It wasn't Sky's memorial, not exactly. It was dedicated to all the fallen, including many civilians and a few students from other schools. One of Ermine hadn't made it, the one with the tattoos. It made Nora a little mad that he was being honored with the same statue as everyone else. Maybe that was why she had trouble thinking of it as anything except Sky's memorial. Maybe that was just the weight of Ren's head on her shoulder.
All eleven of them were in a big clump, sitting in the same row of uncomfortable plastic chairs as they watched the dedication of the memorial. They didn't really have to be there, but everyone else was going and the general agreement was that it would be good for the Raspberries to get some fresh air. ABSW was the only one even sort of sitting in neat team order, with Jaune on one end giving Pyrrha's shoulder an occasional painfully awkward pat. Then came Ruby, with Yang on her other side wrapping her a one-armed hug. Ren was bracketed between her and Nora. Dove and Russel sat to their right, rigid and radiating discomfort.
There was a lot of that going around.
A speech concluded. Nora had zoned out in the first few minutes—it had been a council member talking, thanking Beacon for its dedication and sacrifice with canned phrases and spit-polished sympathy. She'd spent the whole thing watching the back of Ren's head, occasionally running a hand through it.
Then, Ozpin stood up and cleared his throat. Nora glanced up. He looked more haggard than he usually did. His cane wasn't just for show, today—he leaned on it almost imperceptibly as he approached the podium.
"I'm afraid I don't have any remarks prepared," he said, resting his free hand on the surface of the podium. "There were stolen moments when I tried to write myself notes, but... I could never bring myself to put pen to paper."
Silence from the assembled crowd. Nora had trouble believing that he had written the welcoming speech, if she was being honest.
Ozpin sighed, turning his head to scan the crowd. "I shall be frank. The attack on Vale was a horrible tragedy, and one whose effects we will be feeling for a long, long time. I will say this much—we have determined conclusively that the individuals in Atlesian armor that were shown sabotaging the stadium were not involved with the military in any capacity. Their uniforms were stolen from two fallen officers."
A pause, while he let that sink in. "As important as it is to understand the gravity of what we have just been through, I believe it is equally important to acknowledge that it could have been far, far worse, if not for the actions of many students and teachers."
He turned to his right, where Goodwitch, Port, and Oobleck were standing. Then he lowered himself into a deep bow. Nora could see one of his legs shaking. "I have never been more proud of the staff of this institution than I am in the wake of this attack. Each and every one of them, even those not present at today's dedication, acted selflessly and courageously to protect their students. And Glynda, I would like to thank you personally—without your aid, we would never have been able to seal the breach so quickly."
She inclined her head but didn't smile.
"We would also still be dealing with a bit of a Dragon problem," he added, a little wryly. "And, naturally, this dedication would be taking place in a somewhat less hospitable environment." He gestured at the buildings that could be seen in the distance, as if to indicate that they were currently standing.
"I would also like to thank team Coffee." There was a startled noise from somewhere nearer to the front, where the second-years were sitting. "They were instrumental to the evacuation of civilians and fellow students from the Amity Coliseum, and later in the protection of those gathered at Beacon's airfield. No one asked them for help—I doubt the crowd had the presence of mind. They acted independently, with the initiative and heroism that makes true Huntsmen and Huntresses."
"They then proceeded to rally other students behind them, and under the guidance of the Atlesian military, they formed a perimeter around the airfield and began rescuing civilians." He bowed again, just as deeply. Nora thought she could see a bead of sweat standing out on his forehead.
"I'm sure the council will be calling on you to give you something rather more impressive than an old man's congratulations—don't look so horrified, Miss Scarlatina, I can assure you that it is well-deserved." There were a few chuckles from the audience.
Ozpin's expression grew serious again. He spread his hands on the podium, cleared his throat. "Now... I have something of a confession to make." His mouth twitched up into a small, melancholic half-smile. "Your partner assignment is not so random as it appears."
Mutters broke out. Other people were talking animatedly, but all Nora could do was stare—not at her own team, but at ABSW. Jaune was glaring at the headmaster in mute betrayal, while Cardin looked like he was holding back a laugh. Weiss and Blake just raised identical, skeptical eyebrows.
"I do my best to nudge each student towards someone with whom I believe they can work well," the Headmaster continued. Blake's eyebrow ticked up another notch. "Yet, someone that will challenge them and help them to grow in new ways."
There was a moment of profound silence. Nora started to wonder if he'd been lying about not preparing this.
"However." The half-smile turned into a full one. It was still a little sad, but his eyes twinkled with humor. "Some of this year's assignments... got away from me, so to speak." Cardin snorted.
Ozpin leaned back a little, taking a deep, steadying breath. "I'm sure you're all wondering what any of this has to do with the tragedy this monument represents." His gaze swept over the crowd. "Well. Firstly, to team Brine."
Nora jumped a little in her seat, then shared a panicked look with Dove. He shrugged back.
"No offense meant," the Headmaster said, winking in their direction, "but I would never deliberately inflict the four of you on our faculty."
Some laughs, with Russel the loudest among them. Dove buried his head in his hands.
The Headmaster chuckled. "This marks the first time in my career that I have ever commended my students for demolishing a large portion of the school building. I dearly hope that it is also the last."
More laughs. Ren's mouth twitched up into a tiny, frail little smile, and Nora broke out in a huge grin in response.
Ozpin sobered up a little, straightening his back and looking over each of their faces, one by one. "All jokes aside. The four of you, along with Atlas' Penny Polendina and Professor Goodwitch—" he inclined his head to her again, "—helped fight off a monster that has likely been incubating in this mountain range for centuries, a creature many grown Huntsmen and Huntresses would hesitate to engage. And, in doing so, you defended the Atlesian Dreadnaught and all its passengers."
Nora was pretty sure she was turning maroon right now. She watched, her mouth falling slightly open, as the Headmaster drew himself into a third bow. His bad leg shook a little, and then he rose again with the ghost of a grimace. It was gone a moment later, replaced by a proud, almost grandfatherly smile.
"To Alabaster." There was a little jolt, as all four of them sat up straighter in their seats—except for Cardin, who leaned back and smirked. "I have never seen a team as fractured as yours grow together the way the four of you have. In fact I was nearly certain the four of you would need to return next year for new team assignments."
A few of them shifted guiltily. Jaune rubbed the back of his neck and mustered a sheepish grin.
"And yet, you persevered. You proved yourselves capable of letting go of your pride, of listening to other perspectives, and of bridging great gaps. For that, I commend you." He smiled conspiratorially. "And, if I may speak to Miss Schnee and Miss Belladonna specifically—I dearly wish I could take credit for your partnership and the symbol of unity it now represents. In truth, it was a freak accident turned pleasant surprise."
He turned serious again, and repeated the same process as he had for BRYN, making eye contact with each of them in turn. "The four of you, in conjunction with Haven's Sun Wukong and Neptune Vasilias and under the leadership of Atlesian specialist Winter Schnee, diverted an attack made by two of the White Fang on the safe zone in Vale. Two, we have since ascertained, of the highest ranking members that took part in this attack. Without your intervention, they would have been free to wreak havoc on gathered civilians, and countless lives may have been lost."
He bowed again. His hair obscured most of his face, but Nora thought she could see him gritting his teeth.
Ozpin straightened. Any last remnants of pride or humor drained away. He looked older now than Nora had ever seen him, gripping his cane in a white-knuckled hand and turning slowly, inexorably, towards the third team in their little huddle.
"Team Raspberry." Everyone recognized the name, turning to peer at their group of three. There were twelve seats to a row, on the assumption that students would sit in teams. Sky's empty chair was set next to Dove, gleaming white in the afternoon sun.
Ozpin stopped for a moment, his eyes nearly closed, his jaw clenched. Then he looked up again, and tried to make the same sweep as he had for the other two teams. Ren turned his head away, and Ruby buried her face in Yang's shoulder. Pyrrha looked back at him, lips pressed together, her eyes narrowed.
Then, finally, he spoke. "I have asked more of you than should ever be asked of students. More than should be asked of fully grown Huntsmen and Huntresses. More, indeed, than I have any right to ask of heroes." The words hung in the air for a moment. Muttering started again as people leaned their heads together to whisper their confusion.
Ozpin let silence reign for a moment before he lowered his head. "For that," he said, "I am truly sorry." He dipped into another bow, lower than any of the others. When he tried to stand, his leg gave out and he would have fallen if Goodwitch hadn't jumped forward to steady him. She stayed next to him as he gripped the podium with one hand and his cane with the other.
"There is a mistake I see made often, when I hear people talk about tragedies like this one," Ozpin went on. The words were strained, spoken through gritted teeth. "They speak of students like Nelson Poloskun, Magnus Pierre, and May Zedong as though they were born with an innate quality that made them willing to give their lives protecting innocent people.
"No one is born a hero." Ozpin stood a little straighter, despite his shaking leg. "I will not credit their sacrifices to an inborn quality, a genetic quirk, or an accident of chance. They were courageous enough to make the ultimate sacrifice because they worked for it. They made everyday sacrifices for the betterment of others, they dedicated their lives to a dangerous profession in order to protect people, and they stayed the course even when it put them in mortal peril."
Nora tightened her arm around Ren, in anticipation of what she was sure would come next.
Ozpin took a deep breath, flexing the fingers of the hand that still gripped the podium. "As you all know, when students apply to this academy, one of the questions we ask is... why? Why do you want to be here, despite the danger?
"When I asked Sky Lark, he told me that he hoped Beacon Academy could help him learn to be brave."
Ren let out a sharp breath. Nora hugged him tighter and rubbed circles between his shoulderblades. People were staring, so she glared at them until they stopped.
"I firmly believe that, in Sky's case especially, to call him a born hero is nothing short of an insult. He did not come into his courage easily. Indeed, earlier this year he was disciplined for fleeing in the face of danger. It was not in his nature to face impossible odds without flinching.
"No. He was not born a hero. He had to struggle against himself, build up his courage a little at a time. He had setbacks, mistakes, stumbling blocks. And yet, he never gave up. He continued to struggle to uphold the mantle of the Huntsman he had chosen to become. He saved the lives of his teammates, and it is not an exaggeration to say that, if he had not done what he did during the attack, a great many of us would not be here now."
There was a stunned silence. The Headmaster had been purposely vague about whatever it was that had happened to RSPR. When BRYN had asked, they'd just shaken their heads and said that they weren't supposed to talk about it.
Ozpin let out a last, wobbly exhalation. "Sky Lark was not born a hero. But he certainly died as one. For his sacrifice, and for those of Nelson Poloskun..."
Nora looked down at Ren. He was staring at the statue, blinking hard but not quite crying. She wondered, not for the first time, whether or not it would help if she kissed him. And, yet again, she sighed and rested her forehead on his hair. It would be a gamble—if he liked her too, she was pretty sure it would make him feel a little better. But if he didn't, she'd be taking advantage and being selfish and making everything worse.
She stole a brief glance at Weiss and decided that maybe, just maybe, her team had had a point when they said she should've practiced what she preached while she still could. Someday, someday soon so she didn't start procrastinating again, she'd tell him. But he came first—he always did. So Nora kept her mouth shut and rubbed his back, murmuring a quiet promise to make him some of that tea he liked later. She'd never been able to do that before because she always horribly overbrewed it, but now she was pretty sure she could press-gang Dove or Blake into helping. They seemed like tea people.
A hopefully-recovering anti-faunus bully, a White Fang deserter, and Weiss Schnee walked into a bar.
It didn't serve alcohol anymore, since a King Taijitu corpse had fallen on that side of the building. Now it was distributing food, water, and clothing after the crisis. The place also happened to be in a faunus neighborhood. People looked up as they entered, and Blake made eye contact with a few of them. That meant she got to watch their expressions. They started with practiced wariness, wondering who these strangers were. Then came confusion. Horror. And finally, a sort of grudging amusement—'Here it is. Life has hit peak strangeness. We're done.'
"Hi," Blake said lamely. The man in charge, a broad-shouldered reptilian faunus with scales scattered across his neck and chin, blinked at her. Looked at Weiss. Then back at Blake.
Cardin made an irritated noise. "Yeah, we know." He held out the crate he was carrying. "Do you want this crap or not?"
"You're Alabaster," the man said. His voice was soft, a little raspy, like he was perpetually whispering. When Blake looked closer, she noticed that there was a scar on his throat almost concealed under the scales.
"Yes, sir." Weiss put the supplies she was carrying on the ground. "And you are...?"
Blake suppressed a sigh. The plan was to do what they could to run damage control—the attack on the Festival was over, but with all the dissention that had been stirred up between Atlas and Vale, humans and faunus, there was still a decent chance that a riot would break out in the aftermath. Alabaster was perfect for that, for obvious reasons. The thing was... Blake trusted Weiss completely and Cardin... sort of... to have let go of the biases they held at the beginning of the year. Weiss was her best friend, and Cardin was... tolerable.
The problem was that both of them could be a bit brusque, to make a rather incredible understatement, and Blake would be the first to admit that she wasn't much better. And their job was to wander around talking to people who hated faunus, people who hated Atlesians, and faunus who no longer felt safe in Vale. In other words, three groups of people that were very likely to lash out. Versus three notoriously short fuses. Jaune, the one who had been patient enough to weather Cardin, was busy helping RSPR.
Still. She mustered a smile for the man and dropped her crate on top of Weiss' so that she could shake the offered hand. "Anolis," he said. His hand closed over her entire fist and part of her wrist. He very pointedly did not offer to shake with the other two.
"Is there anything we can help with?" Weiss asked, a bit stiffly. Cardin just crossed his arms and glared. Great.
"Yeah." The man lifted his chin in challenge, his black eyes flashing. "I need servers, and if any of you people know how to cook..." He trailed off, his expression turning a bit smug. Weiss flushed.
"I can help serve," she said, doing her best to preserve dignity. Not, Blake suspected, because she thought that serving food was beneath her, but because the one time she'd tried to heat dinner in the cafeteria microwave she'd set off the fire alarm.
Cardin just grunted, which meant that he probably couldn't cook either. Blake sighed. "Fine, I can help in the kitchen."
"Don't be so pissy," Cardin grumbled. "Do you want to poison everyone in here?"
"My cooking isn't poisonous," Weiss hissed at him. He raised an eyebrow.
"I could pick a random mushroom out of the forest and tell you it was a truffle, and you'd have no idea."
"I'd know not to trust you to give me ingredients!"
Blake threw up her hands and marched into the back of the bar, hoping that the two of them would at least try to act like they didn't hate each other. Maybe she could have broken up the bickering, but she didn't trust herself not to get drawn in instead. Cardin had that effect on people.
Just because she was the best chef out of the three of them, didn't mean she was great. In the end Anolis followed her, and she ended up chopping vegetables while he did the actual cooking. He worked in silence for several minutes, then said, "I can't believe they made you work with the Schnee."
Blake twitched and accidentally scored a deep groove into the cutting board. "I couldn't either, until I actually got to know her. She's a good person."
He gave her a skeptical look, but didn't push.
Several tense minutes later Blake came out to what was left of the splintered bar and put down the tray of food. She was just in time to witness a small boy coming up to Weiss. He was trailing plain brown feathers she suspected would be a riot of color after puberty, as well as a shock of cobalt hair sticking up in every direction. There was a bandage around one ankle, and he had the scruffy look of someone who hadn't had the chance to shower and change clothes in a few days.
He rushed right up to Weiss and grabbed her right sleeve. She jumped and snatched it back, but once she got a look at the boy she relaxed and smiled. "Hello there."
"I'm Pavo." The kid produced a crumpled candy wrapper from his pocket and held it out to her. "Do you know Brine and Raspberry?"
Intrigued, Blake abandoned the food and wandered over. Weiss was examining the wrapper, turning it this way and that as if she was checking for a watermark. When she handed it over, Blake realized it was actually a matter of reading the ink that had been smudged into borderline illegibility.
IOU ... h—ry Hun—n badg—
The signature was even worse, but Blake could make out the initials—YXL—and that gave her pretty strong idea of who had written it.
"A badge, huh?" she said.
The little boy nodded. "I'm an honorary Huntsman now!"
Blake hummed thoughtfully. "Well, I'm sure my partner here can fix something up for you." She'd expected Weiss to make a face at her, since she'd just lobbed all responsibility for the sudden arts and crafts project squarely in her lap, but she only smiled at the little kid.
"I'll need some time—I don't think we have any badges in stock at the moment."
Then she shot Blake a side-long smirk. "Of course, I'll need help gathering materials..."
"Of course." She plastered on a smile. I should have known that was too easy.
They got permission from Anolis—who gave Weiss a bemused look when she explained the situation—and told Cardin to stay put, serve food, and behave. He scowled and said he wasn't a fucking dog, but that wasn't a no, so hopefully it would be fine. Blake resolved to make the trip as quick as possible just in case.
So that was how the two of them ended up alone together in the back of an office supply store, helping themselves to a safety pin, a magic marker, a rectangle of cardboard, and about twenty square inches of tinfoil. Weiss left a note listing the items taken and a lot more lien than they were worth, which hopefully wouldn't be stolen before the actual owner got back. If they got back.
Blake sat on a counter, watching Weiss cut out a cardboard badge roughly the same shape as Jaune's shield. "Congratulations," she said, after a while.
"You talked to a child and he didn't run away."
Weiss threw some of the cardboard scrap at her head, but she completely failed to hide a smile. She squinted at the badge in front of her, rubbed her good eye, then huffed and pulled off the eye patch. The dead eye opened, but Blake's stomach didn't drop. There was only a distant, dull throb of guilt.
Then Weiss started to fidget, and the silence grew tense. She positioned and adjusted the tinfoil, smoothing out all the wrinkles. "What's wrong?" Blake asked, when watching it grew unbearable.
Weiss winced. "Um. I probably shouldn't..."
"If I don't want to talk about it, I'll say so."
Her hands stilled, with one holding the badge by its edges and the other limp across its surface. "We never really discussed what happened with... him."
"And I do think that objectively he was a terrible person, but... so are certain other people, and I'd understand if your reaction is a bit more complicated than that."
Blake thought that over for a moment, kicking absently at the counter. "I don't know... it's all such a jumbled mess that I haven't managed to feel upset or relieved, yet."
Weiss nodded, then returned her attention to the badge. She took some tape for the back, added that to her list, and left another ten lien. "I just wanted to say that I'm... around. If you want to talk to someone." She looked intensely uncomfortable, though whether that was because of the subject matter or just general awkwardness around conversations like this, Blake couldn't tell.
She wasn't sure she'd take her up on the offer any time soon. At the very least, in order to talk about how she felt she'd have to figure that out. It was hard to reconcile the picture in her head of Adam's expression right after she'd kissed him for the first time, wide-eyed and gaping like a fish, with the masked monster that finally managed to make a serious attempt to kill her—and harder still to connect those two versions of him to the empty shell, lying facedown in a bloody puddle.
"Are you okay?" she asked, surprising even herself. "I know it had to happen, he wouldn't have stopped until he'd killed us, but... it was your sister who shot him."
Weiss went still, her hand poised over the magic marker. "Oh. Um."
"Sorry, I didn't—"
"No! No, it's fine." She sighed, then uncapped the marker. "I knew she'd... that's part of being a military specialist, obviously. It's just different seeing it."
Blake sighed. "Right. Let's talk about... something else."
Silence, except for the squeaking of the marker.
"So... is this what you expected to be doing when you woke up this morning?"
Weiss giggled. "No, I can't say that it is."
They settled into a more comfortable rhythm, then. Blake watched over Weiss' shoulder as she finished writing Honorary Huntsman in big bold letters across the top. That left space near the middle, in which she drew a circle.
"What's that for?"
"I thought perhaps a symbol?" Weiss said. "Though I don't know what, exactly."
"Here." Blake took both marker and badge and did her best to draw Yang's burning heart in the empty space. It came out a little bit smudged, but she thought it was at least a passable imitation considering she hadn't seen it that often.
Weiss hummed appreciatively and capped the marker, then returned all the borrowed supplies to their proper places. She held the makeshift badge up, tilting it back and forth so that it caught the light. "What do you think?"
"It's beautiful," Blake said, resting her chin on her hand. Weiss turned and raised an eyebrow.
"You've been reading far too many of those books." This time it was Blake's turn to throw bits of cardboard and pretend not to smile.
Another silence descended, almost as tense as the first. Weiss kept turning the badge over and over in her hands. Blake got down from the counter and then paused. "What is it?"
Weiss twitched. "I was trying to think of a better way to ask, but... can I kiss you?"
Blake stared at her for a second, then muffled a laugh. "I don't think you've been reading enough of those books."
Weiss grumbled something highly insulting about an entire genre of literature that Blake ignored for the sake of not starting an argument now of all times.
"But the answer is yes."
They both leaned in. Blake only barely managed to adjust in time when Weiss tilted her head left instead of right. She was momentarily struck by how strange it felt to be the taller one. Then, contact.
The comparison was reflexive, and entirely favorable. It felt like a knot in her stomach had been loosened. No sparks, no fireworks—just warmth, gentle pressure, and a deep sense of peace.
Weiss leaned away, looking a little bit stunned. Both eyes were wide, and for once Blake looked at the dead one without feeling even the slightest stab. She could see her own expression reflected in it—she was grinning widely, which would have been a little embarrassing if she hadn't been looking at, well... someone who was staring at her and gaping like a fish.
Another comparison. It didn't bother her as much as she would have expected. She wasn't sure she'd ever muster up the same blind faith she had in Adam, or believe that another relationship could be a flawless, fairytale, ride-off-into-the-sunset sort of affair, but she knew this one was strong—not because they were perfect but because they had despised one another. Considering how stubborn they both were, arguments were inevitable, but she had proof positive that they could go from enemies to friends. That felt more solid than a perfect fit ever could.
They soon returned to the bar, ostensibly to make sure Cardin hadn't caused an international incident but actually because Weiss seemed slightly overwhelmed and in need of time to think. Blake chose to interpret that as a good sign, mostly because when she'd gone in for a hug it had been reciprocated immediately, without the initial stiffness she was used to.
When they walked back in, they found Cardin spooning soup into the bowl of an old woman with a shawl, while a six-year-old monkey faunus with an auburn tail rode on his shoulders and tugged his hair. He ignored her completely, and she treated him like she'd just watched him crush a Beringel's skull with his bare hands. Jaune was leaning against the counter with his scroll out, recording the entire thing. Cardin was ignoring him, too, much more pointedly.
"You're here," Blake said. Jaune looked up and grinned.
"Yeah. For some reason I felt the need to make sure none of you had killed each other."
"Hey!" Weiss glared at him. "If anyone was going to die, it'd be Cardin."
He didn't make any rude gestures at her, but Blake was pretty sure that was only because of the child he was wearing as a hat.
"Where's Pavo?" Weiss asked. She didn't hold up the badge, which Blake thought was wise—there weren't any other kids that she could see, besides the one sitting on Cardin's shoulders, but she couldn't shake the worry that they would be swarmed if it was brought out into the open.
Pavo rushed up to Weiss eagerly, then paused and stared. Blake realized they'd both completely forgotten about the eye patch—it was still in the store. She winced, bracing for trouble, but he just grinned toothily and proclaimed, "Cool!" Weiss slipped him the badge, and he ruined any and all possible attempts at secrecy by squealing with delight and showing it off to his father, the barman, and anyone else he could find. When he left, it was still pinned proudly to his chest.
"Take a break," Anolis told them afterwards, gesturing at a table in one corner. He even let them have some of the food, which made Blake realize just how hungry she was.
Cardin rolled his neck, making exaggerated pained noises and complaining that it was going to be stiff for hours. Weiss suggested wearing a brace next time, and he said that he'd rather fight a Deathstalker one-on-one than interact with another damn rugrat.
Weiss stared him down for a few seconds, then smirked. "Liar."
"Hey, you're probably small enough, if you want a ride—"
"Why on earth would I want to do that?"
"To be taller than me."
There was a moment's pause. Blake couldn't help it—she snickered, because Weiss had gone red from anger and embarrassment and Cardin was leaning away from her with a look of dawning apprehension. Then he chuckled nervously, and Weiss had to turn her head to hide a smirk. Jaune leaned back, watching the interaction with a strange expression on his face.
"Hey," he said quietly. "Uh... I had this idea..."
"I'm not riding Cardin into battle like a warhorse. That's what Deathstalkers are for."
"...Good to know." He cleared his throat, then grinned sheepishly. "I was wondering, uh... I know things are kind of crazy with, um... Okay, I'm not saying this super well but I wanted to invite everyone to maybe stay with me for a while over the break?" He scratched his head. "Because, uh... to be honest, my parents didn't believe me when I told them we're an actual team now." Cardin snorted, then let his head drop to the table and laughed into the wood.
"Well." Weiss raised both eyebrows. "I'd offer to do the same, but I don't hate any of you that much."
"I can't host either," Cardin said. "My folks'd probably flip meeting any of you."
"Any of us?" Jaune blinked. "Wait."
"My dad hates faunus," Cardin ticked off a finger, "Schnees," another finger, "And noodles."
"Noodles? What does that have to do with—hey!"
"I could introduce you to my parents," Blake blurted out, before she lost the nerve. All conversation stopped dead. Three pairs of eyes trained on her at once. "What?"
"You have parents?" Cardin said. Jaune whipped his head around and kicked his partner in the shin.
"Yeah." Blake looked down at the table. "We didn't part on the best of terms, but... I think it would be good to talk to them again. In the worst case we could find a ship back right afterwards."
"A ship?" Weiss asked.
"They live on Menagerie."
Jaune agreed enthusiastically and started scribbling down logistics on a napkin—like when they'd go from his hometown to Menagerie, and where they'd stay on the way, and where they'd get the money for all this. Cardin looked leery of the idea, but after mulling it over for a moment he shrugged and nodded.
"Is that..." Weiss trailed off, rethinking her choice of words. "That is to say, would it be alright for me to be there? I wouldn't want to cause an incident."
Blake thought about it for a moment. "I think it'll be alright. Some people will be... stiff, and even those that aren't will need time to warm up to you, but... I think it'd be good for you know what it's like there. To talk to them."
Weiss nodded slowly. "I'd like that," she decided.
"Great!" Jaune clapped his hands together. "Let's do it!"
Cardin smirked. "You sure about that, Jaune?"
Jaune looked around, alarmed. "Wait, what? Did I miss something?"
"Yep." Cardin leaned back in his seat, glancing between Blake and Jaune with a growing smirk. "Both of you have made a horrible mistake."
Weiss raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
Jaune blanched. Blake tried to imagine what would happen if Cardin asked her mother for embarrassing photographs—she was pretty sure there was at least one of her stuck in a tree that she hadn't managed to burn yet. She weighed her options, then stood up and looked him dead in the eye.
"Ask," she said, "and the rest of us are going to have to spend the break disposing of a body."
Forever Fall wasn't so special this time of year, but that didn't make it any less beautiful. Scarlet leaves drifted on the wind, swirling gently around them, and it was all Ruby could do to keep walking and not just stop and stare.
Unlike BRYN, they'd actually gotten permission to leave Beacon. Goodwitch had suggested that they take the trip, because Pyrrha needed to practice with the Maiden powers and they couldn't risk anyone seeing. So here they were, in the middle of nowhere. Just the three of them.
Ruby kicked at some of the fallen leaves. Suddenly the forest around them lost its appeal—she wished she were back in the dorm, with Yang trying to hug her to death and Jaune making awkward small talk and Nora steering them to safer topics. But they needed to do this—or more specifically, Pyrrha needed to do this so she wouldn't just explode.
They were leaving a trail, now—the leaves kept icing over as Pyrrha stepped on them. She'd tried to turn it off when they first started walking, but now she wasn't bothering. It wasn't much, just a light dusting of frost, the sort of thing everyone would soon be finding on the ground every morning as winter approached.
Finally, Ruby decided that they were far enough away to stop. If anyone was still around, it was because they were being followed and no one would do that unless they already knew. Or something. She was going to have to get used to the fact that people might be hunting them. Not something to look forward to.
"Okay," she said quietly. "I guess we start the lesson?"
Pyrrha nodded. "Professor Goodwitch will be able to help me starting a few days from now, but with all the repairs..."
"Yeah." Ruby looked around. "So, um... what do we do?"
"I'm supposed to use one element at a time. Like maintaining a ball of flame or a gust of wind, or making sparks without letting the electricity arc." She sat down cross-legged on the carpet of leaves, and the other two each plopped down next to her. None of them looked at the empty space on Ren's other side. There was a mid-sized rock jutting up from the ground, and farther on a cliff overlooking an empty railroad track. A single tree stood in the center of the clearing, its leaves drifting gently to the ground.
Ruby tried to focus on the little puff of fire Pyrrha held between her hands, but her thoughts kept wandering. It was hard to think of anything except the absence, the places where Sky should have been and suddenly wasn't—and when she wasn't thinking about that, she was thinking about how much all of this reminded her of mom.
"Are you alright?" Ren nudged her elbow. She drew it away and nodded. The flame flared up, then guttered until it was almost extinguished.
"How long are you supposed to do this for?" Ruby asked.
"As long as I can," Pyrrha replied, sounding... clipped. Terse.
Pyrrha twitched, and the flame flared up again. She still didn't say anything. Ruby fidgeted with her cloak and blinked back tears. She didn't want to cry. After the last few days, she was sick of it—it just left her feeling hollowed out and too sleepy to do anything.
"Does it... um. Does it feel better, now? The power, I mean. Now that... um..." Ruby stopped. That wasn't something she should have brought up. Pyrrha tensed, and the fire spread all the way up to her elbows.
"Yes," she said shortly. "It wasn't stable split up that way. Now... I feel whole again." That should have been a good thing, but the way she spoke it didn't sound like it.
"Okay." Ruby swallowed nervously. "So, is... is it stronger, do you think, or—"
Pyrrha flinched, and suddenly flames roared out, charring the leaves they were sitting on. Ruby and Ren both jerked away, though their auras protected them from the worst of it. "I'm sorry," Pyrrha mumbled. "I just... I can't do it, every time I try it just—" Another gout of fire, this time washing over the ground in front of her. She snarled in frustration and slashed her hand through the air. This time fire snapped out, whip-like, catching the lone tree and lighting it up like a matchstick. It only lasted a moment before it cracked, trembled, and fell.
Ruby exchanged a wide-eyed look with Ren, then turned to Pyrrha. She was staring at the fallen tree, mouth slightly open, eyes tearing up.
"This is all it's good for," she murmured. "Destroying things."
"I don't think that's true." Ren crouched down and snapped off a branch that had escaped some but not all of the flames. He whipped it through the air to put out any lingering fire, then approached the rock and scraped the stick across its face, leaving bold black lines.
The silhouette he sketched out wasn't complicated—the shape of a person in profile, holding a halberd over his head. Ruby swallowed, then wiped furiously at her eyes. Pyrrha half-sat, half-collapsed beside Ren, who was kneeling in front of his drawing. Ruby joined them, mostly because she didn't think she could stay standing even if she wanted to.
She reached out, running a finger along the stick. It came away smudged black, and on a crazy whim no doubt influenced by all the time she'd been spending with Nora over the past couple days, she turned and poked Ren in the nose. He reared his head back, staring at her in bewilderment. Paused. Then sneezed.
Ruby burst into giggles, and halfway through she honestly had no idea if the little huffs of breath she was making were laughter or sobs. She wiped at her face, then realized a second later that she'd used the wrong hand and there was probably ash on her cheek.
"Oops," she said, and that set off Pyrrha. Even Ren cracked a smile.
"We've done this before," Ruby said, when the last giggles had died away. "Not talking about stuff that's bothering us."
Ren's little smile faded, and she wished she'd just kept her dumb mouth shut because that would only make it worse, and—
"You're right." He turned to face the rock, brushing his fingers across its surface and smudging a few of the lines.
"I wasn't looking for a new friend when I arrived here," he told the image, "but I found three. I'm glad I had the chance to know you, even if only briefly." He touched the stone again, and Ruby got the sense that he was trying to spread his semblance over it. She couldn't tell if it had worked or not. Maybe if Sky was somewhere else now, he'd notice. Maybe it was just for Ren.
Pyrrha paused, then approached their makeshift memorial and traced the outline Ren had drawn. Where her finger passed over the rough surface, she left a little groove as the heat of her hand melted the stone. It made the air around her uncomfortably warm, but once she was done it cooled down again almost instantly.
"Thank you," she murmured. "For laughing at me when I asked you to." Ruby didn't get what that was supposed to mean, but she decided not to ask—now didn't feel like the right time.
She had to think for a second, but she eventually figured out what she could do. "We didn't bring flowers," she told the stone, "but I've got these." She scattered some of the petals her semblance left behind. They vanished among the red leaves, barely distinguishable except for the fact that they were smaller, rounder, and softer. She hoped that it was the thought that counted.
"You were the first teammate I really got," Ruby told Sky. "Mostly since we were both super awkward and had no idea what we were doing. And I think that helped me make friends with Pyrrha and Ren and everyone else. I probably would have failed all my theory if it weren't for you, and... and I had a lot of fun sparring with you. You were getting really good!"
She paused, struggling for words. Then, finally, "We miss you." That wasn't what she'd been trying to say, but she thought that maybe it was the kind of thing she wouldn't be able to put into words until later. She could always come back, maybe after the break. The statue in the courtyard wasn't Sky's alone, but this was—and it wasn't going anywhere.
There was another moment of silence. Ruby felt like they were all trying to think of the perfect phrase to cap off the impromptu memorial service. None of them could articulate it, though, so they just turned around and walked back towards Beacon. She liked to think Sky would know what they were trying to say anyway.
"We should bring an acorn next time," Ruby said, on an impulse that hadn't quite fully formed yet. Ren and Pyrrha both looked at her in mild surprise.
"Yeah." She nodded, warming to the idea. "We can plant it where that old tree was. Or maybe behind the rock, so that as it gets bigger it does that thing old trees do where it grows over it, like a living picture frame. Something like that."
"It'd be covered over completely, one day," Ren pointed out.
"That's okay. We'd know it was there, and... it doesn't need to be around for everyone to see. It's our spot."
Pyrrha smiled. "Let's do that—but we'll take it from the Emerald Forest. That way we'll always be able to find it."
Ruby nodded eagerly. "Then like fifty years from now, someone'll see it from one of those trains. And they'll wonder how the heck a bunch of green got into Forever Fall."
Ren stared up into the canopy, the dappled light falling on his face. There was still a dark smudge on the tip of his nose. "And in a hundred years, that stone won't have weathered away. It'll be safe inside the tree." He turned his head to look at them. "It's not permanent, but it will last."
Thus decided, the three of them started the long walk back to Beacon.
And... there 'tis. This gigantic thing is finished, and can I just say that wow, I did not do the math for four arcs of twelve chapters at all. I mean... I started this thinking yeah, this'll be a nice, medium-length project and then I got nearer to the end and I was like... okay, I guess medium isn't happening.
Anyways. I hope people enjoyed reading it, since I had a ton of fun writing it!