot on the skin of Yang’s palm.
“Good to know we’ve made such a remarkable impression, after all your loops.”
Yang forgets to continue the joke.
(She also forgets her timelines again, misses out on the significance of the action, like fireworks overhead while she bends down to pick up a stray, dull coin.)
“Oh, you have no idea,” she murmurs. “Not yet.”
But the press of Blake’s body seems to increase rather than abate, and her tongue darts out to wet her lips with a motion that’s a bit too slow to be practical, so maybe not. Maybe she’s picked up things just fine.
Blake couldn’t possibly remember the conversation ten resets later, and so Yang doesn’t blame her for her hesitation when the time comes where killing Yang would be considered a mercy.
This time, the killing blow misses anything vital, anything that might take her quickly, but does enough damage that she’ll not be getting up without the help of a healer. Blake drags her out of immediate danger, behind the shell of a burned out truck that had been dropped in, seemingly unhelpful for any reason other than the one they’re using it for now.
It’s not the pain that bothers her — it’s so rarely the pain — but her legs don’t seem to work and Blake’s breathing is too fast and too shallow and her eyes are wild and it’s not an outrageous thought, to think this repeat might be a wash.
“Seems like it’s about that time.” She aims for a draw, falls short with a raspy whisper. The difference is enough that Blake shakes her head and pulls her closer, until they’re both slouched against the trunk, Blake’s arms around her, holding her up as much as the metal. It feels nicer than it should, face tucked into Blake’s shoulder in the way she doesn’t allow herself to do in other situations it might be considered far more acceptable (but in their case, isn’t).
“Do you ever think about what happens to the world you leave behind?” she asks, instead of putting her blade to Yang’s neck, like she’s meant to.
“I try not to.” It’s the honest response; thinking about everyone else in each reset having to carry on until the Grimm killed every living thing on the planet puts a stone in her stomach. It blinking out of existence as soon as Yang has gone is maybe worse. (The quick death of a hundred and fifty worlds, and Yang sparked each one.)
“Do you want me to end it?”
She tries for clinical. Yang’s been with Blake for nearly three hundred days now (half as many resets), and she’s learned to trace the inflections of her voice, chart them against known data, put together a map of the things Blake says and doesn’t mean, the careful defenses she lays out not for herself, but for the people around her. Today, she tries to do the same with a neutral tone that Yang dismantles with a soft huff, as much effort as blowing away a bit of dust.
“Never did much like the idea of you killing me. Like it less when Weiss goes on and on about it.” A sharp pain lances through her stomach, and she can’t quite hide her grunt of discomfort. “Any tips on making her sound a little less unconcerned about putting a bullet through my brain?”
Blake doesn’t laugh at the joke, but then, it’s not a particularly funny one. It’s hard to mind, tucked into Blake’s side as she is; if the blood blossoming on her shirt (red on a sunny background, a flower on a bright day) doesn’t detract from the contentment blooming at the same rate, she suspects very little will. She’s found contentment in stranger places, probably.
“I think we were meant to be different,” Blake whispers, soft as a secret. “Whenever you tease Weiss or Ruby teaches us a move we’ve learned a hundred times before or you smile at me like I’m — ” She’s pressed too close to see the shake of Blake’s head, but she feels it just as well. “Sometimes I swear I can see through the holes.”
Tears in the universe’s intricate weaving.
If there are holes, Yang’s the one who has been ripping them apart, one thread at a time.
“Well if this is the universe’s attempt at a course correct,” she grumbles. “It’s the shittiest one I’ve ever seen. Sending me back a measly day and a half? Come on.”
She’s bleeding into Blake now, red seeping into her vest. It’s not her color, and for a moment, Yang wishes her blood could take on another hue, purple or gold.
“Do you have some notes, then?” Blake asks, mouth pressed to the crown of Yang’s head, a trace of amusement in her puff of breath. “For the gods or fate or the universe at large?”
Yang doesn’t have to think. Maybe it’s the blood loss, or maybe she’s thought about it before. The words spill out, regardless, faster than any Grimm converging on their location, than Ruby speeding around the perimeter and holding them off, than the minutes ticking down on this life and every other one.
“Send us back. All the way. All of us. We’ll meet at school. Weiss will glyph her way out of Atlas and you’ll still run away, but in the right direction this time. I’ll win you over by taking on a hundred Grimm without breaking a sweat. You won’t have to win me over because I’ll be crazy about you at first glance. Ruby will hug Weiss into submission until she forgets she’s supposed to be cold. The world will still fall apart, but we’ll have known each other for a decade, from the start. We’ll have had enough time to get it right.”
She’s exhausted her remaining words in one go, but it feels worth it. She usually feels cold before she dies, but not now. She coughs, once, and Blake’s hold tightens around her, squeezing out a few more. “How does that sound?”
“It sounds — ” Blake’s inhale is staggered, steps rather than a ramp; it catches on each ledge on the way up. “You should be in charge. I think you’ve gotten it all right.”
When the Goliaths finally overrun them, Yang finds she’s smiling.
Some loops are easier than others, but there’s one that Yang marks as the worst.
Her memories of Ruby go back to the roots. Take a scalpel to Yang’s brain and you’d find an image of a baby swaddled in red at the core of it, the first visual a three year-old Yang had seen fit to file away. Stacked atop that like strata sits everything else; the first time Ruby had said her name (dropping the ‘g’, but beaming a gummy smile), Ruby’s first attempt at putting together a weapon (a too-large sword of wood, cobbled together with twigs and twine), the hug Ruby had wrapped her in when she’d learned they could attend Beacon at the same time, the formation of ROSY with Ruby as their leader, the sobs that wracked Ruby’s still-small frame when they’d lost it all. Yang had never considered the moment where she’d have to lay down the final layer, a handful of dirt over a metaphorical coffin, but she’s forced into it now, Ruby’s body clutched tight to her chest as she runs, ignoring everything else.
The strike hadn’t been fatal. There’s blood — there’s always blood — but Yang has to believe this. It doesn’t always have to be fatal. Behind her, Weiss swears loud enough to be heard over the pounding in her ears, but she keeps running. They’re at the edge of the battlefield, further than they’ve ever gone, finally off the beach and onto rocky ground, covered in crystals and boulders and dried up pools of Grimm. She’d take comfort in the novelty if her sister weren’t unmoving in her arms.
“Yang! We’re far enough!” It’s Blake’s voice and so Yang stops, fast enough to leave a skidmark in the barren ground, dust puffing up from the heel of her boot.
The battle’s behind them, a trail of Grimm — picked off by Blake and Weiss — leading back to it, though Yang’s not sure how far she’s run. Miles, maybe. She feels like taking off again, muscles of her legs twitching as Weiss and Blake stumble closer, both clearly without breath, but approaching with a caution not unlike that employed when coming near a wild animal (hands outstretched, eyes trained).
“Put her down,” Blake continues, as gentle as she can manage, shoulders moving up and down with each gulping inhale. There’s a cut in her forehead, blood smeared across her temple and dripping down the side of her face, and Yang finds herself thinking that it’d probably end up causing a scar, if any of them were able to retain the marks of the damage they’d suffered. “Weiss has some first aid training, remember? Put her down. She’ll take a look.”
She hesitates, but only because her thoughts refuse to be sorted enough to cause action, neurons darting about, skipping crucial pathways. Only Ruby’s wheeze of her name, painful and breathless, kicks her out of it, clarity forming in the panic.
“I’ve got you,” she says and lowers herself to her knees with care borne from concern for her sister rather than her own kneecaps. "It’s alright.”
It’s not. That much is clear once Ruby has been placed gently on the ground. There’s not as much blood as Yang had feared (a few scrapes and scratches), but Ruby’s aura had broken before she’d been slammed into a solid wall of rock with the force of a whip crack, and the bruises already forming on her skin speak to worse problems. Weiss crouches down, removes some of the light armor, and pushes some of the remaining red and white fabric out of the way. The bruising on Ruby’s chest is worse — much worse — and Weiss sucks in a breath.
“Yang,” Ruby tries again, but has to suck in another breath before she can continue. It doesn’t seem to do much. There’s no lift of her chest, and there’s a wheezing sound within the inhale that reminds Yang a bit of a tire losing air pressure.
“Just relax. Just stay still and… relax.” She scoots in closer, lifts Ruby’s head into her lap, brushes out her hair with her fingers, like she’d always done when they were kids. “Just — rest, and your aura will kick back in. We have time. It’s alright.”
“She’s punctured a lung,” Weiss says quietly. “One of her ribs must have — ”
“It’s alright.” This time, the word echoes, loud enough that Weiss turns her head away and Blake — standing behind them and watching the direction they’d come from — puts a hand on Yang’s shoulder. “You just need a little time. We can — let’s play the game, yeah? We can just — I’ll start this time. I can start.”
“Yang, we — ” Whatever Weiss sees when Yang looks up, it has her cutting off her words. She nods, mostly to herself, and stands, brushing off her pants in a futile gesture. “I’ll keep watch. Ruby, try to — just keep breathing.”
Ruby blinks up at her and smiles; it’d be more reassuring if her lips didn’t hold a slight tinge of blue. She’s expecting Blake to follow Weiss, but she merely sits, face carefully blank as she takes Ruby’s hand in her own and gives it a small squeeze.
“One day,” Yang begins, but has to stop and start again when the words tremble. “One day, little Suzy Shoeman decided she would go to the store for cookies."
“Fortunately,” Ruby rasps. “On her way there she — ” A cough wracks her small frame, forces her to take another few laborious breaths. “ — she met a giant…. friendly… bear.”
Yang almost smiles at the reversal. Almost. “Unfortunately — ”
“No.” Ruby coughs again. There’s liquid in the sound. “No. Fortunately.”
She smooths out Ruby’s bangs, tries to ignore how clammy the skin underneath feels, and continues as directed. Of course. “Fortunately, the bear was also going out for cookies, so they decided to travel together. His name was Bartholomew.”
“Fortunately, Bartholomew was — was — was — ” Ruby shivers, the whole of it rippling her spine. Blake tightens her grip and her expression, her free hand reaching out for Yang, cupping the elbow of the arm that Yang only realizes then is shaking. “Bartholomew was nice,” Ruby sighs, once she settles. “He was so nice.”
When Yang laughs, she feels like she might choke; her throat’s too tight for the sound to escape unhindered. “We’re not going to get anywhere with only using ‘fortunately’s.”
“Says... who? Maybe sometimes it — ” Ruby’s eyes close and she sighs with the action, a terribly final sort of thing. “Maybe sometimes, everything comes up ‘fortunately’.”
Yang can’t think of a time when that was a case. Can’t think of anything she wants more, even if it’s just the once (a single fucking day). The yearning makes its way into her voice, turns the question into a plea.
Distant sounds from the battle hardly reach her ears, and so she’s very much aware when the careful, rattling breaths start to slow. But still, Ruby smiles.
“Next time. Maybe next time.”
Or maybe the next one, because it’s not this: trying not to break down as she recounts her latest life, getting distracted every five seconds by Ruby’s (open, alive) silver eyes, flying into a rage as soon as Weiss suggests it’d been a successful attempt.
The last one leaves a crack in the table where her fist lands and a pain — a soothing balm — lancing through her left arm. It hadn’t occurred to her to use the prosthetic, though the damage would have been more and the hurt less, but perhaps that speaks to the state of her mind as well as anything.
“A success? My sister died in my arms and you’re calling this a success?”
She pulls back at Weiss’s flinch; it’s slight, but clear — an instinct frozen in time — and after three-hundred days of similar ones Yang’s sorted out the gist enough to know better. She can’t quite quench the flame burning in her throat, fogging her mind with smoke, but she curls her fingers tight against her palm and tries. Her deep breaths don’t particularly help, either, but Blake’s knowing gaze, intense in the volume of its empathy, has just enough of a cooling effect that she’s able to disperse the rest of the heat.
Weiss gives her that time, at least, though there’s no mercy beyond that moment.
“Yes,” she says simply. “Our mission is to make it off the beach and loop back around to the castle. We’ve finally made it past the hardest part. What could be more of a success?”
“How about all of us making it past the hardest part?” Yang grits.
“Obviously, that would be ideal, but at some point — ”
“No. Not at some point.” Her ire is rising again, her left hand shaking, and Ruby — who’d abandoned her typical fiddling with the gadgetry in the room after Yang had gotten into the details of her death — steps closer, her hand finding Yang’s elbow.
“You don’t get it,” Yang continues, flatly now. “This wasn’t a build up. We have to go back and redo the whole last part, because I’m not leaving my sister behind. I don’t give a fuck if she’s there when I wake up the next day. We’re all making it to that castle or it won’t work. Got it?”
For a minute, it’s a staring contest, but Weiss breaks first, rubbing along her forearm, and avoids Yang’s eyes for a while after. (What she’d seen there, Yang can’t begin to guess, but she imagines it involves a combination of anger, desperation, and hopelessness that can’t be easy to view. It’s not easy to bear, either.)
“It’s only in the last push that things went wrong,” Blake cuts in, voice measured. “We’ll tweak things, like we always do, and make sure we all make it off the beach alive. Yang’s right; we’ve had far more success with a group of four, and even though there’ll be less Grimm from here on out, we’ll need everyone for the final push. They know we’re coming.”
Yang’s shoulders lose their tension and — after a long moment — Weiss nods, settling the matter. One last squeeze from Ruby before she leaves her side pushes Yang back into a place of ease, and she settles into her chair, smooths her hands over the warped surface of the table in front of her.
“Very well.” Weiss doesn’t know her yet, and so there’s no particular warmth to her tone, but Yang thinks of her kneeling down in the dirt, of the careful press of her hand to Ruby’s bruised stomach, and inserts the inflection on her behalf. “Yang, walk us through it, please. From the top.”
With each loop, the walkthrough and training take longer and longer. By the time they finish, it’s dark, late, and far past the time they should have eaten. Blake slips away to grab food for the group, Ruby races to the shower, and Yang’s left sitting on the too comfortable but now familiar couch where she’ll eventually end up sleeping for the night. (Or lying down until Ruby’s snores start and Weiss’s light clicks off, until she can escape to the roof and wait for Blake, who still always finds her.) There’s variation in the moment that follows; most of the time, Weiss adjourns to her room, though sometimes she stays, offering water, asking for clarification on a certain moment, or — only once — sitting with Yang in absolute silence until Blake comes back. Today, Weiss deviates from all of these options, leaning up against the nearest pillar and folding into herself, holding her crossed arms tight against her stomach.
“When I was younger, I always dreamed of going to Beacon,” she says. There’s no lead-in and she knows it, diving in and focusing on the ground. “Life in Atlas was… difficult. My father had high expectations, ones that involved me profiting from the war rather than protecting people from it. I was the heir to the Schnee Dust Company, you see; my sister had disobeyed my father when she joined the military and my brother was still too young. I thought if I could leave I might gain a modicum of independence. I thought I might make a name for myself outside of my… name.” She smiles, weakly and still at the floor. “But before I was able to join a school of my choosing, Ironwood came to the Estate. He told me that if I came to Atlas Academy, he would accept me a year early. He would fast track me through the program. He would help me rise in the ranks quickly enough to join my sister, his most trusted Special Operative.”
There’s a new honesty in the tilt of her lips then, wistful and sad, but earnest. “How could I say no to that? Winter was — out of everyone involved in my childhood — Winter was the one that cared. Not… traditionally. She was hard on me and never held back criticism, but she… taught me what I needed to know. To survive. Not only my father but everything else. When we were young and my father had a bad day, she would always — ” Weiss bites her lip and sinks a bit further into herself. Her hand lifts towards her face — as though reaching for something — but she drops it before her fingers can linger, only just brushing along the marred skin under her eye. “She always tried to protect us. I owed her everything. Being at her side, watching her back, protecting her like she’d always done for me — I gave up Beacon for that in a second. I barely had to think.”
Air conditioning runs in the suite, a rare luxury that Weiss doesn’t appear to appreciate in that moment; she shivers, and Yang has to keep herself from lifting off the couch, from pulling the woman into her side. It’s the same instinct that might rise up when faced with a lost child; Weiss looks terribly, terribly small, and terribly, terribly alone.
“Specialists mostly work separately, going where we’re needed, but we were paired more often than not. Ironwood kept his promise on that, at least. We were both here three years ago, too, when everything fell apart and we had to fall back. I was too slow to keep it from happening. That’s what I always think of, somehow, not the things I could have done after, but — ” Her first swallow does little, and she repeats the action before she can continue. “She was injured. Fairly badly. She shattered her ulna, a clean break, but — I took her back to command. Maybe that saved our lives, because we were there when the evac order came, and flew out in the first wave. I think it’s why Ironwood sent me to Mistral, though. He kept everyone close and shored up the borders and I was sent to Mistral for a year, so I always figured it was a punishment. We aren’t supposed to be attached to anyone more than the mission, and I should have stayed in the field and trusted Winter to get back fine on her own. That’s what loyal soldiers do, right?”
Yang’s fingers curl around her knees. She shakes her head, though Weiss, who hasn’t looked up once, can’t see. It’s the best she can do. She’s heard this story — not Weiss’s, not this exact one — but she’s heard this story and she knows how it ends. How it always ends.
“I didn’t see Winter again. Somehow, there was always a mission that kept me away, and her recovery was… long. Painful. And then the Grimm attacked again, hitting all the Academies at once and — well. I was in the middle of fighting when she called me. I almost didn’t pick up. It’s only the last of Blake’s loops that I remember, obviously, so at that point, there was so much to keep track of. The timings and movements and critical moments. But Blake told me to answer. She told me — ” Her breath catches on itself, a carefully contained half-whimper. “She knew, of course. That it was Winter. That it’d be my last chance to talk to her. Sometimes, I think that must be the hardest part. Not all the dying, but... knowing. Because I apparently always did the exact same thing after Winter hung up, after she rushed out to her death trying to defend Atlas without anyone there to watch her back; I told Blake that next time, she should let me know at the start of the day, so I could get on an airship, fly to Atlas, and save my sister’s life.” Her lips curl, a snarl rather than a smile. “And Blake told me what she’d apparently told me nearly two hundred times; that I’d tried that once, that I’d made it all the way to Atlas. But that, in the end, I’d called Blake and told her to never, ever let me do it again. That it would only make things worse.”
Weiss presses her palm to the pommel of the weapon strapped to her side; she doesn’t sleep without it, Yang’s pretty sure, so it’s not a surprise she finds some comfort in the familiar, cool touch of the metal. They’ve all picked up on small comforts like these, every one of them, but Weiss leans into them more than most (rather than into the people around her).
“Even after all that, I thought maybe the last time would be different. We’d won at Haven; maybe — even with the call and Winter telling me she lov — even with Winter saying goodbye, maybe our victory would have ripples. Maybe I’d managed to do both, somehow.” She sniffs, but her eyes are dry, so maybe it’s a laugh, a mark of derision, a difficult inhale. “I didn’t. There were too many bodies for proper funerals, but I made it back to Atlas in time to be there for the cremation. Ironwood flew us back on a priority airship.” This time, the sound is more clear, an obvious snort of disgust. “Such a favor he was doing for us, the Hero of Haven and her Atlesian partner. Bringing us back into the fold with a polished jar of ashes. Have I told you any of this before?”
The question catches Yang off guard, more in that a question is asked at all rather than anything to do with the content of it.
“No,” she murmurs. “You haven’t.”
With a lurch off the pillar, Weiss moves closer, dropping onto the couch with an expression of satisfaction that feels out of place.
“Good. Blake always said the best part of the repeats was finding something new.” She’s still stiff when she sits, full of too much bitterness (or sadness or regret or all of the above) to rest easy. But there’s something underneath it all, too, appreciation, perhaps, or a transference of warmth from her past experiences with Blake to Yang’s current ones. “I thought you should know, if you didn’t. After the things I’ve said and have already said, I’m sure. I don’t — I’m not uncaring. I look at you and I see...” Her lips press together in the approximation of a tight smile. “Well. I’m sure it’s obvious now. I know what it means to sacrifice. Not like Blake does. Not like you do. But I know how to sacrifice in the one life I have. And when I tell you to keep going, I don’t do it lightly. I do it because I have too. I wouldn’t ask for anything I wouldn’t do. That I haven’t done.”
Any moment now, Ruby will barge back into the room, or Blake will return with a bag of rations and probably a few luxuries, and the moment will fade, but for now, Yang places a hand on Weiss’s knee, a gentle acceptance of the sort of apology Weiss will never offer.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs, because it’s all she can say.
“Me too,” Weiss returns, because it’s the only possible response.
How many times has it been? Ruby asks.
Not enough to get me down, Yang replies with a wink.
How many times has it been? Weiss asks.
I lost track a while back, Yang lies.
How many times has it been? Blake asks.
(Her hand hovers just over Yang’s bicep in the ghost of a touch, careful with the comfort she offers, like she already knows.)
One hundred and ninety-one, Yang says, and her voice shakes.
Chapter 5: (wait) if I’m on fire, how am I so deep in love?
It takes a few extra lives (or maybe twenty), but Yang manages to get it all: the four of them alive and safe and off the beach. From there, they continue inland, skirting around the empty-looking Grimm pools (just in case), and taking their time as they round corners, even when the world around them is unnaturally still. It’s hard to track time in the Land of Darkness (the sky always seems to hang above them in the same ominous red), but by the time they find a small outcropping of buildings, several miles inland, it feels late, like the sun should have set a while back. There’s no growth on the ruins (though ruins they most certainly are), and it feels deeply wrong in a way that’s hard to pinpoint. Life and decay gives everything an age, and the lack of it in this place adds to the sensation of timelessness, in the most unsettling way possible.
“Well we obviously can’t go in there,” Ruby says, waving towards the ruins. “First of all, they’re just creepy. Second of all, everyone knows that Grimm and creepy ruins are like… cookies and milk.” She pauses, eyes squinting in concentration. “But evil. There’s probably about a million Grimm in there and keeping with the whole sneaky, stealthy ninja thing has really worked for us so far, right?”
Weiss ignores the chatter, as she’s grown used to doing over the past day and a half. “I’ve never seen anything like this here. These are — people built these. How did we not know that people lived here?”
“They’re older than they look,” Blake murmurs, coming to the same conclusion as Yang upon first viewing the structures. “The stone’s held up well, without any decay. Whoever lived here is gone. Probably centuries ago. Maybe longer. But you’re right. It’s… odd to think of people living in this place once. We’ve lost so much of our history. Sometimes it feels like all we have left are the stories of propaganda.”
“The perfect bedtime story: how Ironwood saved us from the brink of collapse,” Yang chimes in and gets two eyerolls (one fond, one a little less so) in response. “Anyways, it’ll be fine. We need to stop and rest, and this is a better place to do it, rather than anything out in the open. All of us shattered our auras getting here, and they need time to recharge. I’d rather make the final push to the castle when we’re at full strength. And that includes eating and getting a few hours of sleep.”
She knows she’ll get pushback, especially from a particularly disheveled Weiss (the uneven cut of her shoulder-length hair now looking less like a purposeful fashion statement and more the result of an unfortunate incident with a Grimm’s claws), which is why she immediately steps into the nearest building — a former two-story with bits of the second story strewn all about — and lets herself laugh at Ruby and Weiss’s collective squawk.
“Yang! We haven’t — ” Weiss cuts herself off with a huff. “Idiot,” she hisses, instead of finishing her thought, but still dives in after Yang first, sword withdrawn, dust locked in the chamber. This, Yang had come to realize, was quintessential Weiss, and she slaps her on the back in quiet appreciation when she dips into the first room, causing the smaller woman to jump high enough that their eyes — for just a moment — meet on the same level.
“See? Nothing here. I’ve got like, a sixth sense for Grimm now, I swear.” Weiss glowers and Yang grins and the two of them — each stubborn in their own right — hold out in this stalemate until Ruby and Blake stumble and slip (respectively) into the room. It’s not much; four walls and half a ceiling, but Yang ducks into one of the adjoining ones and emerges with a worn, standard-issue UFR pack dangling from her fingers. “We’re not the first either. Looks like someone made it out here before. Three years ago, I’d guess.”
“That — ” Weiss steps forward, takes the pack with something akin to wonder. “That seems unlikely.”
“There could have been a platoon that broke off,” Blake muses. “A small group that ran or wandered off and slid through the worst of it. We were a bit more spread out then, after all. The Grimm weren’t quite so coordinated at the start of the fight to trap us in one location, like they did today.”
Ruby’s quiet, her hand pressed to the worn stone as she looks around, eyes wide. Yang knows what she’s thinking, but stays silent until the words come forth naturally. “I wonder who lived here. I wonder what they were like. Or what made them come here.”
“Maybe it wasn’t such a bad place, early on,” Yang murmurs, and can almost imagine it; grass among the purple crystals, rich soil that could hold crops better than any other, civilizations that grew along the shores. Maybe it was a beautiful place, before the Grimm flourished, and — unchecked — took hold, sucking every drop of life that’d once been here.
“I’ve always thought this place has always been… lifeless.” When she takes the pack from Yang, Weiss looks disquieted. “It feels so much worse, knowing that something choked all the life out of it first.”
“But it means it can get better too, right?” Hope is such a novel thing these days, and three sets of eyes turn towards Ruby’s optimism, drawn to it instinctively. “After we finish this thing, maybe this can be a good place again.” No one has the heart to argue, especially when Ruby smiles at each of them, the beam of it gliding past like a flashlight. “Let’s look around. Yang’s right; we should rest. And maybe we can find more stuff to help us rest easier, if it was a group of people that made it here.”
“Go in pairs,” Weiss adds, and a distinct crease forms in her forehead when Blake steps close to Yang, taps her on the shoulder and nods towards the outdoors. Yang knows the look well, has seen some variation of it a hundred times, and knows it’s borne in surprised curiosity rather than jealousy, an attempt to sort through the meaning behind the unexpected. If she had an explanation, she would offer it, but instead she follows Blake out of the building, preferring to enjoy rather than dwell.
They’re successful in their search, Yang more than the rest. She finds another bag with a portable stove and some rations, a few bedrolls, a medical kit, and — most importantly of all — three mugs and a bag of coffee beans. She scoops the finds up quickly, climbing around the ruins without much concern for her safety, while Blake mostly watches, her weapon in hand. They’re back before Ruby and Weiss and set up in the main room, lining up the bedrolls along the wall and shifting stone around until they have a makeshift campfire of sorts, the small stove at the center of four large blocks that function as seats. Yang doesn’t mind doing the heavy lifting when Blake watches with such clear appreciation, not shifting her gaze away even when Yang notices.
“Like what you see?” Yang asks.
“You know I do.”
The quiet murmur lances through Yang’s chest, pushing away the headache that’s been pounding at her skull for the duration of the day, clearing room for the lightheadedness that overtakes her. Blake stands comfortably, weight shifted to her side, and there’s a casual tilt to her head, an easy lift to her lips that would seem out of place if their surroundings weren’t overwhelmed by it instead. Which checks out. For a while now, Yang has known and held onto this simple fact; Blake’s quiet smile makes the end of the world fall in line.
“We found a flashlight!”
She and Blake aren’t close, and so there’s no need to spring apart, but Blake does startle, ears flattening against her head as she takes a reflexive step back. Yang only smiles, shrugging a bit. (Nothing to be done about it, she means, or maybe just, later.)
“And water,” Weiss adds, wearing the same searching look as earlier, if only briefly. “Perhaps that’s worth mentioning first, given we’re running low on our own supplies.”
Clearly, Ruby disagrees, already holding the handle of the flashlight between her teeth and laying down the foundations of what’s sure to be an impressive shadow puppet.
“I’m sure we’ll make good use of it all,” Yang slides in, skirting around Ruby and patting Weiss on the shoulder as she collects the bundle of canteens from her arms. “Everyone sit. Enjoy the show. I’ll get everything ready. Give me seventeen minutes and we’ll have warm meals and drinks. Promise.”
Seventeen minutes later, she’s proven to be true to her word. Ruby is well into the third act of her shadow puppet play (an interesting interpretation of an incident involving a stray dog she and Ruby had once found in the middle of the Vacuan desert, wherein the dog both spoke and led them to a magical treasure, two details Yang can’t quite recall from her own memories), which Weiss has fallen into with rapt attention and Blake laughs at on no less than three occasions. Yang lets the warmth the sight produces fill her up, greedy in what she takes, ignoring caution and sense. She doesn’t need to ask for preference when it comes to each of her companions’ meal choice, and serves them without any input (chili for Blake, veggie burger for Ruby, pesto pasta for Weiss), followed shortly by drinks (with just the right amount of sugar and cream).
It’s a perfect moment in an imperfect time, frozen into place by sheer force of will. Blake cracks a wide smile as she tells the story about the first time she’d met Weiss (it involves the word ‘nincompoop’, Weiss tripping over a misplaced canteen, and a vicious debate over tea), Weiss flushes red, and Ruby snorts water out of her nose. Weiss surprises them all by absentmindedly spinning a napkin on the back of her hand and then attempts to teach them all the bar trick when Yang demands it. (Yang picks it up quickly, Blake and Ruby not so much.) Ruby manages to convince Weiss (and possibly Blake) that she’d won ‘Lil Miss Patch’ when she’d been a child, an entirely fictitious beauty pageant for toddlers that Ruby invents on the spot with far too much detail. And somewhere in the middle of it all, Blake takes her hand and massages the skin between Yang’s index finger and thumb, soothing the headache Yang hadn’t mentioned, with a method Ruby had only mentioned once, a hundred lifetimes ago.
(Impossible, of course. But not the first impossibility. Yang has learned not to look too closely at such things. To keep them in the corner of her eye. Have you noticed yet? the universe seems to ask, and she won’t answer for fear of losing out on experiencing the signs.)
By the time they finish, the sky outside is a dark red, finally night in an observable way, and Yang has a far easier time convincing Weiss that they should all wait a few hours for things to lighten up again before heading out. After that, it’s only a short while longer before Ruby and Weiss tuck into their bedrolls and Blake slips outside for the first watch she’d volunteered for and Yang follows her, because Yang will always follow Blake, wherever she goes, whenever she has the chance to do so.
“Tell me why you don’t believe in fate, Blake Belladonna.”
The night before, they’d discussed it on the roof, as they so often did. The night before, Blake had slipped into her lap and kissed her and tugged on Yang’s hair exactly the way she liked when the person tugging on it was Blake and Blake only. The night before, Blake Belladonna had told her that she trusted herself more than she trusted fate and laughed when Yang had said that not trusting in something and not believing in something were two mutually exclusive things and then kissed her some more.
But now, when Blake turns — her smile tilted far to one side — she doesn’t dodge the question.
“It’s easier to not believe than the alternative,” she says simply.
“To believe in it at all?”
The sky is darker than dried blood, still distinct from the grey ground in the gloom of the night. Though the moon rarely breaks through, even from behind the clouds, it provides just enough light for Yang to take in the soft features of Blake’s face, the lift of her shoulders when she releases a breath. And just then (right then, right at that very moment, the one Yang knows will always come if she’s careful), Blake looks up — eyes hooded and full of the whole of the universe — and steps closer. She steps closer and leans in until her lips are at Yang’s ear and she presses a hand to her cheek, callus on callus on callus, but soft soft soft soft.
“Do you think the universe gets it wrong sometimes?” she asks, barely a whisper, as though she might be overheard by the notion of time, by the concept of space. But then, something new, something different: “Is that why you keep coming back here?”
Yang’s surprise is such that she might pull back, if every muscle in her body hadn’t been all but programmed to not even pull back from this woman in particular, not when she has a choice.
“Is that why you keep coming back here?” Blake asks again, still only a murmur. “Not changing anything? Not telling us we’ve made it to this exact spot before?”
It’s the first time she’s been found out, and with it, paths reset, timelines refresh. She’s familiar with the sensation by now and doesn’t resist, only leans further into Blake’s touch and sighs.
“How’d you know?”
“You didn’t check for Grimm in the building, you found everything far too fast, you knew precisely the meals to give each of us to avoid any debate, and you didn’t laugh nearly hard enough when I told that story about Weiss landing flat on her face in the mess hall.” Blake’s laugh is soft against her ear, lovely enough to make Yang shiver. “You got a bit sloppy towards the end.”
“I always want to skip to the best part,” Yang admits, curling her arms around Blake’s hips, swaying a bit, and marveling at how Blake moves with her.
She could guess — surely Blake could guess — and so she must want Yang to say it.
(So Yang does.)
“This.” So simple, but the barest truths so often are. “Just this.”
Blake doesn’t pull away either, fingers slipping further down and curling around Yang’s jaw instead, keeping them cheek to cheek.
“I know for a fact we’ve done this elsewhere. And much more, if last night is any indication.” She can’t manage to sound put out, and even if she had, the curl of her mouth against Yang’s skin would have given her away. “So what makes this worry of wasting your repeat on?”
“Oh, come on. This is hardly the first time we’ve wasted time for this sort of thing.” Her hand slides up under Blake’s tactical vest, palm pressing flat against the warm skin of her back. “Do you know how many resets it took me to track down a strap earlier on? And you definitely weren’t complaining about that one. It was your idea!”
It’s a memory Yang had forgotten to share last night; there are so many now and so little time, and she’s greedy with her present, aching for new moments with Blake to add in (so eager to pretend they’re both moving forward at the same pace). Next time, she’ll tell Blake earlier, if only to hear the surprise in the laugh that she gets now.
“Well! It’s true!”
“How many times?”
“Well, from the start I was pretty sure I’d have to track down Coco Adel, but the first time she totally brushed me off because I came on way too strong. So the second time I told her I was having an emergency with my — ”
“How many times have you come back here?” Blake clarifies, digging a finger into Yang’s most ticklish spot (just behind her hip), until Yang squirms, pulling Blake with her into the motion.
“Don’t start that, now. You know I have an advantage. I remember what touching every part of your body does to you.”
A threat and — if Yang has her way — a promise. Blake recognizes the duality contained within and gets caught on the latter, breath catching slightly, body curling further into Yang’s.
“How many times, Yang?”
Yang knows the number, but the real answer doesn’t involve it at all.
They settle like that, twined in each other, heat radiating between them, cheek pressed to cheek. Blake’s fingers stroke rather than poke and Yang scratches her nails in a tight circle at the small of Blake’s back. And they sway in the still air. Quietly. Perfectly. Different but the same.
It’s not a truth she should tell, she’s told herself this a million times. But today, Blake asks and she answers. Today, she will make room for the truth.
“It’s where I knew I’d fallen in love with you,” she admits, barely a whisper. “That moment you look back at me when I walk outside. I don’t know why, but that was it. We’ve never made it any further than this — I have no idea what’s beyond this building — because I don’t want to change anything that makes me miss that. Because I want to have that feeling one more time.”
She feels Blake’s swallow (hears it too, loud against the shell of her ear). Their timelines are different, paths not quite converging, and there’s nothing Blake could possibly say back that wouldn’t be a lie. Not yet. Yang doesn’t mind. It feels nice to say, to release, to admit, to give back to the world that’d allowed her to find it, even if the same world hadn’t made it particularly easy.
“Do you think the universe gets it wrong sometimes?” Blake asks again, somehow quieter this time.
It’s the sixth time she’s asked, but Yang’s never quite had the right response.
Today, she settles on something simple. Something true.
“Yes.” She pulls back, presses her thumb to Blake’s bottom lip, watches her pupils expand. “But if we keep pulling, maybe it’ll eventually get it right.”
Today, she pulls and Blake follows.
They’ll keep trying until they get it right.
That night, Grimm flood the house.
Just as they always do, just as they always have.
Yang wakes a half hour before the assault, not to prepare, but to say goodbye. She’s spent enough time here, selfish hours that have pounded against her skull in retribution, but now, she’ll take another ten minutes more, staring down at the woman tangled in her arms, tucked against her shoulder, leg slung over her hip. There are so many things she has to remember, just to get them to this point, but she locks this moment away with care (if she had to replace it with another — one that might spare her life — she wouldn’t let it go, this she doesn’t doubt).
It’s hard to wake Blake, harder still to leave the joined bedrolls to find Weiss and Ruby, the former curled up against a crumbling foundation wall, the other slumped nearby, awake but bleary.
“Grimm,” she says simply. “Lots of them. Get ready.”
Blake slips into the room, fully dressed in clothing and demeanor, and the weariness only hits Yang then, watching the woman she loves close herself back off.
She’s tired. Tired than any man, woman, or child has even been, maybe, with the exception of the woman standing alongside her. And she knows they’re doomed, just as they’ve always been, just as they always are.
But still, she loads her gauntlets, she gets into place, and she fights.
Dying isn’t the hardest part. Yang realizes this early on. Pain and fear fade away, numbed by repetition, until they’re a chore more than a true bother.
But the emptiness in Blake’s eyes when Yang finds her in the training room — reset after reset — that never seems to hurt any less.
Heartbreak, it turns out, has no limit.
It always cuts just the same.
201, 202, 203, 204, she wishes she would lose track, 205, 206, 207, she dies again and dies some more, 208, 209.
It’s the same.
210 through 259 passes in a blur.
There isn’t a single change that matters.
260, 261, 262.
She sees the castle always, superimposed on her vision, a thin screen over the rest of the world.
On 263, she spends an hour carefully marking lines into the sand with her finger, tally-marks of the lives she’s lived. They stretch out as far as she can see and her headache drops her to her knees, empties her stomach.
264 to 298, she’s losing sight of purpose.
299 and she’s —
“ — tired?”
The room is clear now, mist no longer obscuring its light purple walls, brass chandelier, or sturdy oak door. Yang sits with the woman on the small bench of her vanity, outer thighs pressed tight together as they share a space meant for one. The woman asks her question as she always does, as though she already knows the answer, as though it belongs to her as much as Yang. She doesn’t remember the beginning of it or maybe she’d started in the middle or maybe Yang hadn’t been there until now.
(Time doesn’t work like it used to.)
Yang answers anyways, and she’s rewarded by the smile that she now knows is borne in understanding rather than kindness. But this is not all; the woman stands, offers her hand and waves towards the door, a dark line of smoke underlying the movement, highlighting the destination. It’s an easy choice, to leave the familiar room; Yang feels she knows every corner of it, every inch, even though it's been at least partially covered in fog before now. The woman lifts her from her seat easily, as though Yang, too, is made of the same insubstantial mist, and they both float to the door and then through it. The hallway they enter is decorated similarly; shades of purple, expertly laid stone, and tapestries of the richest silk, but there’s another addition: statues of marble, each one carved into the likeness of a Grimm, the claws and teeth and limbs carefully rendered. The woman steps away to greet one with a strangely soft caress.
“Will you give up?” she asks, turning away from the figure to face Yang, though her hand remains atop its head. “Have you reached that point yet?”
A shake of her head is not answer enough; Yang speaks before she’s completed the motion. “No. You already know I won’t. You say your number was in the thousands, so you have to know I won’t.”
Her nod counters Yang’s shake; it is short and curt where Yang’s had carried on in its vehemence. “I do know. There are some people we cannot leave behind, no matter the cost.” She stares for a long moment. “It’s terrible, what people will do for love.”
Yang reaches for one of the tapestries, longs to trace along the delicate threads. Her hand passes through, but scatters the particles momentarily, a blur of purple that settles back into place when she withdraws.
“I don’t know that ‘terrible’ is the right word.”
“No?” The woman hums, stepping away from the statue to make her way to the window: thick, painted glass without a latch or means of opening it. “Are you sure? Is there anything you wouldn’t do to save the ones you care for? Would you kill? Steal? Lie? Would you let the rest of the world burn?”
Outside, the world is green, lush forests and rolling hills. A golden cobblestone path winds through the fields, reflecting the sun, disappearing into the vast mountains beyond. It’s beautiful until it isn’t; another blink and it turns dark: violet, red, purple, black. The sky hangs too low, the ground cracks and splits into the planet’s core. Viscous pools of black bubble with intent, purple crystals jut into the sky like knives. Yang jumps back, body jolting with the shock, but when she looks again, only pleasant blue skies and lush grass greet her.
“It happens gradually,” the woman continues. “A small compromise here or there. You’re surprised how easy it is, to sacrifice for love. You find faults in everyone else, excuses that offer comfort. And then, seemingly suddenly, you’ve gone too far. And all for love. At the start, at least, it’s always for love.”
The scene before her flickers again, a flash of blood-red.
“Do you regret it?” Yang asks, fingers pressed to the glass, question faint.
“I might if I could, but I can’t.” The woman is at her side, shoulder pressed against her own. “There is nothing of me left. But that’s not the question you mean to ask.”
It’s not, and so Yang tries again.
“Would you do it again?”
It’s impossible to say what the woman sees when she looks out the window, but Yang knows it doesn’t particularly matter; wasteland or paradise or anything in between, the woman no longer cares.
“Of course,” she says. “Every time.”
Yang’s words are strong, her resolution the same, but still her breaking point comes, only fifty lives later, at the start of her three-hundredth attempt.
She tries not to make anything of the big numbers, but does anyways, weird anniversaries that she celebrates with rewards to herself. (On her fiftieth, she’d held Blake’s hand on the airship; on her hundredth, she’d brought her flowers, picked off several cacti with no small amount of care; on her hundred-and-fiftieth, she’d flirted with Weiss until the woman’s face had turned an alarming shade of puce and Blake had dragged Yang into the planning room to yell at her — and then make out with her — for a solid half hour. After her two hundredth, she’d stopped, because nothing would ever be able to surpass that first night with Blake, holed up in a shitty ruin, finding out that Blake’s surprising softness didn’t stop at her skin.)
But on her three-hundredth life, Yang is empty, and there is nothing else. Exhaustion has taken a saw to her flesh, scooped out her innards, and filled away her bones until they’ve become dust. She is hollow, and she goes through the motions like a wind-up: mechanical, routine, a shell of wood and bits of metal. The beauty of it is in the simplicity, no complex mechanisms involved in continuing her existence. But there’s danger in the same thing; without the redundancies that convolution offers, one broken part and she’s done for. She packs her bag and nods when she should, smiles when she must, but as the base camp comes into view, she feels the weakness of the structure, and the shaking starts, a furious tremor in her left hand. She’s empty, and so if the panic clawing at her sides breaks through, it will fill her completely. She sends Ruby ahead, promises of pancakes and none of the information that causes rot and rust, keeping it locked inside for the first time since her second reboot.
It’s too much. It’s far too much. She stumbles back — finds a corner, turns into it, presses her forehead to the cool stone — because it’s a graveyard. Every soldier before her is one that she can remember seeing dead, and the present and past (still present? alternative present? past present?) superimpose on each other, each face a picture of unblemished skin overlaid with torn flesh and stretched wounds like a hologram.
She’ll run. She’ll run, she’ll run, she’ll keep on running. The layout of the base is hers, no location a mystery. She’ll lie her way through to the hangar, she’ll take one of the bikes, and she’ll run run run run run. Her whole arm is trembling now and there’s blood in her mouth or maybe that’s from a past life or — no, there’s blood in her mouth because she’s caught the side of her tongue between her teeth and bit down hard and that’s now, that’s the present. The current present. But there isn’t blood on her hands — not literally, not yet — or pouring out of her gut or pooling out underneath Ruby or Weiss or Blake and so she has to run because she can’t see it again. Not once. Not once more.
She stares at the ground as she stumbles away, trusting her feet to take her to the hangar, muscle memory carrying her onwards. She’s pulled by a riptide again, but this one’s malicious, or maybe just scared. She’s running, not drifting, and so she almost doesn’t notice the thread, the shift of the wind that whispers at her from a quieter place. She pulls without full knowledge, trusting instinct rather than sense, and finds herself in the training hall, blinking back at the guards she’s snuck past, as she has nearly three-hundred times before.
And then there’s Blake, where she always is, doing as she always does, and of course.
(Yang’s pulled on a thread and here she is.)
It’s the same as every day except it isn’t, because when Yang sees her for the first time (again, again, again, the first time again) — stretched on the mat of the training room, sweat cooling on her dark arms, back arched with her smooth movements, ignoring the holograms around her — she realizes, quite suddenly, that she’d been wrong before.
Yang’s not empty, because she’s because she’s never been that. Even at her worst, even on the verge of collapse, there’s a permanent place in her hollowed out form for the woman in front of her. When there’s absolutely nothing left in her, when she feels only thin walls and the panic outside, she will still hold a fierce, terrible love. For Blake, for Ruby, even for Weiss. And it’s strong, punishing in its tenacity, in its capacity to hurt — loop after loop — when she fails, when she’s unrecognized, when she watches them die. But the same characteristic saves her now. She will love in the face of three hundred deaths and three hundred more, and she’ll love now, when it’s the only option she has left, all other emotions burned out, but one last thing clinging on.
The panic slides away in the face of that.
When she steps forward, she’s calm.
(She will still run, but only for today. Today, she has space for one thing inside of herself, and — for once — she deserves her fill. The fabric of space and time will give her this because Yang will demand it. Because she must.)
“Can I help you?” Blake asks, like she always does.
And like Yang always does, she watches as Blake slides to her feet, graceful and lithe. She watches and wants and remembers, just as she had for the first time and every time since. That first moment will never lose its effect, not just on Yang, but on everything around her.
In that moment, both Yang and the universe will always hold their breath.
“Yeah,” she rasps.
She’ll tilt her head next, Yang thinks, and Blake does. Except that she smiles too — small and curious more than anything else, but still clear — and this is entirely new.
(Did you know I needed this? Yang thinks. Could you tell I was falling apart?)
(Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe. In the midst of this particular moment, it’s easy to believe.)
“You can get a drink with me,” Yang continues, like she never has.
She has come to find that the smallest actions can have the largest effect, that a minor change can turn the course of a fight. Today that change is in Blake’s smile, coming earlier than it should, lodging deep in Yang’s chest and making her ache. It cracks her open, spills everything within her out of the floor. (Which is love, of course. Right now, it’s just love.)
But there’s no explanation for what follows, for Blake’s long blink, for the tongue that darts out to wet her lips, for her eventual response:
“I have a few hours. Where would you like to go?”
It’s a rhetorical question, really, because there’s only one place within a hundred miles that can offer what Yang’s promised. Years ago, at the start of construction for the forward base, a small town had sprung into being as well, tucked into the northern peninsula of Vacuo. Its inhabitants — the mechanics, cooks, builders, and various other staff that declined to live on the base with the soldiers — had done what Vacuo citizens rarely did, and built permanent buildings. One of these (certainly the most popular among those given leave or the Huntsmen who were not beholden to the military) was a bar, and this is what Yang speeds towards now, on a bike borrowed from base. (Acquiring it had been simple with Blake Belladonna in tow; she’d merely asked, and those on duty at the hangar had hurried to obey.)
The hum of the vehicle, the rush of wind through her curling strands, and the warmth of the motor against her thighs all feel good (freeing), but not nearly as much as the sensation of Blake pressed to her back, a single arm curled low around her hips, the point of her chin rubbing against the anterior of Yang’s shoulder. She doesn’t try to talk over the rush of wind, and Yang follows suit; she’s learned to be content with moments of silence, learned — over the past three hundred resets — to gather as much from them as she might in full conversations. She’s also learned that Blake, in particular, never fears leaning into it, that when she speaks, it’s never without point, never the aimless chatter of Yang herself, Ruby, or even Weiss. So when the silence continues — all throughout the drive and up to the moment they dismount in front of the bar — she’s hardly concerned, content to watch from the seat of the bike as Blake removes her helmet and shakes out the dark curls that fall just below her jaw, messy and tangled and falling into her eyes until she runs her fingers through the strands, lips parting and neck bending as she combs it all back into place.
In every reset, there are things that usually change and things that typically stay the same, but the one constant in all three-hundred of them is that Yang always wants Blake with a blinding intensity that verges on dangerous (the urge to jump off the ledge of the tallest buildings, to roll back the throttle on a sharp curve, to look at the sun in the midst of an eclipse). There’s a comfort in that familiarity, and she feels at home in that want now, watching Blake with something that might be akin to awe (reverence, maybe). Blake catches her looking, of course — it’s not something she’s particularly trying to hide and wouldn’t be able to if she were — and one corner of her lips lifts, a crooked and questioning smile.
“Something to say?” she asks.
There’s the honest answer, which is yes. (Yes - and - you’re gorgeous - and - I’ve known you for three hundred lives - and - our love has found its way into our mouths before - and - I want to grow old again - and - I want to grow old with you - and - do you remember me? do you? do you? do you?) But the honest answer holds too much underneath, traps lying in wait, things that will keep her from having drinks with a pretty girl and ignoring everything else. So she smiles instead, slides off the bike and rolls out her shoulders as she stands.
“I bet you’re a whiskey kind of girl.”
(It’s not a guess. It’s never a guess anymore. Yang knows Blake’s a whiskey kind of girl because the night before the 167th attempt, Weiss had brought out her own reserves and told the story of the time she’d forced Blake into a blind taste test of liquors where she proved, once and for all, that her favored brand was truly, unequivocally superior to any of the off-brands Blake claimed tasted just as good. After, Blake had admitted to Yang that she and Weiss had played the same game many times before the one Weiss still remembers, that she could have altered the ending but didn’t, because there was something perfect about remaking a memory that would have otherwise been lost.)
“I bet you’re a tequila kind of girl.”
(This has to be a guess, if the carefully laid out rules of looping — outlined by Weiss Schnee in a holographic presentation on at least twelve occasions — are to be believed. But maybe Blake knows Yang’s a tequila kind of girl because on the night before the 187th attempt, that’s what Yang had used for the body shots she’d taken off of her, licking salt from Blake’s skin.)
“There’s an easy way to find out,” Yang says, nodding towards the door of the bar, and Blake doesn’t waste any further time, heading towards it with long strides that demand to be appreciated. And so Yang does exactly that.
She’s not the only one. Every stare finds Blake as she enters and while this is probably less to do with the sway of her hips than the fact that every person in Remnant knows her name and story, Yang thinks maybe there’s a bit to the hips part as well. She picks up her own pace, just in case, presses a hand to the small of Blake’s back before she can stop herself. It fits there well, and Blake doesn’t slow her pace or look back, ignoring the eyes on her and Yang’s hand, though there’s a hint of a smile on her lips (Yang’s pretty sure she knows which one it can be attributed to).
“Whiskey neat, please. Evernight, if you have it.”
“Two shots of tequila. Whatever brand’s easiest for you to reach.”
Blake makes a face at Yang’s choice, but can’t know it’s the reason Yang does it in the first place. She has her preferences, but teasing Blake trumps all of them. (You’re as bad as Weiss with her whiskey, she’d normally say, but can’t now.)
“Really? About to face fifty million Grimm and you think now’s the time to be picky about which kind of tequila I throw back in less than a second?”
“Better than any other time, wouldn’t you think?”
The bartender doesn’t comment on their selections or banter or anything else, merely places their drinks on the table with a soft ‘on the house’ and drifts further down the bar. Yang resolves to leave every lien in her pockets on the table when they leave.
“Oh, alright, I get it. The end of the world’s the time to be picky. Time to make the most of things.” She winks. “That’s why you’re here with me. Hottest woman on the base, right?”
She’s surprised by Blake’s blush, delighted by the way she leans in, just a little further.
“And how about you, then? You somehow make your way into my training room and then just ask me out for a drink?” She raises a brow, jutting up into her messy bangs. “That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a couple shots of tequila.”
Yang’s grin turns crooked, half of it pulled by the same force that has her nearly falling off her stool as she watches Blake’s lips. “Eh, I dunno. I was kind of just looking for a distraction.”
Blake’s eyes widen and then narrow, but she barely pulls back. “That’s not the compliment you think it is.”
“Who says I meant it to be one?” The grin that breaks out on Yang’s face has an interesting effect on Blake’s expression; it tightens further and then pulls apart completely into something that verges on affection. “It was only supposed to be the truth. Isn’t that what you asked for?”
“Haven’t you ever heard that people never ask for what they truly want?”
“Sure,” Yang returns easily. “People. But not you.”
“And you know me so well?”
Better than anyone, Yang thinks to say. Instead, she shrugs, and goes for something far less direct. Sometimes she tires of the repetition, of getting people up to speed and answering the same questions, but with Blake, she delights in the intricacies, the similarities, the differences of every first conversation. It never seems to grow old or awkward, like a familiar dance that one half of the pairing swears they can’t remember, but pick up the steps easily enough (muscle memory kicking in).
“Well enough to say that you were just looking for a distraction too.”
Blake makes a face. (It’s one of Yang’s favorites; an adorable scrunch of her nose that makes her look her age — younger than you’d think, looking into her eyes.)
“That doesn’t sound like me.”
“No?” Yang tilts her head. “Then how come you came all the way out here without even asking my name?”
Blake opens her mouth, finger raised with a rebuttal, but then she falls back, deflates slightly, creases appearing in her brow as she grapples with this truth.
“I — thought I had. Somehow.”
Yang hums, and takes a sip of her drink, watching the curious play of emotions that skate across Blake’s face until she remembers to shut them down.
“It’s Yang, by the way,” she says, before Blake can ask.
“Well, Yang,” Blake drawls, and lifts her glass, rim steady enough to not spill a drop. “Here’s to distractions.”
It’s not a surprise that they end up in one of the dingy upstairs bedrooms after that.
Because ending up here — Yang’s hands under Blake’s shirt, Blake’s fingers tangled in her hair — never takes much (not time, alcohol, or effort), and it’d never been a question to Yang (or Blake, she’s guessing) that this particular outing was destined to follow the same basic chain of events. If there’s a desperation to it — to the way Yang presses Blake to the door as soon as they lock it — neither mentions it, though neither mentions much of anything at all. It’s a comfort in constants, Yang thinks, and Blake is her main one (the only one that matters).
Except that there’s a slight difference — a small thing, really — one she only notices as she takes Blake’s bottom lip between her own and nips, teeth scraping at the light ridges. She knows every line of Blake, even the small ones, even the tiny scar that clips into her upper lip, so small that she discovered it by touch rather than sight, some hundred lives ago. But today there’s something off, a hint of something different, something missing, something…
“Why do you taste different?” Yang murmurs.
“What?” Blake gasps as Yang’s lips move away from her own, slide down to kiss along her jaw and hit the spot on the neck that always makes her squirm (the patch of skin behind her ear, further back than anyone might expect).
“The vanilla. Must come later in the day. It’s earlier than usual.”
Stupid, really. Stupid to get lost in it just as she’d planned, enough to forget everything and the need to be careful. Blake doesn’t know and that’s why this has worked so well, why they were both allowed to neglect duty and sense and make their way here, where they could pretend everything was different. But now Blake jerks away, now her body is tense, now Yang is left with explanations she should have given before.
“What are you — who are you?”
Yang licks her lips. (There’s still the slightest trace of the taste that’s become so familiar.) “I already told you,” she says, calmly.
“No. You didn’t.”
Blake’s always been clever. Always caught on before Yang’s been able to finish her explanation in full. That’s always been a relief, but now, when she longs for ignorance for the both of them, it’s an obstacle, one that breaks her intentions in two. The disappointment that rushes through her isn’t logical and it isn’t fair, but Yang — only just pulled back from the brink — feels it anyways.
“I know I shouldn’t be here,” she says lowly. “I know I should have gone about it like I always do. You were better at it when it was you — Weiss always says so and it’s obviously true — because you’ve told me how hard it was. You’ve told me how you got sick of it and how you wanted to give up, but you didn’t and I — ” The breath she draws in feels shaky, far too insatiable to do much good. “Gods, you must be a thousand times stronger than me because I couldn’t go another minute without — I needed something new. I needed you. Fuck, Blake. I’m so sorry. But I just needed you.”
“Oh,” Blake breathes, and her fingers slide up Yang’s neck, curl around her jaw, cup her cheek.
“I just — ” Her eyes burn and her heart aches and Blake looking at her like this — like she understands — is about as much as she can take. “I’m so tired, Blake.”
“Oh, Yang,” she murmurs, soft and full of regret, but none of the judgement Yang might deserve. “You’re repeating.”
She’s lived so many days, seen so many deaths, watched so many cracks appear (ill-prepared clay after firing); Yang had thought she’d cried herself out, had thought she had nothing left to give, but she’d been wrong. (She always seems to be wrong. Every day she’s wrong. And then dead.) When the tears fall now, shaken loose by her nod, they’re silent, and Blake catches most of them — her other hand coming up to frame Yang’s face — before Yang can taste the salt.
“How many days?” she asks, maybe as gentle as Yang’s ever seen her, after all the first days and last days they’ve spent together.
“Three hundred,” Yang’s voice cracks somewhere in the middle, and Blake knows.
“You have people helping you.”
“People you care about.”
“People you — ” (The hesitation is slight, but it’s there.) “ — love.”
Blake knows. She knows for sure. She must see it in the pooling tears reddening Yang’s eyes. Must hear it in the break of her voice. Must feel it in the desperation with which Yang presses her cheek into Blake’s touch, as though the more skin she can feel, the more sanity she’ll soak up.
“Me,” she says.
“You,” Yang agrees, as simple as that.
“You love me.”
“Desperately.” The word is an exhale, expelled like it’s her last.
“And I — I don’t know you at all.”
“No.” She’s shaking her head, slowly at first, before Blake finishes her thought, and then faster, a little frantic. “No! You do. You know me. Blake, you know me. We’re all there is. When everything’s gone, when everything’s fading, you’re — “ Her fingers press into Blake’s hips, too tight to be an embrace. “Sometimes you’re all I know. So you have to know me. You have to or I’ll — ”
Blake kisses her, then.
It doesn’t occur to Yang that it might be borne from pity, that it might be the way Blake has chosen to shut her up. It doesn’t occur to Yang that the kiss is anything other than what it is; Blake knowing her, seeing her, and loving her, right from the start. Some memories are deeper, Yang thinks. Some memories are so deep, they can’t be brought forth to the surface at all. But every time Yang resets, every time she sees Blake for the first time again — her short hair dropping into her face, her gold eyes narrowed in concentration, her black vest tight against her dark skin — every time, a new string forms between them, pulled from the fabric of the universe and tied tight. Some are barely there and some are thick and knotted and strong. But all three hundred of them tie her to Blake, and Yang knows, she knows that Blake feels every one of them right now, when Yang pulls her close and presses their hips together, when she slides her lips across Blake’s, when she opens herself (mouth, heart, whatever she has left to give) completely.
There’s so much to be said in the silence, and Blake uses her hands (and mouth — though not with words) to fill it. Yang hadn’t bothered with armor that morning, and so Blake has far less to remove than normal; she pulls Yang’s tank off with a practiced motion, doesn’t fumble with the tricky snap of her shorts, and pushes her toward the bed (not gentle, not hesitant, exactly the way Yang likes it) until Yang falls back, legs spread in anticipation. Maybe she should be used to this by now, like she’s used to everything else, but she’s not; Blake is a particular type of beautiful like this — eyes glinting with something predatory, too close to those of a hunter to not be considered some kind of dangerous — and when she drops onto her knees at the foot of the bed, Yang’s groan holds half a gasp in it. She looks up as she removes Yang’s underwear, grasping the band and pulling down without a single hitch in the movement, without breaking eye contact (not even a blink). This doesn’t change as she reaches back up to swipe two fingers between Yang’s legs, slowly enough to come away with them coated in the wetness that’s been building since Blake’s hand had drifted a bit too low while on the back of Yang’s bike, since she’d taken off her helmet and raked a hand through her short curls.
Even then, it’d already been nearly too much, in the way Blake always is. And now, again — taking her fingers into her mouth and licking them clean, on her knees but more in control than anyone’s ever been — Blake pushes on the walls of Yang’s chest, expanding the limit on the emotions she can possibly contain. She reaches out, intending to sink her fingers into Blake’s hair, to tighten her grasp and pull Blake’s face closer, until the feelings give way to other, more familiar options. But Blake leans back, dodges the touch, and shakes her head.
“No,” she says quietly. “Hands on the bed.”
“Blake — ”
Her palms settle on Yang’s thighs, pushing against the inside of them until Yang’s legs spread further.
“I know what you need. Hands on the bed.” Blake blinks for what feels like the first time in five minutes and Yang lets out the breath she’d been holding in. “Let go. I’ll take care of you.”
One hand after the other, she obeys, fingers curling around the edge of the mattress, and Blake nudges her further apart, until her thighs overlap the whitening knuckles of each. Blake presses down on her knees, traps Yang’s hands in place with her own flesh, and Yang swallows hard. Instinct fights against it, but then Blake leans in — no trace of hesitation — and licks up along Yang’s cunt, and instinct shifts away from gaining control and towards getting more.
“Oh, fuck, Blake,” she breathes.
She could pull out of the pin if she wanted too; her metal arm, especially, is stronger than even the full weight of Blake’s body pressed atop Yang’s knees, and she’s not using that, not even close. Her leverage is all wrong for that particular purpose, but then, that’s hardly her intent at all. As she grows more involved in the task of making Yang absolutely lose her mind — sucking Yang’s clit between her lips and flicking her tongue against it — the weight lessens further, hands eventually resting along the skin, rather than pushing. Certainly, if Yang wanted to turn the tables, now would be the time; her hands itch with the desire to grab, to hold, to find grip on something (Blake’s hair, her shoulder, her neck) and steer.
“Don’t,” Blake says, pulling back enough to sound firm, and Yang whines at the loss of her mouth rather than the apparent reading of her mind (the latter she’s come to expect, in the smallest of ways, the former, she never will). “Listen to me, and I’ll make you come.”
She nips at the inside of Yang’s thigh when Yang gives no indication of agreement, and then simply waits until Yang finally nods, once and then — after a pause — again, repeatedly. This proves to be enough for Blake to resume her ministrations, and Yang’s fingers curl into the sheets to keep herself from falling into old habits that will cause the sensations to stop once again. Instead, she focuses on Blake’s lips, her hands, the dark (dark) gold of her eyes when she looks up and finds Yang watching. Her hips fall into an easy roll, matching the movement of Blake’s tongue, pressing to all the right places. It’d be hypnotic if it weren’t so pleasurable, far too hot to be placating in the traditional sense. But she does fall into it; Blake slides around a particular spot and Yang forgets to breathe, sees spots in her vision, cants her hips so hard she falls back, hands sliding away but only so she can catch herself on her elbows.
“Good.” It’s barely a murmur, but Yang catches the soft praise and feels warm, hot, on fire. She can feel the build within her, the pressure rising, and instead of pushing back the tide, she sinks into it, Blake’s name on her lips, blurring into the groans and pleads that she barely recognizes as coming from herself. There’s no particular rush to Blake’s movements, even then, just the gradual, perfect, steadiness that works best for Yang, each circle of her tongue adding to it in exponents rather than multiples. There’s an art to it, one that Blake’s mastered, and Yang knows this, knows it more than she ever has.
“You’ve done this before,” she rasps, because Blake has, because she remembers, because there’s little in the universe that could erase this exact sensation from her mind: Blake’s tongue tracing along her clit and pushing her further, further, higher, higher, to the brink, to the edge, to anywhere Blake wants to take her. It doesn’t matter that Blake will take the words in the general sense rather than the specific; Yang knows, and Blake knows enough, and these are the things that matter. Especially when Blake, grasping the exact moment when Yang hangs on the precipice and knowing exactly what she needs to fall off, slides three fingers into Yang’s cunt.
Let go let go let go, Blake might be whispering it or maybe Yang is — it’s a blur of guttural sounds and breathless moans and the creak of the bed frame — but either way, she listens. Yang’s back arches, her world falls apart, she lets go, and Blake is there — fingers thrusting, curling, coaxing — pushing her off the ledge and catching her in one. She’s blissful, she’s blank; if this is a kind of death, she’ll die a million times more.
Afterwards, Yang’s head throbs.
It’s still bearable, but only just, a sharp, stabbing pain into the base of her brain. During the worst of it, even the fading daylight that escapes through the cracks in the dingy curtains is too much, and Yang buries her face into the crook of Blake’s neck. Tries not to cry again, whether from relief or otherwise. They’re hours past Blake’s deadline, but neither mentions it. Blake runs her hands through Yang’s curls, scrapes at the scalp and twists strands of gold around her fingers, winding and unwinding in a repetitive, slow motion. It’s about as still as Yang’s ever seen her, though it’s not the same metric for her as it is for others; the top of her foot rubs up and down Yang’s calf, she shifts her hips often, and her free hand runs along Yang’s bare right arm, nails lightly tracing the lines of the muscles in her bicep, down to her elbow, and the metal underneath. (She does not change her touch as flesh turns to steel, doesn’t seem startled at the transition; it’s because you’ve touched me like this over and over and over, Yang wants to point out again, but doesn’t.) Yang understands why; it’s difficult to stay still, after so many lives spent dodging threats, old and new.
“Do you really believe that?” Blake asks softly, and Yang waits for her to clarify, warm from her own breath hitting against Blake’s throat. “That I know you from your repeats? Even though I… don’t?”
“Who says you don’t?”
Blake laughs, the soft one that feels more like a puff of air than anything. “I do.”
“Oh, like you’d know.” Another laugh, this time more of a giggle, and Yang smiles against her skin. “Okay, okay. Yeah, I really believe it. But not like — it’s not like I think you’re lying and you’ve remembered looping just like I have. It’s like — didn’t you ever feel like you left an imprint on someone? Maybe… Weiss. Didn’t you ever feel like explaining the same stuff to her again and again got easier each time? And not because you just got better at it, that’s not what I mean. I mean, like, she got better at it too. Somehow. Like every time you had a conversation, you left a tiny indent, and each time pressed it a little further in, until eventually — even if she wasn’t conscious of it — you left the ghost of a muscle memory, right on her brain.”
To her credit, Blake thinks about this for a considerable length of time, running over her own loops with the precision Yang’s come to expect from her way of thinking. “No. You don’t realize how lucky you’ve had it, finding Weiss after she’s already gone through this experience with me. She was absolutely horrible to convince, even with irrefutable proof. For a woman who can summon dead monsters and shoot fire out of thin air, she’s remarkably against the notion of anything she sees as magic.”
“Idiot,” Yang scoffs fondly.
“Have you felt that way with Weiss? Or Ruby, even?”
This, Yang takes the same time to consider, but she doesn’t particularly need it, she knows the answer as soon as Blake asks. “Not exactly. It’s not the same as it is with you.”
“But… not for me.”
“Are you sure?”
Yang pulls back enough to brush her lips against the hollow of Blake’s throat, to run a hand along her side and push against the sensitive notch in her hip; she jerks, and holds back a moan, but takes a deep breath rather than responding the way Yang knows she’d like to.
“I’m — I don’t remember you, Yang.” She works to sound soft, pushes against any rising want. “I wish I did. I know I always wanted that for me. I always desperately wanted to not be so alone.”
“See, you say that, but let’s look at this logically.” She lifts her head, squints into the light to make sure she can see the gold of Blake’s eyes, which never failed to tell the truths that even Blake herself couldn’t yet grasp. “You’re telling me you’d just get up and leave the morning before the battle that’s meant to end the war? You’d just go off with any random stranger and get drinks and then take her upstairs to fuck on questionably clean sheets?”
“If she looked like you,” Blake murmurs, and Yang, flattered but impatient, rolls her eyes.
“Come on, Blake. Really.”
The lines that appear in Blake’s forehead are deep and straight; Yang follows the shape of them and then drops her gaze to trace other lines, the curve of Blake’s jaw, the faint scar along it, the press of her lips against each other. It’s natural that her fingers come up to do the same, thumb dipping into the space at the corner of her mouth. Blake sighs and absentmindedly kisses the side of the digit, and then stops, shoulders tensing mid-action.
“I — I don’t know. I don’t know you. I can’t remember a single detail. I don’t even know your last name. If you asked me your favorite color or your semblance or how old you were or where you grew up, I wouldn’t know any of those things. I wouldn’t have a clue.”
“But?” Yang asks, barely a whisper, and Blake responds in kind.
“But I — ” Her throat bobs with the force of her swallow. “No, I wouldn’t go off with anyone like that. I don’t know why I went with you. You were standing there and you seemed so sure, like you belonged there, like you were meant to be there and I just — ” She shakes her head, dislodges Yang’s finger, but doesn’t object when it slides down to curl around her jaw instead. “You looked beautiful. You looked lost. You looked like you were for me. I wanted to go with you and so I did.”
Yang makes a sound somewhere low in her chest. Her headache is gone. Her earlier panic long past. She’s settled again, found something warm, deep within herself, a molten core than Blake always seems to breathe life into, blowing onto a fire with her own exhale, not the gas it needs, exactly, but pulling along the ones it does.
“But I don’t — there isn’t any way I could possibly — ”
She kisses her, just as Blake had done earlier, a mercy for a spiraling brain, yes, but something else as well; a reminder or a promise or perhaps both. Blake surges upwards into it without question, seeking relief and it’s an answer in itself, one she’s not able to voice (or even accept). Yang — peeling away the clothing Blake has yet to remove, finding the spots on Blake’s body she’s memorized with more reverence than anything she’s witnessed in any of her loops — will take it.
With Blake, she’ll take anything the woman can give and it will be enough.
Chapter 6: when I dream of dying
The first time Yang sees the castle, she nearly weeps.
The emotions at play aren’t easy to define, but she’s been tortured with the idea of this place, the vision of it, for over three hundred resets by now and so some of it must be relief. It takes them another thirty attempts to find the right approach; Grimm cover the grounds around it, walls of Mimics that don’t move or blink or get distracted, and her visions had always urged walking right up the central stairs, unhindered. It’s a trap, because of course it’s a trap, but it’s hard to say which part of it is. It’s hard not to rush in, knowing an end to it all is within reach, but Yang finds a last reserve of patience in the hundreds of times she’s watched the people she loves die.
But after thirty attempts, they find the tunnel, a caved in entrance that Ruby trips over rather than finding with purpose, but it works just the same. There’s no slime or mold or water, but the walls are old, and stretch underground for longer than any of them can see, staring into the darkness, still a half mile out from the castle itself.
“What’s a castle without a secret passage?” Yang asks, too tired to crack a grin, to even lift her voice in an approximation of humor. “Who votes taking a break from throwing ourselves directly on the spikes of our enemies so we can try out getting crushed to death by an unstable tunnel?”
“Aren’t you cheery this time around?” Weiss grumbles, and Yang has plenty of things to say to that, but Blake stops all of them by pressing a hand to the back of her shoulder.
“It seems like we’ve tried most everything else,” she says simply. “I’ll lead; keep close and try not to use any lights.”
It’s easier said than done, of course. The stone floor has crumbled in places, and Yang trips often, one hand pressed to Blake’s hip, the other trailing against the wall; behind her, Weiss keeps an iron tight hold on the back of her jacket, grip strong enough to jerk Yang back whenever she stops to help Ruby, which is often. After fifteen minutes, it’s pitch black, after another twenty, it’s more of the same, and Yang picks up the sound of every displaced rock, every scuff of one of their boots on the ground. It’d be boring if they weren’t most passing underneath a horde of Grimm; terror adds a fun new element to the adventure: stressful monotony. Yang finds she dislikes it more than almost anything else she’s experienced in her resets (at least on the non-death side of the spectrum), and has a hard time not shouting in excitement when it ends with a glimpse of the faintest light, flickering in the distance.
They move towards it without words, gather around the rickety ladder and agree on the order and means of entrance without a single sound. They’ve been together for a day and a half, but there’s always been an element of instinct to the four of them, remnants of a shared history that only Yang remembers, and it works better than it ever has now, one after the other rolling out of the passway and flattening themselves to the nearest walls in preparation for… nothing.
The room is plain and empty, crumbled shelving and empty barrels identifying it as a sort of storage room, but one that clearly hadn’t seen use for longer than any one person’s memory could stretch back. And as Blake nudges the door open, out into a hallway featuring the same levels of neglect, there’s still nothing. The walls are stone and crystal fused together, the once-rich decorations have turned to dust, and the windows have mostly fallen out, and discomfort creeps along Yang’s spine. She’s missing something in the stillness, but can’t think of what.
For a few moments, no one moves. Of all the things they’d expected, an empty castle hadn’t been it, and it’s hard to move (harder to speak) under the press of unexpected uncertainty.
“Blake?” Weiss whispers. “We didn’t — ”
“I know.” Every muscle in Blake’s body has tensed, and when she finally takes a step forward into the middle of the hallway, she stops again almost immediately, ears twitching. “We should keep moving.”
“The throne room?” Yang’s never heard Ruby’s voice pitch so low. “Should we — ?”
“Where else?” Weiss asks, rhetorical. “There isn’t — they’ve never seen anything else.”
Yang stays silent, stays still. She’s missing something. The hallway glows with the red light from outside, leaving shadows that feel out of proportion and alive, though they never move when they shoulder. And there’s something — a curve to the window frame, the hint of colored glass that’s broken away, a statue worn down to its base — something that feels out of place.
“I’ve been here before,” she mumbles, before the realization fully hits her, and Blake shoots her a strange look.
“In around a hundred visions, most likely.”
But that’s not it.
(Shades of purple, expertly laid stone, and tapestries of the richest silk, and statues of marble, each one carved into the likeness of a Grimm, the claws and teeth and limbs carefully rendered. A woman — blonde, beautiful, ancient — steps away to greet one with a strangely soft caress.)
She’s been here before, but not now. Not when it looked like this.
“No, I’ve — ” She swallows and rotates in place, taking in the silence, the stillness, and everything that’s wrong. “You never saw her? She never showed you?”
Blake’s eyes dart around, checking each corner, every possible entrance, but nothing changes and so she steps closer, focuses on Yang for a long three seconds, each beat stretching out longer than it should.
“Yang, what’s going on?”
She doesn’t know, other than it’s gone wrong, other than she’s missed something, other than they need to get out of here, now, as fast as they possibly can. The feelings build on top of each other and maybe this is it, the moment Yang finally cracks, whispers of warning coming from nowhere and filling her mind with sensations she can’t understand.
(Why else would she see the woman now? Why else would she think of her? There are some things you will never be able to change, she says, but wishes otherwise. Yang knows, then, the woman wishes otherwise.)
“We need to get to the throne room.” It’s Weiss, urgent and distant, but Blake’s touch is what pulls her out of it, gentle and close.
“Hold on a little longer,” she says, quiet enough that there’s no chance of being overheard, even in the dead silence. “We’re almost there.”
And they are. The throne room appears before them after another couple minutes of walking through the deserted halls, without interruption, without a single sound echoing through the castle or from the grounds. The hall dead ends into the tall, ornate doors, intricate carvings worn away by time, but leaving traces of the artistry involved in their making. The room beyond is their only possible destination, but it’s not enough. There’s something wrong and it’s not enough.
(She isn’t here.)
Weiss pushes open the doors, and they file in, careful in their movements. There’s no need; they’re met by an empty room. No furniture lines the walls or fills the space, nothing outside of a throne of purple shards and bone right at the center of it, but just like everything else, it’s empty. The windows stretch along each wall — starting at the floor and rising to the tall ceiling, repeating geometric shapes still mostly intact — filling the room with a cold, red light. Shards of crystal pierce through the floor, splitting the stone and leaving hairline fractures, creeping towards the center of the room. The potential instability of it all represents the greatest danger, and the group lets out a collective sigh (relief and disappointment mixed in one); the tip of Ruby’s scythe drops into the stone beneath her, Weiss’s mouth opens, and Blake’s shoulders drop.
And Yang takes a single step forward.
Which is exactly when thick ropes of black tar shoot out from the cracks in the stone, and take hold.
It happens too quickly to process. The room is empty and then it’s full, Grimm breaking through the ceiling, bursting through the floor, tearing through the glass windows that’d held through centuries, and then there’s the liquid, the pools of the Land of Darkness, seeping through every gap in the foundation. It covers the floor, it braids itself into twine, it wraps around Yang’s wrists, her ankles, her neck, her waist. It pulls and pulls and she’s on the floor, there’s only blackness… until there’s red, and Ruby’s blade is cutting through the muck, Weiss’s dust is freezing it in place, Blake’s hands are around her waist and tugging her away, leaving shadows in her wake.
“They want — ”
“You,” Weiss finishes grimly. “You know what that means.”
She does, but no one has time to act on it; the small space they’d carved away caves in quickly; Mimics are pouring in and one grabs at Blake in the next half second. Yang dives under the strike, sides across the ice, and lands in the black liquid. It covers her hands, reaches to the middle of her forearm and then higher, creeping upwards, banding around her elbows, up to her shoulders. She yanks free with a burst of recoil from her gauntlets, blasting herself upwards, flipping back into the middle of the room, landing in the center of the wide throne, the study bone still safe ground. Launching charges into the Grimm around her, she clears away just enough space to see Ruby in mid-semblance, streaking towards the door; Blake hanging off the side of a window frame, blood seeping out of cuts torn into the skin by the glass; and Weiss burning away as much as it as she can manage while her Summons — a giant, glimmering Mimic — tears into the Grimm around her. There’s not a lot of space and not a lot of time, but Yang goes for it anyways, firing backwards and propelling herself towards the door, with precisely the perfect timing for the Alpha — bursting through the crumbling stone floor — to leap up, grasp her around the face, and slam her back into the ground.
The pain traverses her spine, shakes her aura, fuels both the fire always burning at her core and the headache pounding against her skull. When she lands, the force of the impact of her back against the stone cracks the ground further, and more liquid pours forth. She sinks deeper into the filth; it curls around her neck, touches at the side of her jaw, and incapacitates her further, even as the Alpha presses its claw into her chest, pinning her in place. There are screams in the background and bright lights flashing against her vision, and so it’s hard to focus, to make sense of the position she finds herself in. But as the Alpha leans over her, as it’s maw opens and a new, horrible appendage rolls out — dark and red and dripping, snaking towards Yang, sliding up against her cheek and slithering towards her ear — instinct kicks in and her body ignites.
Her semblance rolls through her, fire licks at her fingers, back, hair, and — novelly — the back of her throat. The flames spill out when her lips part and catch on the Alpha’s face, burning through its aura, sending it rearing backwards, a loud growl shaking the whole of the room. The pool beneath her evaporates, burned away like everything else, and she kicks to her feet, explosive bullets flying around her as she shoots without restraint, punches into every form around her. And then she tries to lift a gauntlet to her own temple, but finds it batted away, wrist once again wrapped in sticky black.
“Blake!” Her voice is hoarse from the fear, from the strain, from the exhaustion, but she yells as loud as she’s able, and knows Blake will understand. She won’t survive this. But she needs to make sure she’ll wake up the next day. “Blake, now!”
All that talk of fate, and maybe here it is now, perfectly on display; the bodies of the Grimm part, briefly, just enough for Yang to see her. Blake’s at the door, face set, weapon folded into a gun and raised, the barrel of it pointing straight at Yang’s forehead. Chaos all around, and Yang only sees Blake, ready to put a bullet through her head.
Better that it come from you, she wants to say, but only smiles. She lets her aura fizzle out.
Blake closes her eyes. And she fires.
“Why did you do it?”
It’s clear where she is, now that she’s seen the location in the present. The stone walls have fused with crystal, the grounds around it have turned black, the tapestries have been torn down, but the statues remain as they were, though made of a more sinister material, the bare bones of the place haven’t been manipulated much, only added to. It’s an alternative version rather than a rebuild, seen through a mirror that’s warped and cracked.
“Have I not told you?” She smiles, not cold but unfeeling. “For the love of a man who was taken from me, time and time again.”
Yang shakes her head. “That’s not what I meant. Not why you went back.”
“But that’s where it starts, child.” There are tendrils of black lines creeping up her hands, now. Yang hadn’t seen them before now, but she can’t say if they’d been there or not. “I went back, time and time again, and my semblance evolved. I went further. Further. Farther than I should have. I gained years. I was younger than him the first time we met, but then older: by a year, by two, by ten. But he always died. I returned to the past and made it my present. And then one day I traveled back and time snapped.”
She snaps her fingers in time with her final word and Yang nearly jumps. (Had the woman’s eyes always been a dark violet?)
“You can’t know what it feels like, so I will not waste time with descriptions. Your few hundred deaths mean little compared to the sensation of being removed from time itself, experiencing a million years in a second, experiencing nothing in the next millennium. The word around me spun backwards — sometimes slowly, sometimes not — and I was removed from it. Entirely. Time did not touch me. I did not age. And by the time I emerged, there was no one left. I walked the lands of Remnant and I was alone. The beginning of the world, or so I like to think.”
“I — ” There’s a lump in her throat, ash or something like it. “I don’t understand.”
“You won’t. I told you, you wouldn’t. But perhaps you can understand this.” She runs a hand along the crystal wall, presses her dark nails there and drags, the sound making Yang wince. “Even then, even there, I thought to myself, finally, finally I could change his fate. I had time to plan, to plot; all I needed to do was survive.”
“How could you — ”
The woman tsks, no longer interested in being interrupted. The necklace around her neck, once gold, has turned to black, ropes that tighten and flatten and spread.
“Even at the beginning of the world, there were Grimm. Curious creatures, ones that our scientists had studied with intensity. They were not an uncontrolled threat, not then, but they were malicious without fail. And, most curiously of all, they could not die without violence. Immortality, or as close to it as any creature might come. I had no instruments or fellows in research, but I found means of studying them nevertheless. Here was an answer to both quandaries I faced; immortality — for me and the one I loved — would do quite nicely. There’d always been tales of a forbidden place at the center of the land I grew up in, of a dark pool of bubbling liquid that was said to be their origin. I found it easily and — lacking any alternatives — I drank deep.”
Yang can’t help her expression, her outward disgust. The woman notices and the red of her eyes, the pitch-black of the sclera, narrows. Dark lines creep upwards from her neck, curling around her jaw.
“Do you judge me, child? Do you call me monster?” Her step forward shakes the glass. “You would not be alone, then. Because do you know what happened, eons later? Hidden away for more time than the minds of mortals can process, I waited, I studied, and on the day my beloved and I were meant to meet, I went to him. His reaction was not different from your own. His sword came out before my explanation was finished.” Her rage intensifies the Grimm hold on her features; the black tar pulses, the red gleams brighter. “Such a heroic man. A slayer of Grimm. This was the vow he’d taken. Was I wrong to think he’d place the vow he made to me above it? Am I a monster for defending myself, from the betrayal of the one I’d given everything for?”
There’s only one response to these questions, at least for Yang.
“No,” she whispers, and the woman calms, the walls of the building still.
“No,” the woman repeats. “And so he died. For the last time. At my hand. And after?” She smiles, thin lips curling in a way they shouldn’t. “Oh, child, there was nothing left to do but watch the world burn.”
Yang’s calm, up until a point.
When she wakes, she’s thinking of futility and pain and loss and fate. Heavy concepts at the best of times, but unbearable now, and so Yang drops them all, holding instead to the look on Blake’s face right before the end. She keeps this with her as she gives Ruby the typical runthrough, makes her way to the base and into the training building, and stares into the face of the woman she loves who’s forgotten everything about her, all over again. She’s perfectly calm through all that and more, until she’s in the same planning room she’s seen nearly three hundred times and can’t do again, not one time more.
“They knew we were coming,” she says, quietly at first. “We always said they knew we were coming, but they knew. They made us think the trap was everything else: the effort to get there, the millions of Grimm outside, but they were just waiting. They were just wasting time. Because they knew we were coming. They knew we’d end up in that throne room. They knew we’d find it empty and then they tried to suck my fucking brains out of my fucking skull because they knew we were fucking coming.”
She remembers the satisfaction of breaking through the table and slams her fist on it again. And then again. And then again. She hits the table until she’s cracked it clean through, until it sinks in the middle and hits the ground, and she only stops hitting it then because she’d have to get on her hands and knees to manage it.
“The Omega — ” Weiss begins, her words a whisper, her face drained of any trace of color.
“Wasn’t there. Yeah. Or, you know what? Doesn’t fucking exist. How fucking stupid could we have been?” There’s nothing left to hit in front of her and so Yang spins around, slams her fist into the wall. “What a great idea, right? That there was some grand off-switch! One last Grimm we had to kill and then we’d be heroes! Then we’d save the fucking day! All we had to do was abandon every single damn person around us! And keep pushing! All I had to do was die hundreds of times! Watch all of you forget me over and over! Die in front of me over and over! No loss there! Because at the end of it all there’d be a big fucking prize that would make it all worth it, right? But they knew the whole time and she wasn’t. Fucking. There!”
There’s a sizable dent in the wall by the time she’s finished, metal warped into the shape of her knuckles, and the silence left behind weighs down the air, oppressive in its stillness. When Blake speaks into it, she sounds muted, cushioned by the thickness of it.
“Yang, what do you mean she?”
She turns into the question and finds Blake staring, though the other two in the room have averted their eyes. It takes her a moment to rollback her words, to understand what Blake’s asking, and even then she finds she doesn’t have an answer for the connection she’d made, sometime long ago, a string tied — quite unconsciously — between the woman in her dreams and the being of Grimm they’ve been hunting (pointlessly) all this time. She’d been another trick, of course, and Yang doesn’t know why this makes her feel so deeply sad.
“It doesn’t matter,” she mumbles. “I’m done looking for it. There’s no Omega. There’s no big bag guy to finish off. No easy out. There’s only thousands and thousands of Grimm killing us, and I’ve had enough of letting people die. I tried it your way and it was bullshit. So now I’m going to save people. As many people as I can.” She swallows and bites back the words she wants to let loose as she holds Blake’s gaze. (Starting with you, she’d like to say. Always starting with you.)
“This can’t be — ” Weiss steps forward and then back, hands flexing at her side. “Maybe if we try —”
“No.” She’s lost her rage and so the word is soft, accepting rather than angry. “We’ve tried it all. And it didn’t work. So now we do what you both did at Haven; we keep people alive and kill as many Grimm as possible. And when all of this is over, we hope that we’ve done enough.” Her hands dangle uselessly at her side and her stare drops in the same direction. “You can either fight with me on those terms, or you can fuck off. Simple as that.”
As far as first takes go, it’s one of her most successful. The three remaining votes come in easily, and history shifts underneath her once again.
That night, she’s tired of pretense, tired of rules, and tired in general. Her touch is light when she knocks on Blake’s door, knuckles barely brushing against the wood, but not uncertain. Blake greets her like she’s expecting her, like she knows Yang needs something familiar, and her hand takes Yang’s to pull her into the room without need for the exchange of a single word.
“How’d you know?” Yang whispers into the dark — an hour later — curled up against Blake’s side, clutching the fabric of her shirt and breathing in deep. She doesn’t need to elaborate and Blake’s pause makes space for contemplation rather than clarification.
“I don’t know.” Her fingers dance down Yang’s jaw and over her lips. “But you’d rip through the whole of the universe just to make sure I made it out of this, wouldn’t you?”
Yang’s answer is easy, but more than that, it’s familiar. An echo of something that Yang shouldn’t find common ground in, but does, because there are certain universal truths and love is one of them.
On their first try, they clear such a large swath in the ranks of Grimm that Yang feels something close to invincible. No specific planning, no detailed steps — they’ve left these things behind and focused on general movesets and strategy, and it works. In all the loops before, every part of their push had been clinical, and so even Yang is taken aback by how beautifully they come together as a team when let loose and allowed to fight.
They save Mateo then, and every day after. They save Velvet and Flynt and Ivori and hundreds more. But the Grimm keep coming. Eventually, no matter how well they do, no matter how many Grimm they kill, no matter how many people they save, Yang dies.
She dies, and the visions are gone, but the headaches get worse. It’s only a matter of time and she resolves to make the most of it. In every way she can:
After her 349th life, she convinces Weiss to start teaching her how to use Myrtenaster, which goes just about as well as anyone might expect (Ruby and Blake laughing so hard in the background that they have to lean on each other for support.) Fifteen lives later, Weiss gets hit hard enough that she drops the weapon and Yang picks it up, twirls it around, and launches it through the Grimm that’d knocked it out of Weiss’s hands in the first place. (“That’s not how I taught you to use it,” Weiss snips, but squeezes Yang’s shoulder before she dives back in.)
On the 375th reset, she makes dinner with the help of the local pub she and Blake had found refuge in, sixty-five lifetimes ago. She spreads candles across the roof, lies out a rough blanket, and trades away her leather jacket for a bottle of wine. Blake teases her for celebrating anniversaries that only one half of the party is privy to; Yang spends the rest of the night with the mindset that if Blake comes enough times, maybe she’ll remember.
During her 393rd loop, Ruby makes an offhand comment about the color of Penny’s hair (compares it — poorly — to a “beautiful bucket of carrots”) and Yang drags her into Weiss and Blake’s suite, adds some of Weiss’s expensive hair product to her too-long locks, sticks a flower in her hand, and directly shoves her into the girl she’s crush on — on and off — for the past ten years.
For her 417th Monday, she tries (and fails) to learn how to make a soufflé; on the 431st, she beats Coco in a dance off; and on the 444th, Mateo’s battalion teaches her the full lyrics to a song entitled ‘General Iron’s Wood’ which makes Yang wish — more than anything — that she could forget her past lives on command.
She’s a time bomb, ticking down and rewinding before zero, resetting, but never all the way.
Any day now, she thinks, and she’s right.
When she wakes — on her 466th Monday, her 466th repeat, her 466th life — she knows.
It’s a different sort of pain, one that rips her from sleep a little too soon — a second earlier than she’s meant to wake — Ruby still in the process of opening her mouth to start her typical introduction. Today, Yang’s scream cuts her off before she can form the first syllable, and everything else after that falls under a haze of that pain, even when she stills her vocal chords, clamps her teeth tight together, and wills herself to stay awake. She’s felt horrible things: the tear of a blade through her arm, the sharp knives of dozens of claws digging into her back, the hundreds and hundreds of times she’s died now (her spine cracking against rock, the bone-point of a tentacle blowing a hole through her chest, burning alive in a fire not coming from within), but this is worse. This is much, much worse. Her skull bears the brunt of the assault — a pear of anguish, but inside her mind, expanding with tortuous slowness, pressing against the bone and forcing it apart — but the sensation radiates outwards, each nerve infected. Her body rallies against it, begs for relief, tries to shut down, but Yang has spent her entire life using pain and she’ll use it now too.
“Ruby,” she rasps. It’s hard to see, just as hard to speak, and almost impossible to stand, but she manages all three. “Base. Now. Fast.”
If Ruby asks for an explanation, Yang doesn’t hear it. Her heartbeat adds to the pressure that’s already too much, pounding against her head in a consistent, steady beat. A sledgehammer against the same spot, over and over and over, heavy and persistent, and Yang knows she won’t last. There are hands at her side, a body under her arm, wind passing across her cheeks; she’s moving, she’s being helped, and there’s a logical explanation for it all, but she only feels the pain, can only focus on one thing that that’s feeding the fire that’s pushing back unconsciousness. (She can’t sleep, she can’t go, she can’t dream. There’s a good reason for her to avoid all these things, but Yang can’t remember it, and so she trusts herself instead and carries on.)
She’s lived the same two days for over a year now, but the hike to the base feels longer, outlasts the whole of it. There are no distractions from the pain because it’s everywhere, no places she can escape in her mind, because that’s where the pain starts. But she thinks of Blake, feeling something like this on the battlefield; thinks of Weiss, watching her fall; thinks of Ruby doing the same now without the slightest understanding of the mechanics behind it all.
(People always said the other sort of pain was worse — death or loss or betrayal — the pain of a weak and fragile heart, and Yang had always agreed. Not any more. Not after today.)
The sand turns to dirt turns to flames. She looks out and only sees the haze of red, and it takes her a moment to realize the fire licking around her skin is real, her semblance ignited and constantly fed, doing it’s best to keep up, to keep her awake. But it’s burning too bright, from red to blue, and Yang’s steps falter. She doesn’t know how far they’ve gone, but it has to be enough. It has to have been centuries.
“Almost there,” Ruby promises, or maybe doesn’t, maybe doesn’t exist at all. It’s hot and the world bends around her and then her face is on the ground, pressed to something solid. There are hands on her shoulders, she’s being rolled over, or maybe she isn’t, because maybe she doesn’t exist either. “Yang! Come on, Yang! We’re almost there! I swear we’re almost there! You’ve just gotta — ”
(She dreams of dying and it’s never felt so good.)
“Find Blake Belladonna,” she gasps. “Tell her — I — looping.”
As far as last words go, she’s had better.
As far as deaths go, she’s never been more relieved.
“Have you figured it out yet?”
The sky is blue. A fact of life before she’d started living her endless days so near the Land of Darkness, until it became a novelty. The sky is blue and the earth is green and there are birds in the sky, flying overhead, and it’s only then that Yang realizes she’d forgotten that the world could be beautiful, even outside of the people inhabiting it.
They sit on a rolling hill, a soft breeze sliding through her hair and that belonging to the woman beside her, blonde locks blowing out behind the both of them. The woman looks younger here, with natural sun on her face, or maybe that’s just a result of the smile decorating her lips (the lack of black tar in her veins, eyes, nails, teeth, bones). Her fingers, long and delicate, play with the grass underneath, gently running across the tip of each green blade, and Yang marvels in the tenderness of the action, the idyllic nature of it.
“I’ve lost it,” Yang says, and leans back, feeling pleased, feeling glad, even though she shouldn’t. “Am I still alive?”
“Yes, but that’s not what I meant.” There’s none of the same vitriol in the woman’s voice, and without the harsh edges — the rage and sadness and bitterness — it’s soothing, easy to sink into. “Do you know what happened? How this all came to pass?”
It’s too pleasant for such discussions and Yang has suffered enough, but still, she sighs and responds, as simply as she can.
“You fell in love with a man. You lost him. You went back with your semblance, trying to save him. You couldn’t, so you went back again. And again. You stretched yourself too far, went back all the way to the start. And so you could live, you drank from the Pools of Grimm. They gave you everlasting life, but you gave them something too, eventually: your aura, your semblance, your life as you knew it. When you found the man again, he saw only what you’d become, and so he tried to kill you. You killed him first. You decided to end the world.” Yang leans back, folding her hands behind her head, staring up into the blue. “How’d I do?”
She shouldn’t sound so blasé, but it’s hard not to cast blame. However this woman appears now, she’d become something different, and it’d cost Yang everything. It’d cost everyone everything. Mercy has its limits, even when understanding persists.
“Nearly there. But you forget an important part of history. I don’t blame you, child; all humans and Faunus have. Memory shortens in the midst of war, legend shifts to heroes more easily used to put fire into the hearts of others.” There’s a tree behind them — a great, spiraling oak — and the woman looks up into the branches, following the path of a small rodent along one of the limbs. “There was a time when Grimm were simply Grimm, there was a time when a war didn’t rage, there was a time where people lived here, a place you now label a Land of Darkness.”
“Before you,” Yang supplies, but the woman shakes her head.
“There is no before me. I have seen the start and the middle and the end. I exist outside of time; it’s waters no longer touch me, not unless they touch the ones I have become shackled to. The Grimm are my prison, you see, but it’s of a tricky sort. We hold each other to this plane, but the difference is, this is a thing they desire and something I despise.”
Yang sits back up, propping herself on her elbows. She’s not wearing shoes, she notices then, and gets distracted by the grass swaying against the soles of her feet, if only for a moment.
“You don’t want this anymore.” It feels absurd to say, to assume, but the woman smiles and her eyes shine with the truth of it, a clear, vivid blue.
“I never did.” She deflates, shoulders falling along with her gaze. “Or, not for more than the briefest of moments.” A laugh has never sounded so sad than the one that slips from the woman’s mouth now. “Funny, isn’t it? How we can spend the rest of our lives agonizing over a split-second. I regret to inform you this still applies, no matter how long the life is.”
The woman’s eyes dart down too suddenly, replacing her aimless observation of the tree and its inhabitants to a far more pointed one of Yang.
“I don’t understand,” she murmurs, the admission coming easily under the stare.
“Tell me, what calls the Grimm?”
“What are they drawn to? What do they feed on?”
Yang’s lips curl. “Us.” But when the glibness gets no response, she continues, with a sigh her teachers at Beacon might recognize. “Feelings of negativity. Sadness, anger, fear… hatred. The Grimm can’t get enough of it when a bunch of people are feeling like shit. They go fucking wild for it.”
A bit of color pops into the woman’s cheeks when she laughs this time. Yang’s so surprised by the sight that she slides back again, having to brace herself quickly before she falls all the way.
“Yes. Precisely that. And now imagine. Imagine a young woman — brilliant and brash and brave, but arrogant, more arrogant than anyone alive, thinking she had control over life itself — imagine that woman drinking from the source of all Grimm, inviting them to share a soul with her, to keep her alive and experience all she had to offer as she roamed the world and waited, growing tired and bored and lonely, but holding out because she loved a man and the hope of that was more powerful than anything else. And imagine the moment — the moment she’d dreamed of for eons — when she sees that man again and instead of embracing her, he draws his sword. Imagine what she might feel in that moment. Imagine the feast the Grimm inside of her might have had.”
Yang’s breath catches on the inhale; her swallow does little to push it down any further.
“They took hold then, you see. One moment of fury unlike any being has ever felt, and it fueled them for the ages to follow. Once I let them in, they grew, they changed, they learned. They fed from my rage, and then my aura, and then my semblance, drawing more and more with each push they made for domination over everything else. And oh, it was easy to give in once it started. It was simple to find new rage, long after the initial hurt faded. An injustice had been done, and what little did I care for the world that allowed it?” Salem smiles again, and Yang recalls their first meeting, of the understanding contained in the tilt of her lips. “I called to you and not the one who came before, because I thought you might understand that. Because you’ve felt it too. The lingering, unfair thought; what sort of a universe punishes someone for love?”
“I don’t — ”
“I know.” The wind always blows the right direction, even when the woman shifts, it fails to blow her hair into her face. “But sometimes, you have. You took in the essence of one of my own and so you became one of mine too, in a small way. You took a part of me, and I saw in you. That is how I have been able to visit with you, though I wasn’t myself until now. With the loss of your abilities, their influence has lessened and left you with the barest trace of me. As I was.”
And Yang knows — she’s always known — but she asks anyways.
“And what are you now?”
The woman’s hands fold in her lap, one atop the other. “Gone. Mostly. The Grimm still feed on me, but there’s none of the control I once held; the time resets with death rather than decision and my connection — to you and the woman you love — was used as a trap. My current form… I cannot recall the woman I once was — the woman you see now — or the love I held in another time. It should be an entirely hopeless position, one that I should sink back into, as I have for so many, many years.”
One word catches in the sudden stillness of the air, hangs above the grass that looks far too green, in the sky that looks far too blue.
Too green and too blue and too still and the tree behind them is gone, along with the birdsongs and the comforting notion of a world untouched by war or time or anything else. It’s not real and it’s fading away. The woman knows this as well as Yang, most likely better, and she stands, brushing off her dress and smiling, the smile of one who knows it will be her last one.
“Should,” she murmurs. “Because a curious thing has happened, my child, when you swooped in and took the connection between myself and my monsters and made it your own. You held on to hope. You chose love. And I felt something of each; a remnant of the latter, but a current surge of the former.”
“Hope,” Yang repeats softly. “For what?”
Stepping forward, the woman holds the same smile. And she reaches out, makes contact for the briefest of moments.
“To die,” she says. “My name is Salem. Look for me when you wake. I’ll show you the way.”
Her headache is gone. Completely. For the first time in hundreds of days. Her mind is clear and free from pain and she breathes as deeply as she can, filling her lungs with a scent she knows well, aware of her surroundings before she opens her eyes and finds herself in Blake’s bedroom.
“Have you lost it?”
It’s Weiss, of course, pacing back and forth in front of the door, hands behind her back, hair swishing from side to side, not glancing once in Yang’s direction.
And then Blake — just as obviously, but soft and concerned — staring at Yang and not once looking away.
“Yang! I was so worried! They told me what was going on after they helped me bring you up here and they said we shouldn’t tell Ironwood or anyone else or even let you go into the med tent and they filled me in on everything and I couldn’t believe it and I’m so sorry.”
Last is Ruby, at her most manic as she collides into Yang’s side, arms flailing and pulling. She’s been crying, Yang knows, and gently wraps her in a hug, an apology of her own.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs. “I’m alright. But yeah. I’ve lost it. It doesn’t matter; we gave up on the whole plan you guys had going anyways, since the castle was a total trap.”
“It doesn’t matt — ”
“It doesn’t matter,” Yang repeats, and shifts Ruby a bit so she can sit up, meet Weiss’s bewildered stare and Blake’s calm one. “I know what we need to do now. You’re just going to have to trust me.”
“I get the feeling,” Blake says slowly, words weighed with a curious consideration, “that we’ve been doing that for a while now.”
“Yeah.” Yang takes another breath, and feels the exact two emotions Salem had noted, surging more fiercely than ever before. “But this is going to be something new. Best buckle up, babe.”
“I hope you’re not referring to me,” Weiss drawls.
“Oh, you wish, Ice Queen. When I tell you all the ways you’ve positively lusted after me, you’re going to feel really embarrassed.”
“Excuse me, I absolutely refuse to accept even the smallest fraction of that concep — ”
Ruby laughs, loud and clear, and her eyes are much of the same when she pulls back.
“Alright, alright.” The clap of her hands keeps Weiss from resuming her thought, or maybe it’s Blake’s accompanying grin, wild and wide. (Yang has one life left to live and there’s something freeing about that. Something so freeing that it’s catching, spreading, infecting them all.) “What’s the plan, Yang?”
The plan — such as it is — is simple: gather everyone they can, steal an airship, fly around the coast of the Land of Darkness to the northern shores, find Salem, kill Salem, and — throughout it all — don’t die. It relies on trust she hasn’t earned, coordination they haven’t developed, and more luck than Yang’s had in all her resets, but it’s their last chance, and that gives it the significance that’s been missing before now.
It has to be enough; there’s no other option.
Ruby leaves to gather the people, Weiss to gather the supplies, and Blake to gather intel on the hangar and their eventual escape. Yang should assign a role to herself as well, but doesn’t. This is her last life and her head is clear and she’s not so humble as to know she deserves at least one thing, for all of this.
She’s never been up to the roof so early before.
It looks different in the light (looks different outside of the loop, too), and Yang squints into the glare of the sun, reflecting off of the water in the distance. There’s a red tint on everything, this close to the Land of Darkness, but the ocean doesn’t pick up much of it, too dark to be tainted. There’s comfort in that, and the memories contained within the worn concrete, and Yang sits (like she always does) on the edge, feet dangling below (as they always do).
And then another constant — one she shouldn’t expect, but does — Blake’s light footsteps, barely discernible, coming closer until they stop completely, until Blake sits alongside her, close enough to share heat. She looks as she always does in the earlier parts of the day, and Yang interlocks her hands to keep from reaching out for familiar skin, familiar scars, familiar warmth.
“How’d you know?”
Blake’s head tilts to the side and her eyes squint, amusement on top of consideration.
“I didn’t. I come up here all the time. Which you know, I’m guessing.”
“Not now. Not this early.”
Not when the sun is so bright, emphasizing the strong planes of Blake’s face with a lovely contrast of shadows and highlights. Every day, it’s been so much of the same, but Blake never fails to stun on first glance (and second, third, every glance after). If she gets lost in it for a second, no one can blame her, not even Blake, who turns when she notices, laughs softly to herself when she realizes.
“Are you going to tell me?” she asks, humor lingering. “All the things we got up to up here?”
“After, I think,” Yang says, and Blake laughs again, almost like she’s in on the joke or maybe just finds levity in the uneven curl of Yang’s lips.
“What if there isn’t one?” Blake breathes, the tail end of her laughter.
“I promised you there would be. A long time ago or… tonight.” She scrunches her nose as she debates the best wording, given the nature of her timeline. “Hard to say which is which anymore. But it doesn’t really matter. I promised you an after. Specifically, a distraction after,” she adds with a wink. “We’re so close now, I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten.”
Blake shifts in place, shoulder brushing against Yang’s and then pulling away again, barely enough to allow for any air to pass between them.
“I’m sorry I have.”
Yang’s not sure that’s true, especially when Blake leans closer again, seemingly unaware of the sway.
“That’s okay,” she murmurs instead of protesting. “I’ll keep it anyways. After all this, I’ll remind you. I’ll give you all the distractions you want. I’ll help you explore all that life under the sea.”
A grin breaks across Blake’s face, sharp and fragile, glass cutting through skin and shattering at the end.
“How many times did I ask you about that?” She gestures towards the ocean, a short wave that still falls apart halfway through. When it drops, her hand falls on Yang’s thigh, and Yang unlaces her fingers to reach out and make sure it stays, covering two of Blake’s fingers with her own.
“A few, but only at the start. After I told you what was going on you — ”
“ — Stopped, mmm.” She’s watching their hands carefully now, but not moving any further, as though the current overlap is already too much. “It was a game I used to play with myself, after I lost the ability to loop. I didn’t want to miss it if someone else picked it up, so I came up with a question a day, something I’d ask around the battlefield or base. I always hoped I’d meet someone who knew the answer before I finished the question. Then I’d know.”
“Well.’ Yang shrugs, one shoulder rather than two. “I guess me promising to help you find out works as an answer, as well as anything, right?”
Blake hesitates, long enough to make Yang’s stomach lurch, but then she slides her hand closer, slips under Yang’s and intertwines the digits, the whole of the moment steady and sure.
“Right,” she says softly. “I’m glad it was you.” Her grip tightens. Her voice breaks. “I’m so sorry. But I’m glad it was you.”
“That’s okay.” And after everything, now that she’s out of it, an impossible take ahead, she feels as she always has. “Me too.”
There’s never enough time, especially now, and eventually, duty pulls them elsewhere. Namely, it pulls them down to the training room, where Weiss has managed to set up a full distribution center (through means Yang’s not sure she wants to investigate) and Ruby’s corralled more people than any of them could have expected, not simply the ones they’d worked with at the start.
“Ruby,” Yang begins slowly. “What did you tell all of them?”
“Ruby said you needed our help!” Penny pops up seemingly out of nowhere, chipper and enthusiastic, to an almost impossible degree. “And so we have come to help!”
“I just wanted to see you two pairing up with a Schnee and Blake Belladonna,” drawls a new voice, Coco Adel, stepping out from behind a towering stack of boxes of dust. “What’s the story there, huh? You two were supposed to be paired with that lot.” She jerks her thumb towards Ivori and Flynt, a good distance away and glaring at Weiss’s back, across the room. “And us. But now you’re here and Ruby says you lot are going to fly up north and win the war and you need all the help you can get to make it work. That you’ve been zipping around in time and know exactly what’s going to go down and how to prevent it.”
“Is that what Ruby said?” Yang asks, a little incredulous (a little overwhelmed).
“You didn’t really give me any specific instructions! And it’s true!” She looks around into the crowd, daring anyone to disagree.
“Yeah, but I thought we’d sort of… ease them into that. Maybe.”
“They’re here, aren’t they?” Ruby turns back to the crowd — a solid dozen — her voice lifting. “You’re all here. I know it sounds weird. But we’ve seen Grimm get auras! They’ve gotten smart! They’ve beat us. And they’re going to beat us tomorrow, unless we do something about it. Is it really so crazy to think that they might have a central commander that we can take out and cripple them? The people in this room are the best of the best. We’re Huntsmen! We take on the fights no one else will, even if it seems unwinnable, even if it seems insane to try. We still always try.”
The rally works on Penny, at least, who’s now hovering slightly above the ground in her excitement. But beyond her, there are nods, murmurs of agreement, and a positive sort of shrug or two. Even Coco cracks a smile, though when she taps her glasses down to her nose, it’s Yang she looks at with a searching stare.
“Look, Yang, we’ve seen what you and Ruby can do. Without you two, Beacon would have been lost.” She holds up a hand when both Ruby and Yang move to interrupt. “I know you don’t like to say it, but — it’s true. If you say we’re going to be fucked tomorrow unless we go on this completely unsanctioned mission — even if you say none of us are going to make it out alive — we’re with you.” She looks around at her team and gets nods in return, none with a trace of hesitation. “That’s pretty much it. Tell us you’ve thought this through. Tell us this is our best chance. And then tell us what to do.”
They’ve saved every single one of these people in one life or another, but the trust weighs heavily on Yang now. Until Ruby steps closer. Until Blake’s hand brushes against her elbow. Until Weiss comes into view, her hand on her hips.
“We’ve thought this through. This is our best change. And we need to steal an airship and fly north,” Yang says simply. “I don’t know what the opposition will be like, but we’re probably going to have to fight through a decent pack of Grimm in order to make it inside.”
(A small room with a single, plain throne. A series of gloomy tunnels. A stone staircase plunging into the dark. A solitary building — a temple or command center or central nervous system — in the middle of a Pool of Grim. A winding path up through jagged cliffs. She’s seen the way now, in reverse, but the motivation is all her own.)
“If Blake and Weiss are with you, we are too.” Yang doesn’t recognize the small woman that steps forward, but her green hair is bright enough that she feels like she should. “Me, Arslan, Bolin, and Nadir would’ve died at Haven without them. And that’s enough, isn’t it? We’re here for the fight. The real one.” She looks back at her team, offering a sheepish smile. “Sorry! I got all pumped up and jumped in! Uh, but yeah, we talked about it already, so it’s not just me saying so! Yeah, Arslan?”
The woman next to her, impassive outside of the clear warmth in her olive eyes, simply nods.
“We’re with them,” Blake murmurs, and the crowd stills a bit, simply at the sound of her voice. “And we’re leaving while it’s still fully light. We don’t know how many Grimm will be there or if they’ll be expecting us. But we know what happens tomorrow if we don’t do what needs to be done. There’s no expectation here. This isn’t an order or a mission that has any sort of UFR approval. We are acting on our own, as Huntresses. And you can as well. Stock up on dust, prepare a pack, make sure your gear is in working order, and... meet back here in three hours.”
It ends a little lamely (endearingly, in Yang’s opinion) and the group of twelve — still apparently a bit star-struck — continue to stare.
“You heard her,” Weiss says, curt and annoyed. “You have things to do! Go!”
The crowd breaks apart in less than a minute after that, and Yang rolls her eyes at Weiss’s smug expression (but fondly, with a squeeze of her shoulder).
“This is why I keep you around,” Blake teases, and Weiss turns red.
“Well, that’s — ”
“Yeah, I’m a little into the Boss Bitch thing, too.” She slings an arm around Weiss’s shoulder, pulling her close, not an especially easy task with Weiss trying so hard to squirm away. “Is this how you’re going to get us that airship? Stomp over, put on that voice, and demand one?”
In the silence, Weiss’s flush intensifies — which is answer enough — and Yang laughs so hard, she nearly falls over, only steadied by Blake’s free hand (the one not covering her mouth as she dissolves into laughter as well) propping her up.
“I hate you both,” Weiss says.
In fairness, it almost works.
“I’m sorry, Specialist. If it were within my power to do so, I would release the airship to you at once, but the authorization hasn’t come through yet, and General Ironwood is the only one who can clear this sort of thing.”
Almost, but not quite. They get away with the large group of Huntsmen milling around, the several dollies stacked with Dust and grenades and battery packs, and two entire Combat Jackets, but the proper paperwork stops them dead, no matter how Weiss threatens, pulls rank, or glares.
“Now, see here. I won’t be disrespec — ”
“Commander!” A soldier stumbles down the step, into view, but it’s only once he takes off his helmet — saluting in a hurry — that Yang recognizes him (though the helmet fitted to the shape of his ram horns should maybe have been more of a tip-off). “Sorry to interrupt, Commander. Specialist. But I thought you’d like to see that the authorization’s just come through. Directly from General Ironwood himself, Sir.”
And alright, Weiss is good, but not that good. As Mateo hands over the tablet, Weiss does her best not to stare, and the rest of the team do the same; Yang finds herself locking eyes with Blake (naturally, always so naturally), but the woman only lifts a brow, her incognito version of a shrug.
“Ah, yes, I apologize, Specialist. Must have been a delay in the processing.” He salutes, sharp and proper, and waves a few men over. “Load them up. Be quick about it. The order calls for extra fuel; don’t delay.”
Weiss’s shoulders don’t dip too dramatically as the relief fills her, but the calm that overtakes her — the lack of further complaint for the Commander’s disrespect — speak volumes; luckily, very few people on Remnant know Weiss Schnee well enough to say so, perhaps only two.
“So, how bad was she at this sort of thing when she started?” Yang murmurs, out of the corner of her mouth, and Blake’s lips twitch.
“Extremely bad,” Blake deadpans. “That little bit of red on her coat? She used to match that whenever she lied.”
“Oh, incredible. Good thing she had you to teach her. Though this guy over here could have taught her a thing or two.” She reaches out, grabs the soldier who’d been lingering nearby, not particularly obviously, but Yang had been watching him since he dropped off the falsified tablet without a single blink to give him away. “Mateo. Not that we aren’t grateful. But both you and I know that authorization was bullshit. What are you up to?”
His skin flushes, putting pink pits in the center of his otherwise tan cheeks. (He’s so young, Yang thinks, not for the first time.)
“You — how do you know my name?”
Yang sighs, slapping her own forehead lightly. “I have got to stop doing that. Sorry, bud, how about I promise to explain it to you later? It’s a long story and we’re kind of in a rush.” She releases him though, and gestures to the crate he’s dragging to the airship. “I’ll help you with that while you talk, alright?”
Blake steps forward to help as well, and the boy’s eyes go wide.
“N-No. I can — I mean, you don’t have to help, ma’am. Miss Belladonna. Ma’am.”
When Yang bites at the inside of her cheek then, it’s only to keep from laughing. “Ma’am,” she repeats. “Oh, okay. Yeah. Honestly, I totally get that. I’d fake some records for a beautiful woman like Blake Belladonna too, man.”
It’s Blake’s turn to blush, and Yang definitely, definitely prefers this version of the three so recently mentioned or witnessed.
“That’s not — I — ” Yang lifts the crate with a single hand and the boy nearly collapses at the loss of leverage provided by the weight. “Shit. Thanks. Um. But I — look, I saw them bring you in earlier. I saw you collapse outside the base and then the really fast red one took off and came back out with — with Miss Belladonna and Specialist Schnee.”
Yang takes the full load once they’re on the airship, dropping it into a corner without taking her eyes off Mateo, who’s now wringing his hands, for lack of anything else to do with them as he continues.
“I thought — I read all the reports, see. I talked to a lot of people who were at Haven. You were always a legend in my family, ma’am, Miss Belladonna. My brother, Mata, he joined the UFR after he heard what you did. Someone from Kuo Kuana being the Hero of Haven… I joined too, as soon as I could. So I know what happened at Haven. How you collapsed. I thought it was an awful lot like what happened today. I thought maybe something important was happening. Something that you might need an airship for, no matter what the Commander or General might say. I’ve always been good with tech. It wasn’t hard to fake the authorization. At least enough to hold for an hour or so.”
Small changes make all the difference. Yang and Blake know this better than anyone else, but the young man in front of them now clearly surprises them both. The universe could do that — people could — sweep in and save that day, the last of a long line of dominos, but none less important than the ones that came before, or the final effect.
Not everyone is the Hero of Haven, but everyone plays a part.
“Mateo,” Yang breathes. “That’s — brilliant. You’re absolutely right, and you’re brilliant. Blake, you couldn’t have a better fanboy. Incredible. Well done.”
But Blake’s a little softer, a little more careful with her words. “I didn’t spend much time in Kuo Kuana after… everything. But would I know your family? Did they — you and your brother clearly made it through that day.”
Mateo nods, with more intensity and repetition than would ever be necessary. “Yes, ma’am. Or — I don’t know that you’d remember. But my mom — we all survived the attack that day, or, well, I wasn’t born yet, but you know what I mean — my mom says she saw you. Pulled you into our basement. You probably wouldn’t remember. Maybe it isn’t even true. But that’s what she always said. My mom did.”
Seeing the look in Blake’s eyes — distant and lost, transported somewhere old and unpleasant by the memory — Yang reaches out, takes a bit of the fabric of her shirt between her thumb and forefinger.
“No, it’s — I do remember. I left before I said thank you.” She blinks, looking down at Mateo. “I should have. I hope you’ll — perhaps I’ll have the chance to tell you mother that, one day. Because this is twice now your family has intervened in my life to save it. I owe you a great debt, Mateo. I hope you’ll let me repay it someday.”
Yang figures Blake already has, just by saying it; the boy looks about ready to pass out, and actually sways a little when Blake presses a hand to his shoulder.
“Not at all, ma’am,” he breathes.
A loud whistle — Ruby’s — pierces the hangar, and Yang glances up to catch her sister’s gesture, finger swooping around in the air in a small circle above her head; they’ve loaded the airship in record time and the small soul who’d made it possible needed to be nudged along.
“They’ll figure it out, eventually,” Yang cautions, as Blake leads him off the ship, her hand still in place. “They’re going to have a lot of questions for you when they do. I’d invite you to come with us, but it’s — ” She looks up at Blake, who shakes her head, almost imperceptibly. “It’s going to be rough. And you don’t have any of your gear.”
“When we come back,” Blake adds, carefully gentle, “we’ll make sure we check in with you. If things go well… we’ll have a far bit of sway with Ironwood, I think. But don’t — ” She licks her lips, and Yang knows she’s thinking of secret prisons, of being whisked away in the middle of the day with a bag over her head, of the things that had been waiting for her the last time Ironwood took too much of an interest. “Don’t resist. Once they know, tell them everything. Play innocent. Blame us. Do whatever you need to do in order to stay safe.”
He chews on his tongue for a moment, before snapping into a salute. “All due respect, ma’am, but I'll do whatever it takes to give you more time. I’ll give you as much time as I possibly can.”
It’s not the answer Blake wants to hear, and worry pinches her brow. But there’s no time for it, not a bit, and Yang tugs her back, offers Mateo a lazy salute of her own.
“We’ll be bad, bud. Come for you first thing. Don’t you worry.”
For her part, Blake only nods, and departs with a contained wave, two fingers lifting and folding in the span of a few seconds. But as they load onto the ship — Weiss behind the controls, flicking through the startup sequence with practiced ease — Blake doesn’t let her gaze leave the boy until he’s no more than a speck below them. The airship is loud — full of the sound of seventeen Huntsmen and Huntresses — but Blake and Yang add nothing to the cacophony. Instead, they stare out the window, and when Blake’s hand drifts over towards hers, Yang takes it without pause.
Chapter 7: I never feel so loved
The trip takes a decent amount of time, a combination of the distance and (more importantly) the fact that they’re not entirely sure where they’re going. There are no maps of the Land of Darkness, not really, and so Yang sits in the co-pilot’s chair and peers out into the low, red light. Blake and Ruby stand at either side, one chattering away to the group in back (offering tactical suggestions and humorous anecdotes), the other entirely silent, fingers dangling down over the front of Yang’s shoulder and resting against the hand that reaches up, Yang’s thumb brushing over Blake’s knuckles at half the speed of her own heartbeat.
They fly up along the shore and Yang recognizes little until the precise moment the curve of a certain bit of the coastline catches her eye and a squadron of Lancers shoots up into the sky. Weiss is about as good of a pilot as she is everything else, and so she dives, rolls, and avoids the lot, blowing a bit of white hair out of her eyes afterwards.
“I’m guessing we’re in the right spot, then,” she says.
“Look for the big pool of Grimm.” The Lancers buzz by again and Weiss flips them around in a fun and new way that drops Yang’s stomach into her throat; someone in the back of the airship makes a gagging noise that she does not turn to investigate. “Gods, you’d think these guys would think of some new moves. Lancers again? Don’t you fucks have a big brained super intelligence powering you now? Be a little more crea — ”
She cuts herself off, nodding a few times, and calmly pumps her gauntlets, checks the straps of her vest and the pouches of extra ammo. She holds the wheel for Weiss as the woman swears for a solid five seconds, sliding out of her seat and checking all her gear as well, and follows her out of the cockpit, Blake picking up the rear.
“You just had to say it, didn’t you?” Ruby yells, fist slamming on the lift for the door, waving each person out as they make a hasty departure from the airship, one after the other.
“On the brightside, now that I know I literally control the universe with my words, I can just wish it away again!” she shouts, and Weiss makes sure Yang sees her eye roll before jumping out of the ship. Ruby does the same, but sticks out her tongue as well. “Universe! I take it back! I was good with the Lancers! The Giant Nevermore is overkill!”
Her shout goes unheeded, and the Nevermore crashes directly into the airship just after Blake pulls her out of it, tangled up together as they freefall, flipping several times before leveling out, and starting to fire. Because as they drop, the Lancers swarm, and the Nevermore starts to circle back around, the explosion from the airship doing little to dent it.
“I guess this is one way to avoid the stairs!” Yang shouts over the wind, angling herself towards the plateau full of Grimm below. “What do you think’s the difference in cardio benefits? Climbing stairs versus falling through a death trap and into a death trap?”
“The heart stress has to be higher when surrounded by potential death at every side,” Blake calls back, sinking her blade into a Lancer as it flies by, getting tugged away momentarily by the attached ribbon. “But there’s not as much muscle buildup this way!’’
Flexing mid-air involves a few challenges, but Yang manages just fine. “I think I’m alright on that front.”
“Stop flirting and kill them!” Weiss shrieks, halting her fall with a glyph (for the purpose of yelling or fighting, it’s not entirely clear).
“Why not both?” Two shots into the Lancer about ready to dive bomb into Weiss, quickly followed up with a pronounced wink, emphasises the words. “Time to clear the landing! Flynt! Ivori! With me!”
The two men in Combat Jackets boost closer, thrusters at their backs working not quite as well as Yang’s timed recoil bursts, but they shine in the follow-up: all three of them crashing into the ground below with enough impact to split the stone underneath, clearing out three distinct craters. Grimm ash floats in the air around them as the rest of the team finishes their descent, with Ruby, Weiss, and Blake landing right alongside her. Ruby slaps her on the back, Blake brushes a hand along the metal of her right arm, and Weiss nods in thinly veiled approval.
“That worked better than expected,” she admits.
“But not for long!” Ruby spins her scythe in a circle, knocking away the incoming dart of a Mimic’s tentacle. “Incoming!”
It’s hard to get a sense of the area around them — the press of bodies, incoming Grimm, and heavy red of the sky blurs it into something more akin to a nightmare — but that’d never been a priority. The layout is simple: a circular plateau covered in smaller Grimm pools along the circumference and a massive one at the center, cracked rock in between and below, familiar purple crystals piercing out of the ground at irregular intervals, and a small and worn temple-like building in the middle of all that. The whole of it doesn’t require a great deal of navigation, and their plan is almost stupidly simple: make it to the center. Of course, this is complicated by the implications of a rather necessary requirement for success, namely: don’t die. And though any of them could cover the distance between their landing zone and the central (and only) building in a minute or less, the dark liquid on the ground (shallow, but malevolent, curling up and sticking to the soles of boots, catching on the sides) and the masses of Grimm (Mimics, most of them, very intent on killing their small group of twelve) make the journey a bit more challenging than a simple jog.
Fire helps, though.
They lob grenades blindly in front of them as they push forward (dozens on dozens of Fire Dust powered bombs). Flynt and Ivori charge in with their Jackets (metal not as affected by the stuff as anything containing life) and use the flamethrower attachments Ruby had fashioned to clear a wide path. Penny flies over the whole of it and beams away sections with a similar ease. And Reese zips out and around on a hoverboard that melts strips of it away. It works well until they start getting picked off; a Mimic collapses on top of Ivori rolling the both of them off somewhere that Flynt follows with a scream, a group of winged Beringels picks Penny out of the air, a Griffon swoops in and rips Reese off her board and her team falls out of line, splintering off from the group to chase it down, vanishing into the dark crush of Grimm.
Weiss has to take over the bulk of it after that, swiping waves of fire with her sword, while they huddle around her — not so much striking to kill as fending off the barrage of attacks — and it feels endless. Coco fires thousands of explosive bullets into the writhing mass of black, Yatsu swipes back and forth with his sword along the side, Fox brings up the rear and does the same with his bladed tonfa, and Velvet springs in front of the pack and somehow deflects the charge of an oncoming Goliath with a hard light shield that Yang recognizes as a copy of one she hasn’t seen since Beacon (when Jaune Arc — reckless and heartbroken and the last of his team alive — had rushed into a hallway of Grimm and not come out). And Yang — sweating from exertion, aching from the drain of her aura and the build of her semblance — tries not to think of all the little ways Velvet’s semblance stores the souls of the dead, bringing them out one last time like vengeful ghosts.
“Close!” Weiss gasps out. “Push into the building. Rockets.”
The building isn’t particularly large, nor noteworthy, but it is old, not decorated with the same motifs as the castle (or with any decoration at all, really). There’s little time to pay any particular attention to such things, though, and instead of checking for locks or latches, Yang kicks, shoving the double doors apart with her boot, allowing Dove and Russel to fire a barrage of rockets into the interior, just in case. They should be more careful, but whatever’s inside can’t be worse than the things crowding around them, and so they file in at Ruby’s whistle — Yang and Coco and a few more rockets from the boys pushing the Grimm back long enough for Velvet, Weiss, and Blake to shove them closed once more. The rest of the (remaining) squad barricades it with loose stones, debris, and anything else they can find that’s still intact, and then they have a minute to breathe. A minute at most.
“Won’t hold for long,” Coco pants. “Time for you four to go.”
There’s not an excessive amount of lighting in the room — no windows, not many cracks in the stone walls — and it takes Yang a half second to adjust. Blake doesn’t have the same problem, taking her by the hand, snagging Ruby by the hood of her cloak, and pulling them both towards the middle of the room (Weiss following without the same prompting), where there’s a spiral staircase, descending into the dark. There’s little else in the room that hasn’t been propped against the door, and so even if Yang hadn’t seen this exact entrypoint in the vision Salem had slipped into her consciousness, it would have been their only option. But it's a little easier to have faith in the choice, with this additional benefit.
“You won’t hold long either,” Yang murmurs, eyes darting from one survivor to the other (CFVY, Penny, Russell, and Dove are all that’s left, and no one’s untouched, not close to it). “You should come with us. We’ll find a better defence point.”
Coco shakes her head. She’s lost her beret in the rush and looks younger without it, hair sticking up in wild directions that Yang suspects few have seen. “From up here, we can collapse the building around us. It’ll block the path down and you’ll get your time.”
“But you’ll — ” Yang swallows. Shakes her head. “There are other ways.”
“Nothing so effective and we don’t have time to plan or debate.” Coco grins, wide and bright and unafraid. “And we’re going to hold it longer than you think, Xiao Long. Go.”
She doesn’t give Yang any further time to argue, hefting her minigun onto her shoulder as she turns away, barking out orders to the remaining Huntsmen as the Grimm continue to pound at the doors, walls, ceiling. But Yang still takes a single step in the same direction, mouth open, though she has nothing to say.
“The faster we move, the sooner we can end this,” Weiss says firmly, suddenly at her side. “Whatever it takes, Yang. We all said, whatever it takes.”
Yang doesn’t know how to express that it’s different now, that people will die and stay dead, that she’d forgotten that until now, staring at Coco Adel and her brave grin and bare head and knowing she’d end up buried under stone and dirt. Four hundred and sixty-six repeats, and Yang had grown used to death, but she’d forgotten the notion of permanence, somewhere along the way. Blake gives her hand a squeeze — fingers still intertwined Yang’s — and tugs, gentle enough for Yang to start moving again, one halting step towards the staircase and then another. She thinks to call something out (‘good luck’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘I’m sorry’), but Blake releases her and starts down the spiraling stone steps and Yang follows before she can lose sight of her, propelled by stronger forces than despair.
They descend as quickly as possible in the dim light (always growing dimmer), falling into silence without needing to ask for it, though Ruby — right behind her — gasps when the Grimm finally break through up above, not five minutes later. It’s the screams that give it away, the screams and the crunching of stone, the explosions that rumble through the pillar they’re winding around, plunging into dizzying depths. (Too deep, Yang realizes after a while. They’re going too deep to ever find their way out. But she pushes the thought away, finding it unbearable.) Their speed picks up after that, a silent agreement, but doesn’t pick up enough.
Because the next rumble — starting low and building — does far worse. There aren’t any screams this time, just an explosion. And then another. Another. A third, fourth, and five. And then it’s one on top of the other, rattling the stone around them, cracking through the foundations, filling the air with dust and pebbles and gravel and then chunks of stone. The stairs sway beneath them, the ceiling starts to fall, the pillar breaks, and there’s only one option left to them, though Blake voices it first.
It’s a trust fall in the worst sense of the phrase; Yang has no measure of how far they are from the ground, where the steps lead, and what they might be jumping into, but Blake says jump and so she does, vaulting over the narrow railing and falling, a little slower than Blake and Ruby, but faster than Weiss. Stone rains around them, battering her aura, and she fires blindly into the darkness, hoping the brief bursts of light will give her some indication of direction while slowing her fall. It works pretty well, warning her of the approaching ground with enough time for her to slow her speed and land in a fairly well-timed roll. She’s only barely on her feet — just about ready to offer congratulations — when she’s shoved from behind, falling forward again, just out of the way of a crush of rocks from the ceiling and staircase, finally tumbling all the way down.
Yang tastes dirt when she hits the floor, and again — in the heavy dust in the air — when she stands. So much noise, but the stillness that’s left feels louder, oppressive, and Yang tries to form words to combat it, only to break out in a loud and persistent cough (which at least has the same effect).
“Yang?” It’s probably Ruby, though the voice is so hoarse it’s hard to tell.
“Ruby? Are you — is everyone — ” She swears — the profanity sliding into her next round of hacking up her lungs — and reaches for the light at her belt. “Okay, enough of the dark. Pretty sure they know we’re here. Fucking hell this stupid thing is — ” She fiddles with the switch, bangs the flashlight once against her thigh. “Blake? Weiss?”
“Here,” Blake says, voice quiet and full of something Yang doesn’t understand until she finally flicks the light on and follows the beam.
The staircase is gone, the ceiling has caved in, and the loose stone from both have piled up at the center of the small landing room, directly on top of Weiss’s lower half, exactly where Yang had been standing seconds ago.
Yang sucks in a sharp breath and it’s a mistake. She coughs again (but at least when her eyes water, she has something else to blame it on).
“Weiss — ”
“I’m fine.” Somehow — eyes closed, crushed under tonnes of rock, lungs full of dirt — Weiss manages to sound, at worst, annoyed. “Don’t look at me like that. Any of you.” She waves off Blake, crouched down next to her, eyes frantically tracing over the layers of stone, calculating the possibility of pulling Weiss out. “Don’t even think about it. We know all this won’t stop them. You need to go.”
Yang shakes her head, striding forward and pulling off the largest block she can find, throwing it to the side and going for another, ignoring the way the pile shakes, the way her hands do too (but not the way Weiss tries to hide her groan).
“Idiot,” Weiss hisses. “You’ll bring the whole thing down and kill us all. Or at the very least help them through. I know you have a single brain cell somewhere in there. You wouldn’t have made it this far otherwise. Why don’t you use it and take stock of the facts.”
A bit of her mask slips when she reaches for her weapon, on the ground nearby but not close enough, and Blake leans in to grab it for her, placing it in Weiss’s hands with a level of care she’s unable to pull back from, both her palms remaining on either side of the fist Weiss curls around the handle.
“We can get you out of there.” Ruby moves alongside Yang, placing a hand on the cave-in, mind surely spinning. “If we can brace the side of it with — ”
“No.” Weiss’s jaw is tight, every muscle pulled with maximum tension. “Blake, you need to tell them. You know you have to go. This idiot has gotten attached to me through her four hundred resets and the other moron somehow already thinks we’re the best of friends after knowing me for five minutes and I can’t — I don’t — ”
Her voice breaks horribly at the end, and Yang’s seen Weiss die a dozen different ways, seen her admit truths that she’s maybe never admitted to another person still alive, but the way her voice cuts in and out now — the way her bravado falls apart — is worse than anything she’s seen before.
“We’ll come back for you,” Blake whispers. “You can — you can get a Summons up. If anything gets through, it’ll hold them off. We’ll finish this and we’ll come back. And I swear if you give up on me before we do, after everything we’ve gone through to get here, I’ll — ”
She finally pulls away instead of finishing, stumbling backwards as she stands, and both Ruby and Yang reach out to steady her, though no one takes their gaze from Weiss, looking so small and pale and alone on the floor.
“Don’t,” Weiss says simply, and holds her blade a little tighter. “No goodbyes.”
The request stills anything further Yang might have said (‘we got to be good friends, in our own way’ or ‘we might make it back’ or ‘you were a huge pain in the ass and I started to love every minute of it’ or ‘this isn’t fair at all’), and instead she steps back, nods, and turns.
Maybe it’s better without words, maybe it’s best to focus on other things: the tunnel they step into then, the soft sob that slips from Blake’s lips as they walk away, the various openings and exits and paths, the way the beam of her flashlight shakes until she transfers it to her right hand, the tight grip Ruby keeps on the back of her vest as they move further and further in.
Maybe it’s better without words or feelings or anything else.
It’s a winding network of tunnels that they would have gotten lost in had Yang not known the exact way, each turn burned into her brain, a departing gift from a lonely soul that Yang wishes, right about then, had been bestowed on anyone else.
(She’s so tired again. Exhausted by the heavy stack of lives she’s once again collecting at an alarming rate, and permanently this time. Heavy, heavy souls, now that they’re in her hands, around her neck, filling her throat.)
(Each step is harder than the last one. She thinks of Weiss — alone and in the dark — and wants to go back and join her. To lie down on the ground next to her and let the earth take her. To swallow her whole.)
(She wishes it had been her instead.)
Five minutes pass.
Yang strains to hear anything from the places they’ve left behind, but sound echoes oddly; her footfalls reach her ear a second too late, from a bit too far away, with more intensity than they should.
(She wishes, more than anything else, that she could stop.)
They go for another ten minutes more.
The visions hadn’t mentioned time, of course. How could they, when the woman who’d left them had no notion of it any more? They might be walking for hours yet, they might be underground for centuries, the world might crumble apart up above and they might always be walking.
(Walking, walking, walking for the rest of their lives.)
(Walking and never stopping.)
(Unless she stops.)
Five minutes pass. Or maybe ten. Or maybe twenty. Footsteps echo in her mind or maybe against the walls and Yang’s not sure, but she thinks there might never be an end to it. She keeps walking still and maybe always will. Better to sit down, better to stop, better to rest, except that —
Except that Ruby’s stopped. Ruby’s already stopped and her hand is over her side and there’s red where it shouldn’t be and when she looks up, she smiles — crooked and sad — and when she pulls her hand away, there’s more red there too.
“Ruby, what — ”
“Something’s following us, I think,” she says, no mention of the blood, which — as Yang shakes herself out of a fog and lurches closer, pushing aside Ruby’s cloak — she finds comes from a large gash in her sister’s side. It’s a deep, weeping cut that Ruby must have had for a while, that Yang should have noticed, that she should have prevented in the first place. “Something underneath. Or maybe in the walls. Is anyone else feeling tired? Or is that — I don’t think it’s the blood loss. There’s something in here. Something trailing us.”
Sinking the tip of Crescent Rose into the ground, Ruby lets herself do much of the same, sliding to the floor. Her descent is slowed only by her grip on her weapon and Yang, rushing forward to catch her. Blake’s at her side in the next half second, pushing back the fabric around the deep tear in Ruby’s skin to get a better look.
“You should have said something.” The words barely slip out from behind her clenched teeth. “We should have sealed this before we got down here. What happened?”
“Mimic talon,” Ruby sighs, letting her head fall back against the side of the tunnel with a thud. “It happened during the first push and I thought I could keep up, but — it’s a longer walk than I thought it’d be. Why does it have to be so long?”
There are whispers floating down the passageways, footsteps continuing, closer now. Yang shakes her head and reaches for her bag, hands Blake a bottle of wound sealant, which she applies with practiced hands (same as Yang’s, trained by the futility of saving the same lives, loop after loop).
“We’re not much further, I don’t think,” Yang reassures, though she has no way of knowing for sure.
“Not close enough for me.” As the sealant sets, so does Ruby’s jaw, though she doesn’t make a sound of pain. “I know Weiss already did this, but she was right. You two need to keep moving. I’ll just sit and — wait. And shoot. They’re getting closer, don’t you think? It’ll be nice to sit and shoot. I think they’re pretty slow. Do you feel them? They’re affecting the air. Or. Our moods? Something’s wrong. Something’s different. If Grimm can feed on our mood it makes sense they might want to manufacture something tasty, don’t you think? That makes sense.”
The mumblings, in fact, make very little sense to Yang, but then, she stops listening fully around the time Ruby makes the absolutely fucking insane suggestion that they leave her behind. Yang blinks, looking around as though for support, but only sees Blake, finishing the application of a patch above the sealed cut, steadily avoiding Yang’s gaze.
“No.” She almost laughs, really. “Ruby, that’s — no, that’s obviously not happening. We’re almost there. We just — we’re almost there.”
They’re almost there and there’s only so much a person can lose.
“Yeah, and it’ll probably be safer out here, if you think about it. I’ll take care of these suckers trying to sneak up on us. You and Blake will take care of the off switch for this whole thing. And then we’ll meet back up here, go find Weiss — who probably killed all the Grimm outside just for fun while we were gone — and we can just… sleep.” Her eyelids flutter. “Won’t that be nice? Or. Wait. No!” She pushes Blake back, a sharp poke at her shoulder that has her falling backwards, only just catching herself. “I mean, yes, we’ll do all that, but not — there’s something coming, Yang. There’s something — oh, hey-oh!”
Ruby flips her weapon around and sets the blade of it once more into the soft earth, right between her feet, and then she fires off a barrage of shots — four headshots, five, six — right into the bare skulls of the beasts suddenly rounding the bend. They crumple without a sound, already too stretched for their own bodies, long fingers and detached jaws. Yang stares in horror long after they’ve dissolved into dust.
“What the fuck was that?” Blake gasps, the first words she’s said in a half hour or maybe more.
“No clue! But I feel a lot better now that they’re dead. And that you’ve patched me up. Thanks for that, Blake!” Ruby actually grins, and Yang’s head spins, trying to make sense of it all.
“Ruby, I’m — what’s going on?” She blinks, taking in her surroundings: the plain concrete walls, the brown dirt floor, and nothing else. Nothing else except them.
“I don’t know. A new sort of Grimm, maybe? I think they help guard this place. Or maybe — ” Ruby frowns. “Keep things calm. But they seem pretty easy to kill. So I’ll stay here and do that. Honestly, Yang, I don’t know what you’re so worried about. There are probably way worse things waiting for you at the end of all this. But I know you and Blake will take care of it. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. But only if you keep moving. Let me be another checkpoint. This one’s easy.”
There are a million protests ready on her lips, but somehow, she can’t access any of them. Outside of the one:
“I’m not leaving you, Ruby.”
“It’ll be safer here, Yang.”
“If that was true, you wouldn’t want to stay.”
She looks older than Yang remembers, which doesn’t make sense, because she’s lived this same day with Ruby hundreds of times before. But when she smiles then, she looks older, she looks tired, and she looks kind. She looks like the most important person in Yang’s life, always so ready to take on any weight that might dare press down on the space Yang had carved into the world for the two of them.
“You won’t lose me,” Ruby murmurs, and Yang shakes her head, because it’s not that at all.
A low whisper slips down the tunnels again, pushing heavy on Yang’s shoulder, and Ruby fires off another shot blindly, a warning this time.
“You won’t.” Her eyes crinkle with her smile. “You want me to promise?”
Blake’s set out a small pile of goods: medical supplies and water and food, as though getting Ruby ready for a long night, and Yang nearly snaps then, has to bite her tongue to keep from screaming at the only woman in the world who’s lost as much as Yang has, over and over again.
“Yeah,” Yang says instead. “Yeah, I do.”
The smile Ruby sets on Blake is warm, but the one she turns on Yang is everything, full of too much love for the universe to contain, maybe.
Yang stares for a long time.
Longer than she has.
And then they run.
She’s not sure how she manages it, how she drags herself away. She’s not really sure of anything except that her vision is blurry and it’s hard to see the turns she needs to take and Blake is right at her heels and she can hear the shots from Crescent Rose echoing down the tunnels and each one tells her Ruby is still alive, alive, alive. They’re faster now, whether because they have to be or due to Ruby picking off the creatures that’d been following them, Yang can’t be sure, but they speed through the tunnels until Yang’s breath grows short and her legs feel heavy.
Eventually, the shots fade away, and Yang tells herself they’ve traveled too far to hear them, because she can’t bear anything else.
(Ruby wouldn’t. Not when she’d promised. Not when Yang’s given so much.)
And because, as they round the next corner — still at full speed — they’re suddenly at the end of the tunnels, somewhere entirely new.
Somewhere with a familiar figure.
Blake notices first, sliding in the mud (now mud rather than dirt, Yang hadn’t noticed this change either) as she tries to stop, pulling Yang with her as she does, both of them slipping, but catching themselves against the wall that leads into a much larger chamber: a massive cave with sinking floors, sloping walls, and a very large Alpha Mimic standing still at the center.
“That’s — ” She keeps her voice low, tries to control her breathing (and her tears — dry now — but liable to start at any time again. Too much, she thinks again. Nearly too much).
There’s mud on Blake’s hands and a splash of it on her face. And though her voice is flat, everything she’s forcibly taken out of it rests in her eyes, as plain as though she’d spoken of them directly. So many resets and Yang never had enough time for that: sitting back and charting the way Blake’s irises light up with each one of them, mapping the emotions out like constellations.
After this, Yang decides to think.
After all this, she’ll get Ruby, she’ll find Weiss, and she’ll do exactly that for the rest of her life.
“We can’t kill it. You don’t have the ability to reset any more, so it does.”
Yang has to lean in to hear her, has to press in close against her and pick up on the low sounds coming from Blake’s lips. But she doesn’t have to reach up and press her hand to Blake’s cheek; this she doesn’t because she wants to, because she needs a little more strength.
“So I’ll distract him. I’ll give you enough time to find Salem and — ’
“No, Yang.” It’s not a forceful interjection, but it doesn’t need to be. Her forehead dips down, knocking gently against Yang’s, and Yang already knows. “We already have our roles in this.” To her surprise, Blake smiles. “And I’m much faster than you are.”
“Hey, I don’t know about — ”
Too much. But what choice does she have?
“Promise me too,” Yang raps. “I need you to promise me too.”
She’s collecting them now.
At the end, she’ll show these receipts to the universe if she has to. Slam them one after another against the end of time.
Whatever it takes.
“You won’t lose me,” Blake says. “I promise.”
Her fingers curl around the collar of Yang’s vest, and there’s no hesitation when she pulls her close, free hand fitting against Yang’s jaw with a firmness that suits them now, when Blake kisses her for the first and last time (of one life or another). Yang reaches with the same instinct, hands curling around her, palm digging into her lower back and urging her closer, mouth opening up underneath Blake’s, catching the taste of her tongue. There’s vallia this time, despite it all, and Yang smiles, feels the curve of Blake’s lips in response.
And then she jerks away.
And then she’s gone.
Her footsteps — loud and fast — echo through the chamber, but the roar that follows her reverberates, shakes the walls and interrupts the already unsteady beat of Yang’s heart. Thuds follow the roar, and then a crash, and then another, further away. Yang counts to five, tries to breathe throughout it all, and then stands, back sliding up along the wall. An odd, clear emptiness takes over, and she’s nothing but grateful, because it’s the only thing that allows her to step out from the nook of cover and into the low light of the cavernous room awaiting.
With the Alpha gone, the throne at the center of the room is all the more obvious. It’s decoration doesn’t quite match the one of the castle; it’s too plain, as though it’s merely a pale imitation, or perhaps a mockery of the original. But the creature that sits in it commands far more of Yang’s attention, and so she doesn’t dwell.
It’d been a woman once.
This, Yang knows as she steps closer, careful and slow. The once blonde hair has turned white and thin, mottled in places, as though bits have fallen out. Her pale blue dress hasn’t stood the test of time or transformation, and a plain black robe covers her now. And though her eyes had once held kindness, they are the same red of the Grimm’s now, black filling the scleras, hate filling everything else. Instead of pale and soft skin, the arms of the thing are black — the same consistency of the dark pools scattered across the Land of Darkness — though red veins still run throughout the mess, bright lines of blood along the limbs, shoulders, neck, and up to the face, which retains the shape of Salem’s (jaw, mouth, nose, eyes) but only in the way clay might fill a mold.
This had been a human once, but there’s nothing left of that now.
(Yang knows the story now: the death of a lover, a girl who turns bitter, a woman who gives all of herself for revenge against a cruel universe — her aura, her form, her mind — a creature who only remembers the one, brief moment she wanted the world to burn.)
“Do you know who I am?” Yang asks. “Do you remember?”
The creature cranes its neck too far in question, until its chin lifts higher than the top of its head.
“You asked me to come,” she continues. There’s a marble dais around the throne, only barely elevated, and Yang steps onto it now, but keeps to the edge, starting to circle. “You asked me to help you with something. Do you remember that? Is there anything of you left?”
For a moment, the creature is still.
And then dives, ducking under the claw that shoots out, arm extending like putty, narrowing missing the top of Yang’s head. She rolls and comes up again, blocking the next strike with her prosthetic, then dodging the next three in quick succession, weaving underneath with sharp, fast movements. The last hit she blocks again, but it sends her sliding back, off the raised platform and into the mud, and when the creature-that-was-once-Salem comes to its feet, Yang charges back in, blasting herself forward with her gauntlets, avoiding the next swipe of its talons, and shifting her weight to plant a charge at its side. The punch does little to slow it down, but it screeches at impact, and the next attack is a little more wild, four quick slashes that chip off Yang’s aura and knocks her back, until she’s on the outer ring of the dias again.
“I guess not,” Yang pants. “You could have warned me, you know! About all of this!”
Jumping into the air, she thrusts out her right arm to propel herself into the fight once again, left foot first; it deflects the first kick, but fails to block the follow-up, her right left swooping in a roundhouse that knocks into the thing’s skull, bends the head until it’s at a right angle from its neck. She lands on the arm of the throne and punches another several charges into the creature’s back, up along its spine, too curved and pointed, each vertebrae sticking out of the thin cloth covering it. But when she tries to retreat, the throne isn't where it should be, pulled out from underneath her and then slammed down through the bit of air where she’d been suspended until she’d blasted out of it with the recoil from both gauntlets. It’s not the cleanest of escapes, and she skids on her side along the dirty marble, aura dipping into the red to keep her shoulder from popping out of place.
She’s running out of time.
Really, she barely had any to begin with.
“‘Come kill me, Yang!’ you said! ‘You’ll fix it all’ you said!” Yang pushes herself up back onto all fours, but has to drop again, rolling to the right, to avoid the slam of the creature’s fists. “Or, okay, maybe you didn’t say that exactly, but it was implied!”
Fire spreads in her veins, floods down each strand of hair, and surrounds her a crackling glow. From a runner’s start, she dives in again, bobbing under the right hook and the left swing, and then reaches up to pull on one of the appendages, tugging it down and herself forward, planting three more charges along the way, another three when she springs back. She’s faster and stronger with her semblance burning through her, and she’s able to repeat the motion on the other side, twisting around the thing, blowing a shell into its side for good measure, even as she finishes laying the last of the charges she has left.
And then she throws herself back, presses the button to ignite them all, and hopes it’ll be enough.
The explosion isn’t particularly loud, but the thing-that-was-once-Salem is.
Instinctively, Yang covers her ears at the sound and stumbles back. There’s blood on her palms when she pulls them away, a light stream pooling out of her ears, but the creature collapses when the noise (mercifully) ends, and the red that seeps from its own body spreads far wider, coating the floor underneath. Smoke pours from its skin — shriveling, shrinking, cracking — as it writhes, and as Yang’s semblance runs out, she nearly sinks to the ground as well, exhaustion overtaking her at the sight of a final battle won. The sight of the end. (Finally the end.)
There’s one last grenade strapped to her belt, the one she’s been saving for this, and she fumbles with it before pulling it free and tossing it towards the creature, the ten second delay starting as soon as it hits the ground.
“You’re welcome, by the way,” she sighs. “Fuck you, but. You’re welcome.”
The thing looks up.
Eight seconds left and the thing looks up, seven seconds and its back erupts, two new limbs ripping out from underneath the cloth — grotesque and contorting at fast, unnatural angles — spilling out and expanding, across the dias in a blink of an eye. Six seconds left and they spear Yang through, two sharp points piercing her stomach, in the front and out the back, curling around and gripping around her ribs, (five seconds) pulling her back in, across the floor, too quick for pain to set in. Four seconds, and she’s in front of the thing once again, face-to-face, (three seconds) dark blood dripping out of its mouth and into her own, a disgusting torrent of iron and ash mixed. And with two seconds left, red eyes lock with purple. They are not kind, but they understand.
“Thank you,” it rasps.
With one second left, it throws her.
The grenade — a mix of Fire and Electricity Dust — crackles first and then explodes. Still mid-air when it goes, Yang’s propelled further away, off the dias and into the far wall of the room. It doesn’t hurt, somehow, but the shock probably has something to do with it. When she rolls onto her back and stares into the sky, there are stars — pinpricks of light — and it doesn’t occur to her that this is wrong, that she’s deep, deep underground and this isn’t where the sky is meant to be. Her hands fall on her stomach and it doesn’t occur to her to be concerned with the wetness. Her ears continue to ring and it doesn’t occur to her to try to separate the different sorts of sound.
Not until Blake is standing above her, frantic and hurried and clearly calling her name.
But even then, Yang only smiles.
“You made it.”
So many deaths, but this is the least painful of them all. Yang would have expected worse, but then, maybe she’s had enough practice by now. Or maybe it’s just that Blake — now on her knees, but still hovering above her, pressing her hands to the holes in Yang’s chest — is bloodied and scratched, but warm and alive. It’s easy to look past the panic in her eyes in the face in that, because Blake will make it out of this, and that’s more than Yang could have ever asked, more than she thought she’d get.
“You will too,” Blake murmurs. “I just need — I just — ” Yang’s blood coats her hands, gushes out of the wound. “I’ll get you out of here. There’s a healer on base that can fix anything. You just need to hold on and we’ll — ”
There’s a strangely pleasing symmetry to it, in a lot of ways. Her first death caused by a Grimm tearing a hole through her stomach and now, her last one, much of the same. Except that now there’s Blake, stumbling over impossibilities, hands trembling with the reality she’s refusing to face.
“It’s not that bad. We can get your aura restarted and — and people have survived worse. They have, Yang.”
It’s nice to hear her name from Blake’s lips. She’s always regretted the early versions where she’d forgotten to mention it, though maybe Blake would have known regardless. It’s a nice thought — one to die to — but Yang pushes past it, gently grips the hands frantically (hopelessly) pressing against her wounds.
“I need you to find Ruby. She could have made it. She — she usually makes it. Weiss too. I know you — you could all make it.”
“Yang — ”
Blake nods, takes in a shuddering breath. Yang tries to do the same, but finds herself unable to. There’s not enough air. Not enough time. But she can get out the most important thing, if only because she must.
“I love you,” Yang gasps. “I loved you every reset. Every life I got. All four hundred and sixty-six of them.”
Now Blake’s shaking her head, harder than her nod, more furiously than the movement of her hands, still moving to keep Yang from falling apart.
“Not at the start,” she whispers. “You couldn’t have at the start.”
The world is dimming, blurring at the edges, but Blake still looks so clear. Brighter than anything. A steady gold light. Something worth heading towards.
“Stubborn,” she says, more a cough than a word. “How’s this, then? I chose you. Every time. I chose you at the start and loved you at the middle and loved you most at the end. Every day, I loved you a little bit more.”
It’s not an exaggeration. It’s not even a line. Yang’s incapable of either now, only the truth.
“I wish I’d gotten to know you.” Blake sucks in another shaky breath, an inhale for them both. “I wish I’d loved you back.”
And Yang — Yang who knows she’s out of time, who knows this death will be her last, who knows her work is done — smiles.
“You did.” She reaches up, though she can’t quite raise her hand enough to touch Blake’s cheek, and so Blake leans down instead. “That’s why you’re crying,” she continues, and weakly wipes at the tears sliding down, until movement leaves her, until she can only close her eyes. “Because you do.”
Here’s the beginning and middle, but not quite the end:
Yang dies on a Tuesday.
(She loves Blake more than she has any Tuesday before.)
She wakes, and it’s a Monday.
It’s the same Monday.
It’s the 467th Monday.
And everything is different.
She knows this before she’s fully conscious, she knows this before she opens her eyes, she knows this because she’s woken by the sounds of fireworks, air raids, music playing through their scrolls at full-blast. Ruby only stares when she stumbles out of her sleeping bag — nearly tripping over her own feet in the process — and wordlessly hands her the scroll that’s reporting the news. The caster is almost impossible to understand given the speed of the words and the emotion laced in them, but enough gets across, shaky videos displayed on screen, areas that had once been flooded with Grimm now empty, not even ash left behind. Overnight, everyone claims, a miracle had occurred. An airship is sent to the Land of Darkness to confirm and it’s the same there; the Grimm are gone.
But more importantly (far, far more importantly), Ruby is here, Ruby is safe, Ruby is alive, more alive than Yang’s seen her in years, maybe, because her eyes are bright and clear and shining with tears, and when Yang surges forward to grab her in a hug that lifts her clear off the ground, she can feel her heartbeat — steady and loud and alive — right against her ear. It’s perfect, the best sound Yang’s ever heard, and it’s also impossible (that she’s here, safe, alive) when Yang had so clearly heard her shots fading away, had seen the deep stain of red on her side. It’s impossible, and Yang won’t question it. Not today.
(Later, she will think of Salem’s blood dripping against her face, wetting her lips, slipping past her tongue; will question whether she knew of the gift she was giving; will wonder what it means to be outside of time; will endlessly debate the practicalities behind the ending of her 467 days. But not now.)
“We did it!” Ruby squeaks, throwing her arms up. She’s unfazed by being lifted into the air, which seems to add to her enthusiasm rather than detract from it. “Or! I guess we really didn’t do anything since the Grimm just dropped dead overnight and we just slept right through it, but! You know! We did it! Even without doing anything!”
She laughs harder than she ever has, too hysterical to be from humor, too manic to not involve irony, too loud to be from anything other than relief. She laughs until she can’t hold Ruby up any longer (though she sets her down as gently as possible) even as her laughter continues, a long wheezing that has her folding over, her hands on her knees. Ruby waits until it’s passed, minutes on minutes, longer than anyone else would have gone without interrupting. And when Yang straightens, she’s only smiling, a small half smile that holds an understanding that isn’t borne in the reality of the matter, but still manages to touch on it, without any knowledge of the specifics.
Maybe Yang’s earned it. After hundreds of deaths, maybe Yang’s earned these two things beyond the very triumph of humanity: herself — alive on the same beach she’d woken up on so many times — and her sister — confused, but supportive, standing next to her. And maybe (though it’s terrifying to hope, though fear lances through her chest to think of it and thus potentially convince herself otherwise), maybe she’s earned two other things as well. Two more lives she might have brought through with her, just as they’d been before she’d met them. She can’t know for sure, not from here, but maybe with one of them she does. Because maybe each reset — every life she’s lived — has proven she’ll always find her way to Blake, if only she finds a string of fate and pulls.
“Ruby,” she says, after the laugh dies down and she’s left with nothing but a need to see how much she’s earned. “I have to do something, and you’re going to just have to trust me while I do.”
“Okay.” Not a trace of hesitation. Only a smile. “What are we doing?”
Yang nods, pauses, then starts to nod again, over and over. She’s bouncing on the balls of her feet, shoving her armor in her bag, collapsing the tent so quickly it breaks, and Ruby just keeps smiling.
“We’re going to run — or jump, or blast, or whatever we have to do — to the base camp. We’re going to go as fast as we possibly can and we’re not going to stop for anything. Because — and stay with me now, I know this is insane — there’s someone waiting for me there. She just doesn’t know it yet.”
“That — “ Ruby blinks, but by the time Yang does the same, she’s swooped around their small encampment — a blur of rose petals — and cleaned up her stuff and crammed it into her pack. “Okay. But along the way, you’re going to have to tell me that story.” She grins, readies herself into a runner’s stance. “If you can keep up!”
Yang doesn’t wait for the countdown. She cocks her gauntlets, fires, and goes.
“One day,” Yang begins (as Ruby always had), words yelled over her shoulder as she blasts herself through the air, “Yang Xiao Long went into the Land of Darkness and she died.” The wind rushes past her face and her heart swells, threatens to burst, and she feels like she could make it anywhere in Remnant without touching the ground. “Fortunately, afterwards, she woke up and it was the day before.”
Ruby believes her, because of course she does.
She has questions (dozens), but by the time they make it to the clearing — where the training field has turned into a festival, an exaggerated version of the party Yang remembers happening that night — Ruby’s the one dragging her along, (gently) shoving already-drunk soldiers out of the way, though she also ends up hugging a few as they go along.
“She’s always in the training room, but today is different! Where do we look first? Do we ask? Oh my gods, I’m so nervous. How are you going to convince her you know her? She’s such a big shot. Oh! A code word? You said you used code words so that would still work now, right? I mean, she has to realize something like what happened to her before is what’s happening now, otherwise all the Grimm dying makes no sense.” She sucks in a breath, dodges around a Huntsman wearing pants atop his head, and comes back into view with two kebabs in hand, one of which she passes to Yang. “I can’t believe that weird time travel centered around you makes more sense than anything else. Oh my gosh, I feel like I haven’t asked you anything. Like! Are you okay? Are you worried? Do you want me to kidnap her so you can talk to her in private? I totally will!”
So many questions and Yang doesn’t have an answer to one. She’s gone over a million possibilities in her head (‘does 94% of life really live underwater?’ -or- kissing her right away without a single word -or- blurting everything out at once -or- slipping her hand under Blake’s shirt and pressing the spot just above her hip that always makes her squirm -or- bursting into tears at the very sight of her alive. But in the end, the last one is all that matters. Blake is alive and the rest will come. She has time (time that won’t be reset), days and weeks and years, all one after the other, all bringing something new.
“I don’t know,” she breathes. “I have no idea. I was just going to head to the training ground and — ”
(Moving, breathing, thinking.)
Because Blake is there.
Right outside the main gate of the base — doors flung open wide — standing in the middle of the path, eyes roaming around with a sort of franticness that looks out of place on her, that Yang’s only seen on a few rare occasions, even after so many loops. Weiss is there too, looking widely confused, hands telling a complete story as they wave shapes into the air around her, frantic in a way that’s somehow on the opposite end of the spectrum. Blake lips move with quick answers — one word for every hundred of Weiss’s — but doesn’t look at the woman once. She keeps searching.
Until her eyes meet Yang’s.
Over four hundred times, the universe has offered her the same thread; in every iteration, in every life, the same opportunity presented itself time and time again. And everytime she’s made the same choice. She chose Blake. In different ways, in unexpected places, she never stopped choosing Blake. She pulled on the thread. And maybe that’s the key to it all. Maybe Yang had pulled so many times on the same part of the universe that she’d undone the whole of it, and maybe it was here, now, spooled in her hands, ready to use as she wished.
And maybe — miraculously, impossibly, beautifully — Blake had done exactly the same.
Because when Blake’s gaze finds hers, it’s clear.
Yang’s running before the thought fully settles, limbs moving faster than her mind, consciousness scrambling to catch up with instinct. Because Blake knows, she knows, she knows, and she’s running too, looking for Yang out of the thousands of people in that field, out of the millions in Remnant, out of all the iterations of Yang and Blake and Weiss and Ruby and everyone else. Blake knows her.
They collide and — gods — Yang would have died a hundred times more, a thousand times more, any number of times that the universe would have demanded, she would have done anything to have this: Blake in her arms, clinging tighter than she ever has, the full weight of hundreds of versions of their story behind her. Blake’s fingers tangle into her hair — the way Yang’s only ever liked when Blake was the one doing it — and her lips press into Yang’s neck, and her hot tears slide down the side of Yang’s throat.
Around them, the chaos of celebration continues. Weiss — snooty and sniff and alive and perfect — shouts something about Blake needing some kind of counseling. Ruby — out of breath and ecstatic — attempts to introduce herself and calm Weiss in the same breath. And it’s not successful — not even a little — but they have time for that later. Plenty of time.
“I guess you were right.”
Blake pulls away just enough for Yang to see her face — gold eyes bright with tears and something else, lower lip captured between her teeth — and all of her glowing, happier than Yang’s ever seen her, a full composite of all the pieces Yang had put together with painstaking effort, fingers (and everything else) bleeding from the attempts.
“I usually am,” Yang breathes, but barely manages even that, lightheaded from the sight in front of her, from the implications contained within. “About which thing?”
“What you said the first night we met.”
Her lips are on Blake’s before she can finish, but there’s no need for her to continue. They both know. The words are from four-hundred and sixty-seven lives ago, but Blake’s hands press into her jaw and her lips taste more of salt than vanilla, and they both still remember.
(There’s always an after.)
The second-to-last time Yang dies, it’s on a Tuesday.
After that, everything is different, except for the few things that matter.
Those things never change.
No, you're not home yet
No, not home
But you finally found the way back