Chapter 1: Welcome to Beacon
Taiyang Xiao Long had never been to this part of California before.
He had seen Beacon Academy before, sure, but he didn't think he would actually be accepted. He was the son of a proud Navy man who served America in World War II on the USS South Dakota, almost right from the beginning once Pearl Harbor was attacked, and felt it was his duty to continue the family legacy of military service. His bags were by his side, and he had appeared as the letter told him to – white shirt, khaki shorts, comfortable shoes. The campus was abuzz with activity, with olive drab-clad soldiers directing those like him around. Many of them held clipboards and pens, marking things off or taking note of something. So far, August of 1960 was looking good.
“You!” someone shouted, approaching Taiyang with a clipboard. “Name!”
“Taiyang Xiao Long!”
“Xiao Long, huh?” he said, scanning his clipboard. “Alright, you're on here. Go to Everett Hall, that's your new home, cadet.”
“HEY! Do not address me as 'sir,' I work for a living! Call me 'sergeant,' is that understood?!”
Taiyang grabbed his bags, rushing to the assigned hall. Once in there, another soldier directed him to a room, having him drop off his bags and moving him to another hallway. In this hall, he stood in a line with countless others. There were so many – men, women, teenagers like him, and one or two older ones whose ages he couldn't place. A sergeant walked up and down the line, almost casually, an eagle eye out for anything he deemed unacceptable.
The line inched ever forward, and soon he arrived at a desk with another one, faced with two sergeants ordering him to rattle off his name and giving him a room and company assignment. Braeburn Hall, Room 22, Golf Company. Taiyang soon got a so-called Knowledge sheet, filled out what felt like a mountain of paperwork, and received a basic medical exam before returning to a massive field, gathered up with at least a hundred others. They were taken to a building, packed in like sardines, and introduced to Beacon's various specialty units, like mountaineers, Rogue Platoon, the campus band and the chaplain corps.
An officer stepped into the room, far more senior than any other he had seen so far. The sergeants ordered them to stand up and salute, as an officer with brown hair and small, round glasses headed up to the stage. He slowly scanned the cadets before him as he returned the salute and waited for them to return to their seats.
“Cadets of the class of 1964,” he said, “welcome to Beacon. I am Major Ozpin, your new Commandant. Our previous Commandant is with us tonight, so let us give Commandant McKinney a round of applause for his hard work and dedication in training new soldiers of the US Army.”
The cadets, new and old alike, gave a short round of applause for their former Commandant.
“You have all come here for one thing: to become officers of this grand army. I will tell you right away that, for many of you, such a thing is impossible. If you were not already aware, Beacon is of the habit that only a small percentage of all cadets receive a commission. Do not let this dissuade you. I see many new faces, and I see many women, a trend I am glad to see now that Congress has lifted the restrictions on women serving in our armed forces. I am sure all of you will train hard, and fight even harder if given the chance. The future awaits you, cadets, and it is up to you to seize it. Class of 1964, you have four years to prove your worth, why you deserve to be officers of the United States Army. Good luck, ladies and gentlemen.”
Once the specialty units had been given a chance to talk, they were again marched outside into formations. In an undisciplined mob, they ran to their barracks, where they were berated by the so-called “First Sergeant” for a crime he wasn't sure he had committed.
He had no idea how long it had been before he was allowed to phone home. He was sure someone would be there, but who? Dad might have fallen asleep. Mom was too deaf to hear the phone ring. Had Dad called over Taiyang's aunts and uncles to wait around the phone? The phone rang once, twice, three times before someone picked it up.
“Hello?” It was Dad. Finally, a friendly voice in all this madness.
“Hey dad,” he said, relief washing over him. “It's me, Tai.”
“Ah, so you made it there alright. How's it going?”
“Uh,” Taiyang said, nervously laughing. “It's uh...a bit more intense than I thought. I think we'll just have to see.”
“Well, no matter what, I'm proud of you, son. You're gonna go far.”
“Thank you, Dad.” Taiyang saw the sergeant wave his finger in a circle. Time to wrap it up. “I gotta go, Dad. See you all in a week.”
“See you then, Tai. Remember who you are.”
Taiyang's turn at the phone was replaced by another kid like him, with jet-black hair and a stoic look on his face. Exercises and drills on seemingly random things occupied the rest of their time until finally, Taiyang was released to his room.
Or, at least, part of his room. He was shadowed back to the dorm by two others, both who seemed incredibly calm given the circumstances. For Taiyang, his heart had been beating a million miles a second ever since the sergeants first started yelling at him. The guy followed him into the room, folding his arms as he leaned against the desk provided for them.
“So, I guess we're roommates,” the other guy said. His voice was rough, gravelly, almost like he was twenty years older.
“I guess so,” Taiyang said, holding out a hand. “I'm Taiyang Xiao Long.”
“Qrow Branwen,” his roommate said, keeping his arms secured to himself.
“Hey, what're the chances, bro,” said a girl with black hair and a cocky smile, appearing around the corner. “Wonder what genius gave us a dorm together?”
“Uh, I'm sorry,” Tai asked. “You're…?”
“Raven Branwen,” the girl said, flipping back a lock of rogue hair. “I guess my roommate's not here yet. Maybe they quit. More chances for me.”
“Wait, are you guys like…?”
“Yeah,” Qrow said, smiling. “She's my sister. We put the same company on our applications, didn't think they'd give us a dorm next to each other.”
“I didn't know you could request a company,” Taiyang said.
“Hey, some people go for it. Family ties, like the name, that kind of thing,” Raven said, shrugging.
A knock came at the door, and in came a short girl with black hair that faded to red at the tips, with piercing silver eyes. “Uh, hello?” she said, meekly walking in with a bag over her shoulder. “Um, this is room 22, right?”
“Right place,” Raven said, turning to greet the newcomer. “You my roommate?”
“Uh...Raven Branwen, right? I'm Summer Rose.”
“Welcome to hell,” Qrow said, getting off the desk. “Why weren't you here with everyone else?”
“Oh, I was on the train from Louisiana,” Summer said, depositing her bag in her and Raven's shared room. “Are you guys all local?”
“Nah,” Raven said. “My bro and I are from Arizona.”
“Uh, I'm actually from California,” Taiyang chimed in. “Maybe I can show you guys around after Induction Week.”
“We'll just see if we all survive,” Raven said. “I know Qrow and I will. Dunno if you two have seen anything like this.”
Banging came at the door. “Stop talking and go to sleep! Lights out!” a sergeant shouted. That sealed it. No more time to talk. Poor Summer – she barely had any time to even settle in.
Taiyang slept like a log, until he was woken up by a sergeant practically kicking in their dorm, trashcan lid in hand, banging a stick against it.
“WAKE UP!” he shouted. “Get dressed, get in the Pit! You have one minute!”
The sergeant soon left, off to terrorize other cadets. Taiyang could already hear more sergeants shouting, each with their own instruments of chaos to wake the sleepy cadets up. He looked out the window – it was still dark out. What time was it? Did it even matter?
The groggy cadets assembled in the Pit, where First Sergeant Ahearn stood overlooking them. He was a stern soldier, standing at a towering 6'4” and with a deep, booming voice that commanded respect.
“Good morning, Golf!”
“Good morning, First Sergeant!”
“I see we have some new faces among our company tonight. You late arrivals, do not be worried. I am a fair man. This is the new Army! I do not discriminate against Negroes, Jews, women, greasers. Here, you are all equally worthless until you show me that you deserve to wear the badge of honor we know as the Lighthouse Brigade patch. Today, Golf, we will be filling out more medical information, gentlemen, you will be getting haircuts, and we will set up bank accounts in your name here in California.”
The company was soon moved out to breakfast, and once breakfast had been finished, they were marched to the library. Squads had already been established now – Taiyang's squad consisted of him, Summer Rose, and the Branwen siblings. How convenient, he thought.
“Cadet Xiao Long!” Sergeant Wakefield said. “Drop your Knowledge.”
“Tell me about the First General Order.”
“Sergeant, I will...uh...I will...”
Sergeant Wakefield raised an eyebrow. “Any day now, Cadet.”
“Sergeant, I will obey my special orders in a military manner!”
The sergeant looked at him for a few moments, before blinking slowly. “Cadet, that's your Second General Order. Even if that was what I had asked you, you'd be wrong. Your First General Order is 'I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved.' Study your Knowledge.”
Taiyang studied this Knowledge sheet. It was full of information he wasn't sure he'd ever use, from details about something called an M14, campus traditions, notes on guns located around campus, the aforementioned general orders, and short songs. What was the purpose of most of this?
Eventually, his squad's turn through the library was next. He went down a gauntlet of sergeants, each yelling at him to move faster. He received a short medical questionnaire from bored officers asking about allergies, and sent on his way to talk to local banks. None were necessary for him – he already had a bank that operated around San Francisco. He escaped the building not much worse for wear, all things considered.
They went to the campus barbershop next, where a line of men standing out the door waiting for haircuts was matched by four men at a time leaving, with bald heads and faces. They all managed to look the same, somehow. The only way he knew there was a difference between them was when one appeared with glasses, or a different skin tone.
He and Qrow were shoved into the building, two dollars in hand, waiting for their turn at the chairs. A team of barbers quickly and efficiently shaved off hair, with massive piles of it on the floor. Occasionally, someone came by with a broom, sweeping the mass of lost hair out a back door.
“Got your money?” the barber asked, his razor buzzing. Taiyang handed over his two dollars, and the barber gestured for him to take a seat, whipping a cloak over Taiyang's chest. Slowly, he watched as his hair began to fall off his head, replaced by short, stubby pricks of hair. The barber's work was over almost before it began, and soon he was practically shoving Taiyang out of the chair and out the door so he could work on another cadet.
Outside, he saw Rose and Raven Branwen studying their Knowledge, both briefly glancing over to sneak a peek at their squadmate's new appearances. They were later taken to a Military Learning Institute, marched into one of its buildings and gathered around a massive hunk of metal that Taiyang barely identified as a gun.
“This, cadets,” began Captain Powell, “is the M1919A4 machine gun. It weighs thirty one pounds and fires 30-06 Springfield ammunition at a rate of five hundred rounds per minute up to fifteen hundred yards away. Furthermore, it is fed by a single 250-round ammunition belt. You, cadets, will not be handling this weapon as it is a loan from the United States Army, and is destined for Denmark after today.”
The disappointment from some of the cadets was palpable. However, Captain Powell placated them by showing them how to disassemble a Browning Automatic Rifle, sufficient compensation for the time being. After being shown how to take this weapon apart, they were taken back to barracks for lectures on how to address superiors, how to organize the various gear they would be getting tomorrow, and a preview of the “fun events” the next day as well.
One by one, the four new cadets filed back into their dorm. Taiyang took a chair, sighing heavily. It had been a long day, and he was barely two days into Induction Week.
“What,” Qrow asked, “giving up already?”
“No, just...tired, I guess.”
Qrow scoffed. “Real world's going to be a lot harder than this, Xiao Long. Gotta learn to suck it up.”
“Gee, real comforting.”
“He's right, you know,” Raven said, turning the corner. “We're signing up for heavy-duty work here. It's not gonna be easy.”
“I don't think any of us doubted that,” Rose said. “I knew it'd be hard.”
“Did you?” Raven countered, raising an eyebrow. “Was anyone in your family military?”
“My dad died in Italy fighting the Germans.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Raven said. “What about you, Xiao Long?”
“My dad was Navy in World War Two,” he explained. “I'm the first to go to college, be an officer.”
“If you survive,” Qrow reminded him.
“What's your deal, anyway?” Taiyang asked. “Do you just not like me, or is it something else?”
“Nah. I'm just realistic. This academy doesn't hand out commissions like some others do.”
“We've all heard the stories, Branwen,” Rose said. “Only the top 1% earn a commission from here.”
“Exactly,” Qrow said, wagging a finger at her. “Now's the time to either get down to brass tacks, or shut the hell up and let the rest of us work.”
“All this talk about military backgrounds,” Taiyang said, “and I don't think I heard if your family has any.”
“Don't know, don't care,” Qrow said, shrugging. “I'm here to blaze my own path.”
Banging came at their door. “Lights out! Go to sleep!”
They were woken up early again, by another hellish cacophony of trash can lids and blunt instruments. They were formed up quickly, informed they would be competing in the Ultimate Company Challenge, and paired with a direct order from First Sergeant Ahearn that they would beat all other companies, or he would have them do PT until they died. Given how serious the First Sergeant usually was, Taiyang didn't doubt this threat.
They also were informed that they would be getting uniforms and gear today, courtesy of the American people. It was impressed upon them that they should treat all equipment given to them by the government with care and respect, and that anyone caught not doing so would be punished severely. How they planned to enforce this, Taiyang didn't know.
The sun had barely risen as they headed out onto the campus, subjected to volley after volley of physical exercises, including but certainly not limited to, pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups and a bizarre exercise that had them move a giant tire around the drill field. After three hours, they had been gathered back in front of their barracks and informed that Golf company had crushed the day's exercises, earning first place among the companies. Four others still had to go, though, so there was a chance their first-place victory could be knocked out.
Further exercises included carrying water cans across the drill field, pushing a car around a parking lot, and water exercises. For those who hadn't learned how to swim, like Qrow, they were given basic swimming lessons and then shoved out of the pool.
Once the exercises had been completed, they were rounded up again and sent to the supply depot, where waiting sergeants began measuring them, threw uniforms and gear, and haphazardly tossed boots into the air. Soon, the supply depot was a sea of confused cadets holding green clothes and black boots, desperately trying to fit them all in a garrison bag before the sergeants lost their patience. They returned to the barracks to put their newly-granted items in their rooms, and then collected back in the Pit to receive lectures on proper uniform wear and lessons on how to make their rooms inspection-ready.
Another day, another exhausted Taiyang. He could hear Summer and Raven in the next room, talking about tomorrow's events. All they knew was it was at a place called the Emerald Forest, part of a supposed “fun” day. Given how First Sergeant Ahearn thought PT was a good time, none of them felt that his words had any truth to them.
“You hear anything about this place before you come here, Tai?” Qrow asked, stretching his back out.
“Nah, I came here blind, really.”
“Hmm,” Qrow said, turning his attention to a rogue fingernail.
Suddenly, Raven appeared around the corner, dragging Rose with her by the wrist. “Hey, guys, listen to this, Summer here's a total redneck, it's awesome.”
“Aw, come on, Raven…” Rose complained.
“No, no, no,” Raven said, trying to placate her. “It's cool. We're all friends here, yeah? Come on, I think it's cool. What was it you said you did over the summers back home?”
Rose sighed, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “I hunted gators.”
Qrow let out a massive belly laugh, while Taiyang just stared, halfway shocked and surprised. “Oh man,” Qrow said, still laughing. “That's a good one, sis. No, really, what was it you did, Rose? Help Mama out with making a quilt or two?”
“No,” Rose said, frowning. “I hunted gators. My father taught me when I was about nine, and...well, I've been doing it since.”
“Bull,” Qrow shot back, matching her frown. “No way you could handle that.”
“Hey, if you wanna come to the bayou, I'll show you. I've bagged over sixty gators, and that's all confirmed.”
“Wait,” Taiyang asked, confused. “I thought you said your dad died in Italy?”
Rose nodded. “He did. My dad died, but my mom remarried when I was, uh…six I think? That sounds about right.”
“Huh, alright then,” he said.
“Well, what do you do with the gators after?” Qrow asked.
“Skin 'em and sell them, usually. Sometimes we eat them, but that's only if we get small ones. The big ones do better at the market.”
“Wow,” Taiyang said. “My perspective of you has completely changed.”
Banging came at their door, followed quickly by the usual order to stop talking, turn off their lights, and go to sleep.
Once again, they were waken up early. It was still dark when they marched outside, first for inspection and then again to the drill field. Today, their exercises were of a different variety. Their squads were assembled, and one by one each squad was sent up to face the gauntlet ahead of them. Sergeant Murphy stood at the drill field, standing next to a litter with water cans on it.
“Listen up, Golf!” he shouted. “Delta company took our number one spot. What is our company motto, Lightbulbs?”
“Never conquered, always feared, Sergeant!” they shouted.
“That's right! Golf, your objective today is to take this stretcher, which represents a casualty, out to that traffic cone and then back here as fast as you can! Do not drop your buddy, cadets! If you drop your buddy, I swear to every God on Earth I will fucking wreck you, do you understand me?”
Sergeant Murphy grabbed a clipboard and a pen, ordering Taiyang and his squad to step up. Taiyang took up the rear with Rose, while the Branwen siblings were up front. Taiyang could feel the wood already start to dig into the palms of his hands. A whistle was blown, and they started running. Unexpectedly, the cans were full of water, making them even heavier than he expected.
“Move!” Raven shouted, pulling the stretcher with her as she rounded the corner. “What the hell are you doing?!”
Their task here done, Taiyang and his squad got a moment of rest, watching the others run a back and forth line across the drill field. They rotated to another station, with more water-filled cans laid out in front of them. They were divided into two formations, separated about half the length of a football field. Individually, they would pick up these cans and run them back and forth as many times and as fast as possible before five minutes were up.
Once again, Taiyang was one of the first. He grabbed a water can, lifting it up and taking it into both of his arms, and once the whistle had been blown, broke into a dead sprint across the drill field. He could hear the water sloshing as he ran, feel the metal dig into his elbows and chest as he tried to keep it upright.
Another early morning. This time, there was no saluting the flag outside, or a morning formation in the Pit. Today, they were marched outside and into waiting buses, taken to some landscape far away from the campus. It was still dark as they were led off the buses and then began a night march towards the Ranger Station, without a hint of sunlight until well after they had been walking for far longer than Taiyang thought his legs had the strength for. No talking was allowed, and water breaks were strictly forbidden. At the Ranger Station, they were again reorganized into their companies, and after hearing some rather inspiring speeches from senior officers about the value of teamwork, cooperation, and self-confidence, all of which they'd be learning about today, breakfast was handed out.
Unfortunately, this breakfast consisted of the sergeants opening up a box labeled “Ration, Combat” and tossing small cardboard boxes to them. Taiyang opened his up to see a collection of small cans, one of which was labeled “Boned Chicken,” while the others supposedly had cookies, white bread, jam, and meat loaf. There also was another, smaller can, labeled an accessory pack that had cigarettes, gum, coffee and other various items. It wasn't food from the chow hall, but it was better than nothing. There wasn't a way for them to heat up their meats, and so all Taiyang could do was eat it cold. Hardly a gourmet meal, but food was food.
Once breakfast was finished, they were again organized into their companies, where Golf was marched up a hill. Upon reaching the top of the hill, they were told that their company got the honor of being first to descend the cliff, a training exercise intended to instill in the new cadets enough self-confidence to fuel an armored battalion.
Ahead of him, Taiyang could see a visibly unnerved Qrow. He tapped Qrow on the shoulder, causing him to nearly jump into the sky.
“You alright there, Qrow?”
“Not good with heights,” he said, shaking.
“You know they're not gonna let us get hurt here, right?” Taiyang asked.
“Doesn't help much.”
“Move up!” a sergeant shouted, gesturing for them to do so. Ahead of them, Taiyang could see the first few cadets from Golf being hooked up to lines, with sergeants guiding them on how to properly descend the cliff. Another sergeant prowled the lines, but he didn't wear the insignia of the Lighthouse Brigade. A red 1 was stitched into his uniform. He knew this – the Big Red One, the US Army's 1st Infantry Division. He walked past them, then stopped, his boots crunching on the ground as he pivoted to face him and Qrow.
“What's your name, cadet?”
“Qrow Branwen, sergeant!”
“Why the hell are you shaking so much?”
“I don't do well with heights, sergeant!”
The sergeant stared him down, before looking among the other cadets of Golf. He rubbed his fingers on his chin, and then looked back to Qrow again. “Cadet, when you get to the cliff, find my line. I'll take care of you, do you understand that?”
The sergeant walked away, allowing Qrow to relax at least a little. It didn't last long, though, because soon a sergeant from Golf descended on him, practically sprinting to reach him.
“Branwen, do you know what just happened?”
“A sergeant talked to me, sergeant?”
“A real US Army sergeant just talked to you, ” he said. “A man whose d one more than you ever will just talked to you. Show him some goddamn respect when you get to his line, Branwen, or so help me God I will smoke you until your asshole is sucking buttermilk!”
Slowly, the line moved up, and eventually it was Qrow and Taiyang's turn to go down the cliff. He took a deep breath, preparing himself to descend the cliff, but his attention – and the attention of more than a few nearby sergeants – was taken away by the Big Red One sergeant shouting at Qrow.
“Shut the fuck up and listen to me!” he shouted, holding the rope tight. “You will calm down. You will balance yourself. You will climb down this cliff, do you understand me?!”
“Then stop freaking the fuck out and do it already!”
Taiyang turned away from Qrow – he had his own path down the cliff to negotiate. He kept himself together better than Qrow did, that was for sure, and made it to the ground with only a few minor scares. Once Qrow, and then the rest of Golf, made it down the cliff, they rotated to another station, where they learned to tie ropes. Taiyang was pretty good at this – he had learned a lot about rope and knot tying as a Boy Scout, and Dad had taught him a few Navy knots. The sergeants didn't like the Navy knots.
After another few hours, Taiyang, and by default, his squad, learned how to properly crawly through dirt and mud, how to build a foxhole, and had a test of willpower by walking over a rope bridge suspended fifteen feet high above a river. Their day ended with a march back to campus, with seemingly endless rounds of physical punishment for unspecified crimes. The company was released to dinner, which consisted mostly vegetables with a few noodle options and some sort of meat. After dinner, more exercises until they were sent to their rooms for the night.
Qrow flopped on his bed, groaning as he fell on his face into the pillow.
“You OK there, Branwen?”
“Does it look like I'm OK?” Qrow asked. “Fuck that cliff.”
“Well...uh, maybe you won't have to deal with it again?”
“I sure as hell hope not.”
Their week in hell came to an end with the dreaded Black Mountain run. By the time the week ended, Qrow, Taiyang, Rose, and Raven had formed a coherent team, even if they were unsure which of them would survive the four years at Beacon. The run was difficult, torturous even, but Taiyang had managed to do it anyway. They were no longer mere Lightbulbs, the derogatory name given to new cadets, but now full members of the Lighthouse Brigade.
Dad and Mom hadn't stayed long, having to take care of repairs around the house. It was a blessing and a curse, really. He had enough time to show them around a little, and for Dad to give Taiyang a congratulations for surviving, and wishing him good luck. Mom told him she was proud of him, and that she hoped he'd make it through his four years safely. Taiyang returned to the barracks, earning a promised precious few hours of relaxation before he and his squadmates were to start cleaning their dorm and the barracks a whole. There'd be a company-wide inspection that evening, and First Sergeant Ahearn had demanded a spotless building.
After hanging out in his room for a few minutes, Raven and Qrow came in, alone.
“Hey, Qrow, Raven,” Taiyang said. “Your parents come?”
Qrow barely glanced his way as he walked into the dorm, getting on his bed. “Nah.”
“Our parents didn't even care we came here,” Raven said, flipping away an errant lock of hair out of her face.
Before Raven or Qrow could settle into their respective rooms, Rose came in, with her parents and two other people who Taiyang assumed to be cousins or maybe siblings in tow. She gestured to their little room grandly, as if presenting it to them.
“And this is our room!” Rose said, smiling wide. “This is my roommate, Raven, her brother Qrow, and that's Xiao Long over there!”
“Oh my,” Rose's mom said, her deep Southern drawl exaggerating every word. “Co-ed dorms, I don't know about this school, Ed.”
'Ed', Rose's stepfather apparently, grunted. “Well. Our little girl wants to be a soldier, Bethany. Long as these boys don't do nothin', I figure it ain't all bad.”
Qrow barely moved from his bed, only lazily waving his hand to the newcomers. “Hey there,” he called.
Taiyang stood up, walking over to extend a hand to Rose's parents. “Hi, glad to meet you both. Rose has told us a lot about you.”
Her stepfather stared back with a blank look, narrowing his eyes as he cautiously took Taiyang's hand. “Don't know how much I like you. What was yer name? Chow Long?”
Taiyang chuckled, trying to mask how intimidated he was. “Uh, no sir, Xiao Long. It was a pleasure having your daughter in our squad, Mr. Rose.”
“Hmm,” he said, slowly blinking.
Within seconds, Rose appeared by her stepfather's side, tugging at his arm and out of the room. “Papa, come on,” she said insistently. “I wanna show y'all the guns they got here! I learned all about them!”
Her stepfather's face lit up as he turned, following Rose out of the room. “Guns, huh?”
Taiyang held his breath as Rose's family left, only letting it out once they had successfully evacuated the room. His hand felt like it had been crushed by Mr. Rose's vice grip as he tried in vain to stretch his hand out again. He could faintly hear Raven fail to suppress laughter behind him. Well, it didn't matter much anyway. He had to clean his dorm, and see if he could help out with the rest of the barracks.
Chapter 2: 1960
Taiyang, Summer, Raven and Qrow take the first step to beginning their careers as Lighthouse Brigade cadets.
The first day of classes was to begin tomorrow, but until then, they had one task ahead of them. Finding their classrooms. In the Saturday following their last day as Lightbulbs, a sergeant had taken it upon himself to show them around Beacon squad by squad. Each of their schedules were printed off by the incoming cadets as part of their second day here, to be used just for today. In this instance, Sergeant Walker was their escort around campus, showing them the Military Learning Institute, where their military science classes would be held at. Murphy Hall held history and other liberal arts, while the newly-built Perry Hall housed math and science.
“Alright,” Sergeant Walker said, gesturing to Perry Hall. “How many of y'all got a class in here? Should have geometry if you're all first-years.”
Each of them rattled off the course number for geometry, confirming that they did indeed have the required course. It was necessary for nearly any major at Beacon.
“Uh, Sergeant,” she said, puzzling over her schedule. “My class number is 6161.”
Sergeant Walker's face twisted in confusion, and he stomped over, snatching Raven's schedule from her. He puzzled over it for some time, before his face relaxed and he handed it back to her. “Alright, I see. You're gonna be in Baker Hall, Brawen. I'll point it out to you when you pass by it.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Raven said.
Taiyang and Rose exchanged a confused look. What the hell was 6161? That was such a bizarre, off-the-wall class number that it was impossible for him to get it out of his head. Sergeant Walker took them around the rest of campus, pointing out other buildings that they had not learned the names of during their time as Lightbulbs. Taiyang's classes this semester, aside from the required military science course, included a chemistry course and required history and math classes. It was a busy schedule for sure, especially between duties in the Lighthouse Brigade.
And thus, as they returned to their room after the tour, curiosity overwhelmed him and Rose as they practically cornered Raven.
“So, that 6161 class,” Rose probed. “What is it?”
“Huh?” Raven asked, blinking. “Oh, right, just some math.”
Qrow came into the room, folding his arms as he leaned against the door. “S'more than just a math class, isn't it, sis?”
Taiyang subtly headed over to Raven's desk, picking up her schedule and reading it over. Standard stuff. Except the 6161 class, obviously.
“Wait,” Taiyang said, squinting in confusion. “College algebra?”
“No way,” Rose said, sprinting over to look at it. “Oh my stars, it's a remedial math class. Raven, did you not go to high school or something?”
Raven sighed, snatching away her schedule from Taiyang and Rose's prying eyes. “Oh my god, fuck off. Who cares if it's remedial, anyway?”
He saw Rose cringe, no doubt at Raven's language. He had noticed she was always pretty sensitive to cursing. “Well, that doesn't answer anything, though,” Taiyang said. “Why are you in a remedial math class?”
“I went to high school, alright? Just didn't fuckin' learn anything,” Raven said defensively. “I'm doing enough math for my degree, then I'm done.”
Rose shrugged. “Reasonable, I guess. What's your degree?”
“Here we go,” Qrow said, rolling his eyes.
“Engineering,” Raven said, proudly puffing out her chest and smiling wide. “Always liked building things with Dad and Grandpa. Figured it'd make a good army and civil career, you know?”
Taiyang could hardly believe his ears. He looked first to Raven, who didn't see anything wrong with this scenario whatsoever. He then looked to Rose, who looked just as flabbergasted as he did. Finally, both he and Rose looked to Qrow, who slowly shook his head with the face of a defeated man who had heard this before. Maybe he had heard her talk about this before, and tried to convince her how bad of an idea it was, probably failing each time.
“Raven,” Taiyang finally said. “You're an idiot.”
“Well, fuck you too, dude,” Raven shot back. “What's your degree? Probably something lame.”
“Chemistry,” he replied.
“Yup, I knew it, lame.”
Rose put a hand to her head, rubbing her temple as she tried to follow Raven's path of logic. “Raven, my Lord, you know how much math is in engineering? Like, do you actually know?”
Raven shrugged, leaning back in her chair. “Can't be that hard.”
Qrow chuckled, getting off the doorframe and heading back into his room. “You're fighting a losing battle. Give up while you can.”
Taiyang shook his head, defeated as well. Qrow was probably right. Rose didn't seem to agree, and kept on arguing with Raven, but Taiyang decided he had had enough. If Raven wanted to do something stupid, well, hell, that was her choice. It was actually mind-blowing how little awareness Raven had about this entire choice. Maybe she hadn't actually read the course requirements. Maybe she thought she could power through it. Either way, it was Raven's choice, and Taiyang didn't plan on getting in her way.
Day one of classes couldn't come any faster. Being in the barracks all weekend was boring as hell, even if he had gotten time to talk to some of the people from his company. There really wasn't much to do other than talk, though. He hadn't thought to bring any books, and Dad had refused to bring anything for him, claiming that if Taiyang really wanted some books, he could come down to the house and get some himself. He had seen Rose sketch things out a few times. Qrow just worked out constantly in his spare time. Raven…
Well, he noticed Raven spent time just about anywhere but their dorm. She hung out in the common areas, talking to anyone and everyone who passed by. It was a stark contrast to the hardass, cold shoulder that he had expected from her. Maybe the stress of Induction Week just affected her differently. Who know.
“Sup, Xiao Long,” Raven said, leaning back on the communal couch that had been put in the Pit.
“Hey, Raven,” he said, joining her on the couch. Not like there was anything else to do while he waited for classes to start.
She looked around, almost as if she was checking for something. Apparently satisfied, she inched a little closer to him. “Hey, Xiao Long, tell me something.”
“Why are you here?”
He paused, furrowing his brow as he tried to interpret what she meant. Did she mean at the couch? “Uh, I wanted to sit here?”
Raven blinked slowly, shaking her head. “No, dumbass, why are you at Beacon?”
“Oh, we're playing that game, huh?” Taiyang asked, smirking. “I thought you didn't care about that kind of thing?”
“I mean, hell, if you don't wanna answer, then just say so, dude,” Raven said, scoffing. “Just trying to make conversation.”
Taiyang's smile faded, and he started stuttering to defend himself. “Well, wait, I-I mean..”
Raven's stifled laughter made him stop. She was hiding her face, trying to hide her amusement at his reaction. Finally, she looked back, smiling as she shook her head. “Dude, you gotta relax a little. Alright, come on, why're you here?”
“I mean, why not?” Taiyang said, frowning. He didn't think of Raven to really be one to play games. “I've wanted to join the Army since I was fifteen. Beacon seems like the way to go.”
“Yeah, I can respect that,” Raven said, nodding. She retrieved a pack of cigarettes from one of her pockets, smacking open the red-and-white Marlboro box to pop out a cigarette. She gestured to Taiyang, an unspoken question. He declined, so she shrugged and took one out, lighting it and puffing on it. “So, you just wanna be an officer…just because? Or what?”
Taiyang leaned back, tossing his hands up. “It seemed like the right thing to do. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?”
“You could not get a commission,” she said, wagging the cigarette at him.
Truthfully, the thought had never crossed his mind. Taiyang had always thought it a sure conclusion. After all, if his dad could join the Navy no issue, surely he could have a similar path with the Army? Going to Beacon just seemed like a logical next step for it. Though, he also wasn't sure if she was right. So what if he didn't earn a commission? He could enlist, get in that way. There were fates worse than that.
“I mean, I guess,” he said. “It's not everything, though.”
“If you're not here to be an officer,” Raven countered, “why are you even here?”
Taiyang shrugged. “Just doing my part.”
“Coulda just enlisted. First Sarge always said that.”
As if he needed reminding. It was a constant question during Induction Week, where First Sergeant Ahearn – among others – went through the ranks, asking people why they had joined Beacon and what they planned to do. There was almost never a good answer. Someone said they wanted to kill, a sergeant would jump down on them, declaring them insane and bloodthirsty. Another would claim family history, and the First Sergeant would ask if their entire family walked off a cliff, if they'd follow too.
And, like Raven had just pointed out, when Taiyang said he wanted to do his duty, the answer was always “Could have just enlisted for that.” He hated hearing it, but they had a point. He could have just enlisted if all he wanted to do was serve and do his duty. It was more than that, Taiyang felt. What that “more” was, he didn't know.
“Well, what about you?” he asked, hoping to turn it around on Raven. “Why are you here?”
She barely glanced up from her cigarette, exhaling a long trail of smoke. “Me?” Raven chuckled, smirking as if she knew something he didn't. “I'm gonna be the deadliest warrior on the planet.”
His eyebrows shot up. “That's one hell of a boast.”
“It's the truth,” she replied, shrugging.
Taiyang thought flipping it around would…well, he didn't know, actually. Maybe give him some kind of insight to her personality? Make her reveal something? Perhaps it was just a pipe dream, a long-shot that would never actually work. Instead of offering anything else, Raven just sat there, smoking her cigarette as Rose walked up to them.
“Hey, y'all,” she said, smiling and waving. “What'cha talkin' about?”
Raven looked up at her, before putting out her cigarette and getting off the couch. “Nothing important,” she muttered, leaving the room.
Understandably, Rose watched Raven leave, confused out of her mind. “Did…did I say something wrong?”
Taiyang didn't see why study hall was mandatory for them. He had always been a pretty good student, especially when it came to studying. The official answer, as stated in the Cadet Handbook, was that study hall was to foster and encourage proper studying habits, but what did that matter if you had already been doing that your whole life?
That said, not attending the study sessions was grounds for a demerit, and a demerit was the lat thing he wanted. Seven was grounds for being ejected out of the school entirely, with zero chance of earning a commission. Today's goal was getting the group on the same page with math, but Taiyang wasn't sure how'd they do that. Not with Raven in her remedial algebra class.
They worked mostly in silence, since only Qrow and Taiyang shared a math class out of their study group. Rose already had placed into a second-level class, and since Raven had the aforementioned remedial work to get through, all the two men could do was try and help each other out.
“I don't get it,” Rose muttered, flipping through her textbooks. “How do you even study?”
He glanced up, noticing Qrow and Raven had already started looking at each other, equally as confused as he was. Was Rose for real?
“Rose,” Raven slowly said, “what the hell are you talking about?”
“I mean, I don't get it,” she answered, gesturing to her book. “Like, should I just read all of this? Try to make up problems?”
Qrow narrowed his eyes. “Weren't you some kind of all-star with physics? Come on, just take notes on what you're reading or somethng.”
“I already took notes on this stuff in class, though,” Rose replied. “I don't see what this is supposed to do.”
Raven sighed, rubbing her temple. “Jesus Christ. I gotta take this remedial class and I'm smarter about this than you. Try and absorb the information, yeah? I don't know, just…learn it.”
Rose frowned, staring at the textbook in front of her. Taiyang didn't offer any advice – he wasn't really sure what to say even if he wanted to help out. All he could really do was get back to work and try to understand his assignments.
A “fun day” was up. Apparently, they were going to ride around San Francisco in a helicopter, courtesy of the United States Army. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the company had been assembled on the drill field, waiting for the helicopter to arrive. Golf was apparently up first, for reasons unknown, and the cadre had spent the past hour or so briefing them on how to act while in the helicopter. They were not to touch anything unless otherwise told, and to follow every instruction given to them by the helicopter crew to the letter.
From the horizon came a green craft, with yellow accents on the bulbous front and elongated tail. It kicked up dust and made the loose parts of their uniform go everywhere as a wave of wind hit them. One of their sergeants threw a knifehand to the helicopter, shouting at them to go, but over the roar of the engines he could barely be heard. They had all sorts of gear on them for this day of fun, from load-bearing equipment to a heavy M14 in their hands, unloaded and without a magazine. After all, they couldn't be trusted with a weapon more lethal than a blunt object.
Taiyang and his squad were up first, with him acting as the pointman. Last in, first out. He ran forward to the helicopter, pausing and turning around, aiming at invisible North Korean enemies. He counted off one, two, and then three as Raven, Rose and Qrow jumped in the helicopter. Once he was sure they had gotten in, he joined them. The crew helped him get strapped in, and within seconds they were off the ground.
The view out the small, round windows wasn't much, but it offered him enough to know they had soon ascended far higher than he had ever been before. He had never much thought of flying before, and if he didn't already decide to go into the Army, this might have convinced him to join the Air Force.
“Wow,” Rose said over the din of the engines. “I never knew California could be this pretty.”
“It'd be better if I had a smoke,” Qrow commented.
Taiyang didn't see much need to comment. He just leaned back and enjoyed the view. Maybe he could be a helicopter pilot, spend his days flying around like this. That'd be a nice way to spend his time. Well, either way, he had four years to decide what to do in the Army if they decided to grant him a commission.
Their first field exercise was coming up, a time to finally get “boots on the ground” as their sergeants liked to call it. Since all of them were mere new privates, their squad was led by Sergeant Lazzari, a man who had not been present during Induction Week. He was a tough man, and didn't much care for the fact that his squad had two women in it. To the red-headed sergeant, the entire idea of letting women into the ranks was nonsense.
Either way, Golf was on the march in the early morning hours, heading to a national park in order to conduct their field exercise. They had marched there from Beacon at about 5:30 AM, reaching their destination in a few hours, just in time for breakfast. The familiar brown cardboard boxes containing their rations were tossed around, and the ravenous cadets tore through them.
“Hey, any of y'all want this?” Rose asked, holding up the M-unit.
“What is it?” Raven asked, opening up a can of crackers.
Rose turned the can on its side, reading the top. “Says Beefsteak. I'll take your fruitcake if you got one.”
Raven rummaged around her box, finding the can and tossing it Roses's way, catching the beefsteak can that Rose had pitched to her.
“Not a big fan of beefsteak, Rose?” Qrow asked, chowing down on whatever meat was included in his box.
Rose shook her head, attacking one of the cans she had decided to eat from. “Nah. I just don't really trust the meat in there. You don't know what they're putting in that stuff.”
“This can just says 'Beef, Water, Salt' for ingredients,” Raven said, her face full of skepticism.
“Well, wait,” Taiyang said. “Didn't you say you hunted gators at home, and ate them?”
“Yeah, that's different,” Rose said, nodding. “I'm seeing that. I'm cleaning it myself. I know what's in that meat. I know what's good and what isn't.”
Raven sighed, shutting her eyes and furrowing her brow, rubbing her forehead. “Well-what the…what's the difference? It's meat either way.”
“You don't know what's in it, though!” Rose protested.
Their little discussion must have brought unwanted attention. Sergeant Lazzari stood over them, a cracker with oily peanut butter spread over it in his hand. His boots crunched against the ground as he stepped to stand between Rose and Raven, slowly taking a bite of his cracker.
“Privates,” he said. “What the fuck is going on here?”
“Just, uh, talking about breakfast, Sergeant,” Rose said, having stiffened up like a board the second he came over.
He stared down at them, slowly chewing on his cracker. Just as methodically, Sergeant Lazzari swallowed, looking over each one of them with an unblinking eye. “Just eat your food and get ready to go. I don't wanna hear you guys talk anymore.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” they answered, turning back to eat their food. Silently, this time.
So far, these rations weren't looking any better than the ones he had during Induction Week. Tasting the real food they had prepared in the school's mess hall made him realize just what he had been missing during that week in hell. Maybe more than anything, he'd kill to have some of Mom's spaghetti.
Soon, the order was given to move out, and Taiyang began to gather up his trash, putting it in a bag that was being sent around. Once done with their meal, they were to assemble elsewhere in their companies for further orders. Taiyang assumed his regular position in formation, standing in between Raven and Qrow. First Sergeant Ahearn started counting them off, making sure they were all there. So far, so good. As he finished off his headcount, though, he frowned, squinting at them.
“What kind of candy-ass shit is this?!” he demanded. “Where's Private Rose? Sound off! Who's her battle buddy?!”
“I am, First Sergeant!” Raven shouted, stepping out of rank to present herself.
“Private Branwen, where the fuck is Private Rose? Don't fucking lie to me, either!”
“I don't know, First Sergeant!”
The first sergeant's eyes bulged out, and he tilted his head slightly as if he wasn't sure he had heard Raven right. “Are you fucking joking?! Did you really just say that to me, Private Branwen?”
“Yes, First Sergeant!”
First Sergeant Ahean shook his head, taking a deep breath. “Alright, we have ourselves a fucking comedian here! Anyone else, have you seen Private Rose? Sound off!”
Silence. Nobody confessed to having seen Rose since they broke at the end of breakfast. First Sergeant Ahearn prowled the ranks, looking for someone to slip.
“Nobody, huh?” he finally asked. “Nobody saw Private Rose. She's a fucking ghost! Private Rose, now Private Houdini! Outstanding, out-fucking-standing, now we have a missing cadet to worry about!”
Before First Sergeant Ahearn could launch into a rant, however, a sergeant from another company approached, with Rose in tow behind him. “First Sergeant!” he called, jerking a thumb to Rose. “This one yours?”
He turned to the newcomer, before glancing at Rose. “Yes, thank you, Sergeant Beauclair. Where was she?”
Sergeant Beauclair laughed, shaking his head. “You ain't gonna believe this, First Sarge, she was going around picking up trash people left behind. She's one hell of a worker, I'd kill to have her in Charlie.”
“Hrm,” First Sergeant Ahearn murmured, jerking his head to order Rose into formation. “Well, she's mine, so hands off. Maybe if you're lucky, she'll ask to transfer to Charlie.” Sergeant Beauclair soon departed, and First Sergeant Ahearn cast his eyes upon the formation again, shaking his head. “Alright, Rose, we'll deal with this later. Don't fucking leave without your battle buddy, dammit! Company, march!”
Their excitement for the day over, Golf went on the march again to participate in the field exercise. They marched to what looked like an arbitrary spot in the national park, spreading out into their squads, with their path led by Sergeant Lazzari and Corporal Fulton. Sergeant Lazzari refused to say what their mission was until “the time was right”, whatever that meant.
The squad's march into the forest took them across streams and far too many bushes to count, with a four-meter spread ordered for the group. With each step they took, though, Taiyang could feel like something was bothering Rose. He just couldn't figure out what though. It probably wasn't their meal that morning, given she didn't eat the meat. What he could figure out was that she was getting more and more distressed by the second.
“Hey, um, Sergeant, permission to speak?” she asked after about half an hour.
“What?” Sergeant Lazzari asked.
“Um, can we…uh, is it possible that we don't walk on twigs and branches?”
Sergeant Lazzari didn't say anything for a few minutes, with only the sound of their boots filling the air as they continued on their trek, with their gear chiming in to clatter every now and then.
“Private,” he finally said, “why the fuck are you asking me something so astoundingly stupid?”
“My apologies, Sergeant,” Rose meekly said. “Forget I said anything.”
“Gladly. Shut up and keep walking.”
Well, that answered part of it. Maybe. Was she just a nature lover? Probably. What was the deal with the twig thing, though? All the girls he knew in high school who were big nature people weren't like that. And combined with the trash thing, it was weird. Maybe it was just another one of her quirks. It seemed like she was just full of them.
“… I don't believe in big government, but I believe in effective governmental action. And I think that's the only way that the United States is going to maintain its freedom…”
Taiyang walked into the common room, seeing the entire company huddled around a small television. John F. Kennedy's face was plastered on it, and he continued to talk as the camera swapped to show Richard Nixon for a second. Every member of the company was watching it intensely.
“What's going on?” he dared to ask.
“Presidential debate,” Qrow answered. “How'd you not know about it?”
“Never paid much attention to it.”
Taiyang sat a while and listened, hearing the various arguments and questions the two candidates fielded. This was going to be the first year he actually voted. He had never really paid attention to politics, but he knew that his dad almost always voted Republican, and his mom didn't often vote, forgetting about it unless Dad told her to. So far, Nixon was making some decent points, but Kennedy had some convincing arguments himself.
“You know,” Rose said, “I might vote for Nixon.”
“Cool,” Qrow replied. “Nobody cares.”
“OK, Summer,” Raven said, taking a break from math study. “I gotta know. How come I never see you at church?”
Summer turned around, her eyes wide. Shrugging, she asked, “What do you mean?”
Raven furrowed her brow, squinting at her. “It's not a hard question. I hear you pray every night, but I don't see you at church services on Sundays. What's up with it?”
“Oh, that,” she said, putting her pencil down. “I dunno. I don't think I'm the kind of Christian they got here.”
“What's that mean?” Raven scoffed. “You Baptist or something? I don't think they care.”
“Nah, not really Baptist, just…I dunno, it's hard to describe. You ever hear of the Maidens?”
Raven blinked, staring at Summer like she had lost her mind. No, Summer, she wanted to say, I have never heard of the Maidens before in my life, please enlighten me. But, maybe that'd just make her mad. She couldn't tell with Summer. All sorts of weird stuff would set her off. Raven's blank look must have told Summer she didn't have a damn clue what was going on, so she cleared her throat and moved her chair to face Raven.
“The Maidens are four women from back when the French made their colonies, and the French were going around, just tearing up the land and all that. So, God comes down and he gives these four women the power of the seasons so they could protect the Earth, and punish those who hurt it.”
Raven expected a lot of things from Summer, but boy this was not one of them. She had heard a lot of crazy theories before in her life, and this one definitely took the cake. Summer looked like she was taking it pretty seriously.
“You…you buy into this, don't you?”
“Well, yeah,” Summer said indignantly. “My parents named me Summer because of the Summer Maiden. I was born under her star.”
Raven cocked an eyebrow. “She's got herself a star?”
“If you ain't gonna take it seriously,” Summer said, sighing, “then I'll just get back to my-”
“No, no, no, no,” Raven said, trying to calm her down. “I've just literally never heard of this before. This some kinda bayou thing?”
Summer sighed, saying something in what sounded like French quickly, propping an arm on her chair when she was done. “I guess. Well, like I was saying they're guardians of Earth to make sure we keep it in harmony. They've been helping us through it, but…well, I guess they don't like us too much anymore. I'd pray to the Summer Maiden before gator season started, hoping for good weather and big gators.”
“So, answer me this, then,” Raven said, resting her head on her knuckles. “What do you mean when you said your parents named you because of this maiden?”
“Yeah, my mama said naming me Summer was, like, the ultimate prayer? I think that's what she said. Something like that.”
Something picked at Raven, though, as Summer talked about all this. Power. It came up a few times when Summer was first describing the maidens. The gears turned and turned in her head. Why give four random colonial women power? Didn't much make sense to her.
“You said something about these maidens having power,” Raven probed. “What kinda power?”
Summer suddenly got very quiet, any slight smile she had before quickly fading away. “I…I really shouldn't talk about it. I don't wanna make any of them upset.”
“No, come on, what is it?”
“Raven,” Summer said, staring at her with an intensity she had never seen from the bayou girl before. “I can't talk about it.”
“Alright, fine,” Raven finally said, tossing up her hands in defeat. “Damn.”
Summer cut off any further conversation about the subject by turning around, returning to her physics. Summer didn't say anything else for the rest of the night, unless it was in whatever language she was speaking to herself. Something was clearly up with her, but for the life of her Raven couldn't tell what. The hell had she done to make Summer so freaked out? Well, hell, if she didn't want to talk about it, maybe Raven would just have to find out her damn self one of these days.
Chapter 3: 1961
1961's VITAL Festival, promotions, language choices, and other events make up Taiyang, Summer, Raven and Qrow's second year at Beacon.
Taiyang was woken up in the middle of the night by something. It was already pitch-black, stopping him from seeing anything. He could have sworn that he could hear someone walking around though, the faint sound of clothing being manipulated. Taiyang blinked as his eyes adjusted – maybe there was some moonlight after all – and a cool blue hue slipped into their room. Qrow stood in the middle of it, in uniform for some reason. What the hell? It had to be past midnight, so what was he doing in uniform? He watched as Qrow slid his chair out from his desk, putting it in the center of the room and sitting down on it. Qrow didn't seem to even move as he stared at the door.
“Uh, Qrow,” Taiyang said quietly. “What are you doing?”
“I thought I heard something,” he replied. “Go back to sleep.”
Taiyang's brow furrowed as their room slipped into darkness again, and he wasn't able to see what Qrow was doing anymore. Or, rather, he couldn't see if Qrow had done anything different. Taiyang didn't hear anything else – maybe he was still just sitting there, staring at the door. Well, it wouldn't help anything to keep dwelling on it, especially if he couldn't do anything about it. Taiyang fell back to an uneasy sleep. Maybe Qrow could give answers in the morning.
Just after morning formation, Taiyang, Qrow, Summer and Raven headed back to their room, both to grab their bags for the day's classes, and for Taiyang to ask his roommate about last night. Summer and Raven didn't know, and as far as he cared, they didn't need to. Maybe he could wait for them to leave. Wait, no, he couldn't. Qrow left before they did. May as well do this now.
“So, Qrow,” Taiyang said, slinging his backpack on. “What happened last night?”
He grunted, looking up at Taiyang confused. “What're you talking about?”
“Uh, you know,” he said. “You got up and stared at the door in your uniform.”
Qrow stared back blankly, shrugging. “Don't know what you're talking about, dude. I don't remember doing that.”
Raven wandered over from the next room, leaning against the doorjamb. “So that's what I heard last night.”
Taiyang breathed a sigh of relief. So he wasn't crazy. That helped, a little. Qrow shrugged again, standing tall.
“Qrow, come on, I know what I saw.”
“And I'm telling you I don't remember doing that,” Qrow replied. “Are we done? I gotta get to class.”
His sister scoffed, shaking her head and folding her arms. “Qrow. Dude. You've been doing weird shit like this since you were a kid. Did you really think you could hide it?”
Qrow narrowed his eyes, taking out a cigarette from his pocket and staring them down as he smoked it. “You know what? I'm done. You guys can keep talking about this shit if you want, but I don't give a fuck anymore.” He stormed out of the room, refusing to talk to anyone as he left, bumping his way past Raven and Taiyang. The door slamming shut was the final word he gave, leaving them as Summer warily headed into the room.
“So,” Taiyang ventured. “What's up with him?”
Raven shrugged, lighting up a cigarette herself. “Fuck if I know. Been doing creepy shit since we were like, fourteen.”
“My dad told me about a guy he used to know like that,” Summer chimed in. “Said he had like…uh…I dunno, some kind of brain thing?”
“Hey,” Raven warned, wagging her cigarette at Summer. “My brother's not crazy. Watch your fuckin' mouth.”
“Whoa, calm down,” Summer said, raising her hands up. “I-I didn't say he was…”
Raven frowned, taking a long drag off her cigarette. “Damn well implied it. Thought you people were different, but I guess not.” Still smoking, Raven left the room as well.
Summer sighed, looking down at the floor despondently. “What'd I do to them, Tai?”
All he could do was shrug in response. It was like playing Russian Roulette with Qrow and Raven – he never knew what would set them off. Some days they'd be perfectly fine with anything, other days the smallest comment could make them not talk to anyone for days. Maybe he'd figure it out by the time they got done with their time at Beacon.
Summer was first to be promoted, unexpectedly. Scores were apparently good across the board for the four, but the Promotion Board had seen fit to grant Summer her corporal tabs this week. She had gotten her new tabs just before morning formation, allowed to pin them on and told to go to the campus tailor to amend her uniforms and add the second stripe to her sleeves.
Already, her first challenge was here. When Sergeant Lazzari formed the squad up, a new transfer from Delta had also sauntered over, apparently joining their squad. The new arrival, Private Brown, had to have been from the Deep South judging from his accent alone, rolled his eyes as Sergeant Lazzari introduced him to them.
“Man, I thought we was doing real Army work here,” he drawled once the Sergeant had left. “I ain't gonna be led by some girl.”
“Excuse me?” Summer asked, cocking an eyebrow at him. “You wanna say that again?”
He stuck his nose up at Summer, smirking. “Yeah, you heard me, girlie. I ain't takin' orders from you. Not till one a' these guys gets promoted.”
“Damn, dude,” Raven muttered. “What year are you from, 1920?”
“Sorry,” Private Brown said, shrugging. “Ain't my fault you womenfolk ain't strong enough to really be in the Army.”
“You wanna test how strong I am?” Summer shot back, staring him down. “How's about you come down to Cocodrie, then we'll see who 's real strong then, yeah?”
“Wait, hold on,” Taiyang said, trying to defuse the situation a little. “Uh…maybe, uh…”
Private Brown squinted. “Caw-co-dry? Where's that at? Y'all got any men there, or were you the best they had? 'Cause if you're the best, then your town's pretty shit.”
“Say that again,” Summer said, her eyes filled with rage, “and I'll knock you into next week. I thought y'all Georgia boys were supposed to be real gentlemen, guess my dad was right about y'all.”
“Yeah, well I betcha-”
At this precise moment, Sergeant Lazzari had returned, walking to stand right behind Private Brown. “There a problem here?” he asked.
“No, Sergeant,” Summer replied immediately. “No problem here.”
Private Brown stiffened up, staring straight ahead as if Sergeant Lazzari could see what he was doing. “None here, Sarge.”
Sergeant Lazzari hummed, unblinking as he circled around and looked at both Summer and Brown. “Don't call me Sarge, Private. You don't get to do that.”
He whipped around to face Summer, still refusing to blink at all. How did he stand it? Taiyang would have had to blink at least once by now.
“Corporal,” he said, “make sure you get your sleeves sorted out soon.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Summer said, nodding sharply.
Sergeant Lazzari walked away, heading to talk to a sergeant from another squad. No doubt he had something important to do. Summer and Private Brown continued to stare each other down. The lines were drawn – this wasn't over, not by a long shot.
1961's VITAL Festival was rumored to be the largest since World War II. Aside from a team from West Point, Commandant Ozpin had announced that teams from academies in West Germany, Japan, Israel, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom would be joining Beacon for their friendly wargames and exercises. For the members of the Lighthouse Brigade, this meant they would have to spend nearly every moment outside of class helping to prepare the campus for the foreign arrivals, mostly by cleaning the drill field and picking up any loose trash.
Golf's sergeants in particular made sure to impress upon them how important it was for Beacon to do well this year, especially with traditional rivals making an appearance. Taiyang thought this was the UK at first, but it included not just them, but the French and Italian teams as well. The teams were set to arrive in just a few days, and already prefabricated buildings were going up all around campus, temporary housing for the arriving foreign teams.
Apart from the West German Offizierschulungsbrigade from Atlas, the Japanese Dawn Brigade, the Israeli Lightning Brigade, all of which arrived on the same Friday afternoon, several others still had to come into play. West Point's Black Knights were slated to arrive on Beacon's campus Saturday morning. France's Saint-Cyr military academy sent a handful of what were called cyrards. Italy was represented by the academy in Modena. Finally, the British were represented by Sandhurst's Amiens Company. Each of these three European teams were to arrive either Monday morning or Tuesday evening, depending on the flight they were to take.
This year's events were to include open field exercises, urban warfare, and forest fighting. Officers from each nation represented had also been invited, and already Beacon's campus was awash with color as the uniforms of seven different nations mixed together. Hopes were high at Beacon – a lot of the senior cadre had experience fighting in Korea, and it was hoped that this combat experience would lead them to victory this year.
Taiyang, Raven, Summer and Qrow would be among those who had been chosen to participate in Beacon's attacking squadrons. They'd have the chance to prove their worth, especially against the French and Italians. Golf's officers loved to spend many a morning briefing ranting and raving about these old rivals, demanding that Beacon make sure to solidly thrash them. The last time the VITAL Festival had happened was 1957, with the British, French and Portuguese taking home the top three scoring spots. Though, that time it had been hosted by the British, and many at Beacon felt bias was at hand.
Taiyang couldn't wait. Anything to get a taste of what he had been training for this past year.
Traditionally, the host academy took up the role of playing the opposing forces, providing a baseline force to measure each national team against. Today's exercise involved attacking a fortified position in a forest. Already, West Point's team and Sandhurst's team had attacked, both earning admirable scores for their attacks.
It was time for Beacon to begin their offensive. Their temporary platoon leader rounded them up, gesturing to them to take a knee. Once again, they had been loaded up with load-bearing equipment, rucksacks containing everything they'd need if they were on an actual military expedition, and handed heavy M14s with several magazines worth of blank ammunition, to be loaded only when explicitly ordered to do so.
“Alright, listen up,” Captain Morrison said. “Best we know is we've got an enemy formation ahead of us, about a platoon or more. We're gonna go with a classic pincer movement, pin them down from both sides. Any questions?”
None were to be had. What about this plan could be unclear? Push forward, aggressively eliminate anything that wasn't friendly to them. Without any questions, the captain gave the order to move out, heading into the forest that their classmates had set up shop in.
“Yo, go ahead and load up,” a sergeant called. Within seconds, the familiar sound of magazines being inserted filled the air, followed by dozens of mechanical clicking as they racked their bolts, preparing to fire the blank rounds. Immediately following this cacophony of noise, silence fell upon the platoon as they inched closer and closer to their enemy. Taiyang scanned the horizon. He couldn't see anyone. Was their enemy even really here?
The pops of rifle fire shattered that idea immediately. Another sergeant ordered them to scatter, and return fire. Taiyang became one with the dirt, crawling forward under the imaginary fire. He could see Raven and Qrow ignore the invisible threat, charging forward to take cover behind trees. Summer had taken to the ground like he had, silently wondering what in the world they were supposed to do. All around him, rifle fire mixed with shouts from sergeants and officers about where their opponents were, orders to move up, and screaming about who was determined “out” by the judges.
“Stand up and fight!” Sergeant Lazzari bellowed, dramatically waving his arm forward.
Well, that sealed it. Taiyang forced himself off the ground, joining Qrow and Raven near the trees. Even in the bloodless, safe environment, being in “combat” gave Taiyang a rush he just couldn't quite describe. Each shot that rang out made his heart skip a beat, and the pressure was overwhelming to the point he felt he could barely breathe.
But more than anything else, he wanted to keep living in it.
Far too soon, their attack was concluded, and Beacon retired from the field of battle to let Atlas conduct their assault. Taiyang couldn't wait for their next event to start, anxiously listening to the rifle fire that began to pour out from the forest once more. How he wished he could be there, part of the defending forces, fighting every single team here this month. This decided it for him – if Taiyang had ever been unsure about joining the Army before, this proved he was making the right choice.
The VITAL Festival ended in May with Beacon sweeping the year's events, taking first place in all four. The French, Italian and British teams all cried foul, claiming undue favoritism from Beacon's referees, though their grumbling relented when judges from France, Norway, West Germany and Japan ruled and confirmed that Beacon had indeed done incredibly well.
The news was highly welcome on Beacon's campus, and to the members of the Lighthouse Brigade. Commandant Ozpin told the brigade he was proud of every single cadet who had participated, especially the attacking team that displayed what he termed “tactical finesse, a professional demeanor, and the ultimate aggression befitting an American soldier.” The night after each team departed, there would be a celebration just for them, to award special commendations to squad leaders and individuals who had distinguished themselves in the year's events.
Taiyang and his squad did not get any such special medals, but as part of Beacon's attacking force, they were recognized as a whole for their bravery and willingness to take the fight to their imposter North Korean enemies. As Golf made up a majority of their attack group, Golf's cadre especially made sure to give the company some time off from duties, and for a short while, standards were relaxed. After all, they had just beaten the French, Italians and British at their own game. In his first briefing following the success at the VITAL Festival, First Sergeant Ahearn described them as bringing “the ultimate glory and success to Beacon – showing the French who's boss.”
The choice of languages was always a difficult one. The pressure was on for cadets to pick a language that would serve them well as officers, but also to have a prediction of what sort of enemies the United States might face next. To help make their decisions easier, the Army had divided languages into tiers, sorted by what they nebulously called “strategic value”.
At Tier 1 sat Russian and Soviet Bloc Languages, which gathered not just Russian, but Ukrainian, Polish, German, Czech, Slovakian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Albanian into its massive umbrella, with broad options to specialize further if one wanted to. Chinese, Korean and Spanish also occupied Tier 1, each one considered useful for a new officer. Picking a language here, they were told, was considered especially good on one's academic record, as the Army predicted knowing how to speak any one of these languages would serve an officer well in a future war.
Coming in at Tier 2, less useful but still considered strategically valid options were mostly West European languages like French, Norwegian, Swedish, Italian and Portuguese. Arabic was also thrown in, possibly over residual Arab-Israeli War concerns. In theory, these languages were useful for cadets who aimed more to align themselves within NATO's command structure, coordinating efforts with friendly nations in Europe rather than seeking work in the intelligence community or on the front lines against a Soviet war.
Finally, all other languages offered at Beacon – Japanese, Danish, Farsi, Filipino, among others – were collectively bundled under “Modern Languages” and offered no bonuses to a cadet either way, beyond perhaps a nod of approval if a cadet spoke one of them in addition to a more strategically valuable language. The students of these languages were scarce, almost never exceeding a handful of pupils at any one time.
Taiyang had decided from the get-go to take Russian. Qrow he knew would be taking Korean, and Summer had already decided to take Chinese. Raven went the opposite direction, taking Spanish after determining Cuba was a larger threat to the United States than any other world power. “It just makes sense,” she often said whenever anyone asked. “If I were the Russians? I'd help Cuba do whatever the hell they wanted.”
Ever since he had first met her, Taiyang thought Raven was strange. She was a hardass beyond all description, routinely calling out anyone, even superior officers, for breaking regulations and disrespecting campus traditions. She knew her stuff, for sure, and volunteered her services as a history tutor, though people who came to her for help noted that she almost always adopted a condescending tone for their sessions. The same could be said about her across the board in any setting – if Raven was teaching someone something, they always complained it felt like she was talking down to them.
And yet, Taiyang couldn't help but hang around her. They were all friends with each other, more or less. Sure, they all had their own friends outside the squad, but Taiyang almost always shared weekend garrison duty with Raven, Qrow and Summer. If he was inclined to believe in predestination, he was sure that he and Raven were meant to meet one another.
It was why he was so nervous right now. Summer and Raven both were out at classes, leaving only him and Qrow in their dorm. He knew from experience a lot of guys were protective of their sisters, and Taiyang had a feeling Qrow was one of them. Doubly so given that they were twins. Taiyang had planned to ask Raven out for a good while now, but he almost never had a proper chance to, fearful of both her rejection and Qrow's reaction.
Well, no time like the present. “Hey, Qrow,” he said, his voice cracking.
“Hmm?” Qrow lay on his bed, lazily flipping through a magazine.
“So, uh…I've been thinking about asking Raven to go see a movie sometime.”
Qrow didn't even look up, his face neutral. “So ask her, then.”
Taiyang blinked, unsure what this meant. Was this tacit approval? A challenge? He couldn't get a read on him.
“Wait,” he ventured, “so…you're fine if I take her to the movies?”
Qrow sighed, putting his magazine down. “Why the fuck are you asking me? Do I look like her keeper?”
“Well, no,” Taiyang stammered. “I…I just didn't think you'd be cool with it if I dated her. I mean, she's your sister after all.”
He rolled his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief. “Tai. I don't give a fuck what Raven does. If she wants to date you, she'll date you. Even if I wanted to, I'm not going to give you my fuckin' approval or whatever. I don't care.”
This was…unexpected. He was expecting Qrow to put on an exaggerated big brother act, threaten him or something. But no, here he was very clearly stating he did not care one way or the other what Taiyang and Raven did – or didn't – do in their spare time.
How the hell am I gonna ask her out?
“Well, this is bullshit.”
Qrow clutched his demerit writeup in his hand, shaking his head angrily as he tried to find words beyond “bullshit” for it. Taiyang couldn't fault him for being upset, but at the same time, Qrow had only brought it on himself. Nobody was forcing him to go out and get drunk on the weekends, or ignore the sergeants when they told him to shape up.
Right now, though, Taiyang didn't much feel like pointing this out to him. He looked pretty upset already. Raven's face remained neutral as she leaned over and skimmed through the report, before she let out a huff of air.
“Hm. That sucks.”
“Gee, thanks a fucking lot, sis.”
“Anytime,” Raven said, smirking as she took a sip of water.
Even if Qrow's anger was less visible, the consequences it had were unmistakeable. This was Qrow's fourth demerit this year over alcohol. It was becoming bad enough that the senior cadre was starting to take notice, and those were the last people that a fresh Corporal like Qrow wanted to have take notice of him. Written underneath the report, in ominous red ink, were the words “Further disciplinary action may result in demotion or other, more harsher punishments.”
“So, uh, Qrow,” Summer said, cautiously testing the waters as he glared at her. “Still gonna join Rogue Platoon?”
“You're goddamn right I am,” he shot back. “Nothing's stopping me.”
“Another demerit wouldn't look good,” Raven chimed in.
Qrow sighed, rolling his eyes. “Then I'll make them go away. Just you watch.”
This wasn't the first time Qrow had mentioned joining Rogue Platoon, and he was sure this wouldn't be the last either. Ever since he had seen them put on their show during Induction Week, Qrow had made it his mission to join the platoon and act as the opposing forces for Beacon's exercises. The specialty unit already had a legendary reputation for being incredibly selective and difficult to get into. Having several demerits – for alcohol, even – risking instant rejection if one believed the stories Rogue Platoon veterans told. All Taiyang could really do was hope Qrow got what he wanted.
Chapter 4: 1962
Qrow confesses something to Taiyang. Raven goes AWOL.
So far, it all seemed to be going well for Summer, Raven, Taiyang and Qrow.
Despite his handful of demerits, Qrow got his wish to join Rogue Platoon. Raven joined him in the OPFOR unit, and even with some consternation among the Promotion Board, each one of them found themselves with a promotion to Sergeant, assigned to attend NCO school over the summer break. For Summer, even though she complained often about her physics degree and the associated coursework between it and Chinese, she managed to find a way to be as jovial as ever, happily talking about her home town with anyone who'd listen. Almost because of this, Raven, Qrow and Taiyang had agreed to take a trip there over winter break, to spend some time in her world for once.
Taiyang couldn't be happier. He was living the dream as far as he was concerned. Chemistry was going well. He hadn't earned any demerits. Learning Russian was easier than he expected, though even he had to admit it was still an uphill battle. Maybe most importantly, he and Raven were falling in love quicker with the passing day. He was thrilled that Beacon either didn't have any regulations against their dating, or if they did, Raven didn't care about them.
How could life get any better for them?
“Yo, Tai,” Qrow said, smoking as per usual as he walked into their room. “I gotta talk to you about something.”
“Uh, alright,” Taiyang said, leaving his chemistry behind to face Qrow. “What's up?”
Qrow sighed, walking over and taking a seat on his bed, apprehension written on his face. He was clearly dreading whatever this conversation was about. The long pause was almost palpable, hanging in the air and mixing with the dread that Taiyang could feel emanating off Qrow.
“So, uh, are you gonna say something, Qrow, or…?”
He shook his head, as if that'd help him. “Listen, I just gotta…fucking figure out how to say this shit, alright?”
Qrow was acting far, far stranger than usual. What was up with him? What the hell had made him start acting this way? “I mean, when you start making sense, Qrow, I'm listening.”
“Just listen, dammit, okay?” Qrow asked, suddenly serious. “I've seen how you and Raven have been getting, alright? I want you to know this before something really fucking weird happens.”
Taiyang furrowed his brow, confused. “Wait, I thought you said you didn't care if I dated Raven-”
“And I don't,” he reiterated. “But you have to know this. So just don't ask any stupid questions and listen to me, alright?”
To say Taiyang wasn't at least a little nervous was an understatement. He could feel his heart sinking. What was Qrow about to tell him? What could it possibly be that he wouldn't even allow Taiyang to ask questions?
Qrow took a deep breath, and an equally deep drag on his cigarette, suddenly reminded of it. He cleared his throat, no doubt preparing to go into a long story. “So, when we were in high school, Raven got this idea in her head. That the US was corrupt, only we could fix it, but to do it we had to start a war. We're not at Beacon because we're some kind of flag-waving patriots. We're fucking here because if we know how the government fights its wars, we can beat them at their own game.”
Taiyang's head began to spin, and all at once his breathing became short, labored, like someone had just tossed a thousand pounds on his chest. Was any of this real? Was he really listening to Qrow tell him that he and Raven, Taiyang's beautiful girlfriend, were planning on overthrowing the United States fucking government and the only reason they were even at the premier military academy was to learn how to best do it? Had he actually woken up this morning, or was this just some sort of absurd dream? The serious, unflinching look on Qrow's face told him that this was all too real.
“Okay, so…” Taiyang said, clutching his head. “So…you guys are…what, commies or something?”
“Tai, how fucking dumb do you think we are?”
He threw his hands up in exasperation, trying to keep himself from shouting too loudly. “Well, hell Qrow, I don't know anymore! You're telling me a lot of stuff that's pretty hard to buy!”
“Then don't buy it, I don't care,” Qrow said, scowling. “It's the truth, Tai. I wanted you to know before Raven sprung it on you, alright? Fuck me for being a good goddamn friend, I guess.”
Just as quickly as Qrow had burst into their room, he left, mumbling and angrily smoking the entire way out. For his part, Taiyang couldn't do more than just sit there, trying to process all of this. In no less than ten minutes, his entire world had been turned upside down. His head was pounding, and he almost wanted to just sit in the bathroom and puke his guts out.
And yet, throughout it all, the only thing he could think about was Raven. He could see every smile, hear every laugh, and it didn't match with what Qrow had told him just now. How could anyone reconcile this? Was this some sort of elaborate ruse to scare Taiyang off? Maybe. That had to be it, he rationalized. Qrow was just doing this as a scare tactic. It made sense. At that same time, maybe it didn't. Maybe he was wrong about it. Maybe he was wrong about Raven.
He would have to just wait. Wait and see, he decided. If nothing else, he could just wait, see if anything about Raven changed. A small part of him hoped that he could change her. He had to hope a little, at least. Or, maybe, just maybe, two years at Beacon had changed her, made her stop thinking like this. It was just that little bit of hope that kept his love for her alive.
A week passed before he Raven began to suspect something was up. She was right to – Taiyang had withdrawn a bit lately, trying to view her with an objective lens rather than the rose-tinted glasses he was using before. He almost had to. How else could he find a way to reexamine their entire relationship? Was she using him for some nebulous purpose, or did she actually have actual, genuine love for him?
In the end, he had decided he did care for her, truly and deeply. Taiyang didn't think that it was because of a preexisting bias, but more because so far, she hadn't done anything to make him think otherwise. Sure, she was one of the most rigid, uptight soldiers he had ever met, and she almost took pleasure in verbally beating down anyone below her, but goddammit she was his, and that's what mattered.
She had just never once said “I love you” to him, and he hadn't done the same to her. Yet. Today was the day, he resolved. He'd do it today. Thankfully for him, Qrow had elected to abandon him after their little “chat”, and Summer was so busy with volunteering and other duties she was scarcely at their dorm anymore. Over the past month, Raven had preferred just chilling out in their dorm, either napping on his chest or listening to the radio, trawling for something interesting.
“Tai,” she said, sighing. “We gotta talk about something.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Taiyang replied, sighing as Elvis came on the radio. “Raven, I love you.”
Raven stared up at him, her eyes wide, brow rapidly furrowing. She wet her lips, blinking as she tried to form words. “Fuckin'…what? Tai, did I hear you right?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I…I love you, Raven. I've been meaning to tell you for a long while, and…now seemed right.”
She pulled back from his embrace, pushing on his chest to keep herself away. Raven's intense red eyes darted back and forth between his own, as if seeking something to call him out on. Finally, she swallowed, and he could clearly see tears forming in her eyes.
“Tai,” she muttered, her voice shaking. “You better be real fucking careful what you say. I…I don't deserve you after what I've done.”
“Raven, no,” Taiyang said, pulling her close despite her protests. “It's okay. Qrow told me about it. It's okay.”
She could not hide her tears forever, and almost immediately they began rolling down her cheeks as a slight whimper escaped her mouth. “I…he…he did? Why would…Tai, you don't know what you're saying. You don't understand.”
“You're right,” he admitted. “I don't understand what this thing you and Qrow are doing, your mission or whatever. But that's okay. Raven, I didn't fall in love with you because I thought you'd kill me. I fell in love with you because you are the best thing that's ever happened to me.”
“Stop…being so fucking nice to me, you goddamn asshole!” Raven yelled, smacking his chest. “You don't…you don't get it! I'm trying to kill people like you! What's wrong with you, Tai? Why the fuck did you ever fall for me, huh? What have I ever done to deserve it?!”
“Raven,” Tai repeated, trying to make sure she actually heard and understood her this time. “How many times do I need to say I love you before you hear me? Do you want me to get on the roof and shout it? Or are we just going to sit here and rehash the same argument seven more times?”
She paused, staring at him through tear-filled eyes, her lips quivering as she took deep, heavy breaths. It was almost like the very act of calming herself down enough to think logically was taking every part of her.
“Okay,” she said quietly. “Alright. I get it. You…you love me. Tai…I love you too.” For the first time since they had started talking, Raven smiled. That was the smile he knew, that he loved. This was the Raven he had fallen in love with. This wasn't the Raven that kept talking about revolution, or coups.
This was the Raven that knew everything about the M14 off the top of her head, who could recite every regulation down to the subsection code, the woman who had taken his heart and kept it in her pocket. This was the Raven that Taiyang wanted to see every day, wake up next to in the morning, and if necessary, go to war with.
The moment was suddenly ruined by the sound of a door closing. Summer's barely-concealed gasp practically echoed through the room, and her bookbag clattered to the ground as her notebooks, pencils, and textbooks fell out. Taiyang leaned out from the bod, looking to the shared room that allowed access to their individual rooms. There stood Summer, her face red as a beet, desperately scrambling to get her things together.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said, flustered. “I-I'll just…I'm sorry, I didn't hear anything-”
“What the fuck?!” Raven demanded, jumping off Taiyang's bed. “Were you listening to us, you little spy?! How much did you hear?!”
Summer slowly looked up from her panic-filled mess, her eyes wide and glassy. “Enough,” she muttered. “I…I won't say anything. I promise.”
How long had she been listening? Had Summer hear everything he and Raven talked about? He had to assume so, why else would she be reacting like this? Raven turned around, her eyes wide in horror. She was thinking the same thing.
“Okay, so…” Raven said, shutting her eyes and clenching a fist. “Fuck me, alright. You're fucking involved now, Summer. Look me in the eyes, are you gonna talk to anyone about this?”
“No,” Summer said, shaking her head emphatically. “Nobody. I promise.”
“More than that! You can't even tell your fucking priest about this!”
Summer swallowed hard, taking a deep breath. “Okay. I promise. I…I can do that.”
Raven nodded, apparently satisfied. “Good,” she declared. “Fucking better.”
Another two weeks passed, and with no other events happening, it became clear. Summer wouldn't talk. Taiyang wasn't about to. Raven and Qrow had no reason to reveal anything unless they had to. And thus, the four had just committed their first grave offense – breaking a sacred oath of “A Cadet does not conceal the truth.”
At first, Taiyang panicked about it, but decided in the end it was well worth it. Raven had changed, he claimed, partially to himself, partially to Summer whenever she got nervous. Raven and Qrow didn't think that way, really, it was a consequence of whatever environment they had grown up in. Not that Taiyang really knew. He just guessed, because the Branwen twins refused to talk about their past in any way.
It all seemed to be going well, really. He was going up in the ranks. Qrow's alcohol problems had disappeared after he joined Rogue Platoon. Raven had become the best thing he could ever ask for. Summer was fast on her way to becoming Lieutenant, with as much as the cadre loved her and wished they had a hundred other cadets like her. It was the kind of thing to make a man feel content.
Of course, just when it all looked good, it came crashing down. It was Friday, their last formation before the weekend came. Taiyang had hoped to see Raven, but she was nowhere to be found. Where had she gone? This didn't make any sense, usually Raven was first at formation and last out, not late.
She was more than late. She was gone. It was plainly obvious. Now-Captain Ahearn squinted his eyes as he looked over Golf, checking faces against his internal list of people in the company he knew.
“Golf company!” he shouted just before formation's technical end. “Where in the fuck is Sergeant Raven Branwen?!”
Taiyang looked over to Qrow, who stared straight ahead and shrugged. Summer didn't offer any clues either. Captain Aheard stomped over to the three, looking down on each one of them before setting his soul-piercing gaze on Qrow.
“Sergeant Qrow Branwen,” he said, “do you have any idea where your sister might have gone?”
“Better not be fucking bullshitting me,” he warned, swinging over to Summer. “What about you, Rose?! You know anything?”
“Yeah, I buy that.” Finally, Taiyang's turn. “Alright, Sergeant Xiao Long. Got any hints for us? Do you happen to know where Sergeant Branwen went?”
“No, sir,” he replied. “I'm as confused as you are.”
Captain Ahearn blinked, as if he was processing it. “Yeah, I fuckin' bet.”
For the next few hours, the campus went on lockdown as the search began for Raven. Ultimately, it ended with no sign of her. It was as if she had just disappeared entirely. As Summer and Taiyang returned to their room with Qrow, the burning question remained. Where was Raven? It wasn't like they could ask Qrow, though. He smoked the entire way back, mumbling to himself and refusing to talk to them.
The following Monday, Raven appeared at morning formation, no worse for wear and acting like nothing had happened in the first place. For obvious reasons, she had been immediately whisked away to be interrogated by Golf's senior leadership, and within seconds Taiyang, Summer and Qrow were also swept up. Each one was taken to a different room in the MLI, guarded by another sergeant. It had to have been at least forty five minutes before someone came to come get Taiyang, dragging him to a conference room where Commandant Ozpin, Chief Goodwitch, and several other senior officers had been assembled.
“Good morning, Sergeant Xiao Long,” Commandant Ozpin said, assembling a series of notes in front of him. “I assume you understand why you're here.”
“Uh, good morning, gentlemen, Chief,” he said. “Y-yes, I…I think I know why I'm here. It's about Raven, right?”
“Very perceptive. Her recent…departure, shall we call it, from Beacon this past weekend.”
Here we go. He wondered if just saying “I don't know anything” would convince them. Probably not. The eyes of a dozen officers were upon him.
“Let's start from the beginning,” the Commandant said. “Do you know why she left?”
“No, I don't know,” Qrow said, tapping ashes off his cigarette. “How many times do I have to say it?”
“She's your sister,” Chief Goodwitch said harshly. “You don't have any idea where she would have gone over these past 48 hours?”
He shrugged. Why would he? Raven was never his problem. “I'm not her keeper. What she does is her business as far as I care.”
“Unfortunately, Sergeant,” Commandant Ozpin said. “It's very much our business today. I understand you and your sister come from Arizona. Is it possible she would have gone to there?”
Qrow scoffed, taking a drag off the cigarette. “Nah. She hates Phoenix. Wouldn't go back if she could avoid it.”
“Is there anywhere else she would have gone?” another officer asked. “Maybe to a friend's house, a boyfriend, anything like that you know of?”
“Sorry, uh…I…I don't think Raven had many friends,” Summer admitted, laughing nervously. “I don't know about any boyfriend, either. Don't really reckon she has much time for that, you know?”
Why did the rooms here always smell like smoke? Qrow must have been in here before she was. Summer could still smell the fruity aftertones of his cigarettes in here. Tough room, Summer thought as she looked among the deadpan faces before her. Note for next time. Officers don't much like jokes. Commandant Ozpin sighed, looking at the notes he had collected and gripping his cup of coffee tightly, bringing it up to his face.
“I see,” Commandant Ozpin said after he took a sip. “Sergeant, are you aware of anything in Sergeant Branwen's history that would give her reason to leave Beacon?”
“I mean, I don't know why she would,” Taiyang said, shrugging. “She's got it pretty good here, between Rogue Platoon and making Sergeant. I know I wouldn't leave.”
Chief Goodwitch remained unimpressed. “This isn't about you, Sergeant, it's about Raven Branwen. If you know something-”
“I don't,” he answered, maybe a bit too quickly. Shit. Did they pick up on it? It didn't look like it. “Look,” he said, sighing and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I was just as freaked out, alright? Raven's my friend. I wanted to know where she went, too.”
Commandant Ozpin perked up at this. Dammit, he thought. Too much. The Commandant stopped taking notes and leaned forward, clasping his hands together on the table. “Sergeant, is there something you'd like to tell us? Perhaps about you and Sergeant Branwen?”
“Yeah, good joke,” Qrow said, long bored of these proceedings. Didn't they have anything better to do than prod him about shit he didn't know anything about? “You got any others, sir?”
“Sergeant,” a senior officer warned, “I don't know about the Commandant, but I find your demeanor incredibly insulting.”
Commandant Ozpin gestured for him to calm down. “Major Port, I appreciate your offense on behalf of the Board, but we are just trying to find answers here. So, Sergeant, you have no knowledge of a possible relationship between Sergeant Xiao Long and your sister?”
Qrow shook his head, noting his cigarette was starting to burn out. He'd have to light up another one of they kept up their questions.
“Uh, just to cover this again, I believe I stepped out before we discussed it,” another officer added. “Are you aware of Sergeant Branwen being under the influence of any illicit substances? Cannabis, LSD, anything like that?”
“What's LSD?” Summer asked, hopelessly lost.
“I'll take that as a 'no', then,” Chief Goodwitch muttered.
It felt like she had been in this room for a week on end. God, being in here was worse than any punishment she had gotten back home. In high school, she had never been sent to the principal's office, or given detention. Is this what that felt like for all her friends that got in trouble? How could any of them stand it? She reached for a water bottle that had been provided for her, only to find it empty.
“Thirsty, Sergeant?” Major Port noted. “Perhaps you partook in some of these substances, forgot if Sergeant Branwen did?”
Summer felt her eyes growing wide, and her heart began racing as she tried to defend herself. “Wait, nonono, it's not like that, I-I don't touch that stuff!”
“Major, whether or not Sergeant Rose dabbled in anything against regulations is not part of this Board's purpose,” Chief Goodwitch reminded him. “Don't worry, Sergeant, you're not in trouble – as long as you didn't lie to us about anything.”
“I'm not lying!” Summer protested, feeling tears roll down her face. When was the last time she had cried? It must have been after their field exercise last month. Someone slid over a tissue to her, which Summer used to dry her eyes for a moment as she looked back up to see Commandant Ozpin regarding her with mingled empathy and curiosity.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose there's only one last question.”
“No,” Taiyang said, shaking his head emphatically. “I don't think she's doing anything wrong.”
Qrow was almost out of cigarettes. Dammit. “Nope. Don't know, don't care. Are we done here?”
“Sorry, no,” Summer replied. “I've got no heavenly idea.”
Commandant Ozpin sighed, putting down the cup of coffee. “Alright, Sergeant Branwen,” he said. “Nobody can account for your whereabouts for these past 48 hours. We can only assume you deliberately left Beacon without authorization on Friday night at 6 PM. For two full days, you kept this campus on high alert, looking for you and with no way to account for your health, safety, or location.”
Raven said nothing, silently staring back at them. Each officer was giving her an intense look, trying to poke holes in her words.
“So, why? Why leave Beacon? What did you do? Where did you go?”
She should have gotten her smokes. A nice smoke would help right now. Raven blinked, trying to see if they'd accept the truth. Eh, probably not. Well, hell, she'd already been lying to them, what would one more lie do?
“I don't know,” she said finally.
They were not impressed. Major Port twisted his face in confusion, looking down on her as if she were a mere child. “Sergeant, this is serious. Your inability to recollect your actions over this past weekend makes us seriously consider your mental stability.”
“Rather, your unwillingness to enlighten us,” Chief Goodwitch added, “leads us to believe you deliberately avoided contact with Beacon.”
Raven found herself unable to do anything other than shrug. They hadn't found out anything about her past yet, otherwise they'd be asking her about it. There was almost no way they'd figure this out. Commandant Ozpin sighed heavily, shaking his head as he adjusted his small round glasses.
“Sergeant, I do wish to impress upon you the severity of this. If you're not willing to help us, we cannot help you when you graduate. If you graduate.”
“Sir,” she said calmly, “should I interpret that as a threat to my academic future?”
Chief Goodwitch's eyes narrowed. “You should consider it a warning, Sergeant.”
Raven looked down, avoiding the glares from the officers, at least temporarily. She had only looked down for a second, returning her gaze back up to meet each officer in the eyes, daring them to throw her out. Do something, really. She didn't care what at this point. If they hadn't figured out what was going on, then that was their problem.
Finally, Commandant Ozpin cleared his throat. “Well then. This board will be reviewing everything over the coming week. You will be appraised of anything we recommend concerning disciplinary actions or other such measures. Dismissed, Sergeant.”
Raven got out of the chair, standing tall and saluting the board, performing a sharp about-face to leave. Well, they hadn't called her out on anything. That was good, at least. She could hear them start debating amongst themselves as she left. Maybe she'd get out of this alright.
Chapter 5: 1963
Team STRQ goes to Louisiana.
Summer had never seen so many women in one place before. There was practically a sea of them among her now, hundreds of bodies in all shapes and colors weaving in and out with each second. She was amazed that Raven had even dragged her here to begin with, really. With tensions in Vietnam hitting an all-time high, she half-expected Raven to be glued to the radio and television, on watch for any news from southeast Asia. Instead, Raven had grabbed her arm, told her to put on something “cool”, and brought her to this rally. Someone stood on top of a stage, shouting something, but from this far away Summer couldn't hear the words.
“Fuck yeah!” Raven shouted, pumping a fist in the air.
“What did she say?” Summer asked, still unsure what was really going on.
“Does it even matter? They're letting us into the Army, but we're not anything to men but baby-makers. You remember that clown, Corporal Brown?”
Right. That guy. Summer remembered now. She occasionally still clashed with him, but he was always quiet when Raven was around. He seemed more content to push her buttons when she was alone.
“I mean, I can't forget him, he's in Qrow's squad,” Summer reminded her.
“Prime fucking example right there. He doesn't respect you. He's not gonna have your back in Vietnam.”
Raven produced a sign that she had made just for the occasion, waving it high as she listened to words that never reached Summer's ears. Summer was just happy to be there, really. Raven didn't often invite her to places, not any that didn't already include being with the friends Raven had made, anyway. She tried to comprehend what all everyone was talking about, between Raven relaying the speeches and reading the signs and banners that were all over. It made sense to her, mostly. Summer didn't know what “abortion” was, but these people seemed awfully up in arms over it. Everything else just seemed like common sense to her, though. Why not give girls like her equal pay? She was already joining the Army. Why should she have to come back to a civilian job just to get paid less than a guy doing it?
Something got passed around. It looked like a weird cigarette. Summer had already taken up smoking, after a few hard starts to the habit, preferring the light menthol Salem brand. She remembered trying a few, even bumming cigarettes of Qrow and Raven a few times, but didn't much like how they tasted in her mouth. Salems were perfect for that, since there virtually was no taste, just smoke. Raven had already taken a puff of the weird cigarette, handing it off to Summer to smoke.
Summer inhaled, feeling…not much at all. Where was the tobacco? Wait, no, this didn't taste like any tobacco she knew. It was sweet, and oddly earthy in between the smoke. Weird. Must have been a different brand or something. Summer passed it off to someone else, and before she knew it, Raven was smacking her on the back, a wide smile planted on her face.
“What?” Summer asked, wondering what had gotten into Raven.
“So fuckin' proud of you,” she said. “You took your first hit!”
Summer cocked an eyebrow. “Hit of what?”
“Holy shit, you're so sheltered. Weed! Man, Tai is never gonna believe it.”
She couldn't do anything but blink. What on Earth was Raven talking about? Wasn't that just a weird cigarette with some kind of fancy tobacco? Summer tried to shake the weirdness of the whole situation out of her mind, just trying to relax as the rally went on. It was late by the time they would be getting back to Beacon, anyway. May as well enjoy it a little.
Qrow walked into the Pit, a wide smile on his face as he continually chuckled to himself. Taiyang had never seen him this giddy before.
“You did it again, didn't you?” Taiyang asked.
Qrow matched his eyes for a split second, still laughing like a clown.
“She's gonna kill you one of these days, Qrow.”
One of Golf's new cadets ran through the Pit like a bat out of hell, retreating to him room. Seconds later, Raven stomped in, prowling like an animal on the hunt. “ALRIGHT,” she screamed. “WHAT THE FUCK DOES 'BOOB WATER' MEAN?!”
Qrow practically swallowed his tongue, trying to keep himself composed enough to not arouse suspicion. Raven circled the Pit, calling upon every junior soldier to explain the nebulous phrase to her. Each one met her interrogation with a healthy dose of fear, unable to satisfy her.
Raven screamed as she wandered around the Pit, probably angry enough to start beating the hell out of something if she had something to do it with.
“THIS DOESN'T MAKE FUCKING SENSE!” she yelled. “How can fucking none of you know what the fuck 'boob water' means when you fucking morons walked up to me, said it, and ran away like you're a fucking four year old?! Somebody better answer me, and goddamn quick because I'm about ready to smoke this entire fucking platoon!”
Qrow couldn't contain it anymore. His loud laughter echoed across the Pit, and he practically fell on the floor, doubled over. Raven stared at him confused, trying to work out why he found this so funny.
“Oh my fucking god,” she bellowed. “You fucking asshole! You got them to do this, didn't you, Qrow?”
“Holy shit, you should have seen your face,” Qrow said in between fits of uncontrollable laughter. I'm so angry someone didn't take a picture.”
Raven sighed, rubbing her temples. “Qrow, I'm going to fucking kill you one of these days. God fucking dammit.”
“I would like the record to reflect I had no part in this,” Taiyang added.
“Fuck both of you,” Raven said, shaking her head as she headed back to her room. “You, Benson, do pushups for an hour for agreeing to do Qrow's dumb fucking joke.”
“Hey, Tai,” Summer asked, knocking back a cold beer, “you're coming with us to Louisiana, right?”
Right. Louisiana. He had almost forgotten. Taiyang set down his beer, clearing his throat. “Yeah,” he said. “Just gotta get the ticket. Shouldn't be too much. You wanted us to fly to Baton Rouge, right?”
Summer shook her head emphatically, looking Taiyang in the eyes. “Nah, fly to New Orleans, it's way closer. We can grab y'all and be back home before sundown.”
“Well, I dunno when we'll be making it in. I-I don't know what time the flights land.”
She shrugged, leaning back and lighting up a cigarette. Opposite the table, Qrow took out a smoke of his own, borrowing the flame from Summer's lighter for a second. She sat there for a few moments, thoughtfully puffing on the cigarette as she did so.
“Well, I guess it doesn't matter too much. Just as long as we get back before sundown.”
Raven rolled her eyes, munching on fries she had ordered from the bar's kitchen. “What's the deal over the time? We're all gonna be there anyway.”
Summer nodded, but Taiyang could tell she was becoming a touch agitated over it. Maybe panicked? It was hard to tell. “Yeah, well, 'round the time y'all are gonna be there, that's when spirits start getting really restless. I don't wanna get caught out when some of them are roaming.”
“What, the Maidens?” Raven asked. “Come on. They can't be that bad.”
“No, it's more than just them,” Summer said seriously. “I just…trust me on this, alright?”
Qrow sighed, blowing out a ring of smoke. “Sounds like superstition to me.”
This is getting bad, Taiyang thought. He could tell Summer was just getting more and more upset, doubly so when Qrow started challenging her on it. “Hey, guys,” he said meekly, “maybe-”
“How many times do I have to say 'it's serious' before y'all start believing me?!” Summer shot out of her chair, knocking it back and sliding it across the floor as she stomped off. This was different. Taiyang had never seen Summer this angry before.
“The fuck's her problem?” Qrow asked.
“Dammit,” Taiyang muttered. “I'll go talk to her. Just…hang here, alright?”
Taiyang left his seat as well, following Summer as she stormed outside. Qrow said something, but the words were lost as he got further away from the table.
“I don't fucking know!” Raven snapped, with Qrow's response quickly fading as the hubbub of the bar was replaced by the downpour raging outside.
Summer had discarded her old cigarette for a new one, trying to light up in the storm that was now raging outside the tiny Irish pub they called home. She barely even noticed Taiyang stepping up behind her, quietly muttering to herself as she desperately tried to get her Zippo to light, practically sobbing at this point. He put on his patrol cap, sighing as he got his Zippo to light up first try. With it lit, he hovered the lighter over her cigarette. Predictably, Summer jumped, surprised that he was there. She took the cigarette away from her face, acting like it was a snake on fire or something, before calming down and sticking it back in.
“Hey, Tai,” she muttered, closing her eyes and sighing as she let out a puff of smoke. “Sorry about that.”
“No, you're cool,” he said, taking cover from the rain underneath the bar's awning. “You alright, though? You seemed pretty upset.”
Summer sobbed again, putting a hand on her forehead and shoving her cap up. “I don't get it. Like…Tai, I don't downplay what they think, what they believe, right? That ain't me.” She paused to smoke again, sobbing as she drew the cigarette out. “So why do they do it to me? How come they don't believe me when I talk about the Maidens?”
Taiyang sighed, avoiding Summer's face. He hated seeing her cry. Her gentle sobbing every time she took a drag of her cigarette didn't help much. “I…I don't know. I wish I could tell you.”
He watched her head bob up and down as she swallowed another round of heavy sobs. Stuffing the cigarette back in, Summer suddenly became aware of her offset cap, and hastily shoved it back into position. Taiyang could tell she was still pretty upset, and why wouldn't she be? Qrow and Raven had just insulted her entire religion, after all.
“If it makes you feel any better,” he said, “I believe it.”
She glanced his way, her eyes tired and weary, red from crying. “Really?”
He shrugged, putting on his signature smile for her. “Yeah, I mean, why not, right?”
Summer looked back at him, her cigarette still smoking, and laughed. It was nice to hear her laugh again. “Yeah, I guess you got me there, Tai,” she muttered. After a few deep breaths and another minute of smoking, Summer tossed her cigarette to the ground, rubbing it out with her boot. “Well, I reckon we should go back in, huh?”
“You're good, though, right?”
Summer nodded, letting out a deep breath as she turned to get ready to go back into the bar. “Yeah, I guess so.” She looked up at him, smiling. “Guess it's good I have you watching my back, huh?”
Taiyang smirked, chuckling. “Yeah, anytime, Summer.” For a split second, he was sure that something flared up in her face, but just as quickly as it had come, it was gone. She brushed away a strand of hair from her face, avoiding his eyes as she walked past him to head back in. Summer was smiling like she was hiding something silly from him, but he couldn't figure out what. Maybe it was nothing. Taiyang was just happy to see her happy again, and it looked like just taking a step back helped.
It was fitting that they were spending summer break here. The flight to New Orleans was smooth and comfortable, and definitely not nearly as long as taking a train. Already, the air was muggy, and Taiyang felt like his hair was on fire almost the minute he stepped out the airport. Summer jumped out of a red and white Chevy pickup, one of the newer models judging by the style. Her smile was almost as wide as her outstretched arms as she ran to him, Qrow and Raven, practically tackling them all to the ground.
“Y'all really made it!” she squealed, trying to contain her excitement. “It's so good to have y'all here, it really is!”
“Happy to make it out, Summer.” Raven said, returning the hug as best she could with one arm occupied by a bag.
“We're gonna have to ride in my dad's truck,” Summer explained. “My parents don't let me drive out to New Orleans, 'specially not with y'all coming down here.”
Summer broke off the hug, beginning to lead them to the truck. Already, Taiyang could see Summer's dad inside, scowling behind the wheel. This was going to be a long ride, wasn't it? Before they could even think of figuring out who got to sit in the cab versus the bed of the truck, though, Summer whipped around, her face suddenly serious.
“I almost forgot,” she said, looking pointedly at Qrow and Raven. “Y'all can't swear here. Seriously. Like, my parents are gonna freak if y'all curse around them. I mean, like, nothing worse than…I dunno, 'hell' or 'damn', and I'd say even avoid those.”
Qrow stared at Summer, taking a long drag off his cigarette. “Is…is this for real?” Taiyang jabbed him in the side, causing him to nearly drop his cigarette.
“Yes,” Summer emphasized. “I've told my folks y'all are good people. They're really big on it, so just…be good, alright? Y'all can go a week without cussing, right?”
Taiyang shrugged, heading out to the truck. “Can't be that hard, right? So, uh, who's sitting where?”
Summer's face relaxed, and her shoulders went down. No doubt she was thrilled someone was trying. “Yeah, that's real easy. Uh, Tai, Raven, y'all can sit up front with my dad! Qrow, we can ride in the back!”
“You sure?” Raven asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Your dad won't mind us sitting up front?”
“Oh yeah,” Summer said, grabbing Raven's bag and tossing it in the back. “It's fine! He'd love to talk to y'all!”
Taiyang and Raven looked to the truck's cab, seeing Mr. Rose already sizing them up. He could hear Qrow and Summer talking as they put luggage into the truck. Taiyang swallowed, already dreading the prospect of being locked in the car with Summer's dad for however long it'd take to get to their house.
“Uh, hi, Mr. Rose,” he said, holding out a hand as he opened the door. “Um, I'm not sure if you remember me, I'm Taiyang Xi-”
“Yeah, I know you,” he drawled, staring him down as Raven climbed into the cab.
“Summer said Tai and I could ride up here,” she explained. “Is that alright with you, sir?”
“You can,” he said, nodding to Raven. “You I don't like. Tell Summer she's riding up here.”
Taiyang nodded, not willing to start an argument with her dad. He scrambled to the back, relaying the news to Summer. For a second, she was confused, until she rolled her eyes and sighed, heading up to the front. Almost the second she had gotten up there, Summer started yelling in Louisiana French, with Raven caught in the middle. Even without seeing her face, Taiyang knew Raven had tensed up, probably already trying to find some way out. Summer and her dad argued long and loudly, with Summer wildly gesturing with her hands as she made her points. The entire time, Qrow, Raven and Taiyang could do nothing but watch and wait, hoping this wouldn't sour the upcoming weekend.
Both sides made a final shot, and Summer's voice went back to her usual calm, sing-song manner. “Thanks, papa!” she said, smiling wide as she headed back to the rear of the truck. “Papa says it's okay for you to sit up front, Tai.”
“Uh, th-thanks,” he said, shakily making his way up front. He could feel Mr. Rose's harsh, scrutinizing gaze on him as he closed the door. Taiyang just stared straight ahead, not daring to say anything or even look at him or Raven. Soon, the truck started up, and they began the ride back to where Summer called home, the little town of Cocodrie, Louisiana. During the trip, Mr. Rose occasionally engaged Raven in conversation, but didn't do much else other than drive and listen to the radio that played oldies.
About three hours later, when the sun had just begun to set, they arrived at Summer's house. It was propped up above the ground by massive brick stilts, and if it weren't for this feature Taiyang would have thought it was just any regular house like back in California. As they pulled up, he could see Summer's mom walk out onto the porch, waving at them with a wide smile.
“I was worried about y'all!” she called down as they got out of the truck and gathered up their bags. “Thought you wouldn't get here 'till night!”
Summer grabbed Taiyang and Raven's bags before they could even make a move for them, speeding up the stairs and wrapping her arms around her mom, bags still in hand. “Hey, mama!” she said.
“How'd she get up there so fast?” Raven wondered aloud.
“So glad y'all were able to get here before dark,” Summer's mom said. “Well, come on, come inside, don't be shy!” She gestured for them to follow her, with Mr. Rose already heading up the stairs. Raven shrugged first, walking on the old, creaky wooden stairs that groaned with each step. Taiyang and Qrow fell in behind her, practically feeling the heat rise with them.
The porch was actually larger than he expected, with several wooden chairs painted white and a porch swing decorating the front lawn. A large, wooden door was the entrance, flanked by two tall and thin windows. Summer and Mrs. Rose were in first, encouraging them to follow as Mr. Rose silently walked in. Once inside, Taiyang immediately felt cramped. The walls were covered in some kind of off-white paint. The kitchen wasn't separated from anything, with only a half wall dividing it from the tiny living room. Speaking of, the living room itself was just as claustrophobic. A large brown leather chair dominated the space, with a small couch situation next to it. A grandfather clock sat in the center of the room, ticking away.
On the wall were all sorts of pictures. Some were of Summer and her parents, a handful of just her parents, and even more of somebody Taiyang didn't recognize. Probably a sibling, or cousin. The whole house smelled like celery, a strange, oddly sweet and watery smell. Already, he could see something cooking on the stove in a massive pot. The white countertops were covered in the remains of the meal that was evidently cooking now. Guns lay along the wall to the kitchen, a collection of shotguns and old bolt-action rifles. In between the living room and kitchen, there was a table with six chairs at it, each one perfectly arranged and in order, with little salt and pepper shakers set in the middle of the table.
“Come on,” Summer said, tasting the food as she headed past the kitchen, “let me show y'all to where you'll be staying!”
The three followed Summer into the house, where she led them down a hallway lined with short bookshelves. A handful had pictures on them that were even older than the ones in the living room, maybe of grandparents or a similar generation. She opened a door, revealing a small room with a double bed in it, a long dresser on the left side paired with a massive mirror.
“So, you and Raven can sleep here,” Summer said, gesturing grandly to the bed. “Uh, Papa wanted me to tell y'all not to have sex in the house, but I'm pretty sure y'all aren't gonna do that.”
“Summer!” her dad bellowed from the other end of the house. “You tell them the rules of this household?!”
“Yes, papa!” Summer called back. Smiling and shaking her head, she dragged them to another room, with another double bed in it, an old desk with a quill on it, and a huge dresser built out of solid oak. “We only got the one bathroom, so y'all are gonna have to share, but that's okay,” she said.
“Yup, like I expected,” Qrow said, folding his arms as he looked at the artwork on the walls. “Nice and quaint. Real country.”
“Hey, come on, Qrow,” Taiyang said. “It's a nice house, Summer, really.”
“Thanks! Oh, uh, Qrow, I did want you to take my bed, but…well, Papa and Mama didn't want me to sleep on the couch.”
Qrow scoffed, taking out a cigarette. “I've slept in worse places.”
“Y'all about ready to eat?” Summer's mom asked, calling from the kitchen.
Summer immediately smiled, practically skipping her way to the kitchen. While not nearly as enthusiastically, Raven, Taiyang and Qrow followed, watching the family set out bowls and napkins for each place. Mrs. Rose gestured for them to take seats, and poured tall glasses of iced tea for them. Into the bowls went ladlefuls of a stew of some sort, poured over a bed of rice. A large bowl of potato salad sat in the middle of the table, with an equally large serving spoon for anyone who wanted some.
Qrow and Raven almost made a move to start chowing down, until Mr. Rose stopped them dead cold with a shout in Louisiana French. “Ain't nobody eatin' 'till we say Grace!” he bellowed, and like clockwork the three members of the Rose clan bowed their heads, clasping their hands together. Both Raven and Qrow looked to Taiyang for help, but he just shrugged and imitated Summer. No point in doing anything else.
“Oh Maidens,” Mr. Rose began, “thank you for this food, which will warm our hearts and give us the energy to continue to serve you. Thank you for Summer's friends, who have graciously joined us in our home, may you Maidens watch over them, and over Summer, as they visit with us this week and for the rest of their lives. May we all have good hunts, and feel the embrace of the Maidens in our hearts now and forever.”
Grace said and over, the clatter of silverware filled the room as they dug into the food in front of them. Taiyang had no idea what he was eating, but he had to admit it was pretty good. He could taste a heavy beef stock as the base of the dish, but it was full of flavors he couldn't even begin to identify offhand. There was a definite kick to it, but from what he couldn't quite figure out. The potato salad was like he expected, but like with the stew there was just something about it that set it apart from every other dish he had had in his life.
“This is excellent, Mrs. Rose,” Qrow said. “If I can ask, what is it called?”
“Why, thank you, young man! It's gumbo, dear.”
Summer subtly nudged her mom on the elbow, finishing a spoonful of gumbo. “Mama, that's Qrow – you know, Raven's brother?”
Taiyang took the time to sample the tea, surprised at the sudden sweetness of it. It was almost like knocking back a Coke, but without the syrupy aftertaste to it. He didn't know people even added sugar to iced tea. Well, either way it was making an already nice meal even better. If every day at Summer's house was going to be like this, Taiyang wasn't sure he'd ever want to leave.
After dinner, Summer and her mom did the dishes, leaving Qrow, Taiyang and Raven to their own devices. Qrow and Raven opted to head outside to smoke, and Taiyang wasn't exactly keen on spending the evening stuck in a room with Summer's dad. Not tonight, anyway – there'd be plenty more time for that. The cool night air was punctuated by the sound of a million cicadas hidden in the night. He couldn't see anything beyond the little porch light that illuminated the surrounding area, but what he could see was every star in the sky. It wasn't at all like living in California, where the skyline prevented any starlight from coming through.
“Hey, Tai,” Qrow said, nodding as he let out a puff of smoke.
“You guys talking about anything?” he asked as he stepped near the porch fence, lighting up Kent.
Raven shook her head, tossing away her cigarette as she headed back in. “Nah, nothing much. I'm gonna go sleep, that gumbo got me pretty tired.”
Qrow and Taiyang both silently said goodnight, the silence only interrupted by the sound of the screen door banging shut. As the two sat there, smoking to pass the night away, Taiyang couldn't help but wish they could have a little music. He didn't even see a radio around when Summer was giving them the tour. Did her parents even have one?
After about a minute, Summer joined them outside, wiping her hands off on a towel that she easily tossed onto the back of one of the dinner table chairs. Before she was even halfway out the door, though, her dad's booming voice echoed from inside the couch. “Summer! You ain't gonna smoke out there, are you?”
“No, papa!” Summer said back, smiling. “I only smoke the packs they give us in the MCIs!”
“In the what?”
“The field food, papa! Don't worry about it!” She rolled her eyes as she stepped out, chuckling. “Sorry, he worries about me a lot.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” Qrow said, tossing his cigarette to the deck and stomping it out. “I'm tired of being hot. Gonna head inside and see if I can't cool down.”
“There's tea on the counter if you want some,” Summer said helpfully. “That'll cool you down pretty well!”
Qrow hummed, heading to the door inside. “Eh, I'm not a big fan of sweet. You know if your dad keeps beer?”
“I don't think so,” Summer replied. “Uh, I'm not sure if he'd let you drink it anyway.”
He stood there for a second, before shrugging and heading inside, quietly closing the door behind him. Summer turned away to look out on the bayou, sighing in content as she did so. She leaned against a column, absentmindedly waving away smoke Taiyang accidentally sent her way.
“Sorry about that,” he apologized.
“Oh, don't worry about it,” she said, still smiling. “Hey Tai, promise me something?”
Taiyang looked up at her, having been distracted by trying to keep his cigarette alight. “Uh, sure. What's up?”
“They're gonna send us to Vietnam when we're done,” Summer said, still looking into the pitch-black that surrounded the house. “Mama always said that after my dad went to Africa, he was a different man.”
Slowly, Summer's smile changed from a more joy-filled one, to a smile that he could tell was almost wistful, maybe regretful over something that hadn't happened yet. “She told me he used to be a really happy guy, that not much really bothered him. But…after Africa, he kept chasing shadows that weren't there. I mean, not that I know personally, since I wasn't really there to see it. But that's what Mama always said.”
“Sounds terrible,” Taiyang said.
“Point I'm trying to get at is…well, if they send us to Vietnam, I don't want us to be changed by it. I shouldn't have asked you to promise me that, 'cause now I reckon I can't put it on you, but…”
“No, I get what you're saying,” Taiyang replied, extinguishing his cigarette. “I mean…I dunno, if we gotta go to Vietnam, I guess we gotta go to Vietnam. You've seen the guys that came back from Korea. They seem alright.”
Summer's smile had dropped completely now, and she sighed as she slowly turned her head to look Taiyang in the eyes. “I really wish that this would be all we know, Tai. I don't want us to go to Vietnam and forget about all this. You know?”
Taiyang sighed as well, trying to find words. Shit, Summer had turned away from him, and he knew why. Her eyes were watery, and she was maybe two seconds away from crying. He walked over to her, rubbing her shoulder in an attempt to calm her down. She shuddered, normalizing her breathing as she lightly put a hand on his, smiling through the tears.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “I'm just…thinking about leaving Beacon makes me really sad, you know?”
“Yeah, I get it. Still got a year, though.”
She giggled, showing her teeth through the laugh. “Yeah, I guess so. Thanks, Tai. I needed that.”
Chapter 6: 1964-65
Qrow enjoyed having breakfast before anyone else on campus woke up and got to chow hall. For one, it let him spend some time alone without anyone trying to talk to him, and he always got the hot, fresh food before anyone else could. Today's meal included fried potatoes, eggs, and maybe a little bit more bacon than was strictly necessary. It was about the only time Qrow could ever really relax.
So far, it was another usual day, until unusually, Commandant Ozpin joined him at his table. He glanced up at the Commandant, then scanned the room. Just like he had suspected, the entire hall was devoid of people aside from them. This wasn't an accident, as if he needed any more proof to that conclusion.
“Good morning, sir,” Qrow said, stabbing at a small pile of eggs with his fork.
“Good morning, Lieutenant,” Commandant Ozpin said, setting down a plate.
“Decide to join the rest of us for breakfast, sir?”
The Commandant laughed, putting a light sprinkling of pepper on his potatoes. “Well, I figured with a schedule as busy as a young Lieutenant's, especially one in his last year of schooling at Beacon, the best time to speak with him was at breakfast.”
Qrow said nothing, chewing on the eggs, which were a little rubbery this morning. That sucks. He was looking forward to having some good eggs. Commandant Ozpin took note of Qrow's silence, digging into his food. The two ate in silence for a few short moments, preferring their food to conversation.
“I suppose you're curious as to your chances of earning a commission,” Commandant Ozpin said, finally killing the silence.
“Not really,” Qrow replied, shrugging. “I figure if I don't make it in, I can just enlist.”
“And put all that talent to waste?”
Qrow scoffed, shaking his head as he chewed on a piece of bacon. “What talent would that be, sir? Average grades across the board? A past alcohol issue? Or were you talking more about how I managed to get all my friends involved in my sister's shit?”
Commandant Ozpin smiled, cutting up a sausage and taking bites of it, staring into Qrow's eyes. “No, Lieutenant. I was referring mostly to your incredible acting skills. How you and your sister have been able to hide the truth from so many.”
The emptiness of the mess hall didn't help make the clatter of silverware any quieter. It felt like the sound of Qrow's fork falling onto his plate echoed across the entire campus as he sat there in shock, trying to figure out what would happen next. Despite the clear panic in Qrow's face, the Commandant just sat there, calmly eating his breakfast as if he hadn't just dropped a veritable nuke on the conversation.
“Sir, I-I can-” Qrow began, before he was silenced by the Commandant's raised hand.
“Lieutenant, do you seriously think I would have allowed you to stay at this school if I considered you a threat to national security?”
“I…guess not, sir.”
The Commandant smiled, taking a sip of his coffee as Qrow slowly picked his fork back up. Nothing about this made any sense to him. Why had the Commandant shown up here, dropped that kind of bomb on him, and then just retreated to his breakfast like nothing was wrong?
“Sir, I just have to ask. Why?”
Commandant Ozpin smirked, putting down his cup and adjusting his glasses. “That's the million dollar question, isn't it, Lieutenant? I'm sure you've noticed my interest in your development as an officer since your second year at Beacon.”
“You mean not everyone has meetings with the Commandant every six months? Here I thought that was business as usual, sir.”
“Even when in the worst position possible, you find a way to make jokes,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. "That may very well be an admirable trait for you, Lieutenant. There is a reason for everything I do here, make no mistake.”
Qrow put his fork back down, having finished his food. Rather than depart to take the tray away, though, he folded his arms, leaning on the table. “I'm not much of a quitter, sir. But I figure you knew that already. You still haven't answered me.”
“Lieutenant Branwen, you are here for the same reason your sister wasn't immediately ejected from Beacon after her little stunt two years ago. I foresee both of you as being capable of much more, and it is my opinion as Commandant of this school that your chances at serving this country should not falter because of…rather unfortunate political differences.”
He scoffed. “Sounds like bunk to me, but alright. Guess we'll see if you turned out to be right or not if they send me to Vietnam.”
The Commandant smiled knowingly, standing up and taking their trays and cups. “War changes everyone, Lieutenant. Don't forget that.”
“Stop fucking talking!” Raven shouted at the incoming cadet class. “I have had to order you worthless fucking meatbags four goddamn times to stop talking! I am your First fucking Sergeant, do I not command respect from you?”
The company began to settle down, falling silent until one of them dared to cough. Within seconds, Raven had descended upon him, getting right up to his face for daring to make noise.
“WHAT DID I JUST SAY?!? You fucking asshole! I will claw my way down your throat and tear out your very soul, do you fucking understand me?! If I have to order this company to silence one more fucking time, I will individually gouge out your fucking eyeballs and skull-fuck each and every one of you!”
“Yes, First Sergeant!” they called, probably the first time they had acted as a unit since arriving. Raven backed off, shaking her head as she headed back to the front of the formation. She scanned the formation with a rage-filled eye, trying to decide what punishment to levy upon the Class of 1968.
“Just in case this wasn't clear from the get-go,” Raven announced, “this is not a happy place! You are signing away four years of your life to learn how to be the deadliest fucking warriors on the planet! I do not care who you are. I do not care where you came from. I do not care who's paying for you to sit here and be a disrespectful little shit to me. What I do care about is making sure you fucking idiots can face any challenge and come back asking for more! You are not going to have fun here while I'm your First Sergeant, do I make myself clear?!”
“Yes, First Sergeant!”
“Good. We can work with this. Sergeant Barker! Lead them in their first exercise of the night!”
Raven headed to her room, letting Sergeant Barker take the lead on showing them proper pushup form. The Class of 1968 had scant few chances to make this up to her, she decided. If they aimed to be half as strong a warrior as she was, they would have to work hard.
Raven looked out among the new cadets of Golf, observing as they learned basic drill. With the precision she had taught every sergeant below her, the Class of 1968 executed a left-face turn near perfectly.
All, of course, except Private Paris.
“Hey! Frenchie!” she shouted, immediately breaking into a sprint to reach him as he tried to fix his mistake. “What the fuck are you trying to do to my beloved Corps?”
“I'm not trying to do anything, First Sergeant!”
“Boy, I sure as shit believe that! Private Frenchie, do you expect me to believe you don't know your left from your right?”
“No, First Sergeant!”
Raven cocked an eyebrow at him, wondering if he really was this dumb. “Then you did that on purpose, you want to be different!”
“No, First Sergeant!”
What kind of high-speed low-drag bullshit was this? Did Private Paris really think she was so dumb that she'd buy his stupid excuse? Did he really think he could get away with such a brazen crime and get off scot-free? Raven wound up, and slapped him on the left side of his face, staring him down as he looked back in shock.
“What side was that, Private Paris?”
“Left side, First Sergeant!” he replied, shakily.
“Are you sure, Private Paris?”
“Yes, First Sergeant!”
Raven slapped him again, this time on his right side. This time, his hat went flying to the ground, and he almost made a move to grab it. Thankfully, for both of them, he kept his bearing.
“What side was that, Private Paris?”
“Right side, First Sergeant!”
She stared him down again. He was close to the breaking point. His eyes were fearful, and his lower lip quivered. He wanted to quit, she could tell. Not on her watch. She'd break this motherfucker down, even if she had to bring him to the brink of death.
“Aw, am I too violent for you, cupcake?” Raven demanded. “What, did Alabama not prepare you for me? You wanna go back to Selma, Lightbulb? You wanna quit?”
“Yes, I do, First Sergeant!”
Raven didn't even blink, staring deep into his eyes. Yup, he was serious, alright. “Alright, Lightbulb,” she said, low so only he could hear. “Then get the fuck out of my sight, go see Captain Rose, and then fuck off back to France, crouton.”
Private Paris nodded, and began walking off.
“Pick up your fucking cover!” Raven screamed at him, prompting him to snatch his hat back on and whip it on his head.
A week after 1964's Induction Week, Raven was called before a Review Board, for reasons unknown to her. At the board sat the Commandant, Chief Goodwitch, and an officer she didn't know the name of.
“Good morning gentlemen, Chief.”
“First Sergeant Branwen,” Commandant Ozpin said, gesturing for her to take a seat. “If you would.”
Questions swam through her mind as she wondered why she was here. She hadn't done anything wrong lately. Her record was clean. No alcohol issues. Nothing out of the ordinary, maybe a little more weed or LSD hits than normal.
“Commandant, if I may ask,” she said, “where is Major Port? He's usually here at these.”
“Major Port is on assignment in Vietnam right now,” Chief Goodwitch explained. “But this is about you, First Sergeant.”
Raven nodded, settling in. What'd they want to talk about, anyway? Commandant Ozpin shuffled around some papers, distributing a handful to the Chief and the officer next to him. An aide handed a packet to Raven, which she took the time to look over. These were Summer's reports, she recognized the handwriting immediately. Why did they have Summer's reports?
“First Sergeant,” the officer said, his thick Boston accent cutting into his words. “We have some very disturbing reports from this year's Induction Week from Golf Company. I assume you've seen these reports?”
“No, sir,” she replied, shaking her head. Summer never let Raven read these. Why would she?
The officer, a lieutenant colonel judging by his rank, clicked open his pen and scribbled down a note before picking up a copy of one of the reports. “First Sergeant Branwen, these reports indicate several cadets in your company worked their way up the chain of command, with several sergeants deliberately avoiding your position in it, instructing new cadets to speak to Cadet Lieutenant Xiao Long, who then sent them to Cadet Captain Rose. From there, Cadet Captain Rose notes interviewing multiple cadets from Golf Company who, among other things, claim you verbally assaulted them at the slightest provocation, called the incoming cadets as a group 'Negroes, wops, greasers and chinks', and physically assaulted several cadets. She further notes that at least four cadets informed her they were withdrawing from Beacon because of you, First Sergeant.”
“Obviously, these are very serious charges,” Commandant Ozpin said. “We take abuse charges very seriously at Beacon, First Sergeant.”
“Now, First Sergeant, do you dispute the accuracy of any portion of Cadet Captain Rose's report, before we continue?” the Lieutenant Colonel asked.
Raven looked over the report, checking it over quickly. Pretty much everything she had done over Induction Week was here, in Summer's words of course. She couldn't exactly say none of it happened. Everything had happened, after all.
“No, sir,” she said, slowly putting the report.
“Do you believe that your actions, as described in these reports, are responsible for these cadets withdrawing from Beacon?”
“No,” Raven replied.
The officer's eyebrows, as well as Chief Goodwitch's, jumped up in shock as Commandant Ozpin calmly sat there drinking his coffee.
“Would you perhaps like to explain yourself, First Sergeant?” Chief Goodwitch asked.
Raven nodded, maintaining a stoic face. “My job as First Sergeant is to prepare each cadet for the realities of the United States Army and the future of war,” she said. “I was not coddled when I was first here at Beacon. I was not coddled as a child. I refuse to let any cadet believe that their path to the military will be easy."
“Perhaps it would be best to let the Army decide such realities, First Sergeant,” Chief Goodwitch said.
“So, let me see if I have this right,” the Lieutenant Colonel said, rubbing his temple. “You believe that your duties as Company First Sergeant include beating cadets?”
Raven considered her words carefully. It had been drilled in her since the second she got here that weakness was not tolerated. That lesson had been drilled in her since she was a child. Did they not want the strongest warriors possible?
“I view it as my duty to prepare incoming cadets for the military,” she finally answered. “If corporal punishment is necessary to achieve that, then so be it.”
The officer shook his head. “Well, I don't know about the Commandant, but I think we have all we need.”
“Indeed,” Commandant Ozpin said. “Chief, Colonel, if you could give me a few moments alone with the First Sergeant? I would like to speak to her privately.”
They nodded, and left the room alongside the aide, gathering up their papers into their various folders. She could hear them quietly discussing her as they left. Once the meeting room door closed, Commandant Ozpin sighed, leaning on the table.
“Would you like to know a secret, First Sergeant?”
“That depends on the secret, sir.”
“I want you to go very far in the Army.”
Raven shrugged. “Don't you wish that upon everyone, Commandant?”
He smiled, nodding slightly. “Raven, if you think my office is blind to your ambitions outside of the military, then I must question your ability to analyze intelligence. We are well aware of your plans, but do not think for even a second that we are not watching carefully.”
Raven sighed. She was panicked, sure, but she was not about to hide her panic. There wouldn't be a benefit to it. “Is there a point to this, Commandant?”
“Now you're getting it. First Sergeant, over my time as an officer, I have learned the benefit of getting people to the right place. Do you understand me?”
She looked up at him, seeing him smile even wider than she thought possible. Was this serious? Was he planning to look over everything she had done? This had to be some kind of trap.
“Sir, a cadet does not conspire to conceal the truth. I have never hidden who I am, and I don't plan to now.”
“You already have,” he countered. “If you wanted to swear to your oath, you would have told us exactly what you planned on doing in your application essay, and not told a tall tale about serving your country.”
Well, shit. He had her there. Maybe this wasn't going to be as easy as she thought.
“You seem to know everything, sir.”
“It's my job to, First Sergeant. You have an important decision to make here today, Raven Branwen. Are you going to see yourself become one of the United States' deadliest warriors, or do you become one of the most dishonorable people this nation has seen since Benedict Arnold?”
Summer hated waiting.
She had graduated from Beacon just a few weeks ago, already back home with Mama and Papa – and basically the entire family at this point, every sibling and cousin and aunt and uncle stuffed into their tiny little house – waiting for the news from the Army. Commandant Ozpin had made a long speech on their graduation day about how he was honored the class of 1964 had turned out so excellently. All she wanted was to see the words, or hear them if the Army decided to call, that she'd be going into the infantry. Just like Dad did all those years ago.
Summer had almost given up on it, really, half-expecting a long forgotten letter t arrive some day telling her that she wasn't chosen. Occasionally, friends of hers called in or sent a letter, saying they had either been picked or were passed over. None of it made her feel any better, or suppressed her anxiety. She just wanted something to come already.
One lazy Saturday afternoon, a knock came at the door. Summer practically turned into a whirlwind racing to it, throwing the door open to reveal a man in an olive drab uniform, smiling as he handed her a letter. She treasured it as she zipped back inside, tearing at it as Mama offered him a drink. She was barely even aware of her own ear-piercing squeal as she unfolded the contents. It was real. The Army had confirmed it. She, along with Tai, Raven and Qrow, were joining the 101st Airborne Division. They were to report at Fort Benning to the Airborne-Air Mobility Department in two months for training.
“Mama! Papa!” she shouted, waving the letter at them. “I'm gonna be Airborne!”
Raven held her breath as the engines roared. She was far, far higher up in the sky than she had ever imagined. Airborne training wasn't easy by any means, but if it was good for one thing, it was weeding out the weak from the strong.
Damn good thing Raven was the strongest bitch here.
“Is everybody happy?” cried the sergeant, looking up.
“Yes, Sergeant, Airborne!” they replied.
Green light. This was her fifth jump. The door slammed open, exposing her stick to the rush of wind as the first jumper approached. He was nervous – the sergeant shoved him out of the plane and let him figure out the rest. Next one as the plane banked stepped forward. A quick check of the trooper's pack, and he was out. He went out without a second thought.
Raven's turn. She had an excellent view of the ground, from 1,250 feet up in the air. As she jumped out, she could now see it rapidly closing. Multiple parachutes dotted the area, slowly falling to the ground. She counted long and hard, waiting until she had lost just enough height to deploy the chute. The pull of the parachute caught her by surprise – it always did, for some damn reason – and she felt herself slow down, with about 800 feet to go. Hell yeah, Raven thought as she descended lazily to the ground. She had her airborne wings now, and didn't even die in the process.
Hitting the ground from an airborne jump would've been a hell of a way to die, anyway.
It all started so easily. “Let's go to Beacon,” Raven had said. “Let's go Airborne,” Taiyang said. And then Summer just had to open her mouth, hang out with them at the bar after they got their airborne wings, and say those cursed words. “Let's go Ranger.” God, as if Summer hadn't learned a damn thing since Beacon. As if Raven would ever say “no” to a challenge. Daring Raven that she couldn't do something was almost as good at getting her to do something as telling her she couldn't.
Maybe spending all this time in hell was worth it, Qrow thought as he lifted a massive log above his head. He was used to working hard by now, that wasn't the problem – the problem was the long marches, the constant tests of knowledge, going hours without even so much as a second to stop and take a breather. It was just constant movement, constant action. “Rest” was almost an illegal word here. Either way, he'd be Ranger, Airborne, and a Beacon graduate by the time he was done. Not bad for a rebel kid from Phoenix that never much amounted to anything else.
July 18th, 1965
Summer remembered clearly the warm July day, just a month after her birthday. Papa had wanted to send her something, but Post had somehow lost it along the way. Maybe she could get a flight home on her next leave. It'd be nice to go back home for a little while. She'd have to call home sometime today, check in and see if Papa was doing alright. He had been a little sick lately, but Summer always worried about him.
“Hey, Tai,” Qrow said, flipping through a magazine. “What's up?”
Summer looked up, seeing Tai walk into the room, clutching a piece of paper in his hands and looking distressed. He blinked a few times, taking a deep breath.
“What is it, Tai?” Summer asked.
He opened his mouth, wanting to say something, but then closed it again as a pensive look crossed his face.
“We're going to Vietnam, guys,” Taiyang finally said.
Chapter 7: Worst Trip I've Ever Been On
Team STRQ arrives in Vietnam.
Vietnam didn't seem to be so bad. Sure, it was hot, and the air was perpetually muggy, but the country itself was pretty nice. Their transport had just landed at their new home just a few minutes ago, and together the four headed off it. Taiyang sighed, taking in the sights. All things considered, this could be a lot worse. On his left, Raven put on a pair of aviators, swinging her bag onto her back. Qrow, as usual, lit up a cigarette the minute he was able to.
“We're really here,” Summer said. “Welcome to Vietnam, everyone.”
Taiyang checked their orders again as they headed off the plane. Their base here was full of chaos as other members of the division and locals from the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, already nicknamed “ARVN” by their command, merged and mingled together. A helicopter flew around, probably ferrying people somewhere. Well, here they were.
Their barracks weren't any different from the ones in Kentucky. Single beds were scattered around the room, with eight to a building. Plenty of space for them to stretch out and get their personal effects sorted, and maybe personalize them a little. Each one, as per regulations, had an olive drab blanket, white sheets, and a basic pillow at the head. Taiyang tossed his bag on one, claiming it as Raven, Summer and Qrow did the same. Somebody already had a radio playing, with the Armed Forces Radio announcing another block of music on the way.
“Figure we got those new rifles yet?” Raven asked, unpacking her bag.
“Probably not,” Qrow replied. “I saw a lot of guys rolling with the M14s.”
Raven hummed, lighting up a cigarette of her own. “Sucks. Was hoping to get them.”
Taiyang joined Summer at looking out among the base, watching the helicopters come in and out. It looked almost like they were gathering for something, preparing for an attack of some kind maybe. Command did say that they were likely to help out the ARVN in fending off local attacks, though. Helicopters were looking the best way to do it.
First combat patrol. Summer was more than thrilled for this, having spent far too long in the barracks doing nothing. They would be joining a group of experienced Marines who had been here since at least '63, heading out to check out a local village. The Marines had a new type of camouflage uniform, and their sleeves were worn and ragged, like they had been fighting here for far longer. One of them nodded at them, slinging his M14 on his back as he approached.
“You guys the Airborne officers?” he asked, looking at them.
“Yeah,” Raven said, extending a hand, which he took. “Lieutenant Raven Xiao Long.”
“I'm Captain Xiao Long,” Taiyang said. “This here's Lieutenant Rose, and Lieutenant Qrow Branwen.”
“I'm Sergeant Hutchison, these here are my boys. You guys ready to hunt some VC today?”
“VC?” Summer asked, tilting her head to the side.
“You know, Victor Charlie. Viet Cong.”
Summer looked over to Tai, who shrugged in response. This wasn't a term that command had ever briefed them on. Their confused looks must have told Sergeant Hutchison all he needed to know, since he began shaking his head.
“The guerrillas, local forces that pop up and disappear soon as look at them. Look, all you gotta know is if the trees start speaking Vietnamese, start shooting.”
Seemed simple enough, Summer thought to herself as she readjusted her grip on the M14. The Marines had begun to ignore them by now, regarding Summer and her friends as a mere curiosity than anything else. The Marines were stocking up on grenades and ammo, stuffing both into pouches or sticking them on bandoliers and their equipment webbing. Sergeant Hutchison turned to one of his soldiers, gesturing to a crate full of oblong, white-painted grenades.
“Yo,” Sergeant Hutchison said. “Miller, grab that Willy Pete.”
“What?” Summer asked, confused. “What do you guys need white phosphorus for?”
The sergeant looked at them with hollow eyes, his expression blank. “You'll see, 90-day wonders, you'll see.”
“90-day wonders?” Raven asked, furrowing her brow. “We spent four years at Beacon, asshole.”
“That right?” Sergeant Hutchison said. “Well, guess what. Every day out here is worth a fuckin' year there. Welcome to 'Nam, baby.”
Their transport helicopter touched down, cutting off any more conversation potential. With tensions between Raven and Sergeant Hutchison clearly visible to all, the join Marine-Airborne team loaded up into the helicopter. Within minutes, they had ascended to the air, heading to their objective. Summer wasn't sure if the village they were heading to had a name – if it did, she couldn't remember if Raven had ever mentioned it. From where their helicopter had landed, the village looked about three hundred meters out, maybe a bit farther.
As they neared the little Vietnamese village, all seemed peaceful. A local ARVN detachment was hanging around, looking incredibly bored as they sat on boxes, watching the helicopter land. Sergeant Hutchison and his squad, with Summer, Raven, Qrow and Taiyang close behind, headed down the main road into the village. Small, one-story wood buildings were scattered around randomly, with a single two-story stucco structure dominating the area. Summer estimated they were probably about three hundred meters out from the center of the village, having landed in the only clearing viable for the helicopter.
The ARVN looked at them heading towards the village, calling out something in Vietnamese, which was ignored. Nobody in the two squads spoke Vietnamese, and besides, they had their own orders anyway. Sergeant Hutchison took his soldiers to the right flank, while Summer and her friends continued down the main dirt road. All things considered, it was a nice little town. If she had to, Summer could see herself living here. It reminded her of Cocodrie.
Distant, echoing gunfire erupted from the right. She could hear clearly one of the Marines replying with his rifle, but the rest of the cracks were unrecognizable to her.
“Shit,” Qrow muttered.
“Come on, let's go help them!” Taiyang said, already stepping off to head to the right.
They ducked and weaved in between houses, trying to locate the Marines and the source of the gunfire. A machine gun opened up in short bursts, but as the sound bounced off the buildings, she couldn't tell if it was friendly or not. After a few minutes of confused searching, and more than a few words exchanged between Raven and Qrow, they managed to find the Marines, who had taken cover in a ditch. Beyond a series of rice fields, Summer could see distant muzzle flashes, but only for the blink of an eye.
“Across the rice fields!” Summer shouted, pointing to a treeline.
“Brilliant deduction, Sherlock!” a Marine yelled back, shoving a fresh magazine in.
Summer rose back up, shouldering her rifle as she scanned for targets of opportunity. One, two, three shots and she ducked back down again, narrowly avoiding the bullets that came her way. On both sides, she could hear Qrow, Raven and the Marines doing the same. Was that the sound of Vietnamese making their way towards them? She tried to peek back up, but the same response awaited her as a hail of bullets zipped past her head.
Wait, she thought. If they're getting closer…
Summer suddenly realized why the Marines had brought the white phosphorus grenades with them. She had heard from Raven that squads often took the ultra-lethal grenades to clear out problem areas quickly. It never made much sense to her, until it had dawned on her just this second. They were going to burn them alive, a cruel death if ever there was one. Sure, they were under attack, but that didn't justify this response.
“Fuck this,” Sergeant Hutchison said, “no fuckin' time. Miller, light 'em up.”
“Will do, Sarge,” Miller said, pulling out one of his WP grenades. He pulled the pin, and before Summer could say something, it was thrown up and over the ditch crest and exploded with a brilliant white light. The screams of burning Viet Cong followed not long after, echoing in the empty fields. Summer dared to look up, watching the Vietnamese jump around wildly, batting at the flames as if they could put themselves out.
She felt her eyes grow wide, and suddenly became aware that she had stopped breathing. She held the air in her lungs like something was stopping it from coming out. Not just the Vietnamese, who were dressed in black well before the white phosphorus hit them, but the grass and rice fields were on fire, being stained by the intense heat. Before she could even try to stop it, tears were rolling down her cheeks as the screams of the dying Vietnamese began to fade.
“Wh…” Summer stammered, trying to understand the chaos she saw before her. “What…oh no, no no no no no!”
The white phosphorus had caught on not just the grass, but the trees as well. Flecks of brown and black mixed on the leaves, a permanent stain on the environment. This isn't right, she thought. Her heart felt like a Buddy Rich solo, and her rifle fell to the ground. There was no way the Maidens would ever tolerate this. She had to fix this, but knew full well the white phosphorus would just kill her if she tried to put it out now. All she could do was pray.
“The fuck's her problem?” Sergeant Hutchison asked.
Summer barely registered the dressing-down that Raven had launched into, only that it was loud. Would the Maidens forgive her for this? Forgive the Marines for burning the trees and grass? She wasn't sure. Hoping and praying was her only weapon at this point. Before she knew it, Tai had whipped her around, clutching her shoulders tight as he stared at her.
“Summer,” he asked, panic filling his eyes and voice, “you alright? What's going on?”
She stammered uselessly, trying to form words but failing. Had she been crying this entire time? It was hard to tell. “The…the Maidens, Tai, they're gonna…oh Lord, this is so bad…”
“OK, Summer, look at me,” Tai said, checking the sides of her head for any wounds. “It's gonna be alright, okay? We're gonna be fine. The…I dunno, we'll put this out or something, let me just-”
“Tai, you don't get it!”Summer shouted involuntarily. “If this keeps happening, oh Lord, if this has been happening for years, then…then…”
“I get it, I do, okay?” Tai said, still squeezing her shoulders. “Just…they already went and did it, alright? It's done. We can't change what's happened.”
Summer slammed her eyes shut, as if that'd stop the flow of tears from coming. As if making herself look bad in front of a bunch of Marines was just the half of it, the wrath of the Maidens terrified her. “It's more than just that, Tai,” she said. “I can't…I can't make you understand, for real. You say you get it, but you don't, Tai.”
“Fucking assholes,” Raven muttered as she headed over, slinging her M14 on her back and lighting up a cigarette. “We all good here? What's going on?”
“Can we just get out of here?” Summer asked. Maybe getting away from this den of sin would help. Maybe it wouldn't. Maybe she was just deluding herself. All she knew was that she couldn't spend another second here. Raven grabbed Summer's rifle, keeping it safe while they headed out of the village, hanging out with the ARVN. Summer would do nearly anything to avoid having to count bodies with the Marines, anyway.
The rain was practically pouring down, limiting visibility to barely a hundred meters in front of them. Reports from an ARVN unit claimed the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA, were on the prowl here, and they had made contact not too long ago. But, by the time they had gotten into the helicopters and arrived, there was no gunfire. The entire scene was quiet, with the falling rain the only indication something was actually happening. Raven didn't much mind being in the rain – it made it easier to sneak up on unsuspecting VC, for one – but it just seemed to annoy Qrow and Tai. Looked like Summer didn't care, either. Actually, no, scratch that, Summer practically reveled in the rain, saying something in French when they landed.
“Is there anyone in this goddamn army that speaks Vietnamese?” Raven asked.
“Don't think so,” Qrow chimed in. “Hey, Summer, figure they'll understand Louisiana French?”
Summer shrugged, taking her M14 into her hands as she looked around. “I don't think so, but I guess I can try.”
Raven scanned the area as Summer tried to negotiate the language barrier between the two armies. Even without the rain, this was a good place for Charlie to set up shop and start opening up on them. Lots of open fields and clear fire paths. She'd only been here for a few months, but she could tell already this was the worst place to be, and it made her uneasy. Qrow probably wasn't worried – he had said so himself, he was invincible. He didn't fear anything. Not bullets, not governments, sure as hell not Charlie. Qrow had learned a lot – he'd be great to have on hand when the real war came.
Every time she looked at the trees, she swore she could see Charlie's outline in them, leveling an AKM at her. Maybe her eyes were just playing tricks on her. If she had her way – and if Summer wouldn't pitch a fit and go silent for a week – she'd just have this entire treeline burnt down by dawn. It'd give them a better chance to spot any VC before the shooting started, anyway. Maybe she could get some Marines to do it for her. Anything to stop Summer from freaking out over it.
“No dice,” Summer said, shaking her head as she headed back over to them. “Best I can get is that Charles was here, now they're not.”
“Any idea where they went?” Tai asked. Summer shook her head in response. That just made all this harder. What was the point of being Vietnam's firemen if they couldn't do jack shit about Charlie disappearing the second they made contact? Raven suspected the local VC cells warned the NVA when they got airborne. It's about the only thing that made sense.
The entire scene just frustrated her. They knew the VC had locals that traded their farm tools for guns whenever it suited them. Sometimes, Raven wondered if she was the only one who saw the clear solution to the VC problem, and institute large sweeps of every village this side of the DMZ. Hell, blow places up if they had to. Anything to keep guns out of the VC's hands.
Damn shame nobody else saw the world like she did.
“Good news, we know where the Vietnamese are,” Colonel Brown said, gesturing to a map of the Ia Drang valley. “Bad news is, ARVN's roadbound, they won't be attacking this place anytime soon.”
The Colonel's intelligence officer passed around reports, and an aide pinned small markers on the map. “We've identified three regular North Vietnamese regiments in this area,” the intel officer said. “The 66th, 32nd and 33rd, in these locations.”
Taiyang looked over the map, and the reports of the positively identified regiments. Nearly a full Vietnamese division in the valley. The most the Army was committing were two brigades from the Air Cav. Who thought this was a good idea?
“In his infinite wisdom,” Colonel Brown continued, “General Knowles has decided for us that Lt. Col Moore and his men will be landing at LZ X-Ray, while Lt. Col McDade's battalion will land at LZ Albany. Uh, both battalions have orders not to climb the mountain, we're just doing a standard S&D op here.”
Search and destroy. It was the kind of mission Taiyang was well familiar with. 101st had done a handful of them as well over the months in Vietnam, but never with three full NVA regiments in the area. Usually, they just chased ghosts.
“You're planning to drop two battalions in against this kind of deployment?” Raven asked. “What kind of support are they going to have?”
“They'll be supported by the precision application of tactical airpower and artillery from Firebase Falcon,” Colonel Brown answered.
“So, what's the plan here, sir?” Qrow ventured, smoking a cigarette. “Fly in, hope we find them, pull back out again?”
Colonel Brown laughed loudly. “No, not at all, Lieutenant. We'll be heading in to take the initiative from the North Vietnamese in Pleiku province, and hopefully knock out an NVA regiment or two in the process. High brass is looking for a good show here, ladies and gentlemen. This'll be the first real field test of airmobile tactics. Let's hope it all goes well.”
Taiyang had his reservations about the affair, but didn't voice them – his role here was just advisory anyway, not to make changes to someone else's plan. The fewer waves he made here, the better, really. He just hoped that the intel was right when it said there were no AA guns in the area. Trying to move a battalion via helicopter only into a hot zone could end in a disaster.
Chapter 8: California Dreamin'
All things considered, Saigon was a pretty nice city. Qrow thought it smelled like shit all the time, but maybe that was just because all the street food had some kind of spices he didn't much like. Or maybe it was whatever passed for local sauces around here. Who knew, Qrow sure as hell didn't. But, this Marine that Qrow had made buddies with couldn't get enough. Bruno was chowing down on some kind of sandwich, stuffed with cheese, some kind of vegetable that stank to high hell, and fried eggs. How these locals managed to stuff the thing with all this was a mystery to Qrow, honestly.
“You really oughta try this stuff, Qrow,” Bruno said, smacking his lips. “Shit's good.”
Qrow lit up another Lucky Strike, cautiously eying the gaggles of Saigon locals that wandered around. “Maybe next time.”
Another huge bite out of the sandwich gone. Bruno was like a regular Dagwood sometimes – if there was a sandwich, it was like he had to have it. Hell, Bruno could probably make an edible sandwich out of MCI food if he really wanted to.
Right as Qrow had gotten his cigarette lit up, Bruno was smacking his arm, staring at something behind him. He was about to ask Bruno what the hell his deal was, until he saw him pointing at something. Qrow turned around, annoyed as hell as he tracked Bruno's finger. His eyes were locked on some local girl, hanging out and smoking at the corner.
“Holy fuck,” Qrow said, rolling his eyes. “You're a goddamn idiot, Bruno. You know she's probably a hooker, right?”
“Nah,” Bruno said, keeping his intense gaze on her. “With beauty like that? Ain't no way she'd waste it being a hooker.”
Qrow shook his head, trying to get back to enjoying his cigarette. If Bruno wanted to waste his time screwing around with some Saigon hooker, fine by him. Qrow wasn't gonna police this dude's life. As if I could, he thought. It was almost like every Marine he met, Bruno included, was in an undeclared competition with one another to outdo themselves in pure stubbornness. Honestly, if it wasn't so damn annoying in the shit, it'd be admirable.
But at times like this, it just annoyed Qrow. He looked back at Bruno from scanning the crowd, leaning over and snapping his fingers in front of his face. He jumped, nearly dropping his stupid sandwich.
“Earth to Parris Island,” Qrow said. “You plan on getting your head out of the clouds or do I have to drag you back?”
“Nah, I'm good,” Bruno said, stuffing the last bit of the sandwich into his mouth as he dusted crumbs off his hands.
Qrow rolled his eyes, standing up as he took a drag off the cigarette. Lot of people around. Damn near impossible to tell how many were VC. He looked over to see Bruno getting out of his chair, already making his way to the corner where the girl was.
“What the fuck,” Qrow muttered, putting a hand on Bruno's chest. “You hard of hearing or something, Bruno?”
“I'm gonna go talk to that fine piece of Vietnamese ass,” Bruno answered. “You're not gonna stop me, dude.”
Qrow sighed, shaking his head. “Listen, I don't care what you do, but what if she's some kinda spy for the VC? You know they use women like that down here in Saigon. I know you're not that dumb.”
“I'm just gonna get her name,” he pleaded, as if he were really going to convince him otherwise.
“What, and fuck up pronouncing it seven times before you start calling her Mama-san? Shit, maybe you Marines are as dumb as I took you for.”
In a flash, Bruno's expression changed, and he tiled his head at Qrow. “You're playing with fire there, Branwen, you Airborne ain't shit compared to a Marine.”
“If I wanted to measure dicks, I'd follow you to the can. You gonna come back to base with me, or what?”
Bruno's eyes flipped between Qrow's, and staring at the girl. No doubt he was trying to figure out whether to start throwing punches, or maybe turn on the charm for her. As Bruno wrestled with the options in his head, Qrow checked his watch. He didn't like being away from base too long. Whatever Bruno ended up going with, Qrow was going to make his way back to base. Like he predicted, Bruno headed for the girl. Qrow took a drag off the cigarette, tossing it to the ground and stomping it out once he was done. Fuck it, Qrow thought as he turned away. Not my problem.
Today's scene for combat was an otherwise peaceful little valley. Or, at least, it would have been peaceful if it wasn't covered in NVA defensive works. They had dug in weeks ago, and a joint Marine-Army operation was set up to clear them out once and for all. Summer made sure in the pre-mission brief to impress upon the Marines that there would be no Willy Petes, flamethrowers, or other fire weapons utilized today. Despite knowing full well for Ia Drang where the Vietnamese were, and how many soldiers they had, this mission they were going in almost blind.
Maybe it was a good thing. Judging by the resistance today, there was at least a battalion here, if not more. Taiyang could see the Marines just ahead of them, fighting hard with the NVA. Looked like they had a mortar, judging by the explosions that scattered the ground and broke up the grass. An RPD opened up out of nowhere, forcing Taiyang, Qrow, Raven and Summer to scatter. He took cover behind a tree, spotting Qrow go low. Summer had taken cover behind a similarly-solid tree, scanning the area with her rifle. And Raven…
Raven was already charging forward, ignorant to the bullets flying her way as the RPD traced her path through the jungle. The NVA were good about siting their defensive works, forcing them to first crest a hill to outline them against the skyline, and then having to go uphill to get close to their bunkers and outposts. Raven didn't seem to much mind this fact. Wasn't she supposed to know the most about this kind of stuff out of all of them?
Well, hell, if Raven was moving up, the rest of them may as well join her. The Marines weren't too far away – about a hundred meters way on her right, if that. The RPD sounded like it was focused on something else, or maybe in the middle of reloading. Qrow took up the lead in linking up with Raven, with Summer and Taiyang right behind him. There was a bunker on their right, maybe that was where the RPD was. It'd be better to clear it out anyway – NVA could use it to shoot at them anyway, as well-situated as it was.
Taiyang dodged and weaved through Vietnamese rifle fire, making his way to Raven. She was already busy firing back at the NVA, barely conscious of him behind her. As she shoved a new magazine into her M16, Taiyang put a hand on her shoulder, and she glanced up for half a second.
“Raven, bunker on the right, let's clear it!”
She nodded, racking her rifle's bolt. “Let's fucking go, then,” she said, falling in behind him.
Qrow and Summer had also joined them by now, and together they moved up to try and seize the bunker. How far away was that? Two hundred, two hundred fifty meters? Maybe three hundred if he wanted to be generous. The Marines were just to the right, cowering in the dirt.
“Hey! You!” Raven shouted at them. “Get on your fucking feet! Do you fucks want to join the goddamn war or what?!”
No time to see if they had decided to follow. Taiyang was already leading the way to the bunker, hearing either Qrow or Summer's rife popping behind him providing covering fire. Another round of mortar strikes. He and Raven began throwing smoke grenades, aiming to cover their advance at least some. Maybe they'd get some airpower in soon? He could vaguely hear a Marine behind him on the radio.
Through the smoke they went, up into the works to get to the bunker. A group of tan-clad Vietnamese were stuck inside it, trying to decide whether to shoot at them, or the Marines. Taiyang jumped down, firing off a burst into the one with the RPD. Another one with an AK swung the stock wide, trying to bash him. He went to counter, but missed, and instead somebody else claimed the kill. Right behind him, Raven swooped in, having fixed her bayonet and going mad on the Vietnamese, madly stabbing them until there was little left to stab.
“My Lord, Raven,” Summer said as she got into the bunker, putting an elbow to her face. “What did you do?”
“Took care of a problem,” Raven replied.
Qrow swapped magazines, kicking over one of the dead bodies. “Yeah, looks about right to me. Figure that's what, another one for Tai, three for Raven? You got this last one, didn't you, Summer?”
Almost the second they had stepped into the bunker fully, weapons fire broke out, coming from behind them. NVA reinforcements. Taiyang looked to his left, then right. Nowhere to go. All they could do was hide out in the bunker. The Vietnamese were back in force. All around them, machine gun fire, the pop of a dozen Chinese SKS rifles, and the horrible clatter of an AK-47. Low burping from a Russian SMG. All peppered with angry Vietnamese.
“Fucking hell,” Raven said. “We can't move with all this fire.”
“Marines are right behind us,” Taiyang reminded her. “Uh, I hope.”
“Nah, they ditched us about a hundred meters back,” Qrow said. “Guess they don't like walking up to machine gun nests as much as we do.”
Breaking through the cacophony of combat, a dull roar. Taiyang knew immediately what that was. Jets.
“Fuck yeah, fast movers,” Raven cheered. “Never thought I'd be so happy to hear the Chair Force.”
The jets quickly moved past them, with a single loud, hollow explosion sounding just beyond the little bunker they had called home for the past two minutes. The sound of rifle fire died down near instantly, replaced by screaming.
Raven was first out, stumbling into the open with her shotgun by her side. “Oh, look at that,” she said, laughing maniacally, “isn't that just the sweetest sound you ever heard in your life?”
Taiyang, Summer, and Qrow followed behind. The series of trenches and tunnels that had been present was replaced by a veritable wall of fire. The Vietnamese staggered out of it, some trying to put out the flames, while others seemed to accept their fate. Summer immediately began praying in Louisiana French, while Qrow just lit up a cigarette. The screams and moans from the Vietnamese echoed in the empty jungle, haunting Taiyang every time he dared to look away.
Raven's demented laugh punctuated it all, overpowering even the crackle of the napalm.
Office work was boring as hell. Taiyang would much rather be out in the field, fighting this war rather than sitting behind a desk. Anything to avoid the cult of personality that surrounded some of the desk jockeys here. Practically nothing got done without their approval, and if you weren't at least friendly with them or sucked up, it was easy to find your work went nowhere.
Which, unfortunately, is exactly where Taiyang found himself.
It was endless. Supply orders. Nebulous after-action reports. Forms for missing and broken equipment. The mountain of paperwork never ended. How could anyone ever find this interesting work, much less want to devote their career to it? Thank God the Army had plenty of officers who preferred this to fighting, otherwise nothing would get done.
Really, the only bright spots these days were when Raven came around to visit, sometimes with Summer or Qrow not far behind. Today, though, it was just her, looking even more down than usual. He had grown used to her cold, indifferent stares ever since they arrived in Vietnam. Combat had changed her, and not for the better. He remembered when Raven smiled, made jokes, but she hadn't done that since July. Her aviators and a cigarette became part of her ensemble, almost as regular as her uniform itself.
“Hey, Tai,” she said, barely even acknowledging the other officers around her. “I gotta talk to you.”
Taiyang paused, his pen hovering in the air as he ran a million scenarios through his head. Their marriage was doing well. He hadn't forgotten anything important. Other than being stuck behind this damn desk, he was spending as much time with her as he possibly could.
“Alright,” he finally said, slowly putting the pen down. “You wanna talk outside, or?”
“Nah,” she said, shaking her head as she closed his office door. “We're good here.”
Raven smoked long and hard, but her eyes were hidden behind her aviators as she stepped over to the chair opposite Taiyang's desk. What did she want to talk about? The suspense was killing him, and he wasn't sure if voicing his anxiety over it would help or not. Maybe he'd had to.
“Raven, what's going on?” he asked, trying to understand what his wife was thinking. “Did something happen to Qrow, or Summer?”
“No,” she said, taking her aviators off.
“Well, then what's the deal? You're freaking me out here.”
“It's…” Raven started, before she furrowed her brow, closing her eyes in irritation. “Can I turn this off? I fucking hate this song.”
She gestured to the radio, playing some Rolling Stones song. Taiyang nodded, leaning over and silencing Jagger's voice for a while. Silence came to the forefront as Raven still refused to say anything, contemplating the cigarette in her hand.
“Tai, I got a problem,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, rolling his shoulders. “Uh, how can I help?”
She scoffed, smirking for the first time in months. “Tai, you've damn well done enough. I'm pregnant, you moron.”
If Taiyang had been drinking, he'd have done a spit take right then and there. Immediately, his eyes bulged out of their very sockets, and he heard himself gasp involuntarily. Well, shit. He really had gone and done it, huh? And right in the middle of Vietnam, too. His eyes searched for something, anything, to confirm this was real, and not just some elaborate prank that Raven was playing on him. But, then again, she wouldn't fuck with him about something like this.
“So…fuck, uh, how…”
“How far along am I? Don't remember. Doc told me half an hour ago.”
“How can you not know?” Taiyang asked, his shock replaced by confusion. “I…I thought you were on the pill, I thought we were going to wait until we got back Stateside to -”
Raven rolled her eyes. “I went off that shit the second we got here. It was fucking with my head. Didn't want to have my head in the clouds when Charlie was all over.”
Well, fuck. She wasn't showing yet, not that he could tell at least. What did that mean? He couldn't remember at all. Every possible emotion hit him at once, from unbridled excitement, to sheer panic. Wasn't he supposed to react to this kind of news in a certain way? Taiyang couldn't help but feel he was doing it wrong, somehow.
“Alright, uh…” he muttered. “Well, this is…good news? Uh, when are you going back Stateside?”
Immediately, Raven furrowed her brow, scowling at him. “Good news? For fucking who, Tai, you? You're not the one that's gotta leave Vietnam for this bullshit.”
“Raven, we can't take care of a kid here in Vietnam.”
“Who the fuck asked you? Why are you assuming we're gonna even keep the kid?”
Taiyang paused, frowning. “Why wouldn't we?”
“Because nobody asked me if I want the damn kid! Fuck, Tai, I don't want to be some barefoot always pregnant housewife bitch!”
Taiyang stood up, heading over to her and holding her shoulders, looking directly into her eyes as he knelt down, trying to calm her down a little. “Raven, you're not gonna be that, okay? I mean, if nothing else, I know you'd never let me do that to you. This doesn't have to define you.”
She sighed hard, rubbing out the cigarette in an ashtray he kept on his desk. Still clearly pissed off, Raven took out another cigarette, lighting it up as soon as she could get it in her mouth. Taiyang could see her eyes were watery. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen her show this much emotion.
“They fucking told me to stop smoking,” she muttered. “Fucking 40 weeks. How the hell am I gonna make 40 weeks without a fucking cig?”
“I…I don't know,” he admitted. “I mean…we're going to do this, right? We're in this together?”
She sighed, resting her head on her hand as she slowly took Taiyang's hand in hers. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “I guess we are, aren't we?”
Well, this was real now, as if it wasn't before. He was really going to be a father. Taiyang couldn't help but wonder if he was ever going to be prepared for this. Was this what his dad felt like? He'd have to write him a letter, when and if he got the time.
Jesus, who in the world would trust him to raise a child?
Chapter 9: A Whiter Shade of Pale
Summer liked being in Hue. It was a nice city, even if the city had been permanently scarred by artillery and bombing runs. She had never much been a history person before, but being in Vietnam had changed her. She had started talking to as many of the local ARVN as she could, seeing if they could tell her anything about Hue and the history behind it. A walled citadel like this had to have some kind of story behind it, right? It just made sense.
So much had happened since they first left Beacon. Joining the 101st. Going Ranger. Coming to Vietnam. And now, she, Tai, Qrow, and Raven when she got back, would be part of Tiger Force. Tai didn't seem as enthusiastic about Tiger Force, or being in Hue.
“I heard the good news,” she said, trying to open up conversation with him.
“Huh?” Tai said, looking at her with a surprised look on his face. Must have been lost in thought or something. “Oh, right, yeah. Uh, thanks.”
Summer smiled, swirling the cup of tea in her hands. “Y'all know what you're gonna name the kid yet?”
“Nah, depends on if it's a boy or girl, I think,” he said, shrugging. “Not sure if we know yet.”
Summer nodded, accepting this answer until she thought about it a bit more. “Wait, I thought she was kinda far along when she told you. How can y'all not know?”
Tai paused, his eyes wide. “Uh…I…I don't know.”
She covered her face with her hands, leaning against the little wooden table between them. How on earth could someone this smart be this stupid? Summer knew first-hand Taiyang wasn't dumb, not by any means. Sometimes, it made her just want to scream. Like right now.
“Tai,” she said slowly, moving her hands away to look at him. “What in the world is wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?”
He clearly didn't see much wrong with this scenario. As much as Raven was her friend, someone she'd gotten close to, Vietnam had changed her. Summer couldn't tell some days if she liked the change or not. Raven seemed to almost revel in the destruction here, and had even become more withdrawn than she ever was at Beacon. It scared her.
“Raven's changing, Tai. Like…I don't know, this isn't normal. You know that, right?”
He nervously shifted in his seat, avoiding looking at Summer. “I…listen, she's just…it's stress, you know? She's pregnant, we've been in Vietnam, you know, all that.”
Summer sighed, electing to drop it for now before she said something she'd regret. Summer always wished she had done something earlier when they were still at Beacon. But, then again, if things had gone differently, would she be like Raven now? Would she be the one changing, while Raven would be sitting here, telling Tai he was falling into a hole? Maybe she shouldn't have even brought this up at all. Taiyang was just sitting there, poking at the local food he had gotten a hold of and not looking at her. Did I just ruin our friendship?
This was going to be a long day.
“She's not there,” Bruno said, bringing Qrow out of his thoughts.
Bruno pointed at the corner, where there was absolutely nobody. “Tuyet's not there.”
He scanned the area, spotting absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Just a bunch of people walking around, doing whatever the hell it was that Vietnamese people did on a Monday afternoon in Saigon. Nothing sounded strange, just the usual sounds of Vietnamese and the buzzing motors of a million mopeds.
“Maybe she's got a client,” Qrow said, going back to his cigarette.
“I told you, she ain't a hooker.”
Qrow shrugged. He didn't care, really. Still wasn't his problem. It was Bruno's head if she was a VC spy, after all, Qrow had warned him about the idiocy of getting involved with her. Why did the Vietnamese always have to serve their beers warm? He'd kill for a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon right about now. Anything to take his mind off of being stuck in Vietnam.
“You think she's OK?”
“How the fuck would I know?” Qrow snapped. “I keep telling you, she's VC.”
Bruno scoffed, shaking his head as he sipped on a beer of his own. He kept staring at that corner, as if he could make her materialize if he looked hard enough. Qrow took a drag on his cigarette – not his usual brand, unfortunately. Someone had swiped his pack last week, and nobody had gotten a pack of Luckies in the interim.
“Dude,” Qrow said, rolling his eyes at Bruno. “You gotta get over this chick. She doesn't care.”
He sighed, putting down his glass. “Nah, you don't get it, Qrow. If I can get her outta here, it'll be all disco.”
“Yeah? What's it gonna take? A nice house in New York?”
“She's worried about her brothers and sisters,” Bruno replied. “Doesn't wanna leave them.”
Qrow smirked, nodding. “Knew it. VC spy. They say that shit all the time. Tell you a sob story so you can spill your guts, tell her all about your shitty base life, and then boom, she knows where you are and how many dudes are on your base.”
“I told you, it ain't like that.”
He shrugged, going back to the shitty warm beer. If Bruno wanted to keep deluding himself, whatever. After a while, he'd have to ask himself how far he'd be willing to go for Bruno, though. There's only so many times Qrow could tell him he was making a mistake before he went and fucked it up forever.
Having Raven back was the best feeling Taiyang had in a long, long while. He had managed to get home for a little while to see Yang being born, and to help out a little with Raven's recovery, but the time was fleeting, and spent taking care of Yang more often than not. It was good to be back, though, even if Yang wasn't with them. He couldn't be worried – his parents had gladly taken up caring for her while they were both in Vietnam, practically cooing over her the second Taiyang brought her home.
It almost made him forget he was in the jungle, patrolling with his wife and two of his best friends. Well, maybe less patrol and more checking up on work some Marines had done. It was a pretty decent day, if any day in Vietnam could be considered decent. By now, Raven had traded out her M16 for a shotgun, preferring the raw stopping power and intimidation factor, a weapon that would probably help as they came up on the Marines.
They had just swept and cleared a village, capturing about a dozen supposed VC. The remains of a short, but clearly hard-fought, battle were all around, from spent cartridges scattered in the dirt, to broken huts and buildings ruined by grenades.
“What's the word here?” Raven asked, heading up to a Marine lieutenant.
“Got about a dozen Charlie,” he said, puffing on a cigarette. “Local ARVN's talking to them, thinks they know something about the trail.”
The Ho Chi Minh Trail. They'd been trying to track down the main artery for this province for months. If they knew about it, that'd make search and destroy missions easier, maybe give the Air Force something to blow up. Raven leaned over, looking at the gathered VC and the dead ones on the ground.
“All them just surrendered, like that?”
“Yeah,” the Marine said. “Usually they put up a bigger fight.”
Raven moved past him, checking out the bodies as Qrow and Summer headed over to watch over the captured ones. Taiyang hung back, surveying the scene as best he could. Didn't look like there were any tunnels here, but looks could be deceiving.
“Damn, you guys could make this look a little better,” Raven called out. “Hey, Qrow, give this one that RPD over there.”
“Like hell anyone's gonna buy that,” Qrow shouted back, rolling his eyes. “That Charlie's too small to lug an MG.”
“It doesn't fuckin' matter if anyone buys it,” Raven said. “All that matters is if it looks good for the pictures.”
“Wait, Raven,” Taiyang asked, confused. “What the hell are you talking about?”
With Qrow not wanting to move, Raven began sauntering over to a nearby crate that had a handful of weapons in it, shrugging as she did so. “MACV keeps talking about good bodycounts. Can't call the dude an enemy combatant if he doesn't have a weapon.”
Taiyang walked over, intercepting Raven on her way to the crate and stopping in front of her. “Is this a joke? We can't just plant weapons on people.”
“Why not?” Raven asked. “He's VC. Look at him, Tai.”
“That's not our job, Raven. He might be VC, but we're not planting a weapon on him.”
Raven sighed, rolling her eyes and heading over to the captured VC, declaring she may as well listen in on the ARVN interrogating them. Pretty simple, standard interrogation so far. They claimed they didn't know anything, were just farmers, that kind of deal.
“Fuck this,” Raven said, tossing her cigarette to the ground and pointing to a young-looking one. “Ask him where his tunnel is.”
The ARVN and VC exchanged words, and their translator reported he didn't have a tunnel.
“Bullshit,” Raven muttered, unslinging her shotgun and pointing it at the VC's head. “I'm gonna ask him one more time. Where's the fucking tunnel?”
“He says he doesn't know,” the translator relayed. “They blindfolded him when he came out of the Trail.”
Raven scowled, then struck the VC with the butt of her shotgun. He went to the ground, sprawling out and shouting in pain as he did.
“Raven, wait!” Summer said, running over and grabbing the muzzle of Raven's weapon, keeping it away from the VC's head.
“Take your hands off my weapon,” Raven said calmly.
“You're not shooting this kid,” Summer said, locking eyes with Raven. “He knows something, we don't have to shoot him, or any of them. Just…give me a minute with him?”
Raven kept her hands tight on her shotgun, eventually sighing heavily.
“Just do it, Summer,” Taiyang said. Wasn't I supposed to be in charge here anyway?
Summer nodded, asking the ARVN translator to see if the kid wanted water. When he replied in the affirmative, Summer gave him a drink from her canteen, and then asked about the birds he heard.
“Fuckin' waste of time…” Raven muttered.
In between sips of water and translating, the kid's story came out. Taiyang vaguely knew where he was talking about, but they couldn't head out and take care of the tunnel now. They might have to call for some backup. Maybe these Marines would be up to helping clear it out. None of the other VC offered anything useful, and so they headed back to barracks, letting the Marines take custody of them.
“They'd have talked eventually,” Raven said as they waited for their ride. “Shooting a few of them always gets them talking.”
Summer shrugged. “Maybe. But I don't like killing folk unless they shoot me first.”
“Y'know Summer, playing buddy-buddy with these VC is gonna get you killed one of these days,” Raven replied. “You know they got people in the ARVN, right? The kinda people that just let them right back out?”
“Well, yeah, I know,” Summer said, leaning against a tree. “I'd rather save a life than take an innocent one, you know?”
Another day, another village to clear. Another squad had called up for reinforcements, and tonight it was Taiyang, Raven, Summer and Qrow's turn to head in. Who had decided to order an evening attack against VC? Raven would have to find whoever did this and shoot them. This village seemed like it was cleared already, but Raven knew it was never that easy. They were waiting for them. A handful of old men and a few women were milling around, watching them. Probably taking notes for the local cells to come in later.
She was on the ground before she was even aware of it – an RPD had started firing, grazing her almost the second it had started its burst. She cursed as she hit the ground, feeling the heat of the wound. At least she didn't have to stumble in the dark to look for blood. Raven grabbed a bandage from her kit, wrapping it around her arm. Flashes of light from Qrow and Summer's rifles illuminated the scene briefly. Judging from how far away the RPD sounded, it was probably a good six hundred meters off. How'd they even see them? Must have presighted the place or something. She jumped to her feet, watching Summer rest her rifle against a fence to take a better-aimed shot at the MG.
The sound of angry Vietnamese echoed, followed up quickly by an AKM. She saw nebulous forms moving in the treeline just a scant hundred meters away from the village. They must have been gathering up there, waiting for the RPD to start firing. Raven fired a few shots off at the shapes, hearing someone cry out in pain. Must have gotten a hit. Tai tossed a handful of grenades out, and Qrow stepped off to help flank.
The locals were helping the VC, Raven concluded. Actually, scratch that – all of them were VC. These places had to have hidden weapon caches in them. Time to clear these places out. She'd have to do it alone – Tai and Summer were busy holding off the attack. Raven turned around, heading for the nearest little hut. It had been built off the ground, just above the rice field the family inside tended to. No door – the Vietnamese never bothered using them on these little rice huts. Who was in here? Some woman and an old man. Too many bedrolls for just them. There were at least four living here.
The woman and old man were in the corner, taking cover from the gunfire and looking up at her. Raven scanned the little three-room hut. No weapons she could see. VC probably took them when they headed out to fight. Nothing else worth to check out, she thought. Raven raised her shotgun at the two, firing once. Buckshot managed to hit both of them, and they sputtered as they tried to find a way to seal up the wounds. Might as well pump another round into them, make sure they were going to die.
Next house. Older couple. Probably had a son or two that was out there right now. If their sons weren't already dead, coming home to a pair of dead parents would take the fight out of them. Oh, hey, she thought, passing by an old Mosin as she made her way out of the hut. They did have a gun here. How handy.
Another house, with another woman in it. Out of shells now, time to reload. Looked like the rest of the village was quiet. Just behind her, Raven heard the sounds of combat start to die down. Raven grouped back up with Tai, Summer and Qrow, linking up with the nearby squad and confirming the VC had disappeared now. By this time, night had fallen, and nobody was too keen on searching the village for tunnels or anything similar.
By Raven's standards, they could rest easy. VC were probably scared shitless now.
Even if he wanted to, Taiyang couldn't deny the reality that was staring him in the face.
He stared at a pile of bodies, each one full of buckshot and with lines of dried blood that traced to the ground. Not a single one could be called VC – they all wore clearly civilian clothes, not at all the blacks and grays the VC were known for. He didn't think any one of these people had ever seen a gun in their life, much less shot one.
So why the hell did half of them have pistols on them, or a rifle tossed over their body?
Well, he knew why. Raven, or maybe Qrow, had tossed it on them. Raven especially liked picking up Tokarevs from NVA officers and putting them on dead bodies. So, then, this was probably Raven's work. When the hell had this happened? It was hard to tell.
“So, you're saying she did this?” Taiyang asked.
“Yeah,” Captain Marcos said. “Look, I get you Tiger Force guys got your own shit to do, but MACV's getting on me about this whole 'Hearts and Minds' junk they got going around. Got some ARVN boys from around here, they're not too happy their grandmas are getting shot up.”
“Right, yeah,” Taiyang said, sighing. “But what makes you think Raven did this?”
“Ain't none of my guys here this past week got a shotgun. VC's switched over to SKS rifles and AKs almost entirely by now.”
He shook his head, looking down on the bodies. Yeah, he was right to be suspicious. He didn't want to admit it, but Raven was not the woman he had married. She wasn't the same person anymore, and it was freaking him out that she was doing this. Murdering people wasn't their mission. It wasn't their code. This was not the war he wanted to fight.
“Alright,” he said. “Just…I don't know, I'll do something.”
“Gotta get her under control, Xiao Long,” Captain Marcos muttered. “ARVN are already on pretty shaky ground with us. Can't imagine they'll be too thrilled if this keeps happening.”
All he could do was nod, turning away to get the smell of death out of his nose. He wasn't sure what he could do, honestly. Raven was far too independent for him to just hand down orders to and forget about. He couldn't imagine putting her up for a court martial either. He was stuck in between a rock and a hard place.
Chapter 10: A Darker Shade of Red
Raven's shotgun echoed as Qrow smoked on a cigarette, rummaging around a bag he kept in their jeep that was chock-full of weapons. Almost all were captured from VC stocks, but it was fun sometimes to toss in an old ARVN rifle someone had dropped, give Charlie a little variety. All in the name of ending the war, Qrow thought. It was the only way he could justify to himself what he was doing when he wasn't drunk enough to forget. Weed helped sometimes, too. Anything to forget what Raven had led him into.
“Yo, Qrow,” Raven shouted. “You got any rifles in there with scopes on them? I wanna make this one a sniper!”
Qrow silently kept going through the bag, pulling out some old French rifle. “Ain't got a scope, but I got a bolt-action. That good enough?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” she said. He heard her boots crunch his way, lazily tossing the rifle at her. He picked up a Soviet sub machine gun out of the bag, carrying it with him to one of the bodies. Wait, shit, he thought as he got closer. Still moving.
He looked at the Vietnamese kid, probably no older than 17, judging by how small she was. Where had Raven even shot this one? He couldn't tell. Obviously wasn't fatal. He pulled out his pistol, putting two more rounds in the VC’s back, watching them twitch as the shots landed. He didn't like it, but better to let them die now than bleed out later. Besides, if the ARVN came through later, they'd probably patch them up, try to interrogate them. Couldn't have that happening.
“Alright, I think we're done here,” Raven said, slinging her shotgun over her shoulder. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” Qrow said, tossing away his cigarette. “Thought all these damn kids left the villages years ago.”
Raven shrugged, hopping into the jeep and taking a seat. “Who fuckin' knows. Doesn't matter much to me. They're out here, almost always VC, or helping them out.”
Qrow sighed, lighting up another cigarette. Last one in the pack. Looked like his luck was running out.
Taiyang hated reading these reports. It seemed like every other day, there was a new report of Raven doing something fucked up. Sometimes, Qrow would join in on it, sometimes not. The only constant was Raven, and massacres of some kind. Sometimes she'd justify it by pointing to the weapons – that more often than not, she had planted – on the bodies. Lately she had begun claiming they shot first. There was almost never any documentation beyond “this happened” since as far as MACV cared, if she said she was defending herself, that's all that mattered.
Where had his wife gone? What had this madwoman done with her?
Summer walked into his office, concerned from the word go. She had gotten the same reports, clutching a copy of her own in her hands. Taiyang just sighed – he didn't have words, even if he wanted to say anything. What more could he say? “You were right all along?”
“Hey, Tai,” she said slowly, taking a seat. “Um, you doin' alright?”
Summer looked down, rummaging through her pockets to get something. She produced a pack of Salem cigarettes and a lighter, tapping one of the cigarettes out and offering one to him.
“I thought you only smoked when they gave us MCIs,” he said, accepting the cigarette. Not his usual brand, but it was still a nice gesture. Where did she even get this pack from? They hadn't had MCIs for weeks.
She shrugged, lighting up his first, and then focusing on hers. “It's something to share,” Summer said, putting the lighter back in her pocket. “Only real reason I do it anymore.”
The minty taste of the cigarette wasn't really something he cared for, but it was good to have a release. Taiyang took deep, long breaths, savoring each puff of the cigarette and letting the flavor roll around in his mouth. He silently argued with the cigarette, trying to reason with it before thinking to say anything to Summer. She was never one to gloat, but hell, he'd be taking a few victory laps if he was on the other side.
“You know,” Summer finally said, breaking the silence. “I really hate it when I'm right.”
Taiyang scoffed, smirking. “For someone who hates being right, you've got one hell of a track record.”
She smiled back, tapping off ashes. “Well, yeah. I know. Wish I could predict better things.”
“Been working out alright for us so far.”
Summer sighed wistfully, frowning. She seemed almost like she was searching for something, looking around the room in a haze like the walls could share secrets. Eventually, she settled her eyes on him. She looked as if she had just been in the shit for a week straight.
“Tai, I can't keep doing this.”
“What do you mean?”
She put her cigarette on the ashtray, taking a deep breath. “I mean I'm done just…sitting on the sidelines. Tai, I care a lot about you, like, more than just a friend, you know?”
Time itself seemed to pause as he grappled with the words tumbling out of Summer's mouth. He swallowed hard, trying to figure out an appropriate response. “I…I don't know what to say, Summer.”
“You don't really gotta say anything,” she said. “Raven's hurting you, Tai, and I don't want to see you get hurt any more. You're…you're too good of a man to let that happen to you.”
Before he could think of saying something, Summer shot out of the chair, muttering “sorry” as she evacuated his office, her face beet red. The door slammed shut, and once again he was left alone with his thoughts. Hearing it, at first, put him in shock, but…the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Summer was right.
Did their code of “A Cadet does not cheat” extend to marriage?
So much had changed, so fast.
A rotation back Stateside meant a lateral move to Special Forces. They spent months learning, conducting exercises, and getting used to their new roles. When they got back to Vietnam, Summer would be their sniper. Raven would handle explosives. Qrow became their communication specialist. Meanwhile, Taiyang kept his leadership role going, learning everything about leadership he'd ever need to know and more.
But, as it turned out, Summer wouldn't be joining them yet. She had come to him privately, revealing that she would be staying in the United States for longer than expected, and only because Taiyang had managed to knock it out of the park again and got her pregnant. Sometimes he wondered what it was about him that made this keep happening.
Of course, now he had to figure out a way to tell Raven. That was one conversation he was not looking forward to. The other one was telling his parents he had another kid on the way, but not with Raven. It was hard to tell which was worse. It was getting harder and harder to tell how Raven would react to something.
Well, no better time like the present. After all, they'd only been back in Vietnam for a few days. He headed into their barracks, spotting Raven napping on her bed. He wasn't even five steps into the room and he was already regretting this. Raven was already reacting to his presence, stirring and rolling over, lazily rubbing her eyes.
“Sup, Tai,” she said, yawning.
“Hey, Raven, uh, I gotta talk to you about something.”
Raven blinked, her face neutral as she rolled her neck. “Alright, what's going on?”
Within seconds, he had forgotten everything he wanted to say. Every clever phrase, reasonable explanation and well-constructed justification was gone almost as fast as the VC. Raven stared at him, cocking an eyebrow as she waited for Taiyang to say something.
“I…guess I can't really say this any other way, Raven. Uh, Summer and I…we have a kid on the way.”
The words hung in the air, as if Taiyang could reach out and touch them. Part of him wanted to – turn back the clock, forget that he had ever told her, and pretend like nothing had happened. But, then again, it wasn't like he could hide it forever. Raven's eyes darted acrros the floor, and she slowly turned to look at Summer's empty bunk.
“Well, I guess I can be thankful you fessed up,” she said. “She already told me. Was so fuckin' nervous about it, holy shit.”
“Wh…what do you mean she already told you?”
Raven scoffed, cocking a confused eyebrow at him. “You fuckin' forget how to speak English, Tai? She told me before we went back here. Did you really think you could hide that kinda thing for long?”
She had him there. Hell, he was contemplating the exact same thing not too long ago. Well, she seemed to be…surprisingly okay with the entire situation. Or maybe she was working through it in her head in some way. Why the hell couldn't Taiyang get a read on what she was feeling? What she was thinking? It was like he was back at Beacon, and just met her for the first time.
“I…I don't know. I guess I just wanted you to know, Raven,” he said, defeated.
“Cool,” she replied, lighting up a cigarette. “Well, you wasted your breath.”
And there it was. The biteback that he had expected the entire time. Taiyang sighed, standing up and heading out of the barracks. If Raven wanted to be this way, then fine. He had things to do anyway.
1968 was shaping up to be a good year so far. VC and NVA attacks had died down, and the casualty reports were slowing. Taiyang was thrilled to have two daughters, little Ruby just born a few months ago in August '67. Summer wanted so much to stay behind, take care of her, but like with Yang, Tai's parents happily took up the idea of helping to raise them. The only unknown was whether or not Summer's parents were okay with it or not. So far, he hadn't asked.
Maybe he should today.
Summer gleefully sipped on a cup of tea she had bought from a local street vendor, taking in the warmth even though winter in Vietnam didn't demand a warm drink. The Vietnamese in Saigon were preparing for their new years holiday, something called Tet. Must have been one hell of a party. He could see crates full of fireworks being carted around, taken to points across the city. Sometimes, it made him nervous. How many were VC, supplying for something? Then again, Qrow was adamant they wouldn't be planning anything. This holiday was holy, MACV-SOG said. Hanoi wasn't crazy enough to do something on one of the holiest Vietnamese holidays.
“You alright there, Tai?” Summer asked, breaking him out of his thoughts.
He blinked, smiling. “Yeah. Just thinking about some things.”
“I heard they're gonna give us a rotation back Stateside soon,” Summer said. “It'd be nice to be back home.”
“Yeah, it would. Can't believe I missed Yang's birthday last year.”
Summer gently put down her cup of tea, smiling as she looked at him. “She had fun. It was a nice day for all of us.”
That helped, hearing that. He had been worried about Yang ever since Raven had come back from leave. It was strange. Raven constantly looked at the picture she had of her, but almost never talked about Yang unless he brought her up. Like a lot of things, it was hard to tell if Yang actually meant something to Raven, or if she just considered the child a tool for the future.
Maybe he was overthinking it.
“Hey, Summer,” he asked, daring to venture to this minefield. “Have you talked to your parents about Ruby yet?”
Summer did a double-take, and if she hadn't already put her cup down, Taiyang was sure she would have dropped it. Her smile was gone, replaced by a spooked look.
“Uh…no, no I haven't,” she said slowly and quietly. “I…I'm not sure what to tell them.”
Taiyang shrugged, confused. “I mean, you had leave and didn't see them. Aren't they curious?”
Her face drooped even more, and she let out a slow, sad sigh. “I never told them I was back home.”
Now he was even more confused. “I-I don't get it. You didn't get any mail when you were there, so-”
“Come on Tai, you know the Army forwards it to wherever we're at. I got all my mail from the PX. I just…never really wrote back.”
Taiyang groaned, putting a hand on his head as he tried to work through the logic of this. “This…this doesn't make any sense. Like, what-”
“Tai, I had a kid with someone who's not my husband while he was married and while I'm not.” She turned to the right, avoiding his eyes as she sought refuge in anything else. “If…if I wasn't going to hell anyway because of the folk I've killed, I'd be going down for that.”
“Whoa, wait, hold on Summer, you're not going to hell for this,” Tai said, reaching out to her, but she rejected him, flinching away. “You're defending yourself, your friends. People don't go to hell for that.”
“You don't get it,” she sobbed. “You said you did, you said you believed, but you just don't, Tai.”
He was about to reply, about to say something, but before he could, gunfire broke out somewhere in Saigon. Screams emanated from all over, with scattered, angry-sounding Vietnamese mixed in as well.
“That…that sounds close to the embassy,” he said.
Immediately, Summer kicked back her chair, her eyes dry and ready to go. “We gotta help them, Tai,” she said.
“With what guns? We can't get back to barracks in this!”
“Maybe they've got some! Let's just go!”
Taiyang shook his head, following Summer as she began sprinting in the direction of the embassy. Explosions echoed across Saigon, and he could see tracers light up the sky. Mortars threw up chunks of concrete and ruined the stucco buildings that were characterized Saigon, and searchlights scanned for hostile aircraft. Somewhere deep in the city, a loudspeaker broadcasted a repeating message in Vietnamese.
They reached the embassy in record time, welcomed by the defending garrison with open arms. Someone tossed them old M14 rifles and bandoliers for extra magazines, and with the MPs inside they waited for any sort of attack to come, fearing the worst. Gunshots were dangerously close. About an hour later, an explosion blew a hole in the 8-foot high wall surrounding the compound, followed up by a sapper team attempting to infiltrate. The firefight was short-lived, and the remaining teams were easily hunted down and killed.
As Taiyang soon found out, this was just the first step of many.
Taiyang had long lost count of how many hours the artillery had been falling on them. It had started sometime at 2 in the morning, and had only continued to fall since then. Even with the mortars and larger guns firing on their positions, they had found time to strengthen their positions and prepare for the next attack, if and when it came.
As it happened, it came at 4 AM. A forward position had been overrun. Attacks were coming from all over, as the encirclement became clear as day. By sunrise, the NVA had seized the high ground and all observation posts. Somebody was working to clear a wrecked helicopter from the runway, but their forklift caught on fire. Next to him, Qrow slid behind a pile of sandbags.
“We're fucked,” he said, a cigarette in his mouth. The sudden morning attack had thrown everyone into chaos. Qrow scarcely had had time to even put on his field shirt.
“What, surrounded, with a hell of a lot of angry Charlie swarming us? Be at least a little positive, Qrow.”
“Nah, worse than that,” he said. “Those South Vietnamese militia dudes? Their commander's not even coming out of his fuckin' bunker. I bet you if they had somewhere to run, they'd be going for it.”
“Oh, you're fucking joking,” Taiyang muttered. “Did they at least sweep the rear?”
Qrow shook his head, jamming a magazine into his M16. “Nope.”
On his left, Raven practically collapsed into cover, with Summer right behind her. “You guys talking about those CIDG fucks? Marines are saying they'll shoot anyone who tries to run.”
“Real fucking inspiring,” Taiyang said.
Finally, relief. The helicopters were coming. They wouldn't have to stay at Kham Duc any longer. A Huey landed on the ground, the doors slamming open as a Marine gestured for them to get in. Behind him, Taiyang heard what felt like a million Kalashnikovs ringing out, each one firing a bullet with his name of him. Qrow was first in, steadying the M60 he had found to give them covering fire. Raven was in next, sliding on the helicopter floor, shotgun in hand. And, finally, Taiyang was last, practically falling in. He turned around, scanning to see if anyone was left behind.
“Summer!” Taiyang called out, watching her trade fire with North Vietnamese riflemen. “Come on! We have to go, now!”
She fired off the last few rounds in her magazine, before breaking and whipping around. The pilot was itchy to go – he had already started lifting the helicopter off the ground. Summer was almost there. On instinct, he reached out to her just in case the pilot took them up farther than she could reach. She smiled as she began to reach out for him.
Just before she could grab his hand, though, a shot rang out, louder and clearer than any other. Summer's smile was instantly replaced by a pained look, and she fell to the ground of Kham Duc. Before he could even register the event, the Huey was taking off, heading higher and higher into the air.
“NO!” Raven screamed. She was practically halfway out the helicopter, but Qrow and the Marine held her back, keeping her inside as Taiyang just sat there, his hand still reaching out for someone who wasn't there. He looked to what remained of the firebase at Kham Duc, seeing a sea of NVA surround Summer.
“You!” Raven shouted, climbing up to the pilot. “Get this fucking bird to the ground!”
“If you think I'm landing there again,” he said, “you're fucking crazy!”
Qrow disappeared from Taiyang's sight, and a few moments later, he and Raven were back, with Qrow practically fighting with Raven to keep her from grabbing her shotgun. “Goddammit, Raven!” Qrow yelled. “She's gone! We can't go back!”
“Fuck you, Qrow! We can go back! We're fucking SOG! We're fucking invincible!”
Taiyang looked over, watching tears stream down Raven's face as she struggled against Qrow, quite literally kicking and screaming. She'd keep this up the entire time on their way back to the safe zone. Was he even crying? Or was that just someone's blood he had gotten on his face? He couldn't tell. All he knew was there was an empty hole in his chest now, and it didn't feel like anything could replace it.
How come out of all of them, Summer was the one who was cursed to die in Vietnam?
Chapter 11: Light My Fire
Was this normal?
He remembered crying only once since Summer's death, and that was about ten minutes after they had landed, when he was safe in the comfort of his own office. There, he had broken down, locked himself inside to release every emotion that had come over him. He still got up in the morning. He still made his daily cup of coffee. Complained about the MCIs. Hell, he even laughed when Qrow had gotten lima beans and ham in his MCI and declared the entire ensemble unfit for even pigs to eat, dramatically throwing the still-hot can as far away as he possibly could into the jungle.
Every time someone asked him if he was okay, all he could do was say “Reply hazy, ask again later.” It felt like a hollow, callous thing to say, but in so many ways it was the truth. He expected to see Summer at the bar right next to him, drinking her club soda and talking about the French soldiers that patrolled her little Louisiana bayou town at night. It was as if she could fly around any corner right about now, and he'd be glad to see it.
But every time she didn't, every time he looked over with a joke for her, it was another hole in his heart. Another reminder that, for real this time, she wasn't there. This wasn't some temporary Stateside leave. This was all too permanent. So, when he said “Reply hazy” it was never because he was being an asshole. If anything, it was because his brain was still trying to process it all, figure out what the response was supposed to be, maybe. Hell if he really knew. It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other right now.
“Hey guys,” Taiyang said, heading into the barracks. He hated delivering bad news. The second he came in, Raven and Qrow perked up, spotting him with the report in his hand.
“We get word about Summer's funeral?” Raven asked.
He sighed, trying to keep his shoulders from shaking. It was like it was all hitting him at once all over again, every little emotion he had bottled up since that day in Kham Duc. “Yeah,” he said quietly.
Qrow lit up a cigarette, his face indifferent. “Well, don't keep us waiting. What is it?”
This is going to suck. “We don't get leave to go to her funeral. They're taking her back to Cocodrie.”
“Fucking fuck!” Raven shouted, kicking over an innocent bed. “This is the biggest load of fucking bullshit I've ever heard in my goddamn life!” She shook her head angrily, snatching her shotgun and signature gas mask as she walked out of the barracks.
“Where the hell are you going?” Taiyang asked.
“To fucking do something!”
“Let her go, Tai,” Qrow said, putting a hand on his shoulder as Raven slammed the door shut.
“I'm worried about her, Qrow. She's just gotten worse since Tet.”
“Yeah, I know,” Qrow said, nodding. “It's how she deals with things. She'll come around eventually.”
“Well...” Taiyang asked, looking at Summer's former bed. “What if she doesn't?”
“I've seen her like this before,” Qrow replied, lighting up a Lucky Strike. “Damn near wrecked her car last time she was this pissed off. Best to just let her ride it out.”
Raven walked to the combat engineer's camp, cradling her shotgun as she approached. The engies took notice of her, looking up. Good. Three “volunteers” already.
“Hey, you three,” she said, pointing to them. “Wanna kill some Charlie today?”
“Do I gotta risk myself?” one of them asked.
“If you got a flamethrower and some Willy Petes, you'll be fine. You in or not?”
“Hell, I guess so. Whose orders?”
“Mine,” Raven said. “Get your flamethrower. The rest of you, get your Willy Petes, and grab some for me, too.”
An officer, not one she cared about, stepped out of the tent to see what the commotion was about. He watched his men pick up their gear, and sauntered over like a cowboy trying to establish order in an old Western.
“Hey, what do you think you're doing? These men are under my command!”
“Yeah, well, they're mine now. Don't worry, if any of them get killed, I'll write a nice condolence letter. Maybe get you an ARVN puke to replace them.”
“You can't just take my men without my permission,” the officer protested. “There's a chain of command here!”
“Go bug Colonel Rheault about it, then. Not my fucking problem.”
“Who the hell's Colonel Rheault?”
“Fuckin' find out yourself,” Raven said bluntly. “I got a job to do. Come on, we're moving out!”
The three soldiers fell in behind Raven, silent except for their bootsteps and clattering gear. Raven knew exactly where she was taking them – straight to a tiny-ass village she couldn't be bothered to remember the name of, with only one goal in mind. Destroy. There wouldn't be any searching, because Raven knew they wouldn't find anything. The VC were smart, they had moved their shit out of the area long ago. All she could do was make sure the locals knew it was a bad move to host Viet Cong in their village.
They had marched through the jungle for a solid half-hour before one of the engineers felt brave enough to talk to Raven directly.
“Uh, ma'am,” he meekly said. “If I can ask, uh, what are you? SOG?”
“How old are you, kid?”
“Goddamn FNGs,” Raven muttered. “Look, kid, there's three things you don't ask a woman, alright? Her age, her weight, and if she's special forces.”
The FNG shut his trap, and slowly rejoined the rest of his friends near the back. Behind her, she could hear the other two laughing.
“Hey,” Raven said harshly, “did I fucking say you could laugh? Shut the fuck up. We're almost there.”
The laughter died down, and soon all that could be heard was the familiar sounds of marching, gear hitting itself and their chests, and the various wildlife that they often found in the Vietnamese jungles. They entered a clearing, just what she wanted to see. It was finally time to clear this village once and for all.
“Alright, you with the flamethrower, take the FNG and go there. Sergeant, on me.”
The soldiers did as ordered, intensely curious about their mission here, but not willing to risk Raven's ire. At least they were fast learners. The villagers had already come out of their homes, wondering what was going on. Good. That'd make this easier.
“Sergeant,” Raven ordered, lighting a cigarette. “Round them up. Get them in whatever the hell passes for a city square here.”
“Did I fucking stutter, Sergeant? Round. The villagers. Up.”
The sergeant looked at her like she was crazy, almost daring to question her orders, but relented and began shouting at the villagers to stand in the center of their dirt patch. It took a few minutes, and a little hobbled translating, but eventually the villagers were right where Raven wanted them.
She slung her shotgun behind her back, and grabbed a single WP grenade from her belt. Before the sergeant could say anything, she had pulled the pin, tossing the lethal grenade into the crowd.
“Follow the happy ball,” Raven called mockingly. “What could it be?”
Seconds later, it exploded, and the villagers were consumed in the white phosphorus. Their screams filled the air and echoed as they flailed around. One by one, they fell to the ground, still twitching and wildly waving their arms. The WP stuck to them, drilling holes into their bodies and eating away at them, blood practically pouring out. God, their screams sounded so wonderful. It was the best thing she had heard in a long fucking time. The smell of their death was sweet, almost as sweet as the mochachinos she'd make out of the coffee and hot chocolate she would get in MCIs.
“Sergeant,” Raven said calmly. “Burn it all down.”
“Burn this fucking village to the ground, Sergeant. If you don't want to, I'll do it myself.”
“Ma'am,” he said, horror crossing his face. “If I may ask, what's the point?”
“You want a point, Sergeant?” Raven countered, taking a long drag of her cigarette. “These fucks keep the people who shoot at you and your buddies safe. They lie to our faces, say they don't know any VC, then turn around and join them next day. They need to be taught a fucking lesson.”
The sergeant looked like he wanted to stop her, do something to prevent this madness, but she could tell by the way his hands shook that he was terrified. He had every right to be. If he tried to stop her, she had no qualms about putting him in the ground. Raven knew she could do it, too. He was nothing, just a grunt. Eventually, he ordered the other two soldiers to start burning the village, and he too joined in, setting fire to the huts and fields as ordered.
They left the village a blazing ruin, completely wiped off the map. If Raven had her way, this entire fucking country would end up the same way.
It took three days before anyone caught on to Raven's stunt. She had spent the last three days in a state of catharsis, taking more and more risks in combat and actually pleasant outside of it.
That all came crashing down when Taiyang marched up to her in the barracks, clutching some papers in his hand.
“Hey,” he said, frowning as he walked towards Raven. “I'm hearing some...rumors...about you taking three combat engies and burning down a village?”
“What about it?”
Taiyang looked shocked for a second, before regaining his composure and staring Raven down. “Alright. They're more than rumors. I'm hearing you actually went and did it. So what do you call that?”
“About a hundred dead VC,” Raven replied, shrugging.
Taiyang studied her intensely, before tossing the papers aside and giving her a death-filled glare. “I should kill you for doing that, Raven. You've been fucking with our entire mission here since '66.”
Raven sighed, and stood up to face Tai. She heard his service pistol being cocked. He wanted to go? Let's dance, Tai.
“Alright, then,” Raven said. “Do it. Kill me, right now.”
The two stared each other down, each one silently daring the other to do something already. Eventually, Tai stepped back, clearing his weapon. Raven said nothing, only returning to her bunk. She knew he'd never do it. He had too much pride in himself, in what he believed. One of these days, that'd be his downfall.
“Yo,” Qrow said, waving a report in his hands. “We got ourselves a name. Got the fucker that's been selling us out.”
Taiyang nodded, taking the report and reading it over. “MACV-SOG is gonna like this. I'll kick it up to Colonel Rheault, see what he says.”
“Fuck yeah,” Raven said. “I hope we kill this traitor asshole.”
“I guess we'll just see,” Taiyang said. It'd be a while before the Colonel got to it anyway. May as well wait around. Thai Khac Chuyen. Unusual name.
In a way, he had expected this.
Ever since he had first met her, he had a sinking feeling that Raven would be his undoing. Something about her dark, piercing eyes had always made him uneasy. That was why the MPs were coming into his office, asking him to come with them and to do so peacefully.
He had known this was going to happen ever since Chuyen died. Tai sighed, slowly taking his pistol out of its holster and setting it on the desk after he cleared it. Thankfully, he was allowed to walk out with some honor, and wasn't led out in handcuffs.
He really wished Summer was here.
Raven stared at the bed that used to be Summer's, the only remaining one in the barracks that hadn't been stripped of the sheets and blanket. It was finally over. They could go home.
So why did Raven feel like she was being sent to another foreign country? She could finally raise Yang like she wanted to. She was free of the Army, of war. The only fight she had ahead of her was the big one, against the government, and she was more prepared for it than ever.
If she was so prepared, why was she standing here, staring at Summer's bed like it'd give her a sense of purpose?
“Raven!” Qrow yelled, throwing an empty pack of smokes at her head. “I know you're not deaf yet. Are you ready or not?”
“Yeah,” Raven replied, nonplussed. “Let's go.”
Qrow nodded, throwing his cigarette away and grabbing his bags. Raven was right behind him, tossing her garrison bag over her shoulder, looking back at their barracks as she prepared to close the door.
“Fucking hated Vietnam anyway.”
Chapter 12: Beast of Burden
Raven, Qrow and Taiyang adjust back to civilian life.
Taiyang came home to see Raven, packing bags and practically stuffing everything she owned into the garrison bags she had brought back from Vietnam, barely even stopping as he stepped into the room.
“Raven,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Fuck,” she muttered. “I…I was hoping to be gone before you got here. Tai, I…I'm leaving.”
He blinked, trying to understand what he was hearing. “Wh…what do you mean?”
He cocked his head, trying to figure out what she was talking about. “Alright. Dare I ask why?”
“Because I'm going to China.”
Taiyang blinked, failing to hide his utter shock at what Raven just said. It didn't make any sense. She didn't even speak Chinese. Why would she go to…wait. Which China is she talking about?
“So, just to make this clear,” he said slowly. “You mean Taiwan, right?”
Raven looked at him, her eyes darting across the room. “No. I mean the PRC.”
Immediately, his head began to swim, trying to follow the path of logic Raven was working under. Was there any logic? He wasn't really sure. Nothing made sense to him anymore. Nothing had made sense since Kham Duc.
“Raven,” he finally said, finding his voice. “Why the hell are you going there?”
“They can help me,” she said. “I can get everything started there. They want to help me out. All I have to do is help out their SF teams.”
“So you want to be a fucking traitor?”
Raven sighed, shaking her head. “You don't get it. You never did. There's still a chance, you know. We...we can live in China together, you, me, the kids. We won't have to worry about anything.”
Taiyang looked at Raven, but he didn't feel that same flutter in his heart like he had in 1962. He didn't feel anything, really, other than sadness for her.
“I...” Taiyang said. “I'm sorry. I can't. I can't leave America, Raven. You know that.”
Her lips quivered, and her sad eyes darted back and forth as she tried to find a crack in his armor, something to convince him otherwise. She blinked deliberately, as if steeling herself when she saw there was no changing his mind.
“Alright,” Raven said, sighing heavily. “Just...let me take Yang with me. Let her be with her mother.”
“What?” Tai asked, furrowing his brow. “No. You're not taking Yang away from me.”
“I'm her mother,” Raven said, matching his expression. “Who are you to tell me 'no?'”
“Raven, you're free to go to China if that's what you want, but you don't get to make that choice for Yang. She's not involved in that.”
“I'm not letting my daughter be raised here.”
“And I'm not letting you take her from me!”
“Tai,” Raven said, deathly calm, “you know I respect you very much. Let me take Yang with me.”
“No,” Taiyang answered. “She doesn't deserve to have her life here ripped away without a say. You can't make that decision for her.”
“Do you think I enjoy doing this? Why do you think I want us all to go to China?”
“I. Can't. Leave.” Taiyang reminded her. “If you want to run away, that's fine, but leave Yang out of this.”
“It's not running away,” Raven said, growling. “It's not my goddamn fault that you're too blind to see the truth! It's not my fault that you don't want to pay attention to reality!”
“Reality doesn't matter to you!” Taiyang shouted. “You've never been the same since Summer died. The Raven I know wouldn't do this!”
“Then you never really knew me, I guess,” Raven shot back. “I'm taking Yang with me.”
“I'll take you to court over it.”
“I don't need courts. They'll give Yang to me in a heartbeat.”
Raven stepped to take Yang, only to be stopped by Taiyang moving in front of her. She seemed surprised, cocking an eyebrow at him.
“Tai,” she said calmly, but he could discern a fire in her voice. “Get out of my way.”
“If you even touch my daughter, I will fucking put you in the ground,” Taiyang warned.
Raven's stoic demeanor melted away, replaced by a sad look. “You couldn't do that in Vietnam. You won't do it here.”
Did she just call me a coward?
Taiyang felt his cheeks flare up with the power of a furnace. And yet, she was right. He couldn't stop her. He wanted to, but he was powerless to do anything. Yang and Ruby were right there. If he and Raven got into it now...what would they see? Would they see their dad defending them from a madwoman, or would they see him beating up Yang's mother? What if he couldn't stop her, and she reported him to the authorities? He'd lose them both.
Raven shook her head, and slowly moved past him to pick Yang up, who was still cheerfully playing with Ruby.
“Nooooo,” Yang whined, helplessly reaching for her sister. “Wanna play with Rubee...”
“Later, baby,” Raven said, “it's time to go home.”
Qrow walked in at this scene, watching Yang start to cry as she was separated from her sister, and saw Taiyang standing there, in shock and shaking angrily. His face instantly twisted in confusion, and then he glowered at Raven.
“Running away was one thing,” Qrow said, staring Raven down, “but this...you've crossed a line.”
“Like fucking hell I have,” Raven shot back. “She's my daughter, Qrow.”
“What do you think this is going to do to her? How do you see this playing out?”
“She and I are going to have a good, happy life away from the system you sold yourself to, Qrow.”
“Typical,” Qrow said, lighting a cigarette. “Didn't even answer me. Come on, Raven. She needs to be with her family.”
“What do you think I am?”
Qrow took a long drag off his cigarette, feeling himself shake his head solemnly. “We're not family anymore.”
“After all we did?” Raven asked. “After thirty years fighting the same enemies?”
“Your enemies,” Qrow said. “I gave up the fight after '66. You know that.”
“Fine, whatever,” Raven said, rolling her eyes. “I'll tell you the same I told Tai. Get out of my way.”
“No,” Qrow replied, standing firm. “Not until I hear that you're letting Yang stay here.”
“Why the hell would I ever do that, Qrow?”
“You and I both know that when she gets older, she'll ask questions. Yang's not dumb, Raven. Look at her – she's already missing her sister and she's about ten feet away. What do you think she'll do when she's 16 and in China, and remembers Ruby but can't find her?”
“She won't have to know,” Raven countered. “She'll forget by then.”
“She's. Not. Dumb,” Qrow repeated. “You think everyone's like you, Raven, focused on only one thing, but Yang's not like that. She's a smart kid. She'll ask you where her sister is, what happened to her dad. You can lie to her all you want when she's a kid, but you can't keep all those lies straight. What happens if the Chicoms won't let her go to America to see her sister? Do you think she'll sit back and accept it, or do you think she'll take cues from her mom's book and try it anyway, flipping off every Chinese authority she goes by?”
“They...” Raven stuttered, trying to form a defense. “They won't let that happen. They'll take care of us.”
“You're trusting them to keep their word when they have an American SF defector on their side? You must be a special kind of stupid, Raven, because if we had a Soviet defector over here, I wouldn't let their kids go back to Moscow for anything. I wouldn't give a fuck if they had a one-of-a-kind special teddy bear you can't get anywhere else, that kid's not going back to Russia.”
Raven sighed heavily and slammed her eyes shut, a vain attempt to stem the flow of tears. After several tense seconds, she shoved Yang into Qrow's arms, and rushed out the door.
“Fine,” she said on her way out. “Have it your way, then. Don't you fucking dare follow me, either of you. I'll shoot you if I see you near me!”
She slammed the door behind her, now causing Ruby to cry at the sudden noise. Taiyang stood in the kitchen still, not having moved an inch. Qrow let out a small breath, glad he could stop his sister from taking Yang away.
“Come on, kid,” he said to Yang. “Wanna play with Ruby?”
Yang began to calm down as she was returned to Ruby's side, and Qrow stood back up, seeing Tai hadn't moved an inch. He walked over to him, putting a hand on Tai's shoulder. “You all good there?”
“Thank you for that, Qrow,” he said quietly. “I…I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't shown up.”
“Don't mention it,” he said.
“I just gotta know,” Tai asked. “Why? I thought you two were thick as thieves.”
Qrow shrugged, taking a drag off his cigarette. “She was always crazy. I dropped her bullshit 'fuck America' act long time ago. Look, Tai, you're my brother, if not by marriage, just by the fact we spent years in Vietnam fighting together. I'm not tossing that away because of Raven's shit.”
Tai sighed, swallowing hard. “Yeah. Guess that makes sense.”
“Listen, Tai, you got two kids here. If you need help raising them, you let me know, yeah? I still got my place in Sacramento.”
“Thank you, Qrow. I wish Summer was here.”
Qrow sighed, checking his cigarette. Nearly done.
“Yeah. I do too, man.”
Retirement didn't really suit Taiyang.
Well. “Retirement.” It was less his choice, and more made for him. Six long years of service, all ending with a drawn-out, pointless court martial attempt that left nobody happy. Well, at least he could finally take care of Yang.
If only Summer was here for Ruby.
For the time being, he had handed Yang off to his parents once more, flying to Louisiana, to the little town of Cocodrie. The same place he had visited nearly seven years ago, where on Mardi Gras the cemetery sprang to life, French soldiers walked the streets again, and the very air tasted like history. It was where he had first had sweet tea, gumbo, pan-fried alligator meat, jambalaya, and far too many late-night talks on Summer's front porch.
Which, incidentally, was where he was right now, holding Ruby as he waited for someone to come to the door. The flight must have made Ruby tired – she was practically knocked out, dozing on his shoulder. It felt like an eternity, standing here just waiting. Right when he was about to turn, give up on the whole endeavor, he heard the telltale sound of Summer's dad, his boots thudding against the ancient wood floor.
Seven years hadn't changed him much. His hair was whiter than it used to be, and there were more lines on his face. Surely, losing Summer had made a few of those lines pop up. But, Taiyang was still as terrified of him as he had been in 1960 when he first met him.
“Afternoon, son,” Mr. Rose said, nodding. “What brings you 'round here?”
“Um, well…” Taiyang said, sighing. “I really should apologize for…not being there for Summer's funeral. I'm…they didn't let us leave, you know.”
Mr. Rose's mouth twisted around, his beard dancing as he bit his tongue. “Well, I accept your apology. Much as it ain't your fault. Why come here now, though?”
Right, Taiyang thought. The obvious question. He had expected this. “Well…I don't think Summer ever got a chance to tell you before she…” The word was lodged in his throat, and he forced the lump down a best he could. “Yeah. Um, Mr. Rose, this is your granddaughter, Ruby.” He lightly bounced Ruby up a little, hoping not to wake her. It didn't work – Ruby began to stir, sleepily looking around, confused as to where she was.
“By the Maidens, she's got Summer's eyes,” Mr. Rose said in awe. “Well, come on in, you two. Let her run around a bit, if y'all got here from Cali-fornya, she's sure to got energy to burn!”
The screen door – unchanged since 1963 – creaked open, and he stepped inside to see little else had changed inside the house since he last was here. Mr. Rose was right – Ruby was getting restless. He took a seat on the familiar couch, and off Ruby went, speeding around the room and curiously examining everything in sight. He couldn't help but smile – Ruby was like Summer in so many ways. Mrs. Rose gleefully spotted Ruby running around, and after a brief introduction there, Mrs. Rose began showing Ruby everything in the house, taking her on a personal tour.
“Again, Mr. Rose, I really wish I could have been here for her funeral,” he said. “I…I wish I could have done more.”
“Well,” he said, groaning as he sat down in his chair. “I figure y'ain't here to blabber at me about how you shoulda-coulda-woulda.”
He had seen right through him. Taiyang smirked. Always had, probably always will, truth be told. “You're right. I…I don't know if I can raise Ruby by myself, not with Yang too. I…I wanted to know if you and Mrs. Rose wanted her. To take care of her.”
Mr. Rose nodded, rubbing his nose as he contemplated the idea. He blinked slowly a few times, staring at the old grandfather clock that continually ticked away.
“Well,” he finally said. “Normally, I'd love to have my granddaughter here with me, in the house her mama lived in. But…well, who's the father?”
Taiyang's head fell, and he couldn't help but stare at the floor. “I am, sir.”
He couldn't see Mr. Rose's expression, but he did hear him sigh long and hard. Silence reigned once again for several minutes. “I'm sorry, son. We can't take her. Now, I ain't doin' it 'cause I don't like you – I like you a lot more now than I did when I met you. But I think we're too old to take care of this youngin'. Better if she stays with you, with her daddy.”
Taiyang refused to look up, resting his head in his hands as tears began to fall. This wasn't how this was supposed to go. Why was it only now, two years later, he was crying? This didn't make any sense to him. Would it ever make sense?
“I know it's tough to lose her,” Mr. Rose said, standing up and putting a hand on Taiyang's shoulder. “She was the best thing to happen to this world, son.”
“She didn't deserve to die there,” he muttered in between sobs. “It should've been anyone else.”
“Summer lives on in all of us,” Mr. Rose replied. “Like the Maidens, she watches over us. She's here.” He pointed to his chest, tapping it to emphasize his point.
Just as he had sat back up, trying to reconcile his new role as a single father to two children, Ruby ran into the room, latching onto his leg and staring up at him with a wide grin on her face. He couldn't help but smile back, picking her up and holding her close. By chance, Taiyang looked over to the right, spotting the wall that was still covered in pictures of the Rose family. A lot had changed, and he spied a few new additions.
Like the one of Summer in Vietnam, cradling her rifle in her arms and smiling like nothing in the world mattered.
Ruby and Yang had grown so, so much since that day in 1970.
Thankfully, neither of them seemed to have a memory of that event, and even Yang didn't appear to have a recollection of Raven. Both girls seemed to be perfectly willing to accept Summer being their mom, mourning her almost as much as he did. He had taken them to Beacon often, bringing the two to the only reminder they had here of Summer. Her memorial brick had been laid down in 1972, alongside countless other Beacon graduates who had lost their lives in Vietnam. Scattered black and whites became the best and most real connection they had to their mom, and both asked him so many questions about, about Vietnam.
He remembered the day it all clicked in Yang's head. She was fourteen, Ruby had just turned thirteen. Yang had found a picture of the four of them in Vietnam, in some barracks, maybe even in Kham Duc, and asked him to tell her the story. He had long lost the context of the picture, but the yarn he spun satisfied her nonetheless. Shortly after, Ruby found her mom's posthumous Medal of Honor. Another hour of regaling the two with the few memories of Vietnam that proved fun and interesting, conveniently leaving out the horrors he had seen.
The day Yang and Ruby had come to him with a special announcement seemed like any other – just two weeks after Yang had turned 17. He was reading the paper, listening to The Doors as he did so with his daily cup of coffee next to him. Some things never changed. He could see out of the corner of his eyes Ruby and Yang heading into the room. As usual, Ruby was so excited she could barely contain herself, and Yang was trying hard to keep her quiet.
“Hey, Dad?” Yang asked. He put down the paper, seeing them standing in front of him, their hands behind their backs and wide grins on their faces.
“Yeah? What can I do for you?”
Ruby almost said something, but her hands zipped to her mouth. Yang elbowed her sister, barely even taking her eyes off of him.
“We wanna go to Beacon.”
He paused, and then smiled. They had talked about the Army for a long time – if you exclude that brief moment when Yang made mention of being a Marine – but to hear them say they wanted to go to Beacon, follow the same path he had taken? It was better than anything he had heard that entire week. Keeping tears of joy at bay, Taiyang got out of his chair and hugged both of them.
“I'm so proud,” he said. “You guys are gonna go far. I just know it.” He'd have to call Qrow later. He'd be thrilled to hear this.