"I mean, if you really think about it…"
"Nora, I don't thi-"
"But think about what the professor said! We're the same species! Which means we're all the same genus and family. If you really think about it, that means we're all family!"
"I mean, I know that it's not the typical kind of family, but it means we're all family anyways."
"..." She's going to get quiet in a minute.
"Ren? Why're you being quiet? I'm right, right? I'm right! Ren?"
"Anyways, do you know what's great about this time of year? We get all the practice and training rooms all to ourselves while the other students are away! I know they all say they're going home, but this is really home, isn't it? They spend more time here then they do off in Mystral or Vaccuo or Patch which makes this their home right? Just like it's our home, right?"
"Do you want to go exploring someday? Maybe go to Mystral or Vaccuo or Patch? I think it would be nice. Maybe we could have a pancake breakfast with…" But there's no one else for us to have pancakes with.
"Travelling's over-rated. We have all the training rooms and a full cafeteria and huge gyms and libraries - even though books are gross and boring - and so much space to ourselves-"
"I miss mine too."
She got quiet last night.
That's why I'm up so early, covered in flour and egg. I don't really like cooking. It's a little messy, and I'm not very good at it, but it's the last time she saw them, so when it's just us, our own family, I make the pancakes to remind her that she's not alone. We normally only have them once a year, during the summer. For when she remembers.
She's remembered now. It's not that she ever really forgot it, she always knows her parents and little sister are gone, but there's a difference between remembering what it is and what it feels like.
I'm letting her sleep in today. She's going to pretend to be mad at me for a minute when I wake her up and it's already ten, but she's going to be happy, in her loudly quiet way, that I let her sleep. She doesn't sleep a lot normally, but when everyone else leaves, it gets worse. I don't think she fell asleep until past midnight last night, so I'll let her sleep.
I flip the last pancake onto the plate I've had sitting in the warming oven before tossing the pan into the sink that's already half filled with dirty dishes and soapy water. I'll finish the dishes later, but right now I want to be with her.
I quietly open the door to our room and sneak in, not bothering to close it behind me. The halls are empty anyways, completely devoid of life. It really is nice of the school to let us stay here over the summer months, but it's never really felt like home.
I sit down on the edge of the bed, and she's curled up a little in her sleep. I can see the smooth tone of her muscle on her arms and upper back, and I know that she's the strongest student in our year, but I can't help but feel she looks almost fragile as she sleeps. Vulnerable. I brush my hand gently down her arm, and a small smile graces her lips.
She rolls over in that sleepy way the half-conscious do, as if she were in some bliss between our world and some other one. One where houses don't burn and pancake breakfasts get made for more than just two.
Her eyes open, that electric blue lighting up for a moment before she remembers we're alone. Then the spark fades a little. Some of it comes back as she sees the pancakes and smiles though.
I pass her one of the plates, the one that held twice as many as mine, and she grins, reaching for the syrup. I offer it, knowing I won't get any back. That's okay though; her smile is sweet enough for me.
We eat in a companionable silence enjoying the somewhat too-dry pancakes. I'll try to remember to add more milk next time, but once Nora drowns hers in syrup, she doesn't really care. Personally, I can't be bothered to care about how tasteless my pancakes are. I'm just glad she's enjoying them.
We finish at the same time, the comatose lull that comes after eating too much settling over us. It feels nice. I prop myself up against the headboard, and Nora snuggles up to me the way she sometimes does when it's just us. She rests her head in the crook between my shoulder and chest and her hair tickles my neck as it brushes against me gently.
"Ren?" It wasn't the beginning of an energetic conversation. It didn't hold the same chipper tone.
"We're family right? We'll be together, right?"
"Forever." I answer. "Family's forever."
It's calm in the dorm, which is a welcome rarity.
I know it's mostly because Jaune's not around so Nora's not driving him up the wall and that Pyrrha's feeling a little sad that our team leader is off with his less than reputable acquaintance, Cardin Winchester.
"We should make pancakes." I pause and lower my book, looking over at Nora.
"You don't make pancakes." I point out.
"Okay, you should make pancakes for us then." Nora grins at me.
"Why would you make pancakes?" Pyrrha looks up from the homework she's finishing. I used to find it a little weird to see Pyrrha studying. She's smart, certainly, but it seems too tame an activity for someone like her. Pyrrha's the kind of person I always thought I would only ever see doing great things. Severing a Deathstalker tail, taking on whole teams of other students by herself (Goodwitch had taken to using her as a punishment for rowdy students, something Pyrrha was not entirely happy with), or breaking local distance records on her morning jog.
Pyrrha was unbelievably human though. She had fallen for the least remarkable guy for the most honest of reasons, did homework, ate, and, just like Nora, looked almost fragile when she slept. I wonder how many people will ever see Pyrrha Nikos, the greatest huntress of our generation, messing up her algebra homework.
"It's something Ren and I do." Nora says with a shrug. Pyrrha tilted her head, but didn't ask questions.
"Alright, I'll go find Jaune then." Pyrrha got up, unconsciously pulling her hair into a ponytail and looping the elastic that had been sitting on her wrist over her hair. I wonder how habitual it was for her to make sure she looked perfect before opening that dorm room door. She bit her lip, probably agonizing over what she would say to her partner. They hadn't been speaking as much lately.
After Jaune got over his initial awkwardness (while, to the degree that Jaune can stop being awkward), he and Pyrrha had started talking deep into the night. He would ask her questions, not about her championship victories, but about her home, her parents. When Pyrrha returned the questions, Jaune would clam up. I don't think he gets along with his parents well, but he loved to talk about his sisters. He was really proud of them, even though they got their big brother into fights he really couldn't handle a few too many times.
He only asked us once, during the middle of the day, about our parents. He never asked again after I told him I had only fuzzy memories of mine and that Nora's family had been caught in their house during a fire. It was the first time that he had seen her quiet. Which was good in its own way, because before then, I was the only one who Nora had ever let herself be silent with.
"Pancakes?" I ask Nora when the door closes behind Pyrrha.
"Pancakes." She responds sternly. I can see the fire in her eyes, and I smile. She was right, when Pyrrha got back with Jaune, pancakes would be good.
This was our family now.
"Pancakes." I nod my head and stand, making my way over to the small kitchen unit shared between our room and the one over. I put on my apron, covered in egg and flour, and went to work.
"So, anyways, we're just there in the woods trying to figure out what sloths sound like, or I was anyways, Ren didn't offer much to the conversation - I think it's 'cause he's scared of sloths - and these ursai show up, and I'm thinking 'well awesome!' because ursai are fun to hit around with my hammer, but then I got this idea: what if we don't kill them? I mean, I rode a pony once a few years ago, and it wasn't that hard, so how rough could it be to wrangle a few ursai?..."
I'm smiling right now as I slowly cut through my pancakes. It's a small gathering, just the four of us, but I wouldn't want anything else. I'm wondering if these were what dinners were like during the summers for the other students. Back when we had no one to share pancakes with. Jaune and Pyrrha looked at each other and smiled as Nora droned on, not even paying attention to her own story, mostly just filling the air with the noise of absolute contentment. She was smiling as she told the story, and that said so much more than the story itself.
I think these might be the best pancakes I've ever cooked.
"She was family…" I can't stand the cracks in Nora's voice. The dead feel no pain, so the living have to feel it all for them.
She was. She had been. Used to be.
"Family is supposed to be forever." She whispers quietly.
It is. It should be. It's not.
I just hug her close as her tears make my shirt wet and stick to my skin. She had already lost a sister, she didn't need to lose a second. Not so soon after finding her.
I won't make pancakes this summer. It'll take some time before we can have pancakes again.
Next time, I'll only be making enough for three.
I wish Pyrrha was here.
The house is nothing more than smoldering ruins. I'm breathing heavily, the ash snaking into my lungs, but I'm too tired to cough. The heat is smothering me. I'll still stand though, vigilant, and Nora hugs the little girl.
"Mommy and daddy, they're still…" Inside. I finish the sentence, because the girl can't. Nora just squeezes the little girl who has wide eyes and no way to know what's going on right now a little tighter.
"Nora, we should be leaving." I manage between heavy breaths, eyeing the pack of grimm lurking in the smoky ruins of the village. We had done what we could to protect the world, but this war had dragged out for years now, and this mission was one of too many failures.
Nora nods and hoists the child into her arms, holding her closely like a mother would a daughter who had just scraped a knee.
I keep my eye on the beowolves as they snarl at me, wary now that we had halved their pack. They wouldn't hold off forever, especially once the horror of what had happened settled in on the girl. She wouldn't be having family dinners anymore. She would be put in an orphanage, meet other kids who would leave and return sporadically, nothing concrete. Someday, if she was lucky, someone would decide they liked her enough to keep her. Maybe she wouldn't get that chance.
The wolves descended, Nora and I ran with a desperate, hopeless girl clutched in her arms.
"We can't leave her here." Nora's voice had gone to a low, dark place it had seldom been before.
"I don't want to." I reply, watching the little girl through the window, sitting down, surrounded by toys she would not touch. She would stare at them for hours, and then at some point in the night she would start crying when she realized her mom and dad were gone forever.
I wonder if there's a boy in there with magenta eyes that will hug her until she stops crying and never let go and make her pancakes.
"We can't. We can't let her go through what we did." Nora murmurs, one hand grabbing her elbow.
"We can't take her with us." I point out, as much as I wish I didn't believe myself.
"We can quit. We can go somewhere safe. We can travel to Patch. We'll be safe there. We can take her with us."
"And then how many more will end up orphans?"
"I don't want to leave her…"
"Someday, when all of this is over..." I speak slowly. The possibility of that kind of future seemed so far off and distant I couldn't conceive it.
"She'll already be grown up."
"We can't fix everything."
"Maybe we can make something that doesn't need to be fixed then." She's whispering. She never whispers. I reach out and take her hand.
"Do you think there's a time beyond all of this where we can go to Patch or Vaccuo or Mystral? Do you think we're going to have quiet Saturday mornings watching cartoons with our kids?"
I squeeze her hand, because I don't want to be honest. I'm not sure there's a tomorrow for us, let alone a next year. A family...
"How would you feel about making pancakes for three again?"
Outside, there were pancakes for three going cold.
I'm sitting next to her, her head in the crook of my shoulder, but nothing felt comfortable right now.
A sob suddenly wracks her body and she's crying again, curling her knees up to her chest and hugging them tight as I hug her tight. I wish there was something I could do, but there's nothing. Nothing can fix this. Everything's broken.
After everything that's happened, after scraping through the war with our lives, when so many others had lost them, we thought we could finally find some peace. We had made it to Patch, of all places. Retired, weary of the lives we had to live to get the war back from the brink towards peace. After leaving so much behind, this is where we ended up.
I'm crying too, but I'm trying to be there for her.
Maybe this would have been easier if it had been at the beginning. Not nine months along. Not when we had already smiled and known there could only possibly be one name for her.
We were going to name her Pyrrha.
She had not been born wailing and crying and full of life though. She had been cold and quiet.
We would never try again after that. We couldn't bear to.
I want to believe that we were always a 'we.' The way they tell the stories in fairy tales and happily ever afters. Two people who know each other so well that their thoughts are the same. They are, in essence, more an entity together than apart. A we, not two I's.
But she's in there in that metal-framed bed, surrounded by white sheets that had been stained red not so long before now. And I can see it in her eyes. I can see that I'm never going to quite understand who she is.
I can't possibly know what it's like to be her right now. I was the father, but it wasn't me that carried her for nine months. I wasn't the one who's going to blame herself for the rest of her life because of something she never could have possibly controlled.
I can see it in her eyes. I can know that she's feeling what she's feeling. I can comprehend the reasoning for it to an extent. But I can never know it. I can never be her. I wish I could. So that I could well and truly be there for her. But I can't be. The most I can do is hold her while she rocks herself to death and hope I can wrap my arms tight enough around her that she can hold on one more day.
Until the end of our days.
I'm thinking all of this while I scrape the remains of a cold, once-sweet pancake breakfast into the trashcan.
I don't feel good.
I feel like I'm going to be sick. Ren's gone away and I'm sitting here with these rough, white sheets chaffing my bare legs. I asked them if I could change out of the gown now. They said we should wait until I'm leaving.
I don't want to leave. Hospitals are where people go to die and I want that now.
I haven't stopped shivering for days now. The nurses think I'm sick with whatever our baby had. I'm not.
There's the soft noise of the sliding glass door opening and Ren steps inside. He left them outside, but I can see a little bit of flower on his green jacket. He had made pancakes for three.
I start crying again.
Everything that ever could have been, everything I ever wanted to be, it was wrapped in a plastic bag, sealed up behind a suffocating wall, to be burned to ashes. The nurse muttered something about a biohazard disposal or something but I had been too busy staring at the white, white walls.
Ren comes over and rubs my back but I don't want him to. I push at him and hug my knees to my chest and sob into the thin fabric.
I hate myself.
I hate it all.
I did something and that's the only reason something like this could ever happen and I can't have pancakes for three.
I want to hurt myself, but Ren's here, and I don't want to hurt him anymore than I have. I killed our child. I've hurt him enough for forever.
I try to tell him I'm sorry but it just comes out as a broken sob. He knows what I'm trying to say. He tries to tell me that it's not my fault, but it has to be.
I killed our child.
I broke her.
I cry, but it doesn't make me feel better. It just gets worse and worse and I want to be sick.
Ren hugs me and I hate myself more.
I'm getting thin. Ren's mad about it. I tell him I'm sorry, but it's not because of my health. I'm still sorry about the one thing I can never fix.
Ren tried making pancakes. It's been eight months since his last batch. I didn't like them. They tasted bad and the sugar made me want to be sick again and again and again the way I make myself be every night when I choke on my fingers.
I don't know if he's going to stay much longer or if he's going to leave soon. I want him to leave. I deserve to be left.
I'm looking at myself in the mirror and I can see the outline of my ribs. I trace it gently, feeling the hard edges of my bones so pronounced against my skin. I rake my fingernails across them, letting them tear my flesh and cut away the thin barrier between me and my insides.
I'm so much less than I was.
I used to be strong. I used to hold my chin high. Rather than a thin layer of sinewy flesh covering my body, stretched too tight, I had muscles that would ripple and fill out my frame. I was never beautiful, but I was always more than… This.
Than the gaunt shadow of a girl who wants to be a ghost.
"Nora, you can't keep doing this." He's rubbing the small carvings on my wrists. They hurt.
I don't say anything. I can't.
It hurts. It always hurts.
I thought the ache in my stomach would go away someday. I thought maybe I would not hate myself and maybe Ren could love me and maybe I could deserve it.
I can't. He doesn't. I won't.
The thin, white, permanent reminders on my forearms are proof of that, along with their new friends.
So's the bile in the sink that I made myself throw up.
"I'm sorry," I sob into his shirt. I am. I wish he didn't have to deal with me. The broken, battered, weathered witch that murdered his child.
He doesn't say anything. He knows I can't ever be sorry enough to make up for it.
"Why don't you go?" I ask. He should. He'd be happier. How could he not?
He doesn't answer for a while. He just gently wraps the gauze around my forearms, being gentler than a warm summer day's breeze. I feel like the rain that breaks that day.
I break everything.
"You should leave. You wouldn't have to take care of me anymore. You could go find someone and be happy with them and you could leave me and maybe you could tell me it would be okay if I-"
"Nora!" He's gripping the gauze too hard, pulling the knot so tight the threads begin to unweave.
"If I wasn't here you wouldn't have to take care of me and you could leave and I wouldn't hurt all the time and-"
He's never raised his voice like that before. He takes hold of my hand. He feels like a small brook, wrapping around me and cooling the pain. He raises it to his lips and kisses me.
When he looks up, there's tears in his eyes.
"We're family." He whispers fiercely, with a fire unknown to his nature. "For now. For always. Forever."
"We had a chance at our family Ren and I-"
"It wasn't you."
"No. I won't let you blame yourself."
It's quiet for a while. I'm just sitting here, looking at the bones of my wrist and the scarlet-tinged bandages wrapped around them.
"Let's go to bed, okay?" He whispers, calm once again.
I'm still for a moment, and then I nod.
When I wake up, I'm covered in white sheets that remind me of the smell of sanitizer and white walls and beeping machines.
I feel sick.
"Good morning, sleepyhead." His voice is so calming and makes the world a little good again.
And then I smell something I haven't in years. Sweet, sugary syrup and freshly baked pancakes.
I sit up, wincing as I apply pressure to my forearms to lift myself up against the headboard. Ren smiles at me and lays a small tray across my lap with two plates absolutely soaked in maple syrup and a little bit of pancake underneath. Two each. A far cry from the stack of twelve he used to serve me.
"I thought we were done with pancakes." I mutter, my insides churning a little at the smell. I hardly wanted to eat anything these days, and the thought of something so sweet made me gag.
"I thought maybe we could try a plate." He's soft spoken, but there's weight to those words.
I look down at those pancakes. There would never be three plates on the platter.
Maybe it was okay for there to only be two.
I take a small bit of a pancake. It's hardly more than a crumb. I almost vomit, but I hold it down.
For now, that's all I can stomach as Ren slowly finishes his own.
Maybe next time I can have two bites.
"Forever?" I ask. He smiles.
On an unrelated note, can we have a moncon that isn't set up for unhappiness? The first part is how I wanted the story to go. A little bit of something deeper wrapped up in Nora's light-hearted rants. That's how I wanted everything to be.
Then it came more about introspection. Came up a little on a different note than I expected.
Also, thanks to ShowMeYourFury and Toona666 for giving me some feedback on this. In particular, I was encouraged to write the whole thing from Ren's perspective. That got me thinking about what I was actually writing, and why I felt the need to switch to Nora halfway through. If they're family, why does it matter who's perspective I write from? If they're that close, they should be able to think as one another right?
Except the whole point of this was to break the way family conventions work. They don't have family by children, or even adoption. They're not family by blood. They're family by bond. They aren't a 'we,' they're two I's that work so well together they can be a family. That's what that section's all about anyways.
I don't know.
This is mediocre at best tbh. I might try and re-write this properly at some point, but I doubt it.
Hope you enjoyed the read.